Baker and Bilbro are not naive about the herculean nature of their task. For instance, in his 2004 novel, Hannah Coulter, a story about an older farming widow who reflects on the changes in her community since the 1930s (the authors use Berry’s novels throughout to frame their critique of and proposals for higher education), Hannah laments the affects of universities on her children. “After each one of our children went away to the university,” she recalls, “there always came a time when we would feel the distance opening to them, pulling them away. It was like sitting snug in the house, and a door is opened somewhere, and suddenly you feel a draft” (2). In other words, universities and colleges thrive on Americans’ ambition for getting ahead and for social mobility. These institutions do not educate students in a manner that encourages them to appreciate families and home or that rewards them for returning to the communities that shaped them. Rather, American higher education becomes a vehicle for escaping the constraints of local life and for acquiring skills that will reward students with a “better” way of life—one with greater wealth and convenience, and that is less limited by the demands of work that is necessary (production of food, maintenance of land and structures, elimination of waste). The tension between agrarianism and the ideals of contemporary higher education are downright enormous. At one point, Baker and Bilbro concede that the modern university may be beyond “hope of recovery” (17).
The Wendell Berry Farming Program is up and running again after a two-year hiatus, precipitated by the unexpected closing in 2016 of St. Catharine College in Springfield, where the program was based. This time, however, the program’s home will stay in Henry County, even if it’s new collegiate partner is at Sterling College in Vermont.
“My mother (Tanya Berry) always said the Berry Farming program should be in Henry County,” said Mary Berry, the director of the Berry Center in New Castle, which is devoted to her father Wendell’s agricultural and literary legacy, and oversees the farming program. “I agreed but I didn’t want to start a school myself. My mother always turns out to be right.”
After St. Catharine’s closed, Mary Berry looked at schools all around the country where the farming program could be housed. Then she was contacted by Sterling College President Matthew Derr.
Sterling College is a small school in Craftsury Common, Vt., that describes itself as an environmental college dedicated to stewardship and sustainability. Majors include ecology, environmental humanities and sustainable agriculture. Derr pitched the idea of a partnership in which a college already teaching many of the principles of Wendell Berry could work in his backyard.
Sterling is also, like Berea College and Alice Lloyd College in Kentucky, one of eight federally recognized work colleges, which emphasize work and service as part of their education.
Read all of "‘A guiding light.’ Why Vermont students are farming in Wendell Berry’s backyard" by Linda Blackford at The Lexington Herald-Leader.
Agrarianism is the theme he returns to with great regularity and is also the subject of his best-known book, the 1977 classic The Unsettling of America, a compressed version of which is included in this collection. A good part of Berry’s career has involved excoriating mechanized, chemicalized mega-farming as a brutal, life-threatening assault that kills the soil and sends it down the river, guts farming communities, renders moot our relationship to animals and sky and other people, and widens a dualism between us and the earth that is ruining our health, our minds, our ability to live satisfying lives, and the American (and global) culture.
These works are mostly about small-town America, and mostly set on Berry’s farm at Lane’s Landing, once a riverboat stop on the Kentucky River near Port Royal, Kentucky. But not one word stoops to smug nostalgia. He is instead trying to prove that science and economics happen in a place: he draws endlessly and non-repetitively on the deep well of the lived truth of farm life, which delivers up sweet, clear lines of poetry and local lore and a kind of immediate authenticity.
That authority is the reason we read Wendell Berry. When he tells us precisely what ails us as a nation, that a “Faustian economics” of “corporate fundamentalism” fuels a “world-ending fire” of limitless consumerism that is our ruin, we believe him. We want to scream it from the rooftops. But he goes a step further. He doesn’t leave the question begged, but answers it:
Small solutions, unrelentingly practical, that will be made by individuals in relation to small parcels of land.
Read all of "How to Fight the Fire" by Dean Kuipers at Los Angeles Review of Books.