All of Us

All of Us

Wendell Berry and the Agrarian Tradition: A Common Grace.
Wendell Berry and the Agrarian Tradition: A Common Grace.
Lawrence: U Press of Kansas, 2003. 270 pp. $34.95

William Major measures academic “ecocriticism” against the practical “agrarianism” of Wendell Berry.

One of the oddest quirks about so much contemporary environmental theory is how little attention its adherents seem to pay to the people who work and gain a living from the land. Indeed, it often appears that our environmentalism is dominated by the romantic sentiment, so much so that the presence of the human is thought to be a kind of pox on the earth. Were we able to discard a little of what we think the land should be, we might notice a central fact: all of us live from and on the land, and there’s not much to be done about that. Those of us who are interested in environmental politics should probably start to ask some central questions about the movement’s focus, such as: where are the voices and ideas of rural peoples and farmers, those who arguably have the most at stake in preserving healthy ecosystems? The short answer is that it is business as usual for them - they are neglected, forgotten, indebted, and right ready for the proverbial trash heap of the global economy. If we want to pay better attention to “the environment” - whatever that is - we might begin by focusing our attention on the dwindling numbers of economically self-sufficient farmers and the demise of once lively small towns. The romantic environmentalist rightly understands that our land use has spoiled the view, but there’s another view, another kind of environment - an agrarian one - less inspiring but no less compelling than our romantic’s, and this one must have its say.

Judging by their conspicuous absence from ecocritical discourse, one is tempted to believe that small communities, rural life, and agrarian ideas have virtually no hold our environmental consciousness. Perhaps this lack of representation follows from the questionable cultural cachet enjoyed by people who produce our food, removed as they often are from centers of culture and the halls of academe where so much environmental work gets done. Indeed, even as ecocriticism and nature writing find themselves gaining in popularity, I note that many in academia tend to look at rural peoples and their values as objects of study in folklore departments - quaint, but not very relevant; or worse, they are ignored or forgotten altogether. Certainly this is not to suggest that we should idealize rural life and make of it a panacea for our cultural ills. But the question I want to consider is whether American agrarianism, such as that represented by poet, novelist, and essayist Wendell Berry, can be considered a necessary part of an environmental consciousness, and how we might effect such a radical cultural shift to make it so.

For well over thirty five years, Berry has been asking us to do just this - to consider our relation to the land as the primary contemporary ethical issue, one having profound consequences for our communities and our survival. Yet if his work has relevance - and it does - it is still not clear what his place is within the environmental movement. Indeed, as a general matter within ecocriticism, agrarian ideas are generally dismissed or given little attention. Certainly the agrarian ethic of good land use, strong community ties, and a devotion to place doesn’t seem quite as sexy as the ecocentrism of deep ecology or the ecofeminist critique of patriarchy. Perhaps Berry’s neglect amongst ecosophy simply mirrors the general abandonment of rural people within the market place of ideas and public policy. If it were not for the fact that his presence looms so large as a central figure within agrarianism, we might chalk up this silence to mere ignorance - but somebody is reading Berry.

That somebody is Kimberly K. Smith, assistant professor of political science at Carleton College and author of Wendell Berry and the Agrarian Tradition: A Common Grace) (2003), a splendid overview of Berry’s agrarianism and its relationship to an environmental worldview. Readers interested not only in Berry but also in ecocriticism should approach this text with delight, for here we find our subject and his agrarianism placed within two fundamental contexts: the American agrarian tradition and a wider ecological vision. While Smith’s contribution to our understanding of the many facets of Berry’s politics and social theory cannot be overlooked, her real triumph is how she situates Berry’s agrarianism squarely within an environmental ethic, but with a twist: Berry is before all else a farmer, a worker, a person whose intimate contact with and knowledge of the land informs all of his work. This fact allows him to speak from a position of moral authority on how we might best live our lives according to a land ethic that is both agrarian in practice and environmental in scope.

Smith provides an overview of agrarian democracy in both its Populist and aristocratic phases in order to show that though Berry’s philosophy draws upon both, he adds an environmental dimension previously lacking within the agrarian movement. Berry’s work makes it seem as if “agrarianism always implied ecological sensitivity - or that ecological sensitivity always implied support for farming. It did not; indeed, for much American history agrarians had little interest in environmental issues, and environmentalists for their part have had little good to say about farming” (7). This marriage of the agrarian and the environmental, which is still a fundamentally neglected aspect of ecocritical and environmental thought, becomes the centerpiece of Smith’s reading of Berry’s oeuvre, and it colors all of his writings. So Berry’s agrarian politics become a lens through which we all might achieve a more environmental vision. The problem, of course, is that when we think of agrarianism, per se, we naturally think of farming; and Berry does to. Berry may “insist that the family farm is the chief repository of virtues critical to the republic,” but these values are “ecological rather than political” and are “aimed at protecting not the special interests of farmers but the public’s general interest in preserving the food supply, the ecosystem, and the human community itself” (62). We might quibble here with Smith’s use of the political, as if there were a clear separation between the two, but her point is clear: “We can’t have democracy, rights, and universal brotherhood if we destroy the planet” (71). Such is the force of Berry’s long time call for stewardship that he believes we will never bring ourselves to ecological health until we discard our economic overreaching, our relentless quest for “infinite human power ” (Smith 135) that constitutes the driving ideology behind our market-driven lives. Berry’s philosophy is therefore not simply agrarian, as Leo Marx once remarked, but is environmental because it is agrarian.

Not only does Berry understand the environmental within the agrarian context, he also challenges the mythic narrative of self-reliance. Smith gives an especially nuanced analysis on this point, arguing that for Berry, “individual independence… is not the chief value of agrarian life. Dependence is the central fact of our existence” (130). “In the place of the rugged individualism celebrated in both the agrarian and environmental traditions,” Smith writes, Berry “emphasizes communal and environmental virtues cultivated by our interactions with nature - most importantly, the virtue of understanding our limits and our place in the order of Creation” (130). Smith’s reading of Berry deviates not only from one of the central tenets of agrarianism, but from one of the central principles of so much agricultural life: that farmers and rural people are often relentlessly independent people. Berry understands our drive for independence as symptomatic of the modern industrial mindset, wherein we are constantly grasping for another place, another market; where we are unable, as one of his poems says, to “stay home.” Our drive to transcend limits fuels both the modern economic engine, and, of course, environmental and communal destruction; more important, however, it prevents us from achieving the harmony with the natural world that is the hallmark of Berry’s vision. For Smith, then, “Berry’s goal is not autonomy but grace; he wants to preserve the conditions necessary to live in harmony with the natural and social world” (205). The big question for all of us moderns, of course, is how to achieve this harmony in a world that consistently asks us to reach for more.

It would seem, therefore, that Berry’s agrarian environmentalism - shunned by radical ecologists as too instrumental and thought by others too be strangely utopian - does not fit very well within any of today’s environmental movements. As Berry himself notes, “I am dissatisfied with such efforts [social movements, eco-movements] because they are too specialized, they are not comprehensive enough, they are not radical enough, they virtually predict their own failure by implying that we can remedy or control effects while leaving causes in place” (Fear 36). But clearly Berry’s emphasis on the role of the individual in understanding and remedying the effects of his or her acts cannot be the sole criteria for a pragmatic politics. He suggests in the groundbreaking The Unsettling of America (1977) that “the corruption of community has its course in the corruption of character. This realization has become the typical moral crisis of our time” (19). Thus his critique of institutions necessarily implies a kind of radical behavioral shift within the individual, one that doesn’t seem to be forthcoming. Such large-scale movements that might be a practical politics are, according to Berry, “insincere; they propose that the trouble is caused by other people; they would like to change policy but not behavior” (Fear 36).

It would follow, therefore, Smith’s point that Berry is also asking for a more dependent outlook on the world, a recognition of limits as well as possibilities, makes for an odd contradiction within his philosophy; he seems to call for a stronger personal character but suggests that we cannot do it alone - but, again, institutions and movements are no good either because they are “too specialized” (Fear 36). Ye the contradictions begin to pile up: “There is no significant urban constituency, for formidable consumer lobby, no noticeable political leadership for good land use practices, for good farming and good forestry, for restoration of abused land, or for halting the destruction of land by so-called `development’ ” (Fear 40). All of this is by way of saying that perhaps Smith’s most important insight is that “Berry’s agrarianism could also benefit from a more developed political theory” (213). His anti-government, anti-movement stance throws the proverbial baby out with the bathwater. Smith notes that “accepting the necessity of government institutions would, for example, allow us to consider more effectively how such institutions can help us to cope with the informational demands of environmental management”; in other words, Berry might begin to think about government - yes, even the federal government - “less as an intruder” (214) into local affairs than as an organism that might help us all achieve “collective stewardship of our common life” (214). The collective and dependent vision that Smith sees as part of Berry’s radical deviation from traditional agrarian ideology remains in complex tension with his view that the ecological crisis is also a “crisis of character” (Unsettling).

As I noted earlier, ecocentrists virtually ignore Berry, and Smith argues that his place within the ecocritical canon is less than assured because of the “longstanding conflict between farmers and preservationists - between an instrumental and noninstrumental stance toward nature” (73). Readers of Berry understand that he has very little patience for the latter, believing that kindly use and ethical work are the surest way to preserve the planet. It follows that one of the major problems with the ecocentric cause is its strangely naïve understanding of the cultural forces at work in human lives, such as the necessity of work. We all must be here for some reason, and if those of us in the club agree that a moral and ethical relation with each other and the world should be a part of what we do, then we had better be a deal more creative about how we spend our time. That ecocentrism almost asks us to give up our drive toward culture - an act that for Berry would make us less human - is evidence that its fundamental premises are flawed. We have never been able to do so, nor is the effort a particularly worthy one if by noninstrumental we take to mean that we cannot use the earth and its resources in some fashion. “Ecocentrism, even in many of its less extreme versions,” Smith argues, “is a heroic ethic, a dramatic rejection of that instrumental relationship to the world that constitutes so much of our everyday existence” (78). Her point - and Berry’s - hits the mark: it would seem virtually impossible to create the kind of world that some ecocentrists call for, and who is to say that such a world is preferably anyway? Perhaps, then, one of the major reasons Berry has received so little attention by today’s academic environmental specialist is that his nails have dirt under them, and his philosophy is foremost a practice, geared first and foremost with trying to find the best and most appropriate way to spend our time without destroying that which we purport to revere.

A sensible question follows: what is to keep from using the world badly, from continuing down the road we have been on for so long. This is a legitimate concern. Berry’s moral philosophy might best be described as humanist - Smith calls it “unapologetically anthropocentric” (81) - in that he sees hopes for a higher plane of development based on human culture and reason. “With a sufficiently sophisticated understanding of the importance of other species and complex biological relationships to human survival,” Smith writes, Berry believes that “our modest attempts at self-preservation should benefit the planet as a whole” (80). But as we all know, reason can be used in a number of unsavory ways. Thus another tension within Berry’s philosophy becomes apparent. His humanism runs smack against his own well-known ambivalence over the ability of humans to make the right decisions. Because we cannot always understand where our projects will take us, “we should be wary of the ecocentric call for moral heroism on behalf of other species. It may lead us to further recklessly grand projects - such as the radical restructuring of our social, political, and economic relations, not to mention the complete transformation of our spiritual and intellectual traditions” (80). But there’s certainly no evidence to support the fact that we will rectify our behavior because of our penchant for overreaching, or even that “the one value capable of uniting us… the life and health of the world” (81) is enough to see us through. Berry’s humanism should give us all pause, especially as we consider that he seems to be invoking rationality - albeit modified with the recognition of life’s mystery - the same drive that brought us industrial agriculture, in order to demonstrate that we can become the right kind of consumers, the right kind of farmers. There is very little evidence to support this optimism.

Berry does moderate his humanism with our theoretical ability to recognize limits, to understand where and when we violate the mystery of the world. Tempering therefore Berry’s faith that “the average man must have the intelligence to make sense of the information on which our policies are based” (Smith 83) is his belief that we can go beyond our desires and recognize something larger than ourselves. Smith identifies this faith by its Greek work, sophrosyne, “the virtue that prevents hubristic overreaching” (136). Smith claims that Berry’s work aims at this ideal state wherein the desire for more and the overreaching for vast stores of knowledge and power is ameliorated by what Henry Thoreau might call “higher laws.” Berry is thus thinking about how best to achieve an ethical relation to the land and to each other outside of the values of the market driven economy, apart from the ideology that frankly powers most of what who we are. Smith writes, “emphasizing sophrosyne rather than self-sufficiency and freedom of action changes the moral core of agrarianism” in that it offers “a constant lesson in human limits and fallibility” (137). Given Berry’s incredibly antipathy toward governmental and legislative restraint, it is never, clear, however how we are to reach this state. Where are humans supposed to learn this self-restraint when our cultural messages are always coded with what Whitman called the “procreant urge of the world”? Smith again asks the right question regarding the charge of moral relativity: “What makes his conception of the moral order of the universe persuasive” (138)? It is her contention that all Berry needs to do is show that his vision is better than the alternative, or better than the current worldview - not that it is the best or only vision. Yet as I have noted, what sophrosyne or his recognition of limits does not deal with, perhaps because it cannot, is how to gauge and temper in a practical fashion the human tendency toward the creation and fulfillment of desire, especially as that desire often manifests itself in very unecological terms. And were are the models for how to achieve this vision mystery and restraint? As Smith says, “few moral philosophers… are against moderation and prudence” (137), but how many of us are moral philosophers?

Berry’s Life is a Miracle (2000) in part answers this question. Here Berry takes issue, as he has always done, with the separation of science and art - the “two cultures,” as C. P. Snow called them. He argues that our world has been sliding more and more toward a “mechanical” understanding of life: “The most radical influence of reductive science has been the virtually universal adoption of the idea that the world, its creatures, and all the parts of its creatures are machines - that is, there is no difference between creature and artifice, birth and manufacture, thought and computation” (6). Thus when Berry writes that “The mystery surrounding our life probably is not significantly reducible. And so the question of how to act in ignorance is paramount” (11), he is asking one of the fundamental questions about his own agrarian and ecological philosophy, about how “we shouldn’t aspire to be gods” but that “we should aspire to be fully human” (Smith 139). The problem, of course, is that we have very little knowledge or will to act within the scope of our ignorance: “Our history enables us to suppose that it may be all right to act on the basis of incomplete knowledge if our culture has an effective way of telling us that our knowledge is incomplete, and also of telling us how to act in our state of ignorance” (11). Whatever parameters our culture may once have had about imposing limits either to our knowledge (cf. “Garden of Eden”) or our actions seem both quaint and unlikely in a world that thrives upon more knowledge - whether it is useful or not - and more action, more growth, more progress. In other words, the messages we receive and the lessons we are taught are so far removed from Smith’s sophrosyne or Berry’s call for humility that it almost seems like naval gazing. Where’s the practical politics in that?

But as he often does, Berry returns to his experience on his farm to offer the moral lesson about having too much power. The prose poems “Damage” and “Healing” from What Are People For? (1990) examine his failed attempt to build a pond on a steep hill so that he might have a water supply for his cattle. But the experiment was a disaster; during the winter, “The ground grew heavy with water, and soft. The earthwork slumped; a large slice of the woods floor on the upper side slipped down into the pond. // The trouble was the familiar one: too much power, too little knowledge. The fault was mine” (5). Berry did “get expert advice,” which is to say, he obtained the advice of someone who had no understanding of that particular place (Berry is often quite explicit about his contempt for “experts.”) His experience with the pond debacle leads him to believe that he has now contributed to “a part of the modern tragedy: I have made a lasting flaw in the face of the earth, for no lasting good” (6).

The lesson of the pond is that only through a long attachment to place can we begin to make the right decisions about how best to use the world. This isn’t to suggest that we will always make the right choices, but that such an attachment can lie outside the scope of an exploitive or economic relation with the world and might help us also come by the right kind of knowledge through the right kind of work. As Berry says, “I now live in my subject. My subject is my place in the world, and I live in my place” (People 6). Berry cannot escape the damage he caused, nor would he want to, since he decries “escape” as particularly venal and irresponsible. Thus he can now better understand William Blake’s message about the process of attaining wisdom: “`You never know what is enough unless you know what is more than enough’ ” (7). He therefore hopes that inhabiting a place physically, morally and spiritually - through culture, through work, through history - we can begin to foster the attachment that will bring about sophrosyne, and thereby come to a wider awareness of limits and how our understanding of them will contribute to the land’s health: “But a man with a machine and inadequate culture - such as I was when I made my pond–is a pestilence. He shakes more than he can hold” (8, my emphasis). More must be said on the subject of sophrosyne and Berry’s shift from the ideology of “rugged individualism… toward a new moral ideal, a concept he calls `grace’ ” (Smith 10), about the tension between individual responsibility, the ethic of place, and our desire for more. Smith’s intervention is a salutary beginning to this discussion.

Berry is a sometime Jeffersonian, a radical skeptic of virtually all political movements and organizations; a believer in the sanctity of the individual as well as the necessity for community; a poet who answers Robert Frost’s “you come too” with “stay home”; and an environmentalist (though he abjures the term) who believes that until all of us understand that we have to use the land - so we better start using it right - we will never achieve a proper environmental consciousness. Smith understands very well these contradictions, elucidating them and demonstrating how they are part of a larger weave of Berry’s moral world. Wendell Berry and the Agrarian Tradition is thus a wide-ranging, learned work that should help us to understand how Berry’s particular kind of communion with the earth might guide us in achieving something approaching grace - which we can all use from time to time.

Works Cited

Berry, Wendell. In the Presence of Fear: Three Essays for a changed World. Great Barrington: The Orion Society, 2001.

—. Life Is a Miracle: An Essay Against Modern Superstition. Washington, DC.: Counterpoint, 2000.

—. The Unsettling of America: Culture and Agriculture. 1977. San Francisco: Sierra Club Books, 1997.

—. What Are People For? San Francisco: North Point, 1990.

Smith, Kimberly K. Wendell Berry and the Agrarian Tradition: A Common Grace. Lawrence: U Press of Kansas, 2003.