With his recent collection of essays – “What Matters? – Economics for a Renewed Commonwealth” – Wendell Berry, a gifted Kentucky farmer, forester, philosopher and poet provides us with economic insights generally not available from those among us who profess to be professional economists. His reminders of what matters most for us to live within a caring community are clear, yet the challenges posed are daunting.
We are living in the most destructive and, hence, the most stupid period of the history of our species. The list of its undeniable abominations is long and hardly bearable. And these abominations are not balanced or compensated or atoned for by the list, endlessly reiterated, of our scientific achievements. Some people are moved, now and again, to deplore one abomination or another. Others - and Hayden Carruth is one - deplore the whole list and its causes. Much protest is naive; it expects quick, visible improvement and despairs and gives up when such improvement does not come. Protesters who hold out longer have perhaps understood that success is not the proper goal. If protest depended on success, there would be little protest of any durability or significance. History simply affords too little evidence that anyone's individual protest is of any use. Protest that endures, I think, is moved by a hope far more modest than that of public success: namely, the hope of preserving qualities in one's own heart and spirit that would be destroyed by acquiescence. - Wendell Berry "A Poem of Difficult Hope"
And what are the messages I want to bottle? I plan to write about what Kentucky poet, farmer, and philosopher Wendell Berry said is the only way to escape the past; and that is “by adding something better to it.”
We will be looking at government and corporate policies and practices to find ways the present may be made better, but seeking not in those places alone. Wendell Berry was thinking local before “thinking local” was cool. Over thirty years ago, he wrote The Unsettling of America: Culture and Agriculture (New York: Avon Books, 1977), an incisive assessment of modern agriculture and its relationship to American culture--our health, economy, personal relationships, morals, and spiritual values.
Understanding our own rhythms empowers us to be able to cooperate with nature, rather than leave the care of my sexuality up to the products of a pharmaceutical company, which, in order to make a profit, would convince me that a certain dose of chemicals would “cure” me of my fertility “problem.” They sell contraceptive pills that falsify the cycles of a woman’s body in such a way that she never needs to be aware – and in fact is never allowed to be aware – of her own fertility. (Not to mention the fact that all contraceptive pills have the potential to, and often do, cause abortions.) Wendell Berry speaks of this phenomenon in his essay, “The Body and the Earth,” where he relates the fertility of women to the fertility of the land:
Simply because it became possible – and simultaneously profitable – we have cut the cultural ties between sexuality and fertility, just as we have cut those between eating and farming. By ‘freeing’ food and sex from worry, we have also set them apart from thought, responsibility, and the issue of quality…The pharmacist or the doctor will look after the fertility of the body, and the farming experts and agribusinessmen will look after the fertility of the earth… It is, in effect, to remove from consciousness the two fundamental issues of human life. It permits two great powers to be regarded and used as if they were unimportant.1
This book is not a critical analysis of Wendell Berry's writing. Instead, the informative introduction and 14 essays are from the Christian community of professors, pastors, farmers, an attorney, a physician and a musician who recognize God in Berry's work. The selections show Berry's primary belief that God remains “present to the world through our work,” and that living, loving and dying within the membership of community is “the ultimate fulfillment of God's intent for creation.”
The Progressive, in the September issue, both in Matthew Rothschild’s “Editor’s Note” and in the article by John de Graaf (“Less Work, More Life”), offers “less work” and a 30-hour workweek as needs that are as indisputable as the need to eat.
Though I would support the idea of a 30-hour workweek in some circumstances, I see nothing absolute or indisputable about it. It can be proposed as a universal need only after abandonment of any respect for vocation and the replacement of discourse by slogans.
It is true that the industrialization of virtually all forms of production and service has filled the world with “jobs” that are meaningless, demeaning, and boring—as well as inherently destructive. I don’t think there is a good argument for the existence of such work, and I wish for its elimination, but even its reduction calls for economic changes not yet defined, let alone advocated, by the “left” or the “right.” Neither side, so far as I know, has produced a reliable distinction between good work and bad work. To shorten the “official workweek” while consenting to the continuation of bad work is not much of a solution.
I was drawn to Wendell Berry because I love his poetry and essays, though I’d never read one of his novels. It is very engaging, and clean enough to be in this world, but not so clean as to be fully of the next. This is as it should be.
Berry is a writer, lecturer and farmer from Kentucky. I discovered Berry to be deeply concerned regarding the destructiveness of our modern world and challenging the prevailing tenants of Modernism. One of the major themes throughout the book is man's place on the land and man's connection with the environment. He asks in one essay: "How can we imagine our situation or our history if we think ourselves superior to it?"
Naturally, as is our wont here on the Front Porch, I applied the tried and true formula suitable for any ethical dilemma: WWWD or What Would Wendell Do? Berry, however, does not mention cremation anywhere that I recall. Burial on the other hand figures prominently in some of his fiction. In his greatest novel Jayber Crow the eponymous narrator, as many of you remember, becomes Port William’s gravedigger as well as its barber, and it is a job and a duty of increasing significance to him. The long short story or novella, Fidelity, has as its climax the death and burial of Burley Coulter. Perhaps it is enough to say that since burial is conventional, traditional, the-way-its-always-been-done then the burden of proof is on the proposed innovation, in this case cremation. Certainly a proper accounting of cremation’s pros and cons is in order. But the way Berry dramatizes the significance of burial reveals a greater network of virtues than a mere reflexive balk against a new trend.
If you hang around the surviving family farms enough, you end up asking yourself the same question Wendell Berry asks in his penetrating essays. As rural communities grow poor, land is abandoned, family farms die out, jobs vanish and the rural young are forced to the cities and suburbs to work, the issue isn’t just why we as a society are abandoning our farmers, the issue is much broader.
For years, economists and government regulators have argued that there are too many farmers, and they are producing too much food, that there were too many people on the farm. The mechanized, computerized, information and serviced based global economy demands cheap labor working in lousy and insecure jobs in cities to produce the new products of the modern era. Consumers have embraced the Wal-Marting of the country, and all that matters when you put something in your mouth and belly is price.