By Ron Madsen
“What I stand for is what I stand on”
As vividly portrayed in Walden’s Pond, Henry Thoreau was engaged in an epic struggle with his “bean field.” Needing strength he called upon the gods: “They (the beans) attached me to the earth, and so I got strength like Antaeus.” Like the Greek god Antaeus, son of Poseidon and Gaea, the Goddess of Earth, he found that the more his body was attached to the soil the greater his strength, and as Hercules discovered, Antaeus’ strength could only be rendered powerless by removing Antaeus from the soil.
This essay is a tribute to a latter-day literary Antaeus , Wendell Berry, who was born in Henry County, Kentucky in 1934. He was raised on a five generation family farm. After receiving his BA and MA in English at the University of Kentucky, he attended Stanford University’s creative writing program under a Wallace Stegner Fellowship Program. He began teaching creative writing at the University of Kentucky in 1964. Just one year later he purchased and moved onto a farm that eventually grew into a 125 acre homestead. He began writing for Organic Gardening and Farming and The New Farm. Drawn to the land he resigned from teaching in 1977 and returned to teach a decade later for a brief time before withdrawing permanently to his land. From his native soil he continued his prolific writing that now has reached twenty-five books of poems, sixteen volumes of essays, and eleven novels and short story collections. His writing are firmly rooted to his family and community and the land upon which they are planted.
Wendell Berry’s writing skills are unmatched. He writes with a primal force that resonates the deepest cords that tie us to our family and the earth. A sample of a few titles of his collected essays are revealing: “The Gift of Good Land,” “ Home Economics,”” What are People For?”” Citizenship Papers,”” Sex, Economy, Freedom and Community” and perhaps my favorite is his personal biography of his and his wife’s love affair with their home and land found in “The Long-Legged House.” He combines the simple and persuasive eloquence of CS Lewis; the zion like passion and discipleship of his friend, Hugh Nibley; and the wit of Henry Thoreau. But his real power of expression is rooted in his living the fullness of his words. He is, in my opinion, a Thoreau with a family and a Hugh Nibley with an actual farm. All of his writings, philosophy and theology springs out of his devotion to his family, his land, and his community which are for him inextricably intertwined to each other and from which grows his perfectly demonstrated loyalty—“that if you make a commitment and hang on until death, there are rewards.”
Wendell Berry has been called the “prophet of rural America” and preaches the virtue of loyalty to family, land, community and growing out of that loyalty and passion some basic fundamentals thread through all his writings which can summarized into first, the constant weighing of the siren call of progress and technology against the negative effects on the land, the family and the community; second, the denunciation of all violence or wars that destroy families and communities; and third, the generational preservation of one’s land, family and community; To tackle all these themes with any depth in this review would be overly ambitious. However, here are a few samples of his writings on these three themes:
Weighing the effects of any technology on one’s family and community:
Wendell drives a car, uses a chainsaw and flies in airplanes, but as to him, his family and community he carefully considers what effect each tool, equipment or latest technology has on his family and community. When he started faming again he was faced with the choice—a team of horses or a tractor? In his essay “Horse drawn Tools; and the Doctrine of Labor Saving” he does not reflexively chose the tractor before carefully weighing the costs in every respect:
“How large can a machine be before it ceases to serve people and begins to subjugate them?”
“As farmers became more and more dependent on fossil fuel energy, a radical change occurred in their minds. Once focused on biology, the life and health of living things, their thinking now began to focus on technology and economics. Credit for example, became as pressing an issue as the weather, for farmers had begun to climb the one-way ladder of survival by debt. Bigger machines required more land, and more land required yet bigger machines, which required yet more land, and on and on—the survivors climbing to precarious and often temporary success by way of machines and mortgages and the ruin of their neighbors. And so the farm became a factory where speed, efficiency, and profitability were the main standards of performance. These standards, of course, are industrial, not agricultural.” (Gift of Good Land, page 131).
Then turning to the domestic front, there came a time when he was faced with choosing to own and use a computer or continue doing his writing with pencil and pad of paper? Given his prolific amount of writing one would assume he chose the computer, but he did not and has continued for decades to take with him his pencil and some paper in the woods and write. His reasons are many, but here are two stated reasons why he did not buy a computer and still has not:
“A computer I am told…will help you write faster, easier, and more….Do I, then, want to write faster, easier, and more? No, my standards are not speed, ease, and quantity,. I have already left behind much evidence of that…I have written too fast, too easily, and too much…Going off to the woods I take my pencil and some paper….and I am as well equipped for my work as the president of IBM.” (What are People For ?, page 190)
And then applying the most important principle of “how does this affect my relationships at home he considers the long practice in his home of his wife and him carefully reviewing and editing together his handwritten notes and organizing the same it a very intellectually intimate dialogue: “It is very well understood that technological innovations always requires the discarding of the ‘old model’—the ‘old model’ being not just our own old Royal standard, but my wife, my critic, my closest reader, my fellow worker….In order to
be technologically up-to-date as a writer, I would have to sacrifice an association that I am dependent upon and that I treasure.” (What are People For ?, page 171) Then Wendell slyly adds: “If the use of a computer is a new idea, then a newer idea is not to use one.”
The Denunciation of Wars that destroy families and communities:
In February of 1968 Wendell Berry spoke at a Kentucky conference and commenced his address by recognizing that he was perhaps only one of four people in the entire state of Kentucky that believed he should give his speech denouncing our nation’s involvement in the Viet Nam Conflict. Founded on his Christian faith and the logic that grows out of it, he professed a stance from which he has consistently argued from Viet Nam to the present:“I have come to the realization that I can no longer imagine a war that I would believe to be either useful or necessary” and that every conflict is by definition a “failure of imagination.” He then argues:
“That is why it sickens me to see us so willing to fight in order to influence the conduct of other nations. Why should we, who have splendid ideals and powerful arguments, rely primarily on violence rather than persuasion and example?” (The Long-Legged House, pg 68).
Then in his inimitable style Wendell then turns the argument back on the reader by answering intimate questions that we are compelled to also introspectively ask ourselves:
“Here is the other question that the predicament of modern warfare forces upon us: How many deaths of other people’s children by bombing or starvation are we willing to accept in order that we may be free, affluent, and (supposedly) at peace? To that question, I answer pretty quickly: None. And I know that I am not the only one who would give that answer: Please, No children. Don’t kill any children for ‘my’ benefit.” (Citizenship Papers, pg. 29).
And to drive the point to our own front porch:
“As a father, I must look at my son, and I must ask if there is anything I possess—any right, any piece of property, any comfort, any joy—that I would ask HIM to die to permit me to keep. I must ask if I believe that it would be meaningful—after his mother and I have loved each other and begotten him and loved him—for him to die in a lump with a number hanging around his neck. I must ask if his life would have come to meaning or nobility or any usefulness if he should sit—with his human hands and head and eyes—in the cockpit of a bomber, dealing out pain and grief and death to people unknown to him. And my answers to all these questions is one that I must attempt to live by: No.” (The Long-Legged House, page 75).
Wendell uses many voices in his writings to persuade: Christian moralist; philosopher; statesman and pragmatist. But it is his voice as a member of his community and most importantly, as a father, brother and individual that gives rise to his greatest persuasion.
Preservation of land, communities and families:
One cannot read several of Wendell Berry’s essays without coming to understand that the nurturing, preserving, and retention of one’s own native soil is directly linked to preserving one’s community and family. The land also becomes holy as an individual and family participate in creation and self-sufficiency:
“To live we must daily break the body and shed the blood of Creation. When we do this knowingly, lovingly, skillfully, reverently, it is a sacrament.” (Gift of Good Land, pg. 281)
In his collected essays in his book, The Gift of Good Land” Wendell travels to, lives with and learn from cultures as far away as the mountain of Peru and as close as the nearby Amish farms. Practical and applied charity is found in these communities:
“Charity is a theological virtue and is prompted, no doubt, by a theological emotion, but it is also a practical virtue because it must be practiced…Real charity calls for the study of agriculture, soil husbandry, …making of monuments, and pictures and songs, and stories. …How can you love your neighbor if you don’t know how to build or mend a fence, how to keep your filth out of his water supply and poison out of his air; or if you do not produce anything and so have nothing to offer, or do not take care of yourself and so become a burden?” (Gift of Good Land, pages 274 &275).
It is in the self-sufficiency and nurturing of one’s own land that the family unit coalesces in a way that modern culture cannot easily replicate. In his essay “What are People For?” Wendell considers the many consequences of industrialization and agri-business replacing the family farms:
“The ecological damage of centralization and waste is thus inextricably involved with human damage. For we have, as a result, not only a desecrated, ugly, and dangerous country in which to live until we are in some manner poisoned by it, and a constant and now generally accepted problem of unemployed or unemployable workers, but also classrooms full of children who lack the experience and discipline of fundamental human tasks, and various institutions full of still capable old people who are useless and lonely.” (What are People For?, page 128).
Ex-secretary of Agriculture Earl Butz repeatedly spoke of his own Darwinistic approach to the farmers of the United States in his “Butz’s law of Economics” based on his oft-repeated mantra: “Adapt or die.” And so decades of dying occurred. Impeaching that philosophy Wendell counters with another law:
“The practice of Christianity, which instructs that one’s neighbors are to be loved as oneself. To farmers who give priority to the maintenance of their community, the economy of scale (that is the economy of large scale growth) can make no sense, for it requires the ruination and displacement of neighbors. A farm cannot be increased except by the decrease of a neighborhood.”
In conclusion if there were two books of Wendell Berry that I would recommend reading first it would be “Sex, Economy, Freedom and Community” in that it provides a comprehensive survey of his thoughts on family, community and the implications for our nation and world, but my favorite to date is “The Long-Legged House” which reveals Berry’s love of his wife, his family, and his land in an intimate and personal way. He describes the bond he has with his native soil. The memories of family and community he finds everywhere indelibly etched in the landscape. Through the land He is more profoundly bound to his mother, father, grandparents, uncles, aunts, cousins and neighbors who cultivated and were succored by the same land, and he is equally wed to the lives of present and future generations to which he feels an unspoken affinity. A journalist interviewing Wendell on his land was struck by this comment from Wendell as they surveyed his homestead:
“What I am going to do here is grow an old growth forest. It will take about two hundred years, and I won’t live to see it, but there will be some nice trees here, if somebody does not cut them down.” (Interview Jordan Fisher-Smith, Autumn 1993, Orion)
Wendell Berry has the long view in both directions and his land is the prism through which he sees more clearly both the past, present and future. All of his philosophy and religion is channeled to more perfectly loving and preserving his family, community. His land becomes the instrument through which this is most effectively realized, thereby, cementing his loving loyalty to preserving all healthy and virtuous expressions that flow from it. Though having traveled some, Wendell’s only desire now is to be home and savor each moment from his land:
“It seems to me that our people are suffering terribly from a sort of spiritual nomadism, a loss of meaningful contact with the earth and the earth’s cycles of birth, growth, and death. They lack the vital morality and spirituality that can come only from such contact; the sense, for instance, of their dependence on earth, and the sense of external mystery surrounding life on earth, which is its ultimate and most disciplining context.” (The Long-Legged House, pg. 86).
Wendell’s love of family, home, land and community gives him an eloquence that moves those that have hearing ears and understanding hearts to also go home, attach to some land and give their heart and mind to it. Wendell has returned home, and he invites us in his poem “Stay Home” to do the same in every sense of the word:
“I will wait here in the fields
to see how well the rain
brings on the grass.
In the labor of the fields
Longer than a man’s life
I am at home. Don’t come with me
You stay home too.”