Selected with an Introduction by Paul Kingsnorth
by Robert Zaller
Wendell Berry, at eighty-five, is as close to a prophet as America has produced in the past half century. The scion of a farm family in the hardscrabble country of Henry County, Kentucky, he began a literary career in the 1960s that he envisaged at first in the conventional terms of the period: study, travel, and make your name in New York. It wasn’t a formula for prophecy. America’s preceding prophetic figure, the poet Robinson Jeffers, had only recently died; once famous, he was virtually forgotten at the time of his death. Jeffers, too, had entertained conventional literary ambitions, but he found the ground for a radical social critique in the rugged landscape of the central California coast, where life could be “purged,” as he put it, of the “ephemeral accretions” of modern living.
Berry didn’t find a new place for himself, but rediscovered the ancestral one he’d left and that called him back. On July 4, 1965—a date perhaps consciously chosen—he moved back to his home town, Port Royal, bought land, and went back to farming. He taught, too, at the University of Kentucky, but eventually committed himself to the twin occupations of farming and writing. More than forty books resulted, divided more or less equally among poetry, fiction, and essays. All express a common vision, deepening with the years but developed from an original root: the perception that the good life must be lived in the care and cultivation of the soil, the weathers, and the bounties of a natural place.
This vision had a certain idyllic quality when Jeffers described it half a century earlier in a rapidly urbanizing America. By Berry’s time, it would have appeared to most hopelessly obsolete. Industrialized agriculture had all but destroyed the independent small farmer, today an essentially extinct species. Hired labor working giant farms devoted to monoculture covered the country, linked to great cities in a vast interlocking network of production, distribution, and consumption. The idea, as Jeffers had suggested, of a world in which “Men were riding after cattle, or plowing the headland . . . as they [had] done for thousands of years,” seemed no more plausible than bringing back Homer. And if anything were needed to clinch the point, the ’60s experiment of back-to-nature communes showed how distant a practical engagement with the land had become.
Berry had to ponder his decision when he made it, and he has been pondering it, with the much larger significations it acquired for him, ever since. If the land that had been bred into him called him back, it was land that, as he now saw with adult eyes, had been “diminished” by those who, having killed or driven off its original possessors, had abused and eroded it, despoiling its forests, poisoning its rivers, and depleting its soil. Berry thus found himself returned not to something comfortable and familiar, but to the scene of a crime—a crime his own forebears had participated in. If he was to live worthily in it, he would have to leave his own small patch of it at least modestly better than he found it. Only in so doing would he acquire the moral basis to write for himself and address others.
Thoreau had written about Walden Pond, and then left it. Jeffers wrote about his beloved coast, built a house, and planted trees. Neither man was a farmer, and neither, except in a literary sense, attempted to live off the land. Wendell Berry has been distinctive if not unique in insisting that one must get one’s hands literally dirty in order to write. He makes the point, clearly if indirectly, in an early essay, “Some Thoughts on Citizenship and Conscience in Honor of Don Pratt”: “No matter how sophisticated and complex and powerful our institutions, we are still exactly as dependent on the earth as the earthworms. To cease to know this, and to fail to act upon the knowledge, is to begin to die the death of a broken machine.”
The opposition of the natural and the mechanical would be, for Berry as for other conservationists, a fundamental trope. The mechanical is the abstract; it flattens what it cannot categorize. The land, as a living, organic entity that with its creatures, human and wild, encompass the cycles of growth and decay that define it, can only be damaged and ultimately destroyed—rendered incapable of fertility and nurturance—if subjected to the machine. To be sure, humans need tools to farm, and farms to live if they are to settle meaningfully. Tools that acquire gears are machines, and these are not, in and of themselves, inimical to the land, at least up to a point. Beyond that, however, it is the machine that drives the farmer, and what its functioning imposes makes it the master rather than the servant. When this condition insinuates itself as a mindset, it can swiftly assume control of human society as such. Humans are deceived by this into believing that it is they who are in control of an everything they call “nature,” which through a wizardly effect called technology they may subject to their wishes.
When this process is extended to the most essential requirement of daily living, the production of food, and that in turn to the discipline of an extensive and rationalized market system, agribusiness replaces farming, with its concomitant results of soil depletion, animal confinement and mechanized slaughter, and the toxification of earth, air, and water. On a sufficient scale, the species loss and pollution this produces wreaks havoc, not only on what we call the environment but on the human spirit itself. Berry came early to this conclusion, but also, as he admits, slowly. Wishing to convert a steep hillside on his property to pasturage, he hired a bulldozer to clear its woods and create a pond that would provide a water supply. A wet winter caused a landslide that ruined the pond. Forcing nature from its course had done damage, and yielded no profit. Later, in expanding the farm, Berry had arrived at a point where a tractor seemed inevitable. Thinking the matter through, he decided to invest in a team of horses instead. The idea might have seemed quixotic, but it worked, and proved even more practical in dealing with steep ground and bad weather.
Berry thus arrived at a principle suitable to his purposes: that where traditional methods could do the job, perhaps more slowly but with less disturbance to natural balances, they were preferable to mechanical ones. He extended this principle to his other occupation, writing. In a brief essay that touched a nerve among literary colleagues, “Why I Am Not Going to Buy a Computer,” he declared that he did and would write only with a pen or pencil, using natural light. This was partly a statement: the presumptive labor-saving of the computer did not make for better writing, but it did involve expense, energy and material consumption, difficulty of repair, and planned obsolescence. Moreover, to write as a critic of wasteful technology with an instrument that was itself an example of it was, in the absence of necessity or improvement of result, an act of bad faith in an activity that demanded good faith above all. (Berry did use a manual typewriter for readying final copy.)
Struck by the adverse reaction to his essay by fellow writers, Berry coined the term “technological fundamentalism” to describe the attitude that technological change as such was both inevitable and desirable. Behind this, he decried a sense of helplessness before the profit-driven forces behind such change, whose ideological compensation lay in identifying with them as manifesting human power and grandeur, the subjection of nature to a collective project. But the collectivity was false and the project an illusion because, as Berry says in “The Total Economy,” all responsibility is ultimately individual and the consequence of permitting others to decide for us—whether they be corporations, governments, or those in their pay—is that “the human household or economy is [now] in conflict at almost every point with the household of nature.” The term “household” is deliberately chosen, for what Berry wants us to appreciate is that nature itself is a tapestry of local ecosystems just as society is of individual families and communities. Thus, as he notes,
The “environmental crisis” is no such thing; it is not a crisis of our environs or surroundings; it is a crisis of our lives as individuals, as family members, as community members, and as citizens. We have an “environmental crisis” because we have consented to an economy in which by eating, drinking, working, resting, traveling, and enjoying ourselves we are destroying the natural, the God-given, world.
The adjuration is as much ethical as political, and it is this that makes Berry a prophet in the tradition of Thoreau and Jeffers, rather than merely a critic. There is nothing here of the large political and economic forces that shape our lives and limit our choices, let alone of those in Third World poverty constrained by necessity to add more than their quota to ecological degradation and loss. Nor is there any suggestion of how to resist concrete social evils beyond the civil disobedience prescribed by Thoreau and emulated by Berry.
Berry is well aware of who the villains are and how they operate, but he doesn’t call them out as a muckraker would because he does not wish to let the rest of us off the hook. The closest he comes to specification is in “Two Minds,” written in 2001 in the wake of the destruction of the World Trade Center. The “two minds” Berry stipulates are the Rational and the Sympathetic. The latter is one which, briefly defined, is “to be considerate of whatever is present”; that is, respectful of that which Berry calls “God-given,” the world as what precedes us. The former sees what is present as what may be transformed, regardless of its natural integrity. Its epitome, for Berry, was the World Trade Center, whose purpose was to harvest as much of the world’s wealth as possible for the powerful few. It was, consequently, a “no-place” that existed only to strip-mine actual ones. Its fall, as with that of the Tower of Babel to which Berry likens it, was predicated in its very existence, regardless of the specific event that would bring it about.
To speak thusly of 9/11 in its immediate aftermath was bold indeed, and although Berry has rarely been one to raise his voice, the accents of Jeremiah are clear here. At the same time, he never hectors, and his sense of our general predicament always grows out of personal experience. Unsurprisingly, the theme of homecoming is critical to his vision of rectification. As he points out, it is the perdurable theme of our greatest literature, from Scripture to The Odyssey to Shakespeare; it is our most ancient wisdom. It is also, as he tirelessly reminds us, the wisdom we have increasingly lost or rejected. As he says in “The Work of Local Culture,” “Our society, on the whole, has forgotten or repudiated the theme of return.” Home is no longer the meaning of the story or the conclusion of the adventure, but simply the place to be left. Return is defeat.
What Berry wants to suggest is that such an idea, cast as an imperative, is at odds with who we are as a part of nature. Nature is in essence continuity and return—and on our planet, gifted with life, the processes that sustain the biosphere that houses us. We have come over the past several centuries to doubt its hospitality, and to view it, through the inverted lens of evolutionary theory and the post-Copernican one of cosmic catastrophism, as fearful, inimical, predatory. We do not trust it, and regard as fools those who do. We cannot—yet—flee it, but we dream of controlling it, and technology is our magical instrument. It is magical because we believe it can do anything and make us the master of everything, except itself. We thus alienate ourselves from the world and from each other.
Is there, then, any realistic hope to change the downward spiral we seem to have submitted ourselves to? More than thirty years ago, Berry answered thusly in “The Work of Local Culture”:
I still believe that a change for the better is possible, but I confess that my belief is partly hope and partly faith. No one who hopes for improvement should fail to see and respect the signs that we may be approaching some sort of historical waterfall, past which we will not, by changing our minds, be able to change anything else. We know that at any time an ecological or a technological or a political event that we will have allowed may remove from us the power to make change and leave us with the mere necessity to submit to it.
Sixteen years later, Berry put the case more peremptorily in “Compromise, Hell!”:
We are destroying our country—I mean our country itself, our land. This is a terrible thing to know, but it is not a reason for despair unless we decide to continue the destruction. If we decide to continue the destruction, that will not be because we have no other choice. This destruction is not necessary. It is not inevitable, except that by our submissiveness we make it so.
Prophets should grow louder as the need to be heard increases. They should also point a way, as Berry has done in how he has lived his own life as well as in the words he has written. It isn’t the way all of us need or can walk in; there are different ways of getting home, and there are ways to explore too that enrich us. But we may have had no steadier guide in our time.
Culled from more than a dozen books, The World-Ending Fire has been thoughtfully assembled by Paul Kingsnorth, and serves as an excellent introduction to Berry’s thought. Woven back and forth chronologically over a span of more than four decades, it shows at once the range, evolution, and continuity of his vision, and if, as Berry himself concedes, there is a certain repetition in it, it is because prophets do repeat themselves. Kingsnorth himself is the cofounder of the so-called Dark Mountain Project, a consortium of British writers and artists concerned with finding new pathways in what they describe as an age of “ecocide.” Berry is cited in the group’s manifesto, but its name refers specifically to a passage in Jeffers’s “Rearmament,” a poem that presaged World War II, and he is invoked repeatedly as its master spirit. What Jeffers himself, an arch-skeptic of group enterprises, would have made of this is a question. Thoreau, too, might have smiled. But the conversation they began remains imperative.