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 With only a minuscule portion of our population engaged in farming, talk of an agrarian ideal seems outdated at best.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.