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A Whole Earth Catalogue

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In the United States a deeply rooted bias toward the practical renders
all knowledge, even the most sublime forms of wisdom, merely an
instrumental good. This pragmatic streak tends to push our literature of
epiphany toward pop psychology and self-helping boosterism unless the
work connects with something larger than the self. In some cultures that
larger-than-the-self thing would be God, and the result becomes
Spiritual Wisdom literature--a form that does not, in any serious way,
flourish among us. The chief Other we celebrate is our Great Outdoors,
and when moral epiphany connects with it the result is a distinctively
American product: Environmental Wisdom literature.

At 67, with nearly forty volumes of work to his credit, Wendell Berry is
undeniably a master of the genre. As poet, essayist and novelist, he has
been concerned throughout his long writing life with how humans live and
work in place, and with the moral and spiritual elements of their
relationship to land. His nonfiction should properly be seen as a
contribution to political theology, but in America we shelve it as
Nature Writing.

Berry is one of the few contemporary authors worthy of mention in the
same breath with that triumvirate of immortals, Thoreau, Muir and
Leopold. If Thoreau stands for romantic naturalism; Muir for the
preservationism of his creation, the Sierra Club; and if Leopold traced
in his life and work the intellectual distance between conservationism
(which treats nature as economically instrumental) and something like
modern ecology (which doesn't), Berry too is the chief articulator of an
environmentally relevant "ism": He is our foremost apostle of the
agrarian ideal.

Ah--the agrarian ideal. But farmland isn't "nature," and Jefferson died
centuries ago, right? Hasn't the Jeffersonian vision of a republic of
free and equal yeoman farmers been completely occluded by the success of
Hamilton's plan for a national manufactory? With only a minuscule
portion of our population engaged in farming, talk of an agrarian ideal
seems outdated at best.

Mainstream environmentalism seems to agree: It generally accepts that
not in agriculture but "in wildness is the salvation of the world," as
Thoreau famously put it. Thoreau meant also, of course, that in wildness was the salvation of the self. But Thoreau was a bit of a romantic poseur; during his idyll in the woods at Walden he was never out of earshot of the Fitchburg
railroad, and when he did enter actual wilderness (in Maine, on the
flanks of Mount Katahdin) he found it "savage and dreary," "even more
grim and wild" than he had anticipated. If Thoreau's virtue was that he
studied nature in detail while all around him men turned their backs on
it (when they weren't actively cutting it down, draining it and
otherwise "improving" it), still, he rarely saw the big picture except
through the distorting lens of his romanticism. Like many another
romantic, he did not see the ways in which his dissent from the
antiromantic realities of his day failed to transcend the evils he
railed against.

In 1850 it was not quite so clear that industrial culture, with its
dark, satanic mills and the increasingly complicated, spiritually barren
life that Thoreau bemoaned, could, without being deflected far from its
course, easily accommodate and even assign value to "nature" as the
romantics understood it. Even Robert Moses, the auto enthusiast whose
highway planning led us into the promised land of modern urban life,
understood the value of parks and green space; they were a necessary
anodyne, a complement to the city he helped to create. "Nature" has
exchange value. Within a market system, anything with exchange
value--anything that people will pay cash money for--will be preserved.
The market undervalues some things, yes, but market effects can be
controlled and augmented by legislation. (Sadly, neither the market nor
Congress has managed to preserve enough untrammeled nature for natural
processes to operate there. Oxymoronically, we have to manage wilderness
in order to keep it wild.)

The logic of industrial culture can preserve a bit of wilderness, but it
won't preserve the life of the planet on which all of us ultimately
depend. It won't even preserve the soil fertility that lets us fend off
our own immediate death by starvation. Berry takes articulate exception
to this failure, and he speaks with the authority of long practice as a
farmer. His love of his hillside farm in Kentucky, which he works with
horses, is evident on every page he writes.

Berry doesn't say that we all must become farmers in order to save the
world. As Norman Wirzba, the editor of this volume, points out in his
introduction, Berry isn't asking us to hitch up horses and become
tillers of soil. He merely wants us to adopt the values,
responsibilities and concerns of an agrarian life. Wirzba writes: "Just
as we have adopted...the assumptions of an industrial mind-set without
ourselves becoming industrialists--we are still teachers, health-care
providers, builders, students, and so forth--so too can we integrate
agrarian principles without ourselves becoming farmers."

One of the clearest contrasts between industrial and agrarian values
concerns the matter of garbage. Urbanites dispose of it at the curb,
where it is taken care of by jumpsuited specialists. Where these men
take it the urbanites know not, nor are they able to see their
responsibility for the damage it does when it gets there. The agrarian,
with the wisdom and clarity of the farmer, knows that there is no such
thing as a "sanitary" landfill. (No farmer would be so foolish as to
welcome a dump anywhere near land being cultivated.) Agrarians are led
to ask subversive questions about the origins of the waste they find so
problematic. Is this purchase necessary? Can the old article be made to
last longer? If the thing shouldn't be released into the environment
when I'm done with it, then it shouldn't be created in the first place.
Do I need it? What do I really need?

The contrast is between ideal types seen romantically, through the
shimmering heat of passionate belief. Even so, the difference seen is
real. There are those who understand culture's root in nature, and those
who don't. For all but hunters and gatherers, farming is the definitive,
determinative point of contact between culture and its environment. As
farming goes, so goes the nation and the planet. Both have been going
badly precisely because we have let the market assign valuations that
should have been made morally, practically, agriculturally,
ecologically. "A man who would value a piece of land strictly according
to its economic worth is as crazy, or as evil, as the man who would make
a whore of his wife," Berry declares in The Unforeseen
Wilderness
. For him that comparison is not an illustrative simile
but an equation: How we treat the land is not separate from how we treat
each other. Our agricultural practice should be ruled not by the market,
whose cues and commandments are culturally and temporally parochial, but
by a clear apprehension of what is needed to insure the long-range
health of the soil, the communities it supports and the individual
organisms (both human and nonhuman) within those communities. Berry's
vision is trinitarian: These three kinds of life are one. He is enough
of a romantic to believe that health is indivisible--that human health
and the health of the planet are complementary, not antagonistic ideals.

Berry's romanticism is a source of hope. It doesn't distort his vision.
He knows we're not going to save the planet or the self by playacting at
being wild. Our world is neither completely a factory nor ideally a
wilderness but in practice is very much under cultivation: We are
inescapably agrarian. With even our wildernesses needing tender care,
the question we face is not, "Shall we be gardeners?" or even "What
proportion of garden to wilderness will we have?" but "What sort of
gardeners should we be?" The essays collected here are Berry's
thoughtful, comprehensive answer.

Berry throws off epigrammatic wisdom like a scythe sprays sparks when
held against the sharpening wheel. Thus: "There can be no such thing as
a 'global village.' No matter how much one may love the world as a
whole, one can live fully in it only by living responsibly in some small
part of it"; "We live in agriculture as we live in flesh"; "We do not
understand the earth in terms of what it offers us or of what it
requires of us, and I think it is the rule that people inevitably
destroy what they do not understand"; "Marriage...has now taken the form
of divorce: a prolonged and impassioned negotiation as to how things
shall be divided"; "There is, in practice, no such thing as autonomy.
Practically, there is only a distinction between responsible and
irresponsible dependence." And, with an especially startling clarity:
"The basic cause of the energy crisis is not scarcity; it is moral
ignorance and weakness of character." If the essential rightness of
these epigrams isn't immediately obvious to you, you need more Wendell
Berry in your life.

Part of Berry's brief against agribusiness and the rule of the market in
general is that both radically decontextualize human experience,
including the necessary experience of nurturing life to grow food. Fewer
and fewer of us have that primary experience any longer, and those who
do still make a living directly from the soil are continually pressed to
pursue their calling not in accord with its own standards of excellence
but in response to market imperatives, which push farmer and consumer
alike toward thoughtless, selfish, live-for-today exploitation. This
isolation from context--this replacement of a dense web of communal,
historical and natural relations with naked cash nexus--keeps most of us
from supporting, or even seeing, the sort of care, knowledge, honor and
integrity that good farming practice (and good neighboring) requires. In
a society ruled by industrial values, commerce is the only context, and
relations are dramatically simplified.

It's ironic, then, that the selections in this volume have been taken
out of context. The cumulative effect of reading through them is not the
effect created by reading Berry at his best. Berry is a farmer and a
moralist, one who speaks with the humble authority of a man who
regularly treads ground behind a team of horses. His contributions to
the rarefied discourse of political theology are earned by the sweat of
that kind of direct experience, and he knows it. In their original
context the selections here achieve a better balance between theoretical
rumination and chewy first-person detail, between wisdom gained and the
texture of the life that produced it. When Berry speaks his mind,
usually it's to the jangle of harness and hitch. In emphasizing Berry as
an agrarian theorist, this collection tends to underrepresent Berry the
farmer and neighbor and nephew and husband, the man whose experience
makes his agrarian theorizing compelling. Reading the essays assembled
here is rather like sitting down to a plate full of gravy and potatoes:
It might be just what you want, but be aware that what the waiter
brought you is only part of the meal the chef originally had in mind.

Berry is a master craftsman. His essays move from the personal to the
abstract, the reportorial to the indignant, the anecdotal to the
reflective as smoothly as an ecosystem moves through stages of
succession, evolving toward its climax. Throughout Berry's work comes a
strong sense of the narrative persona behind it: A kind and generous
man, one at peace with his lot but deeply at odds with the temper of his
times, a man of insight and empathy who never retreats into the solace
of irony or smug detachment. Berry has a poet's ear, which keeps his
prose from dissolving into the galumphing polysyllables and hissing
sibilants (the "-isms" and "-nesses") that infect abstract subjects in
the hands of lesser writers. He's constantly aware that, just as we are
food incarnate (sunshine and soil, condemned to mortal life), so too are
our ideas incarnated in our acts and organizations, each of which has a
history it cannot fully escape.

It's odd, then, that Wirzba's Berry is a rather disembodied, timeless
intellect. Sometimes the individual chapters in this collection aren't
effectively introduced, and often something as basic as the date of
original publication is missing. Occasionally Berry's text will refer to
"the point of this book," though we are of course no longer in "this"
book--we're in Wirzba's book, and he hasn't given us easy access to what
the original textual reference meant. (For most selections, you've got
to comb through the acknowledgments to discover the origin, and even
then the provenance of many of them remains unclear.) Berry's 1993
plaint against the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade still has
relevance--the issue of globalization hasn't gone away, and its portent
for agrarian values is enormous--but "A Bad Big Idea" would benefit from
annotation or an introduction explaining the current status of world
trade in agricultural goods and limning the continuing relevance of
Berry's analysis. Without that context, the reader may well dismiss the
piece as an outdated tilt against a fait accompli.

As with any collection, one can second-guess the selections. I longed to
read Berry's elegiac mea culpa, "Damage," in which he recounts
his misguided attempt to carve a stock pond into one of his farm's
hillsides. The piece, a kind of prose poem, could have served admirably
as part of Wirzba's first section, "A Geobiography," which aims to
"introduce Berry's person and place to the reader." Also missing is
Berry's notorious essay from Harper's in which he gave his
reasons for refusing to buy a computer (he writes with a pencil). Wirzba
has included Berry's response to critics of that piece, though without
the original essay the rebuttal's elaborate analysis of feminism seems
puzzlingly non sequiturish. (In his original essay Berry mentioned that
his wife types and edits his manuscripts, a circumstance that drew harsh
criticism from some readers. A wife, one letter writer said, meets all
of Berry's criteria for an appropriate technology: She's locally
producible, easily repairable, doesn't burn fossil fuel, doesn't
radically transform the community when exploited, etc.) Without a
clearer sense of the whole exchange, one can't fully appreciate why
Berry titled his reply "Feminism, the Body, and the Machine," or why he
offers the telling insight that "one cannot construct an adequate public
defense of a private life." (It's clear he's not apologizing, but
admonishing those whose passion for political rectitude would destroy
the boundary between public and private life. But the full exchange
makes clearer why this is an agrarian's concern: It's that boundary, and
not some chimerical escape from meaningful work or moral duty, that is
crucial to the exercise of our liberty.)

Even with these limitations, this volume is worth a read. There is so
much good sense collected here that one is tempted not to review it but
simply to repeat it. Examples: "We must recover that sense of holiness
in the world, and learn to respect and forbear accordingly." "Economic
justice does not consist of giving the most power to the most money."
"Eating is an agricultural act."

As to solutions: Berry's advice for those of us wishing to do what we
can to make things better is simple, direct and difficult: "Eat
responsibly." His essay "The Pleasures of Eating" (taken from What
Are People For?
) describes in detail what that means. Deal directly
with a local farmer whenever possible. Prepare your own food.
Participate in food production to the extent that you can--raise herbs
in a window pot if that's what you can do. Learn the origins of the food
you buy, and buy food produced close to your home. Learn what is
involved in the best farming and gardening. Learn as much as you can, by
direct observation and experience if possible, of the life histories of
food species. Learn, in self-defense, as much as you can of the economy
and technology of industrial food production.

The imperative, you see, is to learn. Of course: This is wisdom
literature.

We are accustomed to our wisdom about nature coming from people who
write about wilderness. We don't think of farmland as nature, or of the
farming life as offering us much in the way of opportunity to accrue and
exercise wisdom. As this volume shows, on both counts we are sadly
mistaken.

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