wendell berry, and learning from the incomprehensible
In rural Kentucky, there lives a man who would upend all of our thoughts and all of our assumptions. He is one of the last of his kind, a stalwart representative of that ever-diminishing population of small family farms. He is the steward of a piece of land that has been in his family for five generations. He is of the soil, serving as a bridge to another time, to a past time when limits were wisdom and rootedness was fact. He also happens to be one of the great writers of our time, his work ranging widely across poetry, essay, short story, and novel. His novels concern the people who are often left behind, and they are centered on a rural town in Kentucky.
His essays possess a brightness of vision and a caustic clarity fused with a profound sensitivity to the frailty of human beings. He takes on factory farms and coal-mining companies, the defense industry and technological innovation. His work, fiction and nonfiction, is characterized by an abiding reverence for the mystery and sweetness of life. He is an avowed pacifist who sees wars as existing in lineages, each descended from a previous one. He has described himself as a “forest Christian,” one who sometimes takes to the woods on Sunday instead of church. His name is Wendell Berry, and he challenges us all.
Berry defies categorization. He refuses political labels, saying in one interview that politicians, regardless of party, are “the pets or juvenile dependents of industrial corporations.” He is a great lover of Edmund Burke, not because of Burke’s supposed conservatism but rather “for his steadfast affirmation of qualities I see as, in a high sense, human.” Berry’s activist stances emerge out of real, pressing needs. This is not T-shirt activism or social media activism. Berry has skin in the game. He lives the life he preaches with an authenticity most would think not possible. His main preoccupation is that of a farmer, cultivating the same land that his family has worked for over a century. While his oppositional stances are what have led him to attain his notoriety, the most valuable thing he contributes is a tone and method of engagement. His criticisms, harsh though they may be, are borne out of love. Love for his land, love for his people, love for his country, love for humanity. As he expressed it in “Economy and Pleasure,” one of his most famous essays, “Rats and roaches live by competition under the laws of supply and demand, it is the privilege of human beings to live under the laws of justice and mercy.” This gives a sense for the alternative that Berry offers. It is nothing less than attaining a vision of man that is commensurate to his capacity, not for economic achievement or industrial production but for the capacity of his heart to love and lend mercy to another. We have become impoverished in this regard, and much of Berry’s entire project can be seen as recovery of the proper vision of man.
Despite his small amount of notoriety—his list of accolades is long, if obscure—he is a man completely unconcerned with attaining power. As a result, he can give individuals the full measure of respect that they deserve. In an age of vicious discourse that has been accelerated by the comparative anonymity afforded to people by social media, Berry stands out for the humanity he offers his opponents, for his refusal to acquiesce to the seductive temptations of righteousness. In a long essay on culture war topics, Berry wrote this: “Oversimplified moral certainties—always requiring hostility, always potentially violent—insulate us from mercy, pity, peace, and love and leave us lonely and dangerous in our misery.” I don’t imagine there is a single better example of such an attitude being brought to these issues in the public sphere. Wendell Berry, as one commentator noted, “is a prophet without honor in his native land.”
He isn’t very well known, and he isn’t very respected. You would be hard-pressed to encounter him in a class on this campus, or any other. He extols the virtue of “stickers,” people who stay where they are and seek to cultivate goodness and virtue from the place of their roots. This is heresy in a globalized age, but it is inseparable from the broader sweep of his writings. And so he makes liberals uncomfortable and conservatives uncomfortable, not as a moderate, but as a man possessed of uncompromising vision and a relentless hope. We would all do well to learn from him. No, his ideas won’t be adopted. That would involve such radical measures as willfully imposing limits on ourselves and on our behavior, limits that would extend far beyond merely our capacity. As Berry wrote in The Long-Legged House, his provocative first collection of essays, “We have lived our lives by the assumption that what was good for us was good for the world. We have been wrong. We must change our lives so that it will be possible to live by the contrary assumption, that what is good for the world will be good for us. And that requires that we make the effort to know the world and learn what is good for it.”
This, of course, is complete gibberish in this age of disruption, but maybe that is exactly the point. When we need to listen to him most, he is at his most incomprehensible to us.