In 1977, Berry put out The Unsettling of America, which may be his most influential book. As an attack on large-scale agriculture, it is very much in keeping with the themes of his Jefferson Lecture. Yet it’s more than an anti-corporate screed. Berry also defends the virtues of the smallholder farm, not as a unit of efficient production but rather as an essential component of a thriving culture that values strong communities and ecological stewardship. “The healthy farm sustains itself in the same way that a healthy tree does,” he wrote, “by belonging where it is, by maintaining a proper relationship to the ground.” Russell Kirk — a longtime NATIONAL REVIEW contributor who, like Berry, fled the academy for a rural homestead — discovered the Kentuckian around this time. “Berry is possessed of an intellect at once philosophic and poetic, and he writes most movingly,” wrote Kirk in a 1978 newspaper column. “Humane culture has no better friend today than he.” Kirk was probably the first prominent conservative to detect an undercurrent of conservatism in Berry’s work: suspicion of progress, support for local autonomy, and a preference for the old ways of doing things.
Berry certainly doesn’t view himself as a conservative, and he seems both puzzled and amused that his work would find favor with conservatives. “Mostly I’m a Democrat,” he says. “I’m a child of the New Deal. My family have always been Democrats.” Berry says he voted for Barack Obama in 2008 and plans to vote for him again this November. He has met Obama once, when the president awarded him the National Humanities Medal two years ago. Michael Pollan, the liberal foodie activist, thinks the connection may go deeper, citing Obama’s criticism of mainstream agriculture and its dependence on cheap oil: “I have no idea if Barack Obama has ever read Wendell Berry, but Berry’s thinking had found its ways to his lips,” Pollan wrote in the introduction to Berry’s 2009 book, Bringing It to the Table.
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