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.