Wendell Berry defies easy description. His book jackets call him everything from social critic to farmer to conservationist, and he is all of these, though they do not contain him. He is a writer—poet, essayist, and novelist. Everyone from The Progressive to National Review has claimed him. Eugene Peterson names Berry one of the seven most important writers on spiritual theology for him, saying that Berry's combination of "prophetic bite and Christian winsomeness … keeps our identity as followers of Jesus in sharp focus."
Increasingly, his readers are young Christians, particularly evangelicals seeking community life and character transformation. Wheaton College political science professor Ashley Woodiwiss says, "Students are attracted by the imaginative alternatives and possibilities that Berry sets forth." While some students offer the standard criticism of Berry, that he is a romantic idealist, most see him as a Christian thinker, albeit not an evangelical. Woodiwiss told me that of all the writers that he teaches, including many very "realist" political thinkers, Berry has the most practical impact on students' lives well after college.
For the last four-plus decades, Berry, 72, has been asserting in various ways that we Americans live without much care for the world and our place in it. Berry points out that most of us consume and adopt new technologies without considering the hidden costs. Berry asks, how many of us think about environmental degradation when we start up our computers, which in cases depend on electricity from coal gouged out of the mountains of Appalachia?
Berry does not mean that no one should use a computer or technology. Indeed, at the 125-acre farm he calls home at Lane's Landing, near Kentucky's tiny Port Royal (population 116), Berry drives a truck, uses a chainsaw, and has a CD player—though there is no computer. He writes in a tree-house stand on his hillside farm.
"For some," Berry writes, "their involvement in pollution, soil depletion, strip-mining, deforestation, industrial and commercial waste is simply a 'practical' compromise, a necessary 'reality,' the price of modern comfort and convenience. For others, this list of involvements is an agenda for thought and work that will produce remedies."
What Berry advocates is a sort of Sermon-on-the-Mount conservationism. If we are going to care for the world, if we are to walk away from our modern hubris and destruction, then we must "wash the inside of the cup" and "take the log out of our eye." What makes Berry different from so many other conservationists is his argument that we must live with a consistency that finds its roots not in our institutions, but within ourselves.
Berry is a careful reader of the Bible, which I found out during an interview at his home. He quoted easily from the Gospels and Paul's epistles. He is attractive to Christians because he offers a vision of care for creation that is tied up with the sacredness of life. "What Christians offer is an understanding that the world is not ours, that we are not the ones that give things value," he told me in his warm, gentlemanly Southern drawl.
But as Berry's friend, philosophy professor Norman Wirzba, says, he "sees the church as deeply and willingly implicated in an economy that has been unremitting and unrepentant in its destruction." As Berry told me, "The church and all of our institutions have failed to oppose the destruction of the world."
Berry's primary targets are not institutions, but individuals, including himself. He once wrote, "My work has been motivated by a desire to make myself responsibly at home in this world and in my native and chosen place."
In his revolutionary 1977 book, The Unsettling of America, Berry describes how several leading environmental organizations "owned stock in the very corporations and industries that have been notorious for their destructiveness and for their indifference to the concerns of conservationists." When discovered, the organizations quickly changed their investment policies and were deeply embarrassed by the oversight. But for Berry, the deeper scandal was that "although the investments were absurd, they were not aberrant." The conservation groups "were only doing as organizations what many of their members were, and are, doing as individuals. They were making convenience of enterprises that they knew to be morally, and even practically, indefensible."
For Berry, proxies. As Berry reminds us, there is nothing inherently wrong with proxies. The problem comes when we do not recognize our proxies and thus abdicate our responsibility for them. A common example for Berry is food production. If we are not able to grow, hunt, or gather our own food, then someone else must do it for us by proxy. In most urban places and increasingly in rural ones as well, food eaters have become "mere consumers—passive, uncritical, and dependent."
They have forgotten that "eating is an agricultural act" and that food is tied to the land, ecology, and work of a particular place. Whether that work is good or bad, healthy or destructive, it is beyond the vision of most industrial food eaters. They simply buy what is given to them.
"Eaters … must understand that eating takes place inescapably in the world, that it is inescapably an agricultural act, and that how we eat determines, to a considerable extent, how the world is used." Berry suggests how to take responsibility for our food proxies: "participate in food production to the extent that you can"; "prepare your own food"; "learn the origins of the food you buy, and buy the food that is produced closest to your home"; "whenever possible, deal directly with a local farmer"; "learn, in self-defense, as much as you can of the economy and technology of industrial food production"; and "learn what is involved in the best farming and gardening."
Berry takes responsibility for his proxies. He has electricity, but the lights remain off because, though it is dim on this overcast day, we can see fine. Berry heats his house using a wood-burning stove with dead wood he has collected from his own forest (a task that becomes more difficult as he moves into his 70s). Behind his house is his garden, where Berry and his wife of nearly 50 years, Tanya, grow much of their own food. Berry's farm is very much a "home economy." It is here that care or destruction begins.
The difficulty, for Berry, is that fewer and fewer of us have a household with the constancy of place and community required for creating a good home economy. We are a transient, moving people who do not stay in places long enough to know local problems. How many of us know how far our watershed extends? Or where our garbage goes? We must be able to readily answer these questions if we are to live with care and responsibility within creation, according to Berry. For Berry, we put down roots in a local place and community. Both of Berry's parents have at least five generations of farming roots here in Henry County near the Kentucky River.
In a series of novels, Berry has explored these issues through the life of the fictitious community of Port William, Kentucky. It is what Berry calls a "membership," in which all of those who live and take part in the community are remembered—even "horses and mules and milk cows and dogs."
Like Port William, Port Royal is small, with only one store on the main road. There are two churches, Methodist and Baptist (Berry attends the latter). Surrounding the town are many small farms that once mostly grew tobacco, raised lamb, and produced other foods for family and neighbors. Many of the farms are being turned into housing developments for commuters to Louisville and Lexington.
Berry presents the goodness, neighborliness, and struggles of a small community like this one in his fiction. And he bears witness to the destruction of rural places, as his fiction moves from the vibrant Port William of the late 1800s to the present community, which holds a withering, but persistent, "membership." Berry's fiction is best read with his essays. With his poetry, they provide a door to an understanding that makes most dedicated readers of his work want to change their lives.
Evaluating Berry's Vision
Berry has strong words for Christians in his ecological call to repentance. In the essay "Christianity and the Survival of Creation" Berry writes, "Throughout the 500 years since Columbus's first landfall in the Bahamas, the evangelist has walked beside the conqueror and the merchant, too often blandly assuming that his cause was the same as theirs. Christian organizations, to this day, remain largely indifferent to the rape and plunder of the world. …" But Berry allows that this Christian complicity "comes from an inadequate understanding of the Bible."
Fred Bahnson, a Duke Divinity School graduate who now directs the Anathoth Community Garden at a rural Methodist church in North Carolina, says the evangelical Christianity he grew up with "explicitly and implicitly [sponsored] a dualism between mind and body, religion and economy."
In Wendell Berry, we find a vision of a consistent life, rooted in place and community, a life with limits that offers something deeply missing from this age—humility and closeness to the earth. As Bahnson told me, "We're created to live with our hands in the dirt. Adam from adamah [Hebrew for "earth"], human from humus—we're made from the dirt and to dirt we return. If we're somehow separated from that by too much asphalt and concrete, something's going to go awry."
Richard Church, a lawyer and farmer with a Ph.D. in theology from Duke, also finds much in Berry's work that resonates with Christians. But Church thinks that many are too uncritical of Berry. Church fears that Berry is "something of a Constantinian"—a cultural Christian who does not see a difference between the people of God and farmers in rural places.
Ralph Wood, Baylor University professor of theology and literature, also believes Christians should be cautious. Wood finds in Berry a "considerable kinship … with the Christian insistence that holy things will always come to us in communal and mediated form." Yet he finds Berry's vision of nature Stoic rather than Christian—"everything fulfills its function by its physis, the principle of growth intrinsic to it." According to Wood, Berry misses the "otherness of God" and settles for a deeply natural theology in which God's transcendence is absent.
But Woodiwiss says that Berry is not a theologian. He says we should ask, "What does he have to offer us in terms of imaginative possibilities that Christians can really buy into?"
While Wendell Berry has become the enigmatic subject of both academic and theological inquiry, he doesn't claim to have all the answers. After looking down the long patchwork furrows at his son's farm, Berry drives me back to his house and along the road that stretches through his hillside farm, which Wendell and Tanya have owned for more than four decades. We go past the tree-house stand, through a river-bottom forest, and up to the barn, where he keeps his old draft horse mare. It has begun to rain, and Berry cuts the engine. We sit in silence, watching a small band of chickadees, sparrows, and cardinals in the trees.
"I'm only one voice in all of this," Berry says. "There are many others. What I have written I have written to start a conversation. I don't have the final word."
Ragan Sutterfield is a farmer, writer, and teacher in Arkansas.
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Here is a website about Wendell Berry which, although it isn't sanctioned by him, compiles interviews, reviews, essays, poetry, prose, biography, and other resources.
Wikiquote has many quotations by and attributed to Berry.
Books and Culture has commentary on Berry's works in "A Sabbath Vision" and a short review of "Another Turn of the Crank."
On the 25th anniversary of Berry's most famous book, The Unsettling of America, Eric Miller reflected on how Christians should respond to his vision.
Alan Jacobs says we have something to learn from Wendell Berry in his Christian Vision Project article.
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