This Week in ‘Nation’ History: Wendell Berry’s Humanism and Wisdom for Our Times

This Week in ‘Nation’ History: Wendell Berry’s Humanism and Wisdom for Our Times

This Week in ‘Nation’ History: Wendell Berry’s Humanism and Wisdom for Our Times

This year's winner of the Roosevelt Institute’s Freedom Medal is as adept detailing the mechanics of a mine-triggered landslide as he is at critiquing the dangerous combination of ideology and profit motive that caused it to occur.


Wendell Berry talking to a reporter after he was awarded the Dayton Literary Peace Prize in 2011. (AP Photo/Ed Reinke)

Last week, the Roosevelt Institute, as part of its annual Four Freedoms awards ceremony, presented its Freedom Medal to the Kentucky writer, farmer, environmentalist, humanist and activist Wendell Berry—a longtime Nation contributor.

“Whether Wendell Berry is writing poetry, fiction, or essays,” the Institute declared, “his message is essentially the same: humans must learn to live in harmony with the natural rhythms of the earth or perish.”

In over two dozen poems, essays, and book reviews he has published in The Nation since 1961, Berry has connected America’s democratic health with its ecological health, the degradation of its discourse with the degradation of its soil, and has done so with a unique combination of elegance, clarity of language and purpose, and simple—though never simplistic—common sense. Berry is as adept detailing the mechanics of a mine-triggered landslide as he is at critiquing the dangerous combination of ideology and profit motive which caused it to occur.

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One of Berry’s earliest Nation contributions was the poem “November 26, 1963,” about the days after the assassination of John F. Kennedy:

We know the winter earth upon the body of the young President, and the early dark falling;
we know the veins grown quiet in his temples and wrists, and his hands and eyes grown quiet;
we know his name written in the black capitals of his death, and the mourners standing in the rain, and the leaves falling;
we know his death’s horses and drums; the roses, bells, candles, crosses; the faces hidden in veils;
we know the children who begin the youth of loss greater than they can dream now…

In 1966, Berry published a scathing essay, “Strip-Mine Morality: The Landscaping of Hell,” about the efforts in his native Kentucky to regulate and hopefully prohibit that most excessively and permanently damaging method of mining coal. Berry attended several meetings at which proposed regulations were presented and was aghast at the coal companies’ blatantly duplicitous and selfish arguments:

The testimony of the expert witnesses who appeared in behalf of the companies was peculiarly clouded and disordered by the assumptions and intentions of the company lawyers, and by the testimony of several coal operators who also appeared as witnesses. There was a very obvious intent to use scientific evidence to prove that the best method of mining is the one that is most profitable, and that the best method of reclamation is the one that is cheapest. There was much yielding to the temptation to present theory and opinion as fact, and to look upon the failure to discover a remedy as proof that there is no remedy…

There was in the statements and questions of the coal company attorneys, and in the testimony of the operators, the unmistakable implication that anything can be justified by profit; that a man may own the land in the same sense in which he would own a piece of furniture or a suit of clothes, it is his to exploit, misuse or destroy altogether should he decide that to do so would be economically feasible. The question of the morality of any practice, for these men, has been completely replaced by the question of its profitability: if it makes money it is good; if it makes money for them they are doomed and eager to defend it. Evident in the testimony of some was the assumption that the steep mountain sides, now being ruined on an almost unbelievable scale and at great speed, are good for nothing else.

Nobody has written as profoundly as Berry about the implications of that assumption not only on the surface of the land, but also just beneath the surface of the American soul.

The land destroyed by strip mining is destroyed forever; it will never again be what it was, it will never be what it would have become if let alone. Such destruction—which can now be accomplished on a vast scale by a few men in a short time—makes man a parasite upon the source of his life; it implicates him in the death of the earth, the destruction of his meanings. Those men who send the bulldozer blades into the mountainsides bear the awesome burden of responsibility for an act that no one can fully comprehend, much less justify.

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In a brilliant essay published in two issues of The Nation in February 1976, “The Unsettling of America,” Berry analyzed and historically contextualized the “tendency…to complete the deliverance of American agriculture into the hands of the corporations.”

The cost of this corporate totalitarianism in energy, land and social disruption will be enormous. It will lead to the exhaustion of the farm land and the farm culture. Husbandry will become an extractive industry; the fertility of the soil, because maintenance will entirely give way to production, will become a limited and nonrenewable resource, like coal or oil.

This may not happen. It need not happen. But it is necessary to recognize that it can happen…. If it does happen, we are familiar enough with the nature of American salesmanship to know that it will be done in the name of the starving millions, in the name of liberty, justice, democracy and brotherhood, and to free the world from communism. We must, I think, be prepared to see, and to stand by, the truth: that the land should not be destroyed for any reason, not even for any apparently good reason.

In the second installment, Berry wrote that “the growth of the exploiters’ revolution on this continent has been accompanied by the growth of the idea that work is beneath human dignity, particularly any form of handiwork.”

But is work something that we have a right to escape? And can we escape it with impunity? We are probably the first entire people ever to think so. All the ancient wisdom that has come down to use counsels otherwise. It counsels us that work is necessary to us, as much a part of our condition as mortality; that good work is our salvation and our joy; that shoddy or dishonest or self-serving work is our curse and our doom. We have tried to escape the sweat and sorrow promised in Genesis—only to find that, in order to do so, we must forswear love and excellence, health and joy.

Thus we can see growing out of our history a condition that is physically dangerous, morally repugnant, ugly. Contrary to the blandishments of the salesmen, it is not particularly comfortable or happy. It is not even affluent in any meaningful sense, because its abundance is dependent on sources that are being rapidly exhausted by its methods. Only to see these things is to come up against the question: then what is desirable?

One possibility is just to tag along with the fantasists in government and industry, who would have us believe that we can pursue our ideals of affluence, comfort, mobility and leisure indefinitely. This curious faith is predicated on the notion that we will soon develop unlimited new sources of energy: domestic oil fields, shale oil, gasified coal, nuclear energy, solar energy and so on. This is fantastical because the basic cause of the energy crisis is not scarcity; it is moral ignorance and weakness of character. We don’t know how to use energy, or what to use it for. And we cannot restrain ourselves. Our time is characterized as much by the abuse and waste of human energy as it is by the abuse and waste of fossil-fuel energy. Nuclear power is presumably now going to be used benignly by the same mentality that has egregiously devalued and misapplied manpower. If we had an unlimited supply of solar or wind power, we would use that destructively too, for the same reasons.

Perhaps all of those sources of energy are going to be developed. Perhaps all of them can sooner or later be developed without threatening our survival. But not all of them together can guarantee our survival, and they cannot define what is desirable. We will not find those answers in Washington, D.C., or in the laboratories of oil companies. In order to find them, we will have to look closer to ourselves.

Berry’s most recent—though hopefully not his last—Nation contribution came in our 2006 special issue on food, guest edited by Alice Waters. Berry noted that recent decades’ surplus of food and money to buy it could soon come to an end, as “most of our food is now produced by industrial agriculture, which has proved to be immensely productive, but at the cost of destroying the means of production.” He decried Americans’ widespread ignorance about food production “endemic to our society and economy,” while hopefully noting signs that “some urban consumers are venturing into an authentic knowledge of food and food production.” Increasing knowledge would create pressure for a change in farming methods, Berry predicted, but was skeptical as to “whether or not it can come soon enough to avert hunger proportionate to our present ignorance.”

Three years later, one of Berry’s co-contributors to Waters’ forum, Michael Pollan, wrote in an appreciation of “Wendell Berry’s Wisdom” (September 29, 2009) that Berry had

marked out a path that led us back into nature, no longer as spectators but as full-fledged participants…. To the extent that we’re finally beginning to hear a new, more neighborly conversation between American environmentalists and American farmers, not to mention between urban eaters and rural food producers, Berry deserves much of the credit for getting it started…All those taking part in that conversation, whether in the White House or at the farmers’ market, are deep in his debt.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
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