I recently watched a documentary on Netflix called, “Look & See: A Portrait of Wendell Berry” (2017), from executive producers Robert Redford and Terence Malick. Wendell Berry is a Kentucky farmer, conservationist, poet, novelist, and essayist, renowned for pioneering the new agrarian movement, which he defines below in The Land Magazine:
There is another way to live and think and it’s called agrarianism. It is not so much a philosophy as a practice, an attitude, a loyalty, and a passion – all based in close connection with the land. It results in a sound local economy in which producers and consumers are neighbors and in which nature herself becomes the standard for work and production.
David Skinner wrote this about the man in 2012 when he won the National Endowment for the Humanities’ Jefferson Prize:
For many of us, daily life is not an exercise in conviction. Our actions part ways from our ideals. In moments of weakness, we yield, like tall grass in a strong wind, to forces beyond our control. What others say, we accept. What happens to be on sale, we buy. What we actually think and believe is less a factor in how we live.
At seventy-seven years old, Wendell Berry continues as a great contrary example to the compromises others take in stride. Instead of being at odds with his conscience, he is at odds with his times. Cheerful in dissent, he writes to document and defend what is being lost to the forces of modernization, and to explain how he lives and what he thinks.
He is the sum of his beliefs. And those beliefs arise from a longstanding tradition most fully expressed in the American family farm, a self-sustaining economic enterprise that reinforced familial bonds and human obligations to the natural environment. The word husbandry, in his usage, combines the commitments of a spouse with the responsibilities of the farmer to his land and his animals. And what care the farmer bestows on the land and his livestock may even be reciprocated in due time.
Berry is more than a naturalist. He personifies an American school of thought that was notable, but also contested, in the founding generation. In the debate that set Thomas Jefferson against Alexander Hamilton—and rural farms against cities, and agriculture against banking interests—Berry stands with Jefferson. He stands for local culture and the small family farmer, for yeoman virtues and an economic and political order that is modest enough for its actions and rationales to be discernible. Government, he believes, should take its sense of reality from the ground beneath our feet and from our connections with our fellow human beings. And it should have a better sense of proportion: Its solutions should be equal to its problems and should not beget other problems.
Listen to NPR’s interview the creator of the documentary, Laura Dunn, “The Gospel According to Wendell Berry.” The cinematically appealing trailer to the film has a voice-over with Berry reading his poem, “The Timbered Choir” (see the text below).
The Timbered Choir
Even while I dreamed I prayed that what I saw was only fear and no foretelling,
for I saw the last known landscape destroyed for the sake
of the objective, the soil bludgeoned, the rock blasted.
Those who had wanted to go home would never get there now.
I visited the offices where for the sake of the objective the planners planned
at blank desks set in rows. I visited the loud factories
where the machines were made that would drive ever forward
toward the objective. I saw the forest reduced to stumps and gullies; I saw
the poisoned river, the mountain cast into the valley;
I came to the city that nobody recognized because it looked like every other city.
I saw the passages worn by the unnumbered
footfalls of those whose eyes were fixed upon the objective.
Their passing had obliterated the graves and the monuments
of those who had died in pursuit of the objective
and who had long ago forever been forgotten, according
to the inevitable rule that those who have forgotten forget
that they have forgotten. Men, women, and children now pursued the objective
as if nobody ever had pursued it before.
The races and the sexes now intermingled perfectly in pursuit of the objective.
the once-enslaved, the once-oppressed were now free
to sell themselves to the highest bidder
and to enter the best paying prisons
in pursuit of the objective, which was the destruction of all enemies,
which was the destruction of all obstacles, which was the destruction of all objects,
which was to clear the way to victory, which was to clear the way to promotion, to salvation, to progress,
to the completed sale, to the signature
on the contract, which was to clear the way
to self-realization, to self-creation, from which nobody who ever wanted to go home
would ever get there now, for every remembered place
had been displaced; the signposts had been bent to the ground and covered over.
Every place had been displaced, every love
unloved, every vow unsworn, every word unmeant
to make way for the passage of the crowd
of the individuated, the autonomous, the self-actuated, the homeless
with their many eyes opened toward the objective
which they did not yet perceive in the far distance,
having never known where they were going,
having never known where they came from.
- Ragan Sutterfield, Wendell Berry and the Given Life
- Mark T. Mitchell and Nathan Schlueter (editors), The Human Vision of Wendell Berry
- J. Matthew Bonzo and Michael R. Stevens, Wendell Berry and the Cultivation of Life: A Reader’s Guide
- Joel James Shuman and L. Roger Owens (editors), Wendell Berry and Religion: Heaven’s Earthly Life
- Joseph R. Wiebe, The Place of Imagination: Wendell Berry and the Poetics of Community, Affection, and Identity