As a writer Wendell Berry has, in his own words, chosen to belong to his farm, “not just as a circumstance, but as a part of the informing ambience of my mind and imagination” (Way of Ignorance 48). In each of his many public roles — as farmer, essayist, novelist, poet, and activist — he draws on his patiently and locally gained perceptions about the way the natural world functions, and the analogous ways in which humans should relate to the land and to each other.
Berry was born near Port Royal, Kentucky, and grew up on the land tended by his parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents (The Long-Legged House 170-71). He left his family farmland to go to the University of Kentucky and then, after marrying, studied writing as a Wallace Stegner Fellow at Stanford University with other young writers, including Ken Kesey and Ernest Gaines. After traveling to Europe and landing a job at New York University, Berry writes, his “hopes and plans […] turned […] back toward Kentucky” (The Long-Legged House 153). So in 1964 Wendell Berry left the cultural center of the East coast to farm a marginal Kentucky hillside and teach occasionally at the University of Kentucky. Since then he has remained faithful to his “marriage with the place,” providing a marginal and yet increasingly influential defense of local, sustainable communities against an economy that values global, mass consumption (The Long-Legged House 166).
From his farm Berry has written prolifically in three genres, grappling with diverse cultural, economic, political, moral, and religious issues. In his seminal book of essays, The Unsettling of America, he identifies two opposing American values: exploitation and nurture. While historically Americans more often relate to other people and the land in exploitative ways — robbing the Indians of their land and the land of its health — there have also been Americans who care for the order of the earth and its communities (6-8). Berry challenges readers to consider their ways of life and imagine how they might be able to nurture their exploited communities — the land and its human and non-human life — back to health. Politically, as Jason Peters notes, Berry “supports decentralization and the proliferation of as many small landholders as are possible” (8). His hope, however, lies not in political solutions: “Our environmental problems … are not, at root, political; they are cultural…. [O]ur country is not being destroyed by bad politics; it is being destroyed by a bad way of life” (What Are People For? 37).
Berry's belief in the need for a cultural shift generates and is reflected in poetry that imagines new ways of relating to the land and community. One group of poems is written in the voice of the “Mad Farmer” who articulates the life Berry embraces, a life counter to the consumerist, industrial political economy. As Berry's farmer commands in “Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front,”
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 [Collected Poems 151].
Perhaps the most searching and comprehensive expression of his stand against the hurry and noise of the profit economy is found in his long series of “Sabbath poems” in A Timbered Choir (1998), written on Sunday afternoon walks on his farm. In these poems he explores what it means to belong to and be at rest in a place, in his place:
I, through woods and fields, through fallen days Am passing to where I belong: At home, at ease, and well, In Sabbaths of this place Almost invisible, Toward which I go from song to song [A Timbered Choir 28].
His fiction, in eight novels and numerous short stories, provides another imagined instantiation of this nurturing culture. Port William, the fictional location in which his stories take place, offers Berry a chance to portray the way of life he knew as a boy, and which is now in decline. As Berry puts it, “I have made the imagined place of Port William, its neighborhood and membership, in an attempt to honor the actual place where I have lived” (Way of Ignorance 50). Set during World War II and the subsequent decades during which American farmland was largely depopulated, Berry's novels and stories vividly evoke a community that cares for the health of its land and all its members. While Berry's fiction can be seen as nostalgic, his characters embody values that he believes contemporary America desperately needs to regain, in order to sustain its land, communities, and citizens.
Berry turns to the past to find cultural values for the future because he sees an analogous pattern in the way fertile land makes the old new, turning the deaths of plants and animals into new life (A Continuous Harmony 150). As he states in his book of essays, Life Is a Miracle, positive change regarding our “use of the living world […] is imaginable only if we are willing to risk an unfashionable recourse to our cultural tradition. Human hope may always have resided in our ability, in time of need, to return to our cultural landmarks and reorient ourselves” (3). Kimberly Smith summarizes Berry's “stance toward tradition” as “conservative but critical”: “His goal, then, is to revive and renew the intellectual traditions he has inherited” (Wendell Berry and the Agrarian Tradition 6). And just as Berry works to rehabilitate the exploited and worn-out farm he has inherited, so he writes to nurture and reinvigorate the cultural traditions he has inherited.
While Berry expressed deep skepticism about the Christian church early in his life, his stance toward tradition has more recently led him to seek a revitalization of American religion. In a 2007 interview Berry articulates the way in which the Christian gospel has become increasingly important to his understanding of how to care for his place: “The gospels are exhilarating because … essentially the invitation that Christ was giving [is,] Do you want to live free, do you want to live in a great world that includes all the works of God, that includes all you can imagine and more, or do you want to live in some little capsule defined by politicians or scientists or philosophers or denominational bosses?” (231). Through living in this larger world, while faithfully caring for a particular part of it, Berry sustains the hope that humans can adequately care for their home — the land and all its inhabitants.
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