On Wendell Berry, the Church, and the economy

Wendell Berry, in his essay God and Country (in What People Are For, 1988):

Organized Christianity seems, in general, to have made peace with "the economy" by divorcing itself from economic issues, and this, I think, has proved to be a disaster, both religious and economic. The reason for this, on the side of religion, is suggested by the adjective "organized." It is clearly possible that, in the condition of the world as the world now is, organization can force upon an institution a character that is alien or even antithetical to it. The organized church comes immediately under compulsion to think of itself, and identify itself to the world, not as an institution synonymous with its truth and its membership, but as a hodgepodge of funds, properties, projects, and offices, all urgently requiring economic support. The organized church makes peace with a destructive economy and divorces itself from economic issues because it is economically compelled to do so. Like any other public institution so organized, the organized church is dependent on the "economy"; it cannot survive apart from those economic practices that its truth forbids and that its vocation is to correct. If it comes to a choice between the extermination of the fowls of the air and the lilies of the field and the extermination of a building fund, the organized church will elect - indeed, has already elected - to save the building fund. The irony is compounded and made harder to bear by the fact that the building fund can be preserved by crude applications of money, but the fowl of the air and the lilies of the field can be preserved only by true religion, by the practice of a proper love and respect for them as the creatures of God.

Read the full, brief, but provocative thoughts of Jonathan Melton on this Wendell Berry quotation at The Patience of Trees.


Quoting Wendell Berry in and out of context

But the misappropriation of the Wendell Berry quote takes the cake, which comes at the summation of Walcher’s column, in which he correctly identifies Berry as “one of conservation’s most prolific and gifted writers” and pastes:

“To put the bounty and the health of our land, our only commonwealth, into the hands of people who do not live on it and share its fate will always be an error. For whatever determines the fortune of the land determines also the fortunes of the people. If history teaches anything, it teaches that.”

The quote is a misappropriation because it ignores all context and the body of Berry’s life and work. And because the ‘absentee’ authority Berry decries that are holding rural communities back are not the environmental agencies or the pubic health officials–in Frankfort or in DC. No, Berry’s criticisms are directed at the absentee coal baron, the Texas oil man, the faraway capitalist figuring on a ledger sheet that human health and local wealth is less important than what shows up on his side of the balance sheet, that are holding rural communities, too long shackled to boom and bust volatile economies, back.

If there is to remain any hope at all for the region, strip mining will have to be stopped. Otherwise, all the federal dollars devoted to the region’s poor will have the same effect as rain pouring on an uprooted plant. To recover good hope and economic health the people need to have their land whole under their feet. And much of their land has already been destroyed.

Read the complete article by Pete Kolbenschlag at Colorado Pols.

The article by Greg Walcher to which Mr. Kolbenschlag refers can be found HERE.


Reading Wendell Berry's "Roots to the Earth"

I just read Roots to the Earth, a collection of Wendell Berry’s poetry and prose on American rural life. It is a meditation on living well.

The book first appeared a quarter century ago in a portfolio illustrated with Wesley Bates’ woodcuts. Three years ago, Larkspur Press released a limited edition of one hundred copies. Last year, Berkeley’s Counterpoint Press made the book available to the general public.

Even at one remove from a letterpress printing, this affordable volume is lavish. Bates’ illustrations recall the work of Rockwell Kent, Lynn Ward, and other midcentury traditionalists. However, while Kent and Ward foregrounded their figures against midnight-dark skies, Bates opens his to the light. That echoes the generosity of Berry’s poems and recalls as well some of the cheer found in children’s books, which may explain why Skylight Books displayed the copy I bought in the store’s kiddie section. I think that’s a mistake. True, there’s no reason that older children can’t read Roots to the Earth. Yet it’s adults who are likely most receptive to Berry’s themes of faith, frugality, steadfastness, dignity and humility. Adult experience often teaches something about the cost of abandoning traditional values.

Read the whole article at Left, Write & Centaur


On the Recent Wendell Berry Collection and Conversation

Wendell Berry, an avid environmentalist himself, is not opposed stirring the pot. He just released a book of essays optimistically titled The World-Ending Fire and is the subject of a documentary produced by Nick Offerman — yep, that Nick Offerman — called Look and See, neither of which pull any punches. But any idealistic or rhetorical blow proffered aside, Berry isn’t one to engage eagerly without putting serious thought into solutions first. Something I have been noticing over the last few years of his work, interviews, and lectures is that he seems to be in a sifting, distilling season of his life. Now in his 80s, Berry seems to be even more thoughtful (if that is possible), listening closer, speaking clearly yet humbly. We also do the same with him, increasingly mindful of the shortness of days.

Read the compete article by Josh Retterer at Mockingbird.


Reading Sutterfield's "Wendell Berry and the Given Life"

Sutterfield synthesizes Wendell Berry’s writings and his vision that our world and our life are gifts to be lived in and through a moral compass focused on ‘the other’, our neighbor. Much of the book fitted neatly with my Benedictine experience of living a virtuous life in a world often neglectful of those spiritual principles.

There is the humility of our creatureliness that comes through a reflective wisdom of interdependence, as Berry says “…that is born from soil…and home.” As Sutterfield’s essays highlight, Berry emphasizes the importance of stability and community of place.

We have come, as Elizabeth Scalia has written, to a generation of strange gods, where ‘virtual community’ is only one step away from imaginary. Sutterfield’s book reminds us of Wendell Berry’s conviction that we are designed to reach out—in our place, whether city dweller or along farm lanes—and touch our neighbor, our land, and embrace our Lord within the creation we were given.

Read the whole review by Margaret Realy at Morning Rose Prayer Gardens.


On Life, Silence, and Wendell Berry

I read this poem of quiet—of communicating without screens, of living without air conditioning and technology, in order to “make a poem that does not disturb the silence from which it came”—to my husband in our bed at home and we nod and say, “hmmm, yes,” together.

Berry often writes of loss and the quirkiness of community, but his writing spins visions of a world long past: one that is idyllic, beautiful, and ultimately fulfilling. In those moments of reading his poetry, I find Berry’s words affirming of the life we’ve chosen and pushing us to even more difficult choices.

But after nearly a decade of attempting to eschew some of the attractions and amenities of urban life, I’ve also begun to wonder if Berry’s pure ideals are feasible, if this idyllic long ago that he writes about ever really existed at all.

We moved to our farming community on the wings of a Wendell Berry novel eight years ago, hoping for a simpler life, and even taking a brief detour to visit his home in Kentucky as we drove from Washington, D.C. to the rural Midwest. For eight years, we gave all we were able to give to the ideals of sharing our lives with our neighbors, worshipping together, eating together, and growing good food.

Eventually, we decided to leave, not because we didn’t believe in the ideals of hospitality, simplicity, and love of neighbor anymore, but because the community began to crumble under the weight of flailing leadership, clashes of vision, financial strain, and broken relationships.

Read the whole article by Christiana Peterson at Image.


Bees, Wendell Berry and Christian Life

As many of you know, I like quoting Wendell Berry and I think he is very pro-bee.

“The word agriculture,” Wendell Berry writes in The Unsettling of America. “After all, does not mean ‘agriscience,’ much less ‘agribusiness’. It means ‘cultivation of the land.’ And cultivation is at the root of the sense both of culture and cult.   The ideas of tillage and worship are joined in culture. And these words all come from an Indo-European root meaning both ‘to revolve’ and ‘to dwell’.   To live, to survive on the Earth, to care for the soil, and to worship, are all bound at the root to the idea of a cycle.”

Bees network with flowers and with the hive. This network creates better plants, better harvests.   The better plants wither and die, turning into better soil. The soil then houses better plants. The cycle continues.   The bees network seeks to co-operate with the local good and make it better; if the bees were ever to rob, exploit, cut-off, or steal then the honey would be threatened.

“If we corrupt agriculture we corrupt culture,” Wendell Berry adds. “For in nature and within certain invariable social necessities we are one body, and what afflicts the hand will afflict the brain.”

            A network of bees-when doing what is good- will bring good to the neighbourhood, the land.

A friend of mine once borrowed her teenage sons’ car and it smelled like a sick boy’s locker room.   When the boy came home, she insisted on why he never cleaned it. He insisted he did but there was another reason for the smell.   A quiet fellow, he simply apologized and went to his room.

The next day, she saw her son driving out of his school and she unintentionally followed him home (you do this, at times, as a parent of a teenager).   She watched him make several stops, all to people who were digging in trash cans along the way.   Her son would go in the back of his car and offer bags of recycled bottles (Or “empties” as we call them in Alberta) to these folks. He would talk to them, listen, and in one case, he prayed with them.

When they both got at home, she confronted him and he confessed that he was collecting all of the recycles from his church, school, and work for the purpose of getting to know the homeless population of his neighbourhood. “They’re invisible,” he said. “And I think it’s best for everyone if they weren’t.”

Her son was acting like a bee.

Read the whole article by Eric Kregel at ericjkregel.


Thinking about Wendell Berry and Sex

You might not think of Wendell Berry as a man to go to for advice about sex, but you’d be mistaken. The conservation and organic farming icon has plenty to say about it, scattered in various writings. And in fact we can see Berry’s communitarian conservatism coming out pretty clearly when he starts up on sex, marriage and family. I don’t mean that he turns all “leave it to Beaver.” Berry’s actually got a sexier view of sex than most of today’s Tinder aficionados. The sexiness of it lies in the humanness of it–its “necessary, precious, and volatile power.” 

We are trained to think that community in itself is stultifying, and in particular that any community attention to sexual behavior is oppressive on its face. And indeed it has sometimes been–brutally oppressive to gay people and others whose private sexual behavior became a public concern. But contrarian Berry points out that when community is destroyed, we are left with only two spheres–the private sphere and the abstract “public.” Into the void left after the destruction of community you get predatory capitalism, better known as corporate exploiters of sexual insecurity.

Read the whole piece at Conserve.


A Review of "Wendell Berry and the Given Life"

If I could, I would thrust a copy of Wendell Berry and the Given Life by Ragan Sutterfield into the hands of everyone I know. Here’s why:

Sutterfield’s book is a terrific introduction to an esteemed man of letters. Wendell Berry is a poet, novelist, essayist, conservation activist, and pioneering agrarian who advocates for sustainable agriculture. Thus Berry is a man whose legacy is equally remarkable for his literary writings as well as for his pioneering work and continuing leadership in the field of responsible agrarianism. If you patronize local farmer’s markets, or if your default setting inside grocery stores is to choose local organic produce, then you have Wendell Berry to thank.

Sutterfield maintains that Berry’s work is important because it speaks to our moral integrity at the same time as it addresses our mortal future. You might say that Berry is Rachel Carson 2.0. Berry brings science, generations of farming history, startling literary brilliance, and a deeply Christian point of view all to bear on discussions of the conservation crisis. On one level, it is crucial for more people to hear Berry’s clarion call to rewind our culture, to back away from industrialism, purely in the interests of survival. On another level, Berry speaks to our moral culpability in the ruination of families, communities, and the planet as a result of our failure to obey the most basic of God’s directives to love thy neighbor.

Sutterfield argues that Berry is a sage, a lamenting prophet who connects the dots between how we live and the state of our souls. Was this what God intended when he handed over his creation to us? Is this the role we were meant to play as caretakers? Sutterfield distills a diverse body of work published over the course of nearly sixty years; in so doing, he performs the invaluable service of making the ideas of a great Christian thinker more accessible to a wider audience.

Read the whole review by Maura Zagrans at The Catholic Book Blogger.


A Review of "Wendell Berry and the Given Life"

Here then, are my thoughts on Wendell Berry and the Given Life by Ragan Sutterfield. 

This attractive and unintimidatingly light volume lives up to the description I was given. It is, indeed, a book interested in drawing out the spiritual themes and ideas strewn throughout the work of a long and productive lifetime. Sutterfield has done his research, and excerpts from Berry’s writings liberally pepper the pages of this book, which is itself divided up into thematic chapters addressing different aspects of Berry’s thought: Givenness, Humility, Love, Work, Membership, and so on. There are so many wonderfully expressive and thought-provoking Berry quotes in each chapter that my reading was drastically slowed by the repeated compulsion to set Sutterfield’s writing about Berry down to hunt down the cited essays and works and read the quotes passages in their original contexts.

Read the whole review by Kate Cousino at Peace and Pekoe.