Early in his professional career, while on the faculty at NYU and living at the epicenter of the literary world, Wendell Berry decided to leave his job and New York City and return home to Henry County, Kentucky, to the place and people that mattered most to him. Upon hearing of his decision, an elder faculty member summoned him to his office with the intention of persuading him to stay. First alluding to Thomas Wolfe’s famous quote “you can’t go home again,” the man went on to argue that “once one had attained the metropolis, the literary capital, the worth of one’s origins was canceled out; there simply could be nothing worth going back to” (“A Native Hill,” 1968).
HAH! Imagine some stick-in-the-mud telling Thoreau not to bother living alone out there at Walden Pond, or some stuffed-shirt hectoring Melville for signing aboard that foul-smelling merchant ship, or some worrywart cautioning Robert Frost about taking roads less traveled by? Fortunately for us, Berry did not heed that bad advice. Instead, he went back to his small-town roots because he “never doubted that the world was more important to [him] than the literary world” (“A Native Hill,” 1968). It is his profound understanding of self, place, and personal responsibility that has established Berry’s essential greatness as a writer, poet, philosopher, naturalist, and neighbor.
The World-Ending Fire: The Essential Wendell Berry is a selection of 31 essays spanning five decades of his works, and it could not have come at a better time as our nation thrashes about in search of a voice of reason. Who better than Berry to explain to us “who we are, where we are, and what we must do to live” (“The Way of Ignorance,” 2004)? The essays are not presented in chronological order, nor even in any kind of thematic progression; rather, the collection, arranged by Paul Kingsnorth of County Galway, Ireland, rhapsodizes in a kind of orchestral composition of rhetorical movements – from ethos to pathos to logos and back again.
Berry is not confined to the subjects related to his bailiwick i.e., agrarian culture, and is utterly unafraid of any topic that sticks in his craw, as only a humble “apprentice of creation” and a writer without institutional affiliations can be. He lays into quite an assortment of subjects from economics to feminism to education to civil disobedience, and a whole host of topics in between, each one a treasure of insight and strategic action.
In the collection’s first essay “A Native Hill” (also the longest at 35 pages), Berry explains his decision to return to the land and his hometown as he walks his reader through his beloved world along the banks of the Kentucky River. Berry is at his best when in motion, poetically punctuating his romp through the landscape with delicious descriptions of the flowering bluebells and stately sycamores, all up and through “the east-facing bluff where the bloodroot bloom in scattered colonies around the foot of the rotting monument of a tree trunk.”
At one point he beholds a Great blue heron doing a backward loop-the-loop, as a sort of “benediction on the evening and on the river and on me. It seemed so perfectly to confirm the presence of a free nonhuman joy in the world – a joy I feel great need to believe in.”
But this pulsating joy of his, living next to nature, is always tempered by his robust disgust and awareness of the ominous “perhaps fatal” effect of one’s “presumptuousness in living in a place by the imposition on it of one’s ideas and wishes.” This joyous discontent is his gift.
From end to spirited/defiant end, he calls out all the villains of our day e.g., specialists, corporations and the corporate life, the industrial economy, arrogant ignorance, false feminism, life-expectancy data, academics, rational minds, causes, salesmen, public relations experts, the concept of limitlessness, prejudice against country folks, the future, technological innovations, transience, to name a few. It’s a wonderful catharsis ... most of the time, but there’s not a reader out there who won’t get his or her nose tweaked. To give a personal example, Berry begins his essay “Writer and Region” (1987) by both acknowledging the influence of Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn on his own life, and on the American psyche, positing that it “remains crucial for us, both its virtues and its faults.” He then goes on at great length (10 plus pages) about those Huckleberry faults of ours i.e., “the yen to escape to the Territory, and retribution against the life that one has escaped or wishes to escape.”
As a child of the suburbs myself, with its “cartoon scrawlscape,”* and as a sometimes member of the literary world, with its impecunious loyalties, Ich bin ein Huckleberry Finn ! That said, even Rachel Carson wouldn’t disagree with his ultimate point that “common experience and common effort on a common ground ... such [as]a community has been very little regarded in American literature.”
While there have been other efforts recently to try to explain who we are and why, such as Kurt Andersen’s "Fantasyland" (2017 ) in which he suggests that America was discovered by and continually led by dreamers and make-believe crackpots with a far-flung fantasy complex that is hard-wired in their DNA; or James C. Scott’s "Against the Grain" (2017), which dismisses the standard model of agrarian domesticity not as the climax community of our species but as just another way for the masters of the universe to take control of reproduction; it is Berry alone who explains not only who we are and why, but also what we need to do to help ourselves.
In the collection’s most recently published essay, “The Future of Agriculture,” 2011, he lays out a seven-point action plan, all of which he avers “cannot be performed for us by any expert, political leader, or corporation.” But it is perhaps in “The Way of Ignorance,” originally a paper written for a conference at the Land Institute in 2004 that Berry cuts straight to the heart of the matter, stating that “Ignorance plus arrogance plus greed ... produces the ozone hole and the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico.” From there he tears into the corporate and scientific and industrial arrogance that have caused many of the great problems of the world. Berry’s answer to our large problems is not large solutions, but “many small solutions” at the local and individual levels with the simple acceptance of “the wisdom of humility.”
"The World-Ending Fire" ought to be required reading in every classroom across this land, for if America today is Pottersville, which it is, and if we are all, collectively, George Bailey, then Wendell Berry is our National Guardian Angel!
*from James Kunstler’s "Home from Nowhere," 1996
Richard Horan is an award-winning author of two novels: “Life in the Rainbow” and “Goose Music,” and two non-fiction books: “Seeds” and Harvest.” His latest work, “Notes from the Nuthouse,” a play in three acts, is in the running for the Relentless Award.