In 50 books of poetry, essays, and fiction, Wendell Berry has argued for the value of small-scale farming and against unbridled development. As the local-foods movement grows and skepticism about suburban sprawl increases, Berry’s long-held ideas ring with renewed urgency. Even so, readers might wonder what sustained Berry’s singular vision in all those years when he was writing against the tide.
In Imagination in Place, his latest collection of essays, Berry points to two major sources of inspiration for his literary work: the family farm he’s tended for many years in his native Kentucky and a circle of other writers across the country who share his attachment to place.
For Berry, farming and writing are mutually enriching enterprises that both depend on a grasp of complexity, an eye for instructive detail, and an insistence on the particular and concrete, not the abstract and ephemeral.
Berry bristles at any suggestion of farming as a pastoral embrace of simplicity because, as he sees it, there’s nothing at all simple about a farm: “It is the complexity of the life of a place uncompromisingly itself, which is at the same time the life of the world, of all Creation. One meets not only the weather and the wildness of the world, but also the limitations of one’s knowledge, intelligence, character, and bodily strength. To do this, of course, is to accept the place as an influence.”
Berry’s point is not that everyone should become farmers, but that we should all learn to live more intimately and knowledgeably within local landscapes. “If that ground is not in a great cultural center, but only in a New Jersey suburb, so be it,” Berry writes. “Imagination is as urgently necessary in Rutherford, New Jersey, or in Knott County, Kentucky, or in Point Coupée Parish, Louisiana, as it is in San Francisco or New York.”
In living more attentively in local places, we can come to appreciate their unique gifts, which is the “power that can save us from the prevailing insinuation that our place, our house, our spouse, and our automobile are not good enough,” he adds.
The title of “Imagination in Place” carries a double meaning, celebrating the life of the mind within local terrains, as well as the value of thinking deeply while standing in place and looking around.
Berry knows that an exhortation to stay put runs contrary to the contemporary culture, which favors mobility. But in an economy that encourages people to change addresses as casually as they change clothes, places can seem blandly interchangeable and, by implication, expendable. The result, says Berry, is that many leaders of government, academia, and commerce are “utterly lacking in imagination, local loyalty, and local knowledge. Both conservatives and liberals, having accepted the ecological and social damages of industrialism as inevitable, even normal, have conceived the individual as subject alone either to the economy or to the government. In this official numbness, though it is clearly self-doomed, there is for the moment an almost overwhelming power.”
Against this juggernaut, Berry finds strength in the company of other writers who also treasure their respective home grounds. Among those singled out for tribute in “Imagination in Place” are the late novelist and essayist Wallace Stegner, and poets Hayden Carruth, Gary Snyder, Donald Hall, and Jane Kenyon.
Berry has also counted these writers as friends, and some of the essays can seem like family chats on which the reader is rather awkwardly eavesdropping.
One such example is “Sweetness Preserved,” Berry’s essay about the late Kenyon and her life with Hall, who was also her husband. To fully understand Berry’s appreciation of Kenyon, uninitiated readers might need to know a bit more about how Kenyon and Hall came to live on Hall’s ancestral New England farm.
In the title essay of “Imagination in Place,” Berry warns of “agrarianism without agriculture,” the tendency to think of food and community as theory rather than practice. Although Berry manages to keep his own feet on the ground in these essays, they tend to be more about writing than farming, and are generally less evocative of the Kentucky countryside than most of his other works.
Newcomers to Berry might fare better if they started with earlier essay collections such as “Another Turn of the Crank” and “Home Economics.” But for those who’ve already come to admire Berry’s moral clarity and closely argued critiques of contemporary society, “Imagination in Place” is a welcome chance to continue the conversation.