Wendell Berry: What we need is here

For many, Wendell Berry is an American hero, a modern day Thoreau who is poet, novelist, academic, essayist, cultural and economic critic, activist and farmer all in one.  Last week he gave the Jefferson Lecture 2012, an honour awarded annually by the National Endowment for the Humanities, a federal government agency.

Berry views can be difficult to locate on the European spectrum.  As a political activist he has taken taken part in protests against the Vietnam War, nuclear power and a range of other environmental issues, and has written critiques inter alia of George Bush’s post-9/11 policies, the death penalty, and a range of issues affecting small farmers.  The ideas that permeate his essays, novels and poetry focus on the failings of the global economic system that result in environmental destruction, greed, violence and injustice, and the need for sustainable agriculture and appropriate technologies that allow for greater connection to place, respect the nature, and recognise the interconnectedness of life.

Such ideas would tend to place Berry on the left in European politics, but there is a thread of American conservatism, too, in his thinking, extolling the virtues of the small farmer,  frugality, reverence, and limited government. He once wrote:

I wish to testify that in my best moments I am not aware of the existence of the government. Though I respect and feel myself dignified by the principles of the Declaration and the Constitution, I do not remember a day when the thought of the government made me happy, and I never think of it without the wish that it might become wiser and truer and smaller than it is.

These principles are expressed most succinctly in his poem ‘Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front':

Love the quick profit, the annual raise,
vacation with pay. Want more 
of everything ready-made. Be afraid 
to know your neighbours and to die.

And you will have a window in your head. 
Not even your future will be a mystery 
any more. Your mind will be punched in a card 
and shut away in a little drawer. 

When they want you to buy something 
they will call you. When they want you 
to die for profit they will let you know. 
So, friends, every day do something 
that won’t compute. Love the Lord. 
Love the world. Work for nothing. 
Take all that you have and be poor. 
Love someone who does not deserve it. 

Denounce the government and embrace 
the flag. Hope to live in that free 
republic for which it stands. 
Give your approval to all you cannot
understand. Praise ignorance, for what man 
has not encountered he has not destroyed. 

Ask the questions that have no answers. 
Invest in the millennium. Plant sequoias. 
Say that your main crop is the forest 
that you did not plant, 
that you will not live to harvest. 

Say that the leaves are harvested 
when they have rotted into the mold.
Call that profit. Prophesy such returns. 
Put your faith in the two inches of humus 
that will build under the trees 
every thousand years. 

Listen to carrion — put your ear 
close, and hear the faint chattering 
of the songs that are to come. 
Expect the end of the world. Laugh. 
Laughter is immeasurable. Be joyful 
though you have considered all the facts. 
So long as women do not go cheap 
for power, please women more than men. 

Ask yourself: Will this satisfy 
a woman satisfied to bear a child? 
Will this disturb the sleep 
of a woman near to giving birth? 

Go with your love to the fields. 
Lie down in the shade. Rest your head 
in her lap. Swear allegiance 
to what is nighest your thoughts. 

As soon as the generals and the politicos 
can predict the motions of your mind, 
lose it. Leave it as a sign 
to mark the false trail, the way 
you didn’t go. 

Be like the fox 
who makes more tracks than necessary, 
some in the wrong direction. 
Practice resurrection.

Berry’s Jefferson Lecture, delivered last week, directly addressed the current crisis in the global economy and growing political unrest and disillusionment (see Paul Mason’s most recent blog post for a flavour of how critical is the state of things in Europe).  Berry approached his topic from the perspective of his own family, which has farmed the same stretch of land for generations, emphasizing the deterioration of ecosystems across the globe as giant corporations force small farmers off the land and denude and poison the soil. Titling his lecture, ‘It All Turns On Affection’, he took his inspiration from E.M. Forster’s Howard’s End,choosing for his epigraph this quotation from the novel:

“Because a thing is going strong now, it need not go strong for ever,” [Margaret] said. “This craze for motion has only set in during the last hundred years. It may be followed by a civilization that won’t be a movement, because it will rest upon the earth.

He began with his grandfather, a tobacco farmer reduced to poverty by a monopoly, the American Tobacco Company, which had eliminated all competitors and thus was able to reduce as it pleased the prices it paid to farmers.  He continued:

The American Tobacco Company was the work of James B. Duke of Durham, North Carolina, and New York City, who, disregarding any other consideration, followed a capitalist logic to absolute control of his industry and, incidentally, of the economic fate of thousands of families such as my own.

Duke, Berry argues, was a Boomer, one of those ‘who pillage and run’, who are motivated by greed, the desire for money, property, and power. But there’s another kind of American, the Sticker motivated by affection, by such love for a place and its life that they want to preserve it and remain in it. Berry’s grandfather was a sticker.

My grandfather lived his life in an economic shadow. In an urbanizing and industrializing age, he was the wrong kind of man. In one of his difficult years he plowed a field on the lower part of a long slope and planted it in corn. While the soil was exposed, a heavy rain fell and the field was seriously eroded. This was heartbreak for my grandfather, and he devoted the rest of his life, first to healing the scars and then to his obligation of care. In keeping with the sticker’s commitment, he neither left behind the damage he had done nor forgot about it, but stayed to repair it, insofar as soil loss can be repaired.

Corporations like the American Tobacco Company, asserts Berry,

Don’t imagine farms or farmers. They imagine perhaps nothing at all, their minds being filled to capacity by numbers leading to the bottom line. … The selfishness of the fossil fuel industries by nature is self-annihilating; but so, always, has been the selfishness of the agribusiness corporations.

The thought of small growers like his grandfather probably never crossed James B. Duke’s mind, states Berry:  ‘The Duke trust exerted an oppression that was purely economic, involving a mechanical indifference, the indifference of a grinder to what it grinds’. Berry arrives at the core of his argument with this powerfully stated passage:

Now 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. At the same time the failures of industrialism have become too great and too dangerous to deny. Corporate industrialism itself has exposed the falsehood that it ever was inevitable or that it ever has given precedence to the common good. It has failed to sustain the health and stability of human society. Among its characteristic signs are destroyed communities, neighbourhoods, families, small businesses, and small farms. It has failed just as conspicuously and more dangerously to conserve the wealth and health of nature. No amount of fiddling with capitalism to regulate and humanize it, no pointless rhetoric on the virtues of capitalism or socialism, no billions or trillions spent on “defense” of the “American dream,” can for long disguise this failure. The evidences of it are everywhere: eroded, wasted, or degraded soils; damaged or destroyed ecosystems; extinction of species; whole landscapes defaced, gouged, flooded, or blown up; pollution of the whole atmosphere and of the water cycle; “dead zones” in the coastal waters; thoughtless squandering of fossil fuels and fossil waters, of mineable minerals and ores; natural health and beauty replaced by a heartless and sickening ugliness. Perhaps its greatest success is an astounding increase in the destructiveness, and therefore the profitability, of war.

Berry continued:

When people succeed in profiting on a large scale, they succeed for themselves. When they fail, they fail for many others, sometimes for us all.

So, how can this state of affairs be reversed?  Berry sees the antidote in affection – connection to place:

The losses and damages characteristic of our present economy cannot be stopped, let alone restored, by “liberal” or “conservative” tweakings of corporate industrialism, against which the ancient imperatives of good care, homemaking, and frugality can have no standing. The possibility of authentic correction comes, I think, from two already-evident causes. The first is scarcity and other serious problems arising from industrial abuses of the land-community. The goods of nature so far have been taken for granted and, especially in America, assumed to be limitless, but their diminishment, sooner or later unignorable, will enforce change.

A positive cause, still little noticed by high officials and the media, is the by now well-established effort to build or rebuild local economies, starting with economies of food. This effort to connect cities with their surrounding rural landscapes has the advantage of being both attractive and necessary. It rests exactly upon the recognition of human limits and the necessity of human scale. Its purpose, to the extent possible, is to bring producers and consumers, causes and effects, back within the bounds of neighbourhood, which is to say the effective reach of imagination, sympathy, affection, and all else that neighbourhood implies. An economy genuinely local and neighbourly offers to localities a measure of security that they cannot derive from a national or a global economy controlled by people who, by principle, have no local commitment.

In setting out his idea of affection, Berry draws on E. M. Forster’s Howards End, published in 1910. By then, Berry argues, Forster was aware of the implications of rural decay, and wrote the novel as an anguished cry against materialism:

It is the vice of a vulgar mind to be thrilled by bigness, to think that a thousand square miles are a thousand times more wonderful than one square mile . . . That is not imagination. No, it kills it. . . . Your universities? Oh, yes, you have learned men who collect . . . facts, and facts, and empires of facts. But which of them will rekindle the light within?

‘The light within’, in Berry’s reading of the novel, means affection for place and community. He concludes:

Under the rule of industrial economics, the land, our country, has been pillaged for the enrichment, supposedly, of those humans who have claimed the right to own or exploit it without limit. Of the land-community much has been consumed, much has been wasted, almost nothing has flourished.  But this has not been inevitable. We do not have to live as if we are alone.

Berry received a standing ovation for his lecture, but his ideas are undoubtedly far too radical for an American government agency: the NEH chair rose immediately to say that Berry’s words in no way represented the official policy of the US government.

Wendell Berry’s Mad Farmer: a prophetic voice

For those familiar with Wendell Berry’s work, these are not new ideas.  He has been expressing such thoughts in poetry for a good long time.  The concept of affection can be found, for example, in ‘What We Need Is Here':

Geese appear high over us,
pass, and the sky closes. Abandon,
as in love or sleep, holds
them to their way, clear
in the ancient faith: what we need
is here. And we pray, not
for new earth or heaven, but to be
quiet in heart, and in eye,
clear. What we need is here.

 Or, in ‘The Peace of Wild Things':

When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound

in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,

I go and lie down where the wood drake

rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.

I come into the peace of wild things

who do not tax their lives with forethought

of grief. I come into the presence of still water.

And I feel above me the day-blind stars

waiting with their light. For a time

I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.

His most recent collection, Sabbaths, includes this:

III. (Santa Clara Valley)

I walked the deserted prospect of the modern mind
where nothing lived or happened that had not been foreseen.
What had been foreseen was the coming of the Stranger with Money.
All that had been before had been destroyed: the salt marsh
of unremembered time, the remembered homestead, orchard and pasture.
A new earth had appeared in place of the old, made entirely
according to plan. New palm trees stood all in a row, new pines
all in a row, confined in cement to keep them from straying.

New buildings, built to seal and preserve the inside
against the outside, stood in the blatant outline of their purpose
in the renounced light and air. Inside them
were sealed cool people, the foreseen ones, who did not look
or go in any way that they did not intend,
waited upon by other people, trained in servility, who begged
of the ones who had been foreseen: ‘Is everything
all right, sir? Have you enjoyed your dinner, sir?
Have a nice evening, sir.’ Here was no remembering
of hands coming newly to the immortal work
of hands, joining stone to stone, door to doorpost, man to woman.

Outside, what had been foreseen was roaring in the air.
Roads and buildings roared in their places
on the scraped and chartered earth; the sky roared
with the passage of those who had been foreseen
toward destinations they foresaw, unhindered by any place between.
The highest good of that place was the control of temperature
and light. The next highest was to touch or know or say
no fundamental or necessary thing. The next highest
was to see no thing that had not been foreseen,
to spare no comely thing that had grown comely on its own.
Some small human understanding seemed to have arrayed itself
there without limit, and to have cast its grid upon the sky,
the stars, the rising and the setting sun.
I could not see past it but to its ruin.

I walked alone in that desert of unremitting purpose,
feeling the despair of one who could no longer remember
another valley where bodies and events took place and form
not always foreseen by human, and the humans themselves followed
ways not altogether in the light, where all the land had not yet
been consumed by intention, or the people by their understanding,
where still there was forgiveness in time, so that whatever
had been destroyed might yet return. Around me
as I walked were dogs barking in resentment
against the coming of the unforeseen.

And yet even there I was not beyond reminding,
for I came upon a ditch where the old sea march,
native to that place, had been confined below the sight
of the only-foreseeing eye. What had been the overworld
had become the underworld: the land risen from the sea
by no human intention, the drawing in and out of the water,
the pulse of the great sea itself confined in a narrow ditch.

Where the Sabbath of that place kept itself in waiting,
the herons of the night stood in their morning watch,
and the herons of the day in silence stood
by the living water in its strait. The coots and gallinules
skulked in the reeds, the mother mallards and their little ones
afloat on the seaward-sliding water to no purpose I had foreseen.
The stilts were feeding in the shallows, and the killdeer
treading with light feet the mud that was all ashine
with the coming day. Volleys of swallows leapt
in joyous flight out of the dark into the brightening air
in eternal gratitude for life before time not foreseen,
and the song of the song sparrow rang in its bush.

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12 thoughts on “Wendell Berry: What we need is here

  1. Great post Gerry! I’ve been a long time fan of Berry, discovered him when I was in the States. I’ve tweeted that it is a good blog post for Climate Impacts Day #connectthedots

  2. Cheers, Fred. Regarding Climate Impact Day I like this comment by Bill McKibben: “We just celebrated Earth Day. May 5 is more like Broken Earth Day, a worldwide witness to the destruction global warming is already causing.

  3. You did enjoy(?) the Berry post! Great essay, I will circulate this, in fact, unless I have missed it, I will inform The Guardian of this as so far I have not seen any evidence of a report of Berry’s lecture, amazing for a newspaper with its outlook, reportage quality and with a huge environmental section.
    As for Berry, well who is listening? There are no votes in this, the system is far too corrupt, too obligated to itself and selfishness, so its up to us I guess. Where’s a MLK when you need one?

    • Sorry, Les – I meant to thank you in the post for alerting me to Berry’s lecture. Thanks for circulating. Cheers, Gerry

      • No need for apologies, I’m just happy you picked up on it and did such a great job, have tweeted and e mailed George Monbiot re Berry too, not too much coverage in the USA either, but then as always a prophet is never recognised in his/her own country.

    • Seems to me that you, and Gerry, and my friend Wendy ARE the MLK. Slowly, I’ve been seeing (and passing along) fragments of Berry’s essays and poetry to all sorts of new places. It’s a slow awakening–for me, too, but many of us are listening. Wendy sent me the following Berry poem recently, and I can’t get it out of my head:

      The Real Work

      It may be that when we no longer know what to do
      we have come to our real work,

      and that when we no longer know which way to go
      we have come to our real journey.

      The mind that is not baffled is not employed.

      The impeded stream is the one that sings.

      — Wendell Berry

  4. Great post, great comments – like ‘Broken Earth Day’ (although like is not quite the right term). By the way thanks for looking at my blog and the follow etc! I have been following you since I started my blog- everything you write is interesting.

  5. Alistair McIntosh? he of ‘Soil and Soul’, yes I imagine he would agree with Berry on much that he has to say, he rid a Scottish Island of its ‘Laird’, and with the help of a Native American Chief….almost ironic that 100 years or so after the removal of all but a few of that race of people, a Chief should assist in ridding a ‘landowner’ from his. What goes around I guess and for anyone who missed it, last year Obama came to a settlement v. Cobell to the tune of approximately 3 billion dollars, as the US Government were being sued by the Indian Nation for loss of money owed that was promised a zillion years ago (but obstructed by plenty of government officials) as restitution for occupation of their lands and mineral rights never paid out. Mrs Cobell, extraordinary woman, took on the government and won….then sadly passed away this year. There is a website dedicated to her life and a film hopefully nearing completion about her brave undertaking.

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