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Back to the Land

Wendell Berry in the path of modernity

Wendell Berry: Essays 1969-1990, ed. Jack Shoemaker, Library of America, 841 pp., $37.50.

Wendell Berry: Essays 1993-2017, ed. Jack Shoemaker, Library of America, 859 pp., $37.50.

An antimodernist is someone who stands in the path of progress and yells “Stop!” Of course different antimodernists want to stop different things. The first antimodernists, the Luddites of early nineteenth-century England, wanted to stop power looms from replacing (and thereby starving) weavers, to the considerable profit of textile industrialists. John Ruskin and William Morris in late nineteenth-century England wanted to stop the comely landscapes and buildings of the English countryside from being razed to make way for cheap and ugly but profitable new construction, both commercial and residential. William F. Buckley Jr., who coined the phrase about standing “athwart history, yelling Stop,” wanted to stop democracy, racial and sexual equality, and pretty much everything else humane and good, but above all, progressive taxation. (He was rich.) Ivan Illich wanted to stop expertise, which he thought had trapped modern men and women in universal dependence. Christopher Lasch wanted to stop mass society, which he showed, with a wide-ranging critique spanning history, sociology, and psychoanalysis, produces people who are less able to resist authority than those who grow up in a human-scale, largely face-to-face society.

What is Berry angry about? In 1950 there were more than twenty million farms in the United States. Today there are about two million.

Wendell Berry is probably the best-known and most influential antimodernist alive today, at least in the English-speaking world. Besides being a prolific essayist, novelist, story writer, and poet, Berry is a farmer in the Kentucky River Valley, an experience that has provided him with his material, his message, and his pulpit. He did not come to farming in midlife, as a novelty or a pastoral retreat. He grew up where he now farms, and his family has been farming in the area for many generations. Farming is the deepest layer of his mind; writing—learned at the University of Kentucky and then at Stanford in a famous seminar with Wallace Stegner—is the upper layer. That upper layer itself is divided: the fiction (a selection was issued last year by the Library of America) and poetry are slow-moving and deep-gauged, beautifully observed and full of interior incident, never loud or didactic. The essays, by contrast, though full of elegantly phrased and powerfully rhythmic sentences, are intensely earnest, aiming not to entertain or even to instruct but to convince and move. It’s been a feat, writing eight or so novels, several books of stories, several more of poems, and hundreds of lengthy essays and occasional pieces, all while managing a 117-acre farm, with only his wife and (occasionally) his children to help him. It’s an equal feat, traversing registers: the droll, meditative equanimity of his fiction, and the ardor, sometimes anger, of his nonfiction.

What is Berry angry about? In 1950 there were more than twenty million farms in the United States. Today there are about two million. What forced those millions of farmers and their families off their land was a “free-market” pincer movement. Many farm communities had lost young men to World War II, and they could not immediately go back to traditional, labor-intensive, self-sufficient farming. The federal government stepped in, aggressively promoting radical consolidation, mechanization, and specialization in one or two crops. Giant trading companies bought the farmers’ crops cheap and sold them dear. Giant chemical companies, with the help of university schools of agriculture, sold them fertilizers, herbicides, and pesticides, which the new monocultures required, unlike the traditional diversified and rotated crops. The banks did their part: they were uninterested in extending credit to small traditional farms, preferring to finance purchases of distressed farms and of shiny new tractors, pickers, and combines. By the 1970s, the U.S. Department of Agriculture declared victory, boasting that only 5 percent of America’s labor force fed the other 95 percent, with a surplus left over for export and humanitarian food aid. Berry sees it differently: “What we have called agricultural progress has, in fact, involved the forcible displacement of millions of people.”

Rare Earth

The industrialization of agriculture did not merely uproot lives, bad as that was. It went far toward destroying the land itself. Topsoil is a complex substance, home to thousands of microscopic organisms. It is a fragile balance of elements and requires steady attention from an experienced eye. When it is doused with heavy chemicals and repeatedly plowed, it dries up and blows away. Billions of tons of topsoil have washed or blown away under the regime of industrial agriculture.

Along with the soil, a culture has been washed away: the culture of agrarianism. A society whose main products are a few crops grown in enormous quantities on huge farms and estates and then exported—this may be an agricultural society, but it is not an agrarian one. In an agrarian society, farming is an art and a discipline. The soil, the watercourses, the animals are treated with care— what Berry calls “kindly use”—and preserved from one generation to another, rather than as “inputs” to be depreciated according to a commercial schedule. A farm is full of idiosyncrasies, over which an industrial farmer will ride roughshod but which a genuine farmer will take the time to learn. For this reason, farms in agrarian societies tend to be of middling size—giantism is alien. In an agrarian society, farming is a kind of self-expression, with more of the craft spirit than the business spirit. Though independent and conscientious farmers are becoming rarer, Berry finds enough of them to compose a kind of master class illustrating the good farming practices he’s constantly preaching.

Every culture shapes a corresponding character. The industrial farmer tends to be calculating, single-minded, forward-looking (anxiously as much as providently), unsentimental, given to uniformity and routine. He accepts that he’s a cog in a machine, dependent on impersonal market forces. He assumes that bigger is better and that all problems have technical solutions. He’s a manager; his skills and attitudes are as relevant to making widgets as to growing crops.

In an agrarian culture, by contrast:

A competent farmer is his own boss. He has learned the disciplines necessary to go ahead on his own, as required by economic obligation, loyalty to his place, pride in his work. His workdays require the use of long experience and practiced judgment, for the failures of which he knows he will suffer. His days do not begin and end by rule, but in response to necessity, interest, and obligation. They are not measured by the clock, but by the task and his endurance; they last as long as necessary or as long as he can work. He has mastered intricate formal patterns in ordering his work within the overlapping cycles—human and natural, controllable and uncontrollable—of the life of a farm.

Importantly, their socialization is also different. The commercial farmer usually takes an agricultural extension course or two, emerging with a couple of loose-leaf binders and a few phone numbers at the Ag faculty and the Farm Bureau. The agrarian farmer does not scorn academic instruction, but his deepest orientation toward farming “does not come from technique or technology. . . . It does not come even from principle.” Instead it comes, mysteriously, “from a passion that is culturally prepared—a passion for excellence and order that is handed down to young people by older people whom they respect and love.” This sort of face-to-face induction into a complex tradition is an example of the wisdom of human scale—one of Berry’s obsessions.

The Unsettling of America (1977), from which I’ve been quoting and which is included whole in these Library of America volumes, is Berry’s most ambitious and influential book, tracing the dire society-wide consequences of the decline of agriculture. It’s been a long decline. In 1785 Thomas Jefferson, the tutelary genius of Unsettling, wrote to another Founding Father, John Jay: “Cultivators of the earth are the most valuable citizens. They are the most vigorous, the most independent, the most virtuous, and they are tied to their country and wedded to its liberty and interests, by the most lasting bonds.” Ten years later he advocated education for farmers, “so much as may enable them to read and understand what is going on in the world, and to keep their part of it going on right, for nothing can keep it right but their own vigilant and distrustful superintendence.” That last, embattled phrase presages the long history of agriculture’s undermining by commerce and finance. Perhaps Jefferson already had an inkling of Alexander Hamilton’s schemes to introduce capitalism into the fledgling United States. He had probably also drawn the right conclusions from the crushing by the propertied faction (with the hearty approval of Washington, Adams, Hamilton, and other grandees) of protests by indebted small farmers, such as Shays’s Rebellion.

The Populist Moment

The link between smallholding and American democracy lasted for a century or so. In 1820 around 80 percent of Americans were self-employed as farmers, craftsmen, or shopkeepers. Lincoln gave that ethos moving expression in a well-known passage: “The prudent, penniless beginner in the world labors for wages awhile, saves a surplus with which to buy tools or land for himself, then labors on his own account another while, and at length hires another new beginner to help him.” But after the Civil War, just as they had after the Revolutionary War, financial and mercantile vultures preyed on distressed farmers, driving them into debt and into highly disadvantageous marketing arrangements.

The result was the late nineteenth-century Populist movement, the high point of radical democratic politics in American history. A mass movement of farmers, the Populists won many state offices in the South and Midwest, but they allowed themselves to be absorbed into the Democratic Party. They were decisively defeated by the Republicans, already the party of big business (and of industrial-scale graft), in the election of 1896 and subsequently faded away. Curiously, Berry has nothing to say about the Populist movement, even though it was the first and only organized entrance by farmers onto the national political stage.

Perhaps it’s not so curious. Berry’s is a politics of individual virtue. Personal responsibility is his watchword, rather than solidarity. Here are his thoughts on political strategy:

For most of the history of this country our motto, implied or spoken, has been Think Big. A better motto, and an essential one now, is Think Little. That implies the necessary change of thinking and feeling, and suggests the necessary work. Thinking Big has led us to the two biggest and cheapest political dodges of our time: plan-making and law-making. The lotus-eaters of this era are in Washington D.C., Thinking Big. Somebody perceives a problem, and somebody in the government comes up with a plan or a law. The result, mostly, has been the persistence of the problem, and the enlargement and enrichment of the government.

But the discipline of thought is not generalization; it is detail, and it is personal behavior. While the government is “studying” and funding and organizing its Big Thoughts, nothing is being done. But the citizen who is willing to Think Little, and accepting the discipline of that, to go ahead on his own, is already solving the problem.

This is splendid prose. It is disastrous advice. Leave aside the implicit belittling of Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, unemployment insurance, and other examples of “plan-making” and “law-making” that tens of millions of Americans have felt very grateful for. Look to the present balance of forces: the structures of legislative, electoral, ideological, and financial control in the United States are deeply entrenched, highly resistant to citizen initiative, and virtually without exception geared to the needs of the country’s largest industries and banks. Nothing those plutocrats do not wish to be done will be done in America, even if a hundred million Little Thinkers “go ahead on their own.” Only if that hundred million organize themselves and coordinate their efforts—in other words, become Big Thinkers—is there the slightest hope for wresting control of our country from this corporate/financial oligarchy. Berry himself has been an exemplary activist in his day, especially in opposing the strip mining that has disfigured much of his lovely region. Unfortunately, the coal industry out-strategized the activists—not to mention deploying vastly greater financial resources. But would any degree of uncoordinated private individual virtue have had better luck stopping them?

A society whose main products are a few crops grown in enormous quantities on huge farms and estates and then exported: this may be an agricultural society, but it is not an agrarian one.

No amount of recycling, farming right, eating right, being neighborly, or being personally responsible in other ways will matter much if we don’t subsidize solar and wind power, raise mileage requirements, steeply tax carbon, drastically reduce plastic production, kill coal, and provide jobs for all those whom these measures would disemploy. (We could put them to work on infrastructure and renewables, which we would invest in with the proceeds of steep wealth and corporate—especially energy—taxes.) In a face-to-face society, virtue is the right lever. Unfortunately, we live in a mass society, thoroughly bureaucratized and institutionalized, dense with complex systems, which only large aggregations of people (or money) can move. We need more, not fewer, plans, laws, and policies, but democratically formulated ones.

Berry has almost (not quite; he hedges) given up on the possibility of democracy in mass society. It is an entirely understandable reflex: virtually every governmental institution in our society is corrupt or ineffectual, and even many well-meaning people have been infected by consumerism, overreliance on experts, and other character defects of a massified, technologized population. But cultivating our own gardens and learning the virtues we have forgotten will not suffice to save the world, and is probably not even feasible. Surveying the erosion in some nearby farms, Berry laments that it takes fifty thousand years to build five feet of topsoil. While building character is probably not quite so slow, it will surely take a few generations at least. But within a few generations, our gardens will be inundated, some literally by water and others by the tens of millions of climate refugees crisscrossing the earth by the end of the century.

Berry is very good at reminding us what we have sacrificed by embracing modernity. One such sacrifice is a sense of place.

“If we are to hope to correct our abuses of each other and of other races and of our land, and if our effort to correct these abuses is to be more than a political fad that will in the long run be only another form of abuse, then we are going to have to go far beyond public protest and political action. We are going to have to rebuild the substance and the integrity of private life in this country.” This may sound obviously right, but in fact it’s wrong, at least in implication. We only have so much time and energy, after all, and if we go “far beyond” political action, we will almost certainly shortchange it. Berry’s prescription underestimates the opposition—they really have closed off every path to change except the most difficult one: sustained, society-wide, decentralized popular mobilization. For all Berry’s humane rootedness, and however attractive the way of life he expounds, public men and women—Ralph Nader, Bernie Sanders, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Greta Thunberg—are better models right now for those who want to spare the earth and its inhabitants.

Going Mobile

Like most antimodernists, Berry is very good at reminding us what we have sacrificed by embracing modernity. One such sacrifice is a sense of place. Only a few generations ago, a sizeable fraction of humankind lived where their ancestors had lived for hundreds or thousands of years. Now almost no one does. To the extent we take any notice of this change, we probably think it is all to the good. Mobility is highly valued in contemporary culture. The idea of an organic and permanent connection to a single place strikes most people as archaic, even oppressive.

But our current, historically new life pattern, in which most children leave home in late adolescence and never return to that place to live, has its costs. For the rest of that young person’s life, her internalized source of authority will be institutional and abstract: university, corporation, profession, government. Abstractions are hard to have human-scale emotions about. The place one grew up in, if one returns there with a degree of mastery (or achieves it in place), makes it easier to grasp that one has changed—there’s a detailed, familiar background to see oneself against, rather than the nebulous grid of a shadowy bureaucracy. Belonging to a place, as Berry repeatedly emphasizes, can be anchoring and liberating at the same time. “It is only in the place one belongs to, intimate and familiar, long watched over, that the details rise up out of the whole and become visible: the hawk stoops into the clearing before one’s eyes; the wood drake, aloof and serene in his glorious plumage, swims out of his hiding place.”

Berry is a serious Christian, and also a serious reader of poetry. His prose is studded with quotations from the Bible and the poetic canon. It may be surprising (though it shouldn’t be, really) how easy it is to find a text in Homer, Virgil, Dante, Shakespeare, Blake, or Wordsworth celebrating humility, fortitude, magnanimity, chastity, marital fidelity, or some other Christian (though not exclusively Christian) virtue. Character and virtue are indeed fragile, and it’s reasonable to exploit all the resources of human culture to shore them up. But although it lends his writing gravity and grace, I’m sorry that Berry insists on giving the agrarian ethos a religious framework and on situating human flourishing within a “Great Economy,” by which he means not Gaia but the “Kingdom of God.” As a result, he speaks less persuasively than he might to those of us who feel that our civilization has somehow gone wrong, and that at least some part of traditional wisdom is indeed wisdom, but who cannot believe that this universe is the work of the Christian God, or of any God. And yet we need Berry’s preaching as much as anyone. Jesus came, after all, to call sinners, not the just, to good farming practices.

Our culture’s great need today is for a pious paganism, a virtuous rationalism, skeptical and science-loving but skeptical even of science when necessary, aware that barbarism is as likely as progress and may even arrive advertised as progress, steadily angry at the money-changers and mindful of the least of our brethren. I don’t see how anyone who shares Berry’s Christian beliefs could fail to adopt his ideal of stewardship. But if those religious beliefs are necessary as well as sufficient—if there is no other path to that ideal, as he sometimes seems to imply—then we may be lost. One cannot believe at will.

Berry is often compared with Thoreau, and one can see why: both of them were ardent and remarkably prolific, both outdoor thinkers, both wary of technological progress. But unlike Berry, Thoreau sometimes played with ideas; he also did not believe the world was going altogether badly. I think Paul Goodman, the New York intellectual and anarchist, best known for Growing Up Absurd (1960), might be a better comparison. Goodman was thoroughly urban, but he was hands-on, keenly interested in designing and building, insatiably curious about the details of whatever subject he was theorizing about. He was also eloquent about virtue and character, though wholly secular. Goodman died in 1972 and did not cross paths with Berry, unfortunately. Still, we can try the thought experiment. It would have been tremendously interesting—perhaps even culture-changing—to hear them trying to reach common ground.