The Gift of Good Land, by Wendell Berry

Anyone thinking about agrarianism has to deal with Wendell Berry at some point. Berry is by far the most well-known proponent of agrarianism today; one of the chapters in Allan Carlson’s The New Agrarian Mind is devoted to his thought and writings. Although he is often touted by liberals and environmentalists for his stands against imperialsm and industrialism, Berry has come to those positions from a different place than usual, and quite often his fans are brought up short when he begins to talk about the sanctity of life, or tobacco, or the Gospel, or his refusal to give up his typewriter for a computer. Conservatives generally don’t like him at all, because he insists that human endeavors must be limited in scope and is perfectly comfortable with having the government impose those limits.

Early in my studies of agrarianism I was a Berry enthusiast. As I’ve read more widely in the area and learned more about the subject in general and Berry’s thinking in particular, I’ve become less enthusiastic—and more respectful. My enthusiasm waned as agrarianism became less an abstract philosophy to me and more a practical approach to living. Wendell Berry is a thinker’s thinker, one who conducts his analysis at a very high level, and as I got caught up in the concrete details of agrarian living his analyses became harder and harder to apply. But my respect grew for the same reason—I could tell from his writings that he was able to apply his principles to his own life and come out at a place where I wanted to be, and so the challenge was to understand those principles deeply enough to apply them myself.

So I return to Wendell Berry often, but not for the pleasure of reading him. For a congenial read I much prefer Gene Logsdon, and for practical exhortation I turn to Joel Salatin. Berry is an excellent writer, and his subject matter is so difficult that I couldn’t begin to understand it if he were any less a writer. But his writing is austere, as is his thinking; rigorous and uncompromising. I know he must be warm and personable, since Gene Logsdon is his very good friend, and he is respectful and admiring of small-scale farmers. But little of that comes through in his writing. (I must point out here that I have only read his essays, not his novels or poetry, kinds of writing I am unable to judge anyway.)

I’ve read nearly all of Wendell Berry’s nonfiction writing, and have wanted to offer at least one of his books in our bookstore as an introduction to an important strain of agrarian thought. But none of them seemed quite right. His best-known book, The Unsettling of America, is very good but one is more likely to appreciate it after having read through some of Berry’s shorter works. Last week my friend D.J. Hammond asked me if I had read his collection of essays called The Gift of Good Land; I thumbed through his copy and realized that, although I had a copy of my own at home, I had not even looked at it. D.J. was very enthusiastic about it, and so I wondered if at last I’d found the book to offer.

I’m still not sure. I finished it tonight, and I enjoyed it very much, but I’m still trying to figure out whether it is a good introduction to his work. Some of the essays are very short, some very long. Some are about very practical matters (small scale farming in the Peruvian Andes, an Amish man and his children and their seven farms) and some quite abstract (gardening as an effective protest against industrialism). The essays I enjoyed the most, having read Berry extensively, are probably not the ones a first-time reader would like the best. So I have to think about it some more.

My favorite essay was the title essay, “The Gift of Good Land.” Wendell Berry is a Christian, the sort that drives his conservative brothers a little crazy. He doesn’t wear his testimony on his sleeve, he doesn’t evangelize, and his theological writing is far from systematic. He just assumes that the Bible speaks to all areas of life, and then tries to figure out what the Bible has to say about things that worry him. In “The Gift of Good Land,” he tries to extract a basis for agrarianism from the story of God giving His people the Promised Land. What he sees in this story is that the land was a gift, one that put the recipients in a moral dilemma to which the only answer was stewardship:

Charity is a theological virtue and is prompted, no doubt, by a theological emotion, but it is also a practical virtue because it must be practiced. The requirements of this complex charity cannot be fulfilled by smiling in abstract beneficience on our neighbors and on the scenery. It must come to acts, which must come from skills. Real charity calls for the study of agriculture, soil husbandry, engineering, architecture, mining, manufacturing, transportation, the making of monuments and pictures, songs and stories. It calls not just for skills but for the study and criticism of skills, because in all of them a choice must be made: they can either be used charitably or uncharitably.

How can you love your neighbor if you don’t know how to build or mend a fence, how to keep your filth out of his water supply and your poison out of his air; or if you do not produce anything and so have nothing to offer, or do not take care of yourself and so become a burden? How can you be a neighbor without applying principle—without bringing virtue to a practical issue? How will you practice virtue without skill?

The ability to be good is not the ability to do nothing. It is not negative or passive. It is the ability to do something well—to do good work for good reasons. In order to be good you have to know how—and this knowing is vast, complex, humble, and humbling; it is of the mind and of the hands, of neither alone.

The divine mandate to use the world justly and charitably, then, defines every person’s moral predicament as that of a steward. But this predicament is hopeless and meaningless unless it produces an appropriate discipline: stewardship. And stewardship is hopeless and meaningless unless it involves long-term courage, perseverance, devotion, and skill. This skill is not to be confused with any accomplishment or grace of spirit or of intellect. It has to do with everyday properties in the practical use and care of created things—with “right livelihood.”

I think Berry is right about what it requires to treat your neighbor with charity. Whether he is right to draw those conclusions from the story of God giving His people the Promised Land, I don’t know yet. But I will be studying on it.

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7 thoughts on “The Gift of Good Land, by Wendell Berry

  1. If not from the Promised Land, perhaps we can make a case for Berry’s point from these verses:

    “Make it your ambition to lead a quiet life, to mind your own business and to work with your hands, just as we told you, so that your daily life may win the respect of outsiders and so that you will not be dependent on anybody.” (1 Thessalonians 4:11-12)

    or

    He who has been stealing must steal no longer, but must work, doing something useful with his own hands, that he may have something to share with those in need. (Ephesians 4:28)

    I think the principle is there, and he has a good point. God doesn’t tell us in the Bible which skills we should develop, and we can’t know every single practical ramification of our habits, but we want to do our best to make sure that the practical consequences of our lives are, in fact, charitable.

  2. I think you are right about Berry and that is probably why I like him. I can agree with Berry and not do anything at all practical :)

    But I do have the hope that the ideas I ingest will naturally have a practical outcome someday, even if it is just in my children’s future lives.

  3. Laura,

    Thanks for those verses. I don’t know how many times I’ve read or heard the Thessalonians passage without seeing in it what I see now:

    1) Stay home with your family.
    2) Tend your own garden.
    3) Occupy yourself with productive work.
    4) Be a respectable example to the watching world.
    5) Provide for your own needs.

    I think those five points touch on many if not most of the core qualities of agrarianism. I never thought much of the idea of a life verse, but that passage would be a good choice for one.

    Cindy,

    Careful. As we both know, ideas have consequences, and even Berry’s rarefied thinking has the power to lead you to unexpected places.

    I do think Berry’s thinking contains one serious flaw that lets people embrace his ideas without the danger of being changed by them—namely, that he thinks the agrarian project is hopeless. Carlson makes this same point in The New Agrarian Mind, as I recall, saying that Berry seems to see himself as an elegiast for a noble but failed project. But I think it is easy enough to conclude that Berry is wrong about this, and still benefit from his keen insights into why an agrarian life is good and proper.

  4. Berry’s ideas are more like going to Divinity school to discuss the philosophy of Agrarianism. Logsdon, and Salatin are more like going to the tech school of Agrarianisn. One teaches the whys, the others teach more the how. I agree, though, Logsdon is good rewarding read. I’ve got this mental vision of his Ohio farm. he really weaves an image of it in his books.

  5. I think your description of Berry is pretty good. He has been instrumental in forming my beliefs and trying to figure out how to lead my life well. I recently completed my studies to become a rabbi and Berry’s books were some of the most important things I read (they weren’t part of my formal curriculum, rather “outside” reading – but extremely important for any person who takes religion seriously).

    The book that I always recommend to people as a first step into Berry’s thought is “Sex, Economic Freedom & Community.” I think it does a great job of introducing both the breadth and depth of his writing.

  6. Your comments on Berry are very interesting. I have, for a while, challenged my students to think about ethics by wrestling with Berry’s texts (I use Sex, Economy, Freedom and Community, and think it is the best intro, not least because of the expansive title essay).

    But I wanted to comment on the question you raise about Berry as “practical.” Being a Chicago-born city boy with academic training, I must confess my sometimes-despair at acting on Berry’s project. But I don’t think Berry’s books are abstract, nor do I think (at least in his later writings) that they reflect a belief that the agrarian life is lost. He is, as you note, a rigorously systematic thinker, but I take it that’s because he does not see agrarianism in a Thoureau-ian sort of way. Agrarianism is not a therapeutic way of life for him, but very economic, and insofar as it is economic, Berry resists agrarian visions that are mere “escapes” from the larger society. If the project is to be vital, it has to confront the large-scale abstractions that govern the general life of the society, so that (in gradual, incremental ways) those abtractions can be deconstructed and replaced by a different “economy.”

    Put differently, Berry’s writing is systematic because he is concerned that the agrarian life ultimately does depend on “converting” city people and lost Christian churches, because the project assumes an economy. True, Berry will never help you mend a fence or (for the most part) have much of an idea how to go about being a small farmer. But he will suggest very strongly why the rest of us need to change our ways if the small farmers are going to survive and thrive. The very fact that he says over and over that the larger culture’s technological-exploitative economy is in fact unsustainable and unrealistic shows to me that he is not just engaging in nostalgia. And maybe that’s not a point necessary to appreciate actual agrarian living. But for the rest of us, it is exactly the point that needs to be made. And it helps that he’s not a puritan about the project – his goal is not to construct some sort of ideal agrarian life, but to take steps to combat the cultural forces that deter local/regional economies.

    Berry’s Christianity (I teach Catholic theology) is refreshing, as people have commented. If he narrates the Promised Land as a gift, it may be because the gift of the land is accompanied by laws for its stewardship, laws that remain remarkably forward-looking. Again, these are first and foremost economic issues, and while that may lead his analyses to have less warmth than others, this lack may have a lot to do with the fact that small farmers, on their own, cannot preserve their way of life without an economy that supports it.

  7. David,

    I heard once that for quite awhile Richard Weaver was looking for someone to publish his dissertation, an explanation and defense of antebellum Southern culture, but couldn’t generate any interest. Finally a fellow at the University of Chicago Press told Weaver that nobody wanted to read an apologetic for Southern culture, but that if he would just write a mirror-image of his thesis, i.e. the corresponding critique of Northern culture, then it would be publishable. Which resulted in Ideas Have Consequences.

    As much as I like Berry’s work, I think he focuses on using agrarianism as a tool for criticising modern industrial culture. That’s a fine thing to do, but it doesn’t necessarily make the corresponding positive case for a vital agrarian culture as a real alternative to the modern project. In fact, even though I know that Berry thinks agrarianism is the better way, I suspect that he doesn’t really see it as a live option.

    I’ve had a similar frustration recently in reading Victor Davis Hanson’s Field Without Dreams: Defending the Agrarian Idea. Davis is a fifth-generation California raisin farmer, and his book champions agrarianism as the better way—but in the form of an angry lament for a kind of life whose inevitable disappearance will impoverish us as a culture. This is less than helpful to those of us who are trying to actively reclaim an agrarian way of life.

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