Wendell Berry is the author of fifty books of poetry, fiction, and essays. He was awarded the Cleanth Brooks Medal for Lifetime Achievement and the Louis Bromfield Society Award. For over forty years he has lived and farmed with his wife, Tanya, in Kentucky.
"The reasoned and insistent exhortations of a man with a cause who, rather than mellowing with age and wisdom, continues to grow in forcefulness and vision."
In the heady days following President Obama’s election, my friend who edits the monthly newsletter for the village where I lived asked me to write a brief book review. She had some space to fill. And I was so excited to have a president whom I could imagine reading a book that I chose to frame the review as a book recommendation for our new, literate leader. The book I chose was Home Economics, a book of fourteen essays by the farmer/poet Wendell Berry. It had been part of the curriculum from a favorite course I’d taken as an undergrad, Ecology & Literature, and I had dragged the book along with me through multiple moves, after it had been stored for some time in my mother’s basement, because it is one of those books I knew I’d go back to over and over, the writing succinct and sharp, measured and real, and the thoughtfulness and deep observation behind it reflecting the kind of company I like to keep. And I wanted our new president (and anyone reading the village’s newsletter) to read it because already I could sense that our food system was failing, and that some straight talk from a proper farmer was just what the man with the power to steer things and oppose Monsanto (as well as the consumers fed by that system) needed to hear.
So imagine my delight, two years later, when my husband showed me, while shopping at Home Green Home, that Mr. Berry had a new book of essays out, What Matters?: Economics for a Renewed Commonwealth (Counterpoint, Berkeley, 2010). Turns out some of the old essays are included, but they’re as relevant as ever, and the situation is more dire than ever, as our monopolistic, monocultural, industrial farming methods have only “advanced” in the past twenty years while his wisdom has gone unheeded.
And it’s not like his is a lone voice in the wilderness. He is heir to Aldo Leopold’s land ethic, developed in A Sand County Almanac (and featured in the highly recommended film Green Fire), colleague to Bill McKibben (Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet) and Barbara Kingsolver (Animal, Vegetable, Miracle) as activist/author imploring our government to see the rationality of preserving the living systems that sustain us, peer to poets like Gary Snyder and Robinson Jeffers, reiterating in myriad forms the fleeting expression of being a human not quite at home in nature.
He is a man capable of a poem like this:
The Want of Peace
All goes back to the earth,
and so I do not desire
pride of excess or power
but the contentments made
by men who have had little:
the fisherman’s silence
receiving the river’s grace,
the gardener’s musing on rows.
I lack the peace of simple things.
I am never wholly in place.
I find no peace or grace.
We sell the world to buy fire,
our way lighted by burning men,
and that has bent my mind
and made me think of darkness
and wish for the dumb life of roots.
Like Jeffers he sees the big picture, “watches the track of this age of time at its peak of flight / Waver like a spent rocket, wavering toward new discoveries, / Mortal examinations of darkness, soundings of depth;” so when he expounds, in the midst of the demise of the global economy, on what exactly has gone wrong and how we might fix it, I figure we should listen.
And so, too, does Herman E. Daly, economist and author, who writes the excellent forward, in which he bemoans the fact that, because Berry is a farmer and a poet rather than an economist, those who most need to read the book, the economists and statespeople, probably won’t. (But if enough of us common folk do, and figure out that we, by starving these gigantic corporations of their profits and building our own local economies, as Shannon Hayes details in Radical Homemaking: Reclaiming Domesticity from a Consumer Culture, those statespeople and economists will become superfluous.)
Though the land he relates with is located in Kentucky, the manner of that relationship is universal: it translates. Not only the joy to be had in observing and working with the particulars of habitat, but the immanent danger of the extractive economy. In Kentucky it’s strip-mining for coal; in upstate New York, the fossil-fuel industry wants to risk our water and air, the vineyards and organic dairy farms surrounding our town of Ithaca, with a process called hydrofracking, though we do our best to oppose them. And oppose them we must, for it’s our land and water and air, these things that make up the commons and which no person, not even a “person” as powerful as Halliburton, has the right to spoil, or even risk spoiling, for profit; they are the very basis for the good life. As they’ve already left people around the world struggling to live within ruined habitats, these supranational corporations (a great term, that, worth the cost of the book all on its own) clearly don’t care that the landscape may be debased and well nigh uninhabitable by the time they’re done with it; they neglect to mention that the few jobs they create will be temporary and go primarily to workers from elsewhere. They care only about profit. As Mr. Berry perfectly puts it in the final essay, “The Total Economy”:
“The folly at the root of this foolish economy began with the idea that a corporation should be regarded, legally, as ‘a person.’ But the limitless destructiveness of this economy comes about precisely because a corporation is not a person. A corporation, essentially, is a pile of money to which a number of persons have sold their moral allegiance. Unlike a person, a corporation does not age. It does not arrive, as most persons finally do, at a realization of the shortness and smallness of human lives; it does not come to see the future as the lifetime of the children and grandchildren of anybody in particular. It can experience no personal hope or remorse, no change of heart. It cannot humble itself. It goes about its business as if it were immortal, with the single purpose of becoming a bigger pile of money. The stockholders essentially are usurers, people who ‘let their money work for them,’ expecting high pay in return for causing others to work for low pay. The World Trade Organization enlarges the old idea of the corporation-as-person by giving the global corporate economy the status of a super-government with the power to overrule nations.”
A warning: he makes no bones about his being a Christian, though he’s the sort of Christian who actually pays heed to the message of the gospels, the sort that would make those “Christians” on TV and inside the Beltway burn with shame, were they, in fact, capable. And though his religion colors his language, he’s aware that not all his readers share it, and one needn’t share it in order to grasp his meaning. In what I consider the keystone of these essays, “Two Economies,” he resorts to a biblical expression to denote all that is, “The Kingdom of God,” and notes that a person raised in the East would recognize what he’s talking about in the term “the Tao,” and finally settles on a culturally neutral term, “The Great Economy.” And what a loss to those who have been made allergic to any hint of religion by the aforementioned hatefreaks (the stupid and the mean who have hijacked our spiritual traditions and from whom I’m in the process of reclaiming mine), because if you can’t get through his biblical references you won’t get to read paragraphs like this:
“It is possible to make a little economy, such as our present one, that is so short-sighted and in which accounting is of so short a term as to give the impression that vices are necessary and practically justifiable. When we make our economy a little wheel turning in opposition to what we call ‘nature,’ then we set up competitiveness as the ruling principle in our explanation of reality and in our understanding of economy; we make of it, willy-nilly, a virtue. But competitiveness, as a ruling principle and a virtue, imposes a logic that is extremely difficult, perhaps impossible, to control. That logic explains why our cars and our clothes are shoddily made, why our ‘wastes’ are toxic, and why our ‘defensive’ weapons are suicidal; it explains why it is so difficult for us to draw a line between ‘free enterprise’ and crime. If our economic ideal is maximum profit with minimum responsibility, why should we be surprised to find our corporations so frequently in court and robbery on the increase? Why should we be surprised to find that medicine has become an exploitive industry, profitable in direct proportion to its hurry and its mechanical indifference? People who pay for shoddy products or careless services and people who are robbed outright are equally victims of theft, the only difference being that the robbers outright are not guilty of fraud.
Not only religion has been made suspect by its public practitioners, but discussions of morality itself seem questionable. Can anyone be blamed for hearing the term “moralist” as a pejorative after the likes of William J. Bennett? Wendell Berry is indeed a moralist, but the immorality against which he levels his eloquent opprobrium has nothing to do with who takes whom to whose bed, or what someone chooses to drink or smoke, but is the greed and competitiveness that have left our society one in which so many children go to bed hungry while a few enjoy cake dusted with gold. And which has left us with fouled air, water, and soil, and eliminated thousands of species eternally from existence.
So I say, moralize on, my man! And he does, in essay after essay, addressing issues of land use, human relations, education, consumerism, the value of diversity, and the colonization of the country by the city, always filtered through his deep relationship with the natural world and an honest striving, despite so much that could encourage the contrary, to love humanity, of which he understands himself fully a part. Relentlessly he calls out contemporary economics and politics on their bull, with lines like, “Rats and roaches live by competition under the law of supply and demand; it is the privilege of human beings to live under the laws of justice and mercy.” And he calls the reader to live with the same approach, with affection for the land and our neighbors and responsibility to the future. He answers the question in his title with this: What matters is that which both supports life and makes it sweet, and it ain’t bigger and bigger piles of money.