If you're at a conference and you find yourself being hailed for the next session with a cowbell, chances are you're at a conference on agrarianism.
Or, rather, a conference for agrarians. That's certainly who congregated for "The Future of Agrarianism" conference, held this April at Georgetown College in northern Kentucky. Said cowbell, locally grown food for snacks and lunches, a Sierra Club bumper sticker in every registration packet, and plenty of jeans, cowboy boots, and ponytails: no academic meeting this, despite the presence of many professors and college students. It was a convening, some 300 strong, of the committed.
Fred Kirschenmann, director of the Aldo Leopold Center at Iowa State University, set the tone in his opening address. We've arrived at a "historic moment—we have some opportunities here," Kirschenmann made clear. As agriculture becomes increasingly global, a public awareness has been emerging, he and others contended, that something as basic as food cannot—must not—be entrusted to multinational mega-companies, so vulnerable to terrorist attack and so unscrupulous in governance. The fundamental agrarian response: responsible living demands a different kind of economy—or better, many, many more economies.
But is a world of small, overlapping economies even possible any longer? Kirschenmann pointed out that currently in America there are three times as many farmers over 65 as under thirty-five. One speaker, discussing the "old agrarianism," asked bluntly: "Where are the farmers going to come from?" The rise of the "food dictatorship" (as Indian eco-feminist and physicist Vandana Shiva termed it) and the consequent decline in the farm population led Kirschenmann to suggest that there exists a ten- to 15-year window for the American agrarian endeavor: without deep changes in the coming two decades, the unspeakably dominant corporations will be importing much of our food supply, while what rural communities still exist will morph into housing for migrant workers—troubling conclusions for those who believe the corporate order to be incapable of caring well for the earth, its people, and their food.
The conference's formal occasion was a commemoration of the 25th anniversary of writer and farmer Wendell Berry's agrarian manifesto, The Unsettling of America, and Berry, present at all of the sessions and involved in several of them, had his own thoughts on the subject of the future of agrarianism. With his customary confluence of sly wit and pointed prophecy, he described "agrarianism" as a "term and idea that has been called forth, none too soon, by industrialism"; it is, he emphasized, the opposite of industrialism and the alternative to it: apart from economies of local scale, in which consumers and producers enjoy sufficient proximity to ensure safety, quality, and increased neighborliness toward each other and their land, the degrading of the earth and all life upon it will continue in rapid, disastrous fashion.
Not a hopeful prospect. Berry's mood, though, matched that of Kirschenmann, Shiva, and others: not so much weary as soldierly. He acknowledged that a "cloud. … hovers over this meeting," noting that in the 25 years since Unsettling the number of farmers in America had dropped by half. "For now," he stated, "victory is not the issue—endurance is."
The next two decades loom large for a different, equally jarring sort of reason: within that period, in all likelihood, agrarians will witness the quieting of their most eloquent, versatile champion. Born in 1934, Berry has long been an unparalleled presence on the American scene as agrarian philosopher, prophet, and poet, and his death will leave a void impossible to fill. The conference itself seemed to be an implicit pronouncement of the need to make serious strides while his presence abides.
To this end, Georgetown philosopher Norman Wirzba not only conceived the conference but also compiled a new collection of Berry's essays, published in April as The Art of the Commonplace (Counterpoint). Its 21 essays make for a long book, especially coming from such a pure hedgehog as Berry. Although Wirzba divides the essays by theme, the powerful, intricate singularity of Berry's vision ensures that all of the themes bleed into one another, over and over again.
Still, it is a valuable collection, binding together essays that date from the sixties into the new millennium. Read consecutively, it is the resonance of Berry's voice, with its delicate fusing of classical, Christian, and American sensibilities, that stands out. In the course of more than four decades of writing he has formalized a full-orbed agrarian worldview, compelling us to remember and reflect upon the virtues of an older way of living, one with the weight of most of human history behind it. He recalls for us our own past, when our lives were lived outdoors, in close connection with other creatures, and within an admixture of dependence and independence that today seems odd, even impossible.
But not to him. "I seem to have been born with an aptitude for a way of life that was doomed," he muses in the opening essay. "Free of any intuitions of its doom, I delighted in it, and learned all I could about it." That learning has steadily continued, as these essays attest, even as he himself has tried to pass it along to us. The slow refining of his thinking, from the strict, dusky organicism of his earlier essays to a theism more rich and bright, bespeaks a salutary restlessness and a deep yearning, the yield of which continues, year upon year, to impress.
I suspect that we will be reckoning with Berry for decades—at least I hope we will. His supposition, for instance, that the abolition of man and the abolition of the earth proceed as one could provide thematic focus for any number of conferences. Still, to read Berry is to raise questions, and The Art of the Commonplace occasions at least two that that might guide continued consideration of his remarkable oeuvre.
First, does Berry possess a sufficiently capacious vision of goodness?
Believing industrial civilization to be structured by principles and practices that violate the moral and ecological order that makes life possible, Berry has, in a thousand diverging ways, tirelessly attacked the corporate order and the culture it has spawned. His rhetoric has been angry, doleful, exaggerated, earnest, and sweeping: "The fur trade was only the first establishment on this continent of a mentality whose triumph is its catastrophe," he wrote in 1977, in a typical passage.
But a theology of goodness leads believing eyes to regard goodness as, in at least certain respects, irrepressible. Its irrepressibility requires that we affirm what goodness there is, wherever it is. Accordingly, the pivotal question to ask is this: Even within political and economic structures that tend toward palpable destruction, can there emerge that which requires not just affirmation but celebration? And if so, how must this penchant to bless affect our reading of our world?
Second, does Berry possess a sufficiently capacious vision for the church?
Though he affirms "Christian tradition" and, increasingly in the past two decades, relies on Christian theology for his doctrine of creation, Berry regards the church as at best a disappointment and at worst a colluder with the enemy. "[I]n its de facto alliance with Caesar," he warned ten years ago, "Christianity connives directly in the murder of Creation."
But Christian eschatology understands the church to stand at the very center of God's redemptive activity, a foretaste of true freedom. Without gainsaying the deadly accuracy of much of Berry's criticism of modern Christianity, it is imperative to underscore that churches have historically fostered and preserved many of very the social ideals that Berry represents. Is the locus of his hope, then, properly placed? How does the absence of the church in his understanding of the good skew his critical vision?
Agrarianism requires no certain, total triumph over industrialization in order to prosper; at its best it defies such grandiosity of intention. What it does require is the simple, piecemeal emergence of groupings of neighbors trying to enact alternate visions of the good life, hoping all the while to attract others into the neighborhood. If in this century agrarianism gains ground, its success might well—as Allan Carlson suggests in his recent study, The New Agrarian Mind—depend in no small part on Christians at the center of it, bound as they are by their belief in the goodness of the Creator and in their need to care for the earth and its people. The presence at the conference of Christian students, both Protestant and Catholic, from self-consciously Christian colleges (housed, I might add, in churches), gives hope that Berry may yet find reason to adjust his judgment of organized Christianity.
This would be no easy feat. Berry writes as if in submission to a beauty, an awful beauty, that far exceeds his ability to grasp and of which he, inexplicably, is a part. He asks that we surrender to it too. Can we, so full of our own seeing and making, ever do so? The more useful question is, What will happen if we do not?
Eric Miller is assistant professor of history at Geneva College.
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Books & Culture Corner appears Mondays at ChristianityToday.com. Earlier Books & Culture Corners include:
Stop, Drop, and Cover … | Then hack your lungs out and die. (June 3, 2002)
Death of an Evolutionist | RIP Stephen Jay Gould. (May 31, 2002)
Closing The X-Files … | … with the sign of the Cross. (May 20, 2002)
And the Next Thing Is … | Marxism (or not). (May 13, 2002)
God Bless the Eliminator | Mother Jones magazine makes known a shocking discovery: evangelicals are sending missionaries to Muslim countries! (May 6, 2002)
'A Peculiar People' | The uniqueness of the Jews. (April 29, 2002)
'Nebuchadnezzar My Slave' | Was the Holocaust God's will? (April 15, 2002)
'In the Beginning Was the Holocaust'? | Blasphemy, rage, memory, and meaning of the Shoah. (April 8, 2002)
The Gospel According to Biff | A conversation with novelist Christopher Moore. (April 1, 2002)
Baseball 2002 Preview | Part 2: Saving the game? (March 25, 2002)
The State of the Game | After one of the best World Series ever, baseball faces a crisis. (March 18, 2002)
America's Homegrown Islam—and Its Prophet | The strange story of Elijah Muhammad, leader of the Nation of Islam and onetime mentor of Malcolm X. (Mar. 11, 2002)
'Must Be Superstition' | Rediscovering spiritual reality. (Mar. 4, 2002)
Science Holds a Meeting | A report from the annual convention of the AAAS. (Feb. 25, 2002)
Saint Frodo and the Potter Demon | The Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter series spring from the same source. (Feb. 18, 2002)