Culture and Agriculture
Wendell Berry is first and foremost by his own description a Kentucky farmer, though he is also a renowned author of essays, poems and novels. The global cult of bigness and the dis-ease that it causes is one of his passions. This is, of course, related to the development of technology for its own sake. While much of his writing addresses ecological concerns, he also discusses the broader human condition and the restoration of health and peace. In The Unsettling of America, Berry shows that the demise of small-scale agri-culture is indicative of the crumbling of culture itself. The machine has taken over from man, industrialized agriculture has won the day, and humans have been dislocated. Moreover, it is the future forms of our technology that enslave us. And it is not just on the farm that the pressure is felt: “All our implements—automobiles, tractors, kitchen utensils, etc.—have always been conceived by the modern mind as in a kind of progress or pilgrimage toward their future forms. The automobile-of-the-future, the kitchen-of-the-future, the classroom-of-the-future have long figured more actively in our imaginations, plans, and desires than whatever versions of these things we may currently have. We long ago gave up the wish to have things that were adequate or even excellent; we have preferred instead to have things that were up-to-date. But to be up-to-date is an ambition with built-in panic: our possessions cannot be up-to-date more than momentarily unless we can stop time—or somehow get ahead of it. The only possibility of satisfaction is to be driving now in one’s future automobile.”
Of course, the relentless economy powering such “achievements” pays little or no attention to resource depletion, pollution, or the dislocated human being. It depends on the illusion of limitless quantities. To make this reality, Berry writes, “we would have to debase both the finite and the infinite; we would have to sacrifice both flesh and spirit. It is an old story. Evil is offering us the world: ‘All these things will I give thee, if thou wilt fall down and worship me.’ And we have only the old paradox for an answer: If we accept all on that condition, we lose all.”
Like E.F. Schumacher, Berry links the problem in its essence to the tempter of Christ, the archenemy of humanity.
In a 1981 work, The Gift of Good Land, Berry explores the tragedy of “progress” via dislocation by reflecting on a visit to Peru. There peasants from the uplands who grew a huge variety of potatoes, using small-scale techniques and organic methods, gave up their ancestral lands and became dislocated by voluntarily moving to the slums of Lima, where they could watch American entertainment on television.
Decades after these works, Berry is still vexed by many of the same concerns and the issues arising from the global “order.” The difference is that the natural world is now in far worse condition. What has not changed are the spiritual precepts that undergird his prescription for healing. He writes, “Most of the important laws for the conduct of human life probably are religious in origin—laws such as these: Be merciful, be forgiving, love your neighbors, be hospitable to strangers, be kind to other creatures, take care of the helpless, love your enemies. We must, in short, love and care for one another and the other creatures. We are allowed to make no exceptions. Every person’s obligation toward the Creation is summed up in two words from Genesis 2:15: ‘Keep it.’”
It is intriguing that he understands spiritual law to be the basis of right use. Another of Berry’s related concerns is that American Christianity has not lived up to its founding documents. Because it has focused on saving souls in the land to the exclusion of practicing religion on the land, it has failed to recognize the sanctity of creation and the laws that support it. In this context Berry quotes Professor Ellen Davis, who writes: “Sound agricultural practice depends upon knowledge that is at one and the same time chemical and biological, economic, cultural, philosophical, and (following the understanding of most farmers in most places and times) religious. Agriculture involves questions of value and therefore of moral choice, whether or not we care to admit it.”
Taken from a chapter I wrote for Access, Not Excess: The Search for Better Nutrition by Charles Pasternak (ed) (Smith-Gordon February 2011)