Wendell Berry—a farmer and a writer—understands the intimate connection between rootedness and a properly framed human life. Unlike those who use the term “community” rather loosely to refer to anything from a collection of houses situated in the same suburban development to the grossly abstract notion of a global community, Berry argues that a meaningful community must include the ideas of rootedness and human scale. “By community, I mean the commonwealth and common interests, commonly understood, of people living together in a place and wishing to continue to do so. To put it another way, community is a locally understood interdependence of local people, local culture, local economy, and local nature.”
H20 is a collection of poems about water by Wendell Berry
This Washington University (St. Louis) student graphic design project is worth a look.
In late April, the Kentucky poet-scholar-farmer drew a crowd of thousands; threadbare attendees mingled with policy makers, lobbyists and think-tankers. In the chamber that usually hosts the National Symphony Orchestra, Berry wove stories of his family together with themes of his life’s work—commitment to place, affection for the earth, an economy based on relationship and a suspicion of unfettered capitalism. Berry titled his lecture, “It All Turns on Affection,” a line drawn from E.M. Forster’s Howards End. He described the climatic confrontation between Forster’s heroine Margaret and her businessman husband, where she resisted his “hardness of mind and heart that is ‘realistic’ only because it is expedient and because it subtracts from reality the life of imagination and affection, of living souls.”
Berry translated Margaret’s commitment to affection over expediency to the economy. Economic decisions are not about just being "realistic" and "practical"— they should be decisions based on values deeper than dollar signs. “We should, as our culture has warned us over and over again, give our affection to things that are true, just, and beautiful,” Berry said. “When we give affection to things that are destructive, we are wrong.” He questions economists who would do “permanent ecological and cultural damage to ‘strengthen the economy.’” Berry thinks neither political party is equipped to address the “losses and damages of our present economy”—the problems are bigger than Washington.
But Andy’s happiness, no matter how exactly written (or perhaps because of this) doesn’t translate off the page any better than Berry’s Thoreau-like musings on the importance of nature, of isolation, of hard work. The text itself, ironically, lacks the merest shred of the freedom that Berry and his characters speak so wistfully of: there’s so little room for interpretation that you’ll have to read paragraphs over and over again to follow their precise (and yet so slight) plotting. To be clear, this is due in part to Berry’s three-part approach, which forgoes a straightforward narrative for a series of musings that center around Andy and the loose concept of freedom but do not always tie together in doing so. Quite frankly, it’s a bit of an unrewarding slog, and I think it coasts a bit on the broadness and good-will (among environmentalists, at least) of its title.
At last I'm reading Wendell Berry for myself, beginning with his collection of essays from the early 90s: Sex, Economy, Freedom & Community. Why did it take me so long?! Berry is dynamite! He constructs sentences that make we want to stand up and cheer. He's often described as an agrarian, but that doesn't do justice to the breadth of his concerns. This collection is worth getting just for the sarcasm-laden Preface "The Joy of Sales Resistance".
"My name is Wendell Berry. I live beside the Kentucky River in Henry County, Kentucky. My connection to mountaintop removal mining is this river, and I know that surface mining in the mountains of Kentucky damages the river. I'm glad to stand with my friends and heroes from eastern Kentucky — Teri Blanton, Mickey McCoy, and others — in defense of the mountains and in defense of this river."
The truth is I had assigned Berry to my own imagined niche for him as an “agrarian fundamentalist,” using his Kentucky farm as a pulpit from which he could deliver jeremiads about our industrial agricultural system, and what it has done to farmers, food and the environment. He was also too nostalgic, I thought, like a literary John Sloane. And I was at least partly correct in my assignment of this niche: the article that led me to his Jefferson lecture was written by Mark Bittman, the New York Times’ “food columnist.” It had a simple title – “Wendell Berry, American Hero,” but the “new” Berry I found inside wasn’t just writing about agriculture and food. Berry’s lecture, whose preparation had “‘taxed him greatly,’” was about “the costs of capitalism’s abuse of humans and land.” Hmmm…I thought, you don’t hear many people inside the Beltway talk about capitalism “abusing humans,” not even progressive Democrats. Wall Street bankers yes, certainly, they have surely and systematically abused us, but only recently; the whole economic system? No. Bittman then further quoted him saying that “‘the two great aims of industrialism – replacement of people by technology and concentration of wealth into the hands of a small plutocracy – seem close to fulfillment.’” Reading that, I was off to the speech itself, and six of the essays from What Matters, so I could get a better feel of how things have evolved in Berry’s mind.