Decades before the Green New Deal made headlines, Wendell Berry sounded the alarm about America’s environmental crisis. Instead of protecting the land that feeds people and supports our communities, he argued, “We are in the habit of contention – against the world, against each other, against ourselves.” That contention, which he described in the 1969 essay “A Native Hill” continues to this day. But how can it finally be diffused?
Rich, complex answers to that question are woven throughout What I Stand On: The Collected Essays of Wendell Berry 1969-2017, edited by Jack Shoemaker. This two-volume opus, containing many of Berry’s best pieces and the full text of two seminal works, was published by the Library of America, which aims to present and preserve America’s best writing. In 2018, the library published a volume of Berry’s fiction. A second book of fiction and a collection of his poems are forthcoming.
As Berry argues throughout these 1,674 pages, the health of people, their livelihood, and the economy depend on the health of the soil. When that becomes polluted or mismanaged, so does everything it supports.
In the opening essays, Berry, who was raised on a farm in Kentucky, describes in great detail the landscape that shaped his boyhood, and later his poetry and fiction. A crucial realization was that “we are the belongings of the world, not its owners” and while we affect a place, for good or ill, “it will survive us, bearing the results.” Because of that, we must change our lives so that what’s good for us is good for the world. “And that requires that we make the effort to know the world and to learn what is good for it. We must learn to co-operate in its processes, and to yield to its limits.”
Those convictions led Berry and his wife, Tanya, to raise their two children on a homestead they purchased a few miles from his father’s farm. There, they produced their own food, and Berry chose to plow the fields with horses as a way to become less dependent on “the energy corporations, which I do not admire.” When writing, he used only a pen or pencil and paper.
His agrarian background and values informed his 1977 book, “The Unsettling of America,” a major work that established him as one of the country’s foremost environmental writers. In that book, reprinted in full, Berry explicates many of the cultural and historic shifts that have contributed to the degradation of farmland since the industrial revolution. As ideas about work, technology, and energy have evolved, Americans’ emphasis on conquering rather than nurturing has created a profound split between what we believe and what we do. “I cannot think of any American whom I know or have heard of, who is not contributing in some way to destruction,” Berry notes. “The reason is simple: to live undestructively in an economy that is overwhelmingly destructive would require of any one of us, or of any small group of us, a great deal more work than we have yet been able to do.”
More than 40 years later, those observations are still timely and pertinent. They are also persuasive, because they reflect a common-sense approach rooted in experience, rather than partisan views. As Berry explains in the book’s second chapter, “A Crisis of Character,” “What has not been often said, because it did not need to be said until fairly recent times, is that the responsible consumer must also be in some way a producer. … By making himself responsibly free, a person changes both his life and his surroundings.”
For some people, being responsible might mean planting a garden in the yard or buying organic produce from a local farmers market, Berry suggests. Responsibility also requires addressing the divide between “body and soul, Heaven and earth,” that has removed the creator from the creation.
These themes appear throughout both volumes of “What I Stand On” as Berry deepens and broadens his ideas about the causes of environmental destruction and how they relate to history, science, religion, art, and social standards. As he states in “Life Is a Miracle” (2000), his second major work, the reclassification of the world from creation to machine must result in a lessening of moral clarity. “So must the shift in our perceived relationship to nature from that of steward to that of absolute owner, manager, and engineer. So even must our permutation of ‘holy’ to holistic.”
“What I Stand On” is essential reading for those who want to understand how we arrived at this point in time, and how we can begin to shift our standards, priorities, and habits. While some arguments are repeated several times, Berry is a thoughtful, wise voice of reason who has always appealed to those on both sides of the political aisle. His thinking and approach provide a model for those who want to foster change today in how we care for the earth. As Berry says, “To cherish what remains of it, and to foster its renewal, is our only legitimate hope.”
Read our interview with Wendell Berry here.
Editor’s note: This article has been corrected to say that Library of America will soon publish a second book of Wendell Berry's fiction, not essays.