Wendell Berry and the Love of Wisdom

Here’s Wendell Berry:

I go among trees and sit still.
All my stirring becomes quiet
around me like circles on water.
My tasks lie in their places
Where I left them, asleep like cattle.

Then what is afraid of me comes
and lives awhile in my sight.
What it fears in me leaves me,
and the fear of me leaves it.
It sings, and I hear its song.

Then what I am afraid of comes.
I live for a while in its sight.
What I fear in it leaves it,
and the fear of it leaves me.
It sings and I hear its song.

After days of labor,
mute in my consternations,
I hear my song at last,
and I sing it. As we sing,
the day turns, the trees move.

This is the first, untitled, poem in a volume of Berry’s poetry called A Timbered Choir.

I don’t have many poetry books: one each of a Kenneth Rexroth, a Gary Snyder, the widely ignored poetry of Loren Eiseley. But I have two of Berry’s, the other being Farming: A Handbook.

wendellberryThe other day I pulled A Timbered Choir off the shelf in my overcrowded den looking for some other book and left it out. I hadn’t looked at it for years, but I later idly opened it and read that first poem again. It reached out and connected with me. It reminded me of how remarkable Wendell Berry is.

Although a Christian, he’s also open to other traditions, and that poem made me unsurprised to learn that he participated in preparing one of Zen master Robert Aitken’s books for publication.

But beyond that openness, Berry is also a novelist, essayist, and cultural commentator, especially on agriculture, the economy and the role of the citizen.

A Kentucky farmer, and in his 70s now, he has lived and worked on the same land for over 40 years. The families of both his parents have farmed in that same part of the state for five generations. Concerned about the state of the land and water that sustains his family and his neighbours, he has often written in protest against the destruction caused in Kentucky and Appalachia by the coal-mining industry.

The Unsettling of America

From that sure-footed location on the land he cares for, his writing spiralled outward into the larger world. Perhaps the moment when his thought first came to wider attention was back in 1977 when his book The Unsettling of America: Culture and Agriculture was published by Sierra Club Books. It has now gone through several editions. Central to what he says is the importance of the land, and our culture’s disconnection from it.

“The modern urban-industrialized society is based on a series of radical disconnections between body and soul, husband and wife, marriage and community, community and the earth. At each of these points of disconnection the collaboration of corporation, government, and expert sets up a profit-making enterprise that results in the further dismemberment and impoverishment of the Creation.”

He believes small-scale farming, the family farm, is essential to healthy local economies, and that strong local economies are essential to the survival of the species and the well-being of the planet.

Max&HorsesNow, I’m not much of a farmer, although I have tended a vegetable garden or two, but one of my brothers lived the connected life on the land Berry talks about, even to the extent of cultivating the land with a team of horses. We both understand the distortions and disruptions of agri-business and the culture that supports its industrialization of the soil, and the damage that inevitably results.

In British Columbia, for instance, the provincial government, with its big business ties, is forcing rural small producers, who used to provide their neighbours with butchered hogs or chickens, to have that work done at some far-off regional abattoirs under expensive and stringent new regulations. The ostensible reason is an excuse about correct sanitation, but without any examples of real problems.  These small farms have been providing this service for generations.  This is a common ploy to marginalize and finally erase the economic viability of the small family farm.

In a way, Berry follows in the tradition of Henry David Thoreau, pursuing a simplification of life in opposition to the wider society, striving to say, and live, something more true.

What I know of spirit is astir
in the world. The god I have always expected
to appear at the woods’ edge, beckoning,
I have always expected to be
a great relisher of the world, its good
grown immortal in his mind.

(From The Satisfactions of the Mad Farmer in Farming: A Hand Book.)

Many years ago, in New York City, I was fortunate enough to be on hand at a couple of conferences where Berry attended and spoke on these matters. His voice is unassuming, with a slight Kentuckian drawl, until the passion creeps in. (You can hear his voice in this interview on National Public Radio from 1998.)

He has written many collections of essays over the years. For a fairly recent example of the pointed nature of what he has to say, read Compromise, Hell! in the November/December 2004 issue of Orion Magazine. (One comes to understand Berry’s appreciation of Edward Abbey, author of Desert Solitaire and the great The Monkey Wrench Gang .)

If the Land Doesn’t Prosper…

In that essay, he says: “Sooner or later, governments will have to recognize that if the land does not prosper, nothing else can prosper for very long. We can have no industry or trade or wealth or security if we don’t uphold the health of the land and the people and the people’s work.”

I thought, when I picked up Berry’s book of poems again the other day, too bad that he has never made more of an impact in the halls of power, and that the issues of which he eloquently speaks are never debated on CNN.

So I was surprised at the synchronicity of Berry’s latest essay appearing in the May 2008 issue of Harper’s Magazine, entitled Faustian Economics. Its appearance has led to renewed interest in what Berry has to say in these times of incipient food and fuel shortages, especially by those of tender years previously unaware of Berry’s existence .

“We have founded our present society upon delusional assumptions of limitlessness…,” Berry writes. He notes that at a recent “summit” attended by energy industry and government officials entitled “Unbridled Energy: The Industralization of Kentucky’s Energy Resources,” the subjects were clean-coal generation, biofuels and other “cutting edge” applications such as the conversion of coal to liquid fuels and how this can be all “environmentally friendly.”

“These hopes,” he writes, “which ‘can create jobs and boost the nation’s security,’ are to be supported by government ‘loan guarantees… investment tax credits and other tax breaks.’ Such talk we recognize as completely conventional. It is, in fact, a tissue of clichés that is now the common tongue of promoters, politicians and journalists.”

“… Once greed has been made an honorable motive, then you have an economy without limits. It has no place for temperance or thrift or the ecological law of return. It will do anything. It is monstrous by definition.”

I was pleased to find doing some research for this that Berry’s thought has become more influential in other parts as well.

For example, his notion of “solving for pattern,” creating solutions that solve multiple problems while not creating new ones, has been taken up by many in the design community.

He has also promoted his own idea of “economic secession,” which means fostering economic democracy:

“For example, as much as possible of the food that is consumed locally ought to be locally produced on small farms, and then processed in small, non-polluting plants that are locally owned. We must do everything possible to provide to ordinary citizens the opportunity to own a small, usable share of the country. …I acknowledge that to advocate such reforms is to advocate a kind of secession – not a secession of armed violence but a quiet secession by which people find the practical means and the strength of spirit to remove themselves from an economy that is exploiting them and destroying their homeland.”

But in the end, it’s Berry the poet who compels my agreement:

CanadaGeese LindseyBrownWhat 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.



Note on images:

The photo of Wendell Berry comes from http://www.cumberlandbooks.com/wendellberry.php

The photo of the man horse farming is from http://www.backbonefarm.com/aboutfarm.html

The goose photo is by Lindsey Brown at http://www.angelfire.com/ny3/LarsHansen/avia.html

Explore posts in the same categories: Art, Awareness, Culture, Environment, Heroes

6 Comments on “Wendell Berry and the Love of Wisdom”

  1. forestrat Says:

    Lots of good stuff here. I’ll have to come back and sift through it when I have more time.

    I had not heard of Berry. I just picked up Desert Solitaire the other day on the advice of lookingforbeauty and haven’t read more than the first chapter yet.



  2. fencer Says:

    Hi forestrat,

    I found Desert Solitaire a little hard to get into, myself. I can heartily recommend the novel The Monkey Wrench Gang though… between the lines it gives you Abbey’s take on things.


  3. qazse Says:

    fencer, wonderful post. Berry is a beautiful poet and thinker. Typically his voice is drowned out by the machinery of big agribusiness and their reassurances that science will solve our earthly woes. Sadly, most Americans will never hear his name, no less his voice. One of the reasons I like Vermont is the quilt of local sustainable economies.


  4. fencer Says:

    Hi qazse,

    Berry has always seemed like a voice of sanity patiently trying to make himself heard in the asylum.


  5. forestrat Says:


    I finished Desert Solitaire the other day. Overall I liked it. Although I have never been to Arches Park, I’ve spent some time in the desert Southwest and the Badlands area up north so I could get into his descriptions of the reflective solitude of the environment.

    He did lose me a little bit when he started in on things like using the wilderness as a base for guerilla warfare. I was also disappointed that he seemed to have such feeling for protecting the natural environment, but on the other hand he rolled a tire into the Grand Canyon, started a brush fire, carved his name into a tree, and carved his name into a rock formation.

    I’ll see about getting the Monkey Wrench Gang.


  6. fencer Says:

    Hi forestrat,

    You may find that guerrilla warfare inclination much stronger in The Monkey Wrench Gang… Abbey had a strong anti-authoritarian streak. An anarchist and free spirit…

    Also a man of obvious contradictions with rolling a tire into the Grand Canyon, etc. Except that must have been such a hoot! I can visualize it taking one big bounce before descending out of sight. But then, you wouldn’t want every tourist coming by to do the same, it’s true…


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