Wendell Berry the Prophet


The Jackson County NC Public Library transitioned to a new building last Summer.  I took advantage of the corresponding book sale and picked up The Unsettling of America: Culture and Agriculture for $1.50. Then I became a little obsessed with its author. Dear Wendell Berry, I think you were a prophet.  So much of what he has to say about agriculture and culture rings true!  Wendell Berry was an activist, Baptist, writer, professor, and farmer whose unique perspective intrigues me. One of my only criticisms is he seems to hearken back to the “good old days”, but I’m not convinced those days ever existed. 

This whole book’s worth reading!!! Here are some quality quotes and bullet points from the book to read right here, right now if you so choose.

On Exploitation vs Nurture

-The exploiter is a specialist, an expert; the nurturer is not.  The standard of the exploiter is efficiency; the standard of the nurturer is care.  The exploiter’s goal is money, profit; the nurturer’s goal is health-his health, his land’s health, his family’s, his community’s, his countries’.  ….The nurturer asks how much can be taken from land without diminishing it.

-The exploiter typically serves an institution or organization; the nurturer serves land, household, community, place.

-The first casualties of the exploitive revolution are character and community.

-Once the revolution of exploitation is under way, statesmanship and craftsmanship are gradually replaced by salesmanship.

-When people do not live where they work, they do not feel the effects of what they do.  The people who make wars do not fight them.  The people responsible for strip-mining, clear-cutting of forests, and other ruinations do not live where their senses will be offended or their homes or livelihoods or lives immediately threatened by the consequences.

On the Cultural intwination of People, Land, and Place 

-The industrial conquistador, seated in his living room in the evening in front of his TV set, many miles from his work, can easily forget where he is and what he has done.

-The temptation, once that has been said, is to ascend altogether into rhetoric and inveigh equally against all our forebears and all present holders of office…it is necessary to remember that there has been another tendency: the tendency to stay put, to say, “No farther.  This is the place,”  So far, this has been the weaker tendency, less glamorous.

-Once, some farmers, particularly in Europe, lived in their barns–and so were both at work and at home.  Work and rest, work and pleasure, were continuous with each other, often not distinct from each other at all.  Once, shopkeepers lived in, above, or behind their shops.  Once, many people lived in “cottage industries”-home production.  Once, households were producers and processors of food, centers of their own maintenance, adornment, and repair, places of instruction and amusement.

-Are our homes places of consumption only or are they also places of production?  Is it the source of necessary goods, energies, and “services”, or only their destination?

-What happens under the rule of specialization is that, though society becomes more and more intricate, it has less and less structure.  It becomes more and more organized, but less and less orderly.  The community disintegrates because it loses the necessary understandings, forms, and enactments of the relations among materials and processes, principles and actions, ideals and realities, past and present, present and future, men and women, body and spirit, city and country, civilization and wilderness, growth and decay, life and death-just as the individual character loses the sense of responsible involvement in these relations.

-..if we conceive of a culture as one body, which it is, we see that all of its disciplines are everybody’s business.    Culture clarifies our inescapable bonds to the earth and to each other.

-Neither nature nor people alone can produce human sustenance, but only the two together, culturally wedded.

-Simply because it became possible-and simultaneously profitable-we have cut the cultural ties between sexuality and fertility, just as we have cut those between eating and farming.

-The only real, practical, hope-giving way to remedy the fragmentation that is the disease of the modern spirit is a small and humble way-a way that a government or agency or organization or institution will never think of, though a PERSON may think of it: one must begin in one’s own life the private solutions that can only IN TURN become public solutions. … Organizations may promote this sort of forbearance and care, but they cannot provide it.

-There can be no such thing as a “global village”. No matter how much one may love the world as a whole, one can live fully in it only by living responsibly in some small part of it.  Where we live and who we live there with define the terms of our relationship to the world and to humanity.

On Inner and Outer Human Disconnection

-…breach between our bodies and our souls. As a people we have lost sight of the profound communion-even the union-of the inner with the outer life.

-The split between what we think and what we do is profound.

-If human values are removed from production, how can they be preserved in consumption?  How can we value our lives if we devalue them in making a living?  If we do not live where we work, and when we work, we are wasting our lives, and our work too.

-(modern man) From morning to night he does not touch anything that he has produced himself, in which he can take pride. … He ought to be anxious because he is helpless.

-…the faster we go the less we see.

-Values may be corrupted or abolished in only one discipline at the start, but the damage must sooner or later spread to all; it can no more be confined than air pollution.  If we corrupt agriculture we corrupt culture, for in nature and within certain invariable social necessities we are one body, and what afflicts the hand will afflict the brain.

-For many of the churchly, the life of the spirit is reduced to a dull preoccupation with getting to Heaven.  At best, the world is no more than an embarrassment and a trial of the spirit, which is otherwise radically separated from it.  The true lover of God must not be burdened with any care or respect for His works.  While the body goes about its business of destroying the earth, the soul is supposed to lie back and wait for Sunday, keeping itself free of earthly contaminants.  While the body exploits other bodies, the soul stands aloof, free from sin, crying at the gawking bystanders: “I am not enjoying it!”

-The giving of money has thus become our characteristic virtue.  But to give is not to do. The money is given in lieu of action, thought, care, time.

-Once our personal connection to what is wrong becomes clear, then we have to choose: we can go on as before, recognizing our dishonesty and living with it the best we can, or we can begin the effort to change the way we think and live.

The Repercussions of Industrial Agriculture

-A good farmer…is a cultural product; he is made by a sort of training, certainly, in what his time imposes or demands, but he is also made by generations of experience. This essential experience can only be accumulated, tested, preserved, handed down in settled households, friendships, and communities that are deliberately and carefully native to their own ground, in which the past has prepared the present and the present safeguards the future.

-We are obsessed and consumed with the idea of the “future”.  Long ago we gave up the wish to have things that were adequate or even excellent; and we have preferred to instead have things that were up-to-date.   Ironically…the only possible guarantee of the future is responsible behavior in the present.  When supposed future needs are used to justify misbehavior in the present, as is the tendency with us, then we are both perverting the present and diminishing the future.  …Nowhere is the cult of the future stronger than in agriculture.

-….compromizes made in the name of feeding the world…Gee Whiz journalism spurred this on saying that any increase in production is marvelous.  The frivolity of strawberries in January, asparagus in December, and wheat or soybean products that taste like chicken was never acknowledged….nor was the influence of technology on the soil, the produce, the farm communities, and the lives and characters of farmers.

-Farmers had to either go big or get out..what used to be farm land became taken over by agribusiness or became subdivisions, golf courses, shopping centers as those who didn’t work with their hands headed to the burbs and those who used to but were now out of work headed to the cities……the influx of urban people who had no economic or cultural ties to the land…. In this exchange we lost country people, lost community, and lost land.

-How, rationally, can one hold the small farm in contempt as the living of a farm family and then sentimentalize over it as the “country place” or hobby of an executive?  It cannot be done unless it is assumed that an executive is more deserving of a small farm because, as an urban or a professional person, he is superior to a farmer.

-…there are several things that people will NOT be free to do in the nation-of-the-future that will be fed by these farms-of-the-future.  They will not live where they work or work where they live.  They will not work where they play.  And they will not, above all, play where they work. a society we have abandoned any interest in the survival of anything small.  We seem to have adopted a moral rule of thumb according to which anything big is better than anything small.

Pertinent to all of this is our attitude toward work….growth of the idea that work is beneath human dignity, particularly any form of hand work.  Out of this contempt for work arose the idea of a nigger: at first some person, and later some thing, to be used to relieve us of the burden of work.  If we began by making niggers of people, we have ended by making a nigger of the world.  …. And in doing this to the world that is our common heritage and bond, we have returned to making niggers of people: we have become each other’s niggers.  


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