Important Questions for Wendell Berry

“For humans to have a responsible relationship to the world, they must imagine their place in it. To have a place, to live and belong in a place, to live from a place without destroying it, we must imagine it.”
—Wendell Berry, “It All Turns on Affection,” The 2012 Jefferson Lecture

Wendell Berry is a classic novelist whose stories revolve around what he calls the “Port William Membership.” This Northern Kentucky locale allows him to tell the stories of various families and their offspring who settle along the river, develop and farm the land, watch their succession of children grow up, and see them lost to the land once they go off to college. Berry is what we call an “agriculturist” or “agrarian” in American terms, a “distributist” in English Catholic terms. He advocates a return to a more local way of life, with more work, individual farming, family responsibility, and local traditions of cooperation, exchange, and sharing. He is certainly a conservationist, though probably not that brand of conservative who has made his peace with modernity. “Yet another not very stretchable human limit is in our ability to tolerate or adapt to change.” I have read and loved Berry’s stories and novels, the weaving together of lives, land, and country over the course of a century and more.

All of my Iowa grandparents, with several of my many uncles, aunts, and cousins, were farmers. Except perhaps for one piece of land, none of the farms on either side of the family are still in family hands. Almost all of the houses and buildings on those farms are now destroyed, the land cleared and under agricultural production. This loss of roots in the soil is what most concerns Berry. His whole lecture centers on his grandfather’s land that is still owned by Berry and his brother. But, as he recognizes, this continued possession is rare in the Midwest. I recall my father telling me that, in the Depression in the late 1920’s, his family lost its land for lack of a lawyer and the added death of his father at the time. It was only because Berry’s father was a lawyer, not a farmer, that the land remained in his family’s hands. Only a small percent of Americans today are farmers of their own land. This is often seen, contra Berry, to be a sign or progress. The corporate farm model is now pretty much found everywhere. Berry’s novels are full of this struggle between land, industry, and city.

Orthodox. Faithful. Free.

Sign up to get Crisis articles delivered to your inbox daily

On the broader scale, Berry stands for land conservancy, reforestation, clean waters and rivers, farmers’ markets, wholesome foods, care of animals, protection of wildlife, and a more intimate relation of man to land. He writes eloquently on marriage and its dignity. In the title of the Jefferson lecture, Berry uses the word “affection.” What he means is a sense of care and respect for the earth that God has given us, something that supports us and gives us dignity and well-being.

“Affection” is not unlike the word that C. S. Lewis used in his Four Loves to describe the love or animals. It is not exactly “love,” but affection, storge. Berry has, in a way, taken this idea and applied it to the land as well as to animals. The extremes of animal love and land love, no doubt, forbid us to do anything with either of them. We find among us, as a result, a not so subtle denial of the Genesis commission to populate and subdue the earth. Animals and land become more important than people. Indeed, since people are seen as threats to both land and animals, we should control people, reduce populations, radically limit technology, leave the earth as if we were never on it or intended to be on it. Berry is not quite in this extreme school, but one sometimes wonders about the logic of his sensibilities.

The very first thing that struck me in reading the lecture was the curious logic of his contrast between James Duke, the founder of the American Tobacco Company and Duke University, over against Berry’s own grandfather with his small Kentucky farm on which tobacco was grown. Duke was mostly bad; the grandfather was mostly good. With this contrast in mind, Berry divides the world into “boomers” and “stickers.” The boomers are what we usually call entrepreneurs, those who go out and make or do something to change things. The stickers are those who stay at home and attend to local things, seek to keep things.

In this rather good-guy/bad-guy presentation, Duke is the bad guy and the grandfather is the good guy. Duke gains a monopoly on the tobacco market. This control results in a scene in which the grandfather, because of low prices of his raw tobacco, did not make enough cash from his crops to pay his mortgage and other costs. I can remember much of the same discussion about the price of hogs, oats, and corn in Iowa and its effect on the farmer who produced them.

Berry presents this scene almost in Marxist terms of exploitation and class warfare. “If you can appropriate for little or nothing the work and hope of enough such farmers, then you may dispense the grand charity of ‘philanthropy.’” If only the monopolists did not control the market, things would be well. Much of the subsequent history of agriculture in this country has to do with price controls, growth quotas on grains or animals, all designed to save the family farm. They often kept prices artificially high, enabled producers in other parts of the world or of the country to undersell high priced local produces. Eventually these government policies did not save the farms. Berry is quite aware of the results of many government programs having the opposite effects from those that their proposers visualized. He has little good to say about markets themselves with their role in making agriculture productive and purposeful at all. He stresses the undisciplined market. His concern seems so local that we do not know or care whether what we produce is of any use to others or how it gets to be useful to others. This distribution and allocation are what a market is about.

Yet, if we look at this scenario in retrospect, perhaps anachronistically, we see that both James Duke and Berry’s grandfather were engaged in a business which would be eventually driven out of existence except in those lands that did not abolish smoking. Both men were, in effect, busy undermining the health of unaware citizens. Neither of them, no doubt, knew this dire effect at the time, but it is curious that Berry does not refer to it. The great crusade to rid ourselves of tobacco and its production has been, unlike prohibition, largely successful. Under the aegis of health care, the government, along with the medical profession, has interfered with this market and assumed great power for itself.

Statistics of the cost of caring for those who smoke are harrowing. On the other hand, cynics point out that by eliminating smoking, we enable folks to live longer. Hence contract other, even worse, diseases which are more costly and debilitating than smoking. The passion of Berry’s attack on James Duke came across to me as rather one-sided in the light of the subsequent history of the tobacco industry itself. This is not an unusual dilemma in the history of economics, but not to notice it made the issue of “boomers” and “stickers” seem less than the whole story. Anyone involved in tobacco, producer or manufacturer, was involved in a rather heinous enterprise.

The idea that we are either one or the other, moreover, either boomer or sticker, is itself too facile. Most people have something of both in them, and need to have them both. After all, what is the United States and its settling but the adventures of boomers who wanted to become stickers in some place else when they could not prosper or be free at home?  These were in fact Berry’s own ancestors. The notion that we can keep something without improving it is dubious.

Of course, Berry’s whole ethos is to improve the land by living on it, caring for it. The land is not to be used as a mine. It is currently being “exhausted” by commercial farming, not preserved and restored by people who love the land. “Our decision in the middle of the last century to reduce the farm population, eliminating the allegedly ‘marginal’ small farmers, was enabled by the discoursing out of affection. As a result, we now have barely enough farmers to keep the land in production, with the help of increasingly expensive industrial technology and at an increasingly ecological and social cost.” Berry thus is far from considering the reduction in the numbers of farmers to be a sign of cultural growth.

Berry is most concerned that we “imagine” what we want or need. The power of imagination enables us to see beyond what we have before us. We are not necessarily locked into what we have. This is a teaching that goes back to Plato and to the Prophets. Applied to our society, so sick in many ways, it is a necessary first step. If we cannot imagine any other way of life, we will not get any other way of life, except a way of life which someone else imagines, say, a Muslim, or a Buddhist, or a technocrat.

Imagination is, of course, Berry’s business. This is what he “does” in his writing. He lets us see a way of life that we never knew or have forgotten. He is not, like so many, imagining a future that no one has ever seen. He is reimagining a past that our ancestors knew, a past with more human contact, even in isolated farms, than we know today with the immediacy of knowledge through our technology.

“The word ‘affection’ and the terms of value that cluster around it—love, care, sympathy, mercy, forbearance, respect, reverence—have histories and meanings that raise the issue of worth. We should, as our culture has warned us over and over again, give our affection to things that are true, just, and beautiful.” Berry is not happy with statistics, those abstractions that purport to tell us about the aggregates of reality. He is very concrete. He is aware of a kind of intellectual monopoly that bypasses real people. Knowledge is human knowledge ultimately. Corporations have no real souls. Markets have no souls either. One does not hear so much that all reality is directed to the person as to the land and its care. Berry sees the land as the context in which what is human can develop. Yet, man is not for the land; the land is for man.

The stark localism of Berry is very attractive in many ways. He wants to get us out of the cities and back to the land, to know our neighbor. He wants us to preserve the land and in the process of preserving ourselves and our planet. It is a majestic vision, no doubt. Yet, man is a city living being. The exodus from the land was not merely a plot against mankind but rather a fulfillment of man and the city in which the higher things could take place. It is not that great and human things do not take place in the economic order, but that they are not enough, do not speak what man is. Berry himself, after all, is also a college professor. Scenes of him with his horses and plough are striking, but so are those of his being given a medal by the president. Without the city, he could not speak.

The current population of the world stands at some seven billion people. Some are in poverty, yet it is amazing how many are not. And why are they not? It is largely because the inventions and energies that Berry seems to oppose have worked to support the population of the world. Surely this is not all bad. One is hard pressed to imagine how Berry’s vision of local economies could feed and clothe the world. There is no reason not to incorporate many of his ideas about localism, but something more is needed. We could perhaps react by elevating the planet and restricting human numbers so that we would not need to use more productive methods. Just why we cannot also use human boomers to solve the problems of land care that worry Berry is not clear to me. “The reality that is responsibly manageable by human intelligence is much nearer in scale to a small rural economy or urban neighborhood than to the ‘glob.’” Berry rejects the siren song of globalism. And keeping things to a human scale, letting those in towns and cities do what they are best at is fundamental subsidiarity.

The Jefferson lecture has many moving passages. But it somehow struck me as a kind of ecological utopianism. It promotes a world of villages. Berry wants to put us all to work. He seems to reverse Pieper’s notion that we work in order to have leisure. The lives of his characters are honorable and deeply sensitive, no doubt of it. His grandfather, he tells us, took but one trip in his life, to Tennessee, and didn’t see much there that would want to make him leave again. Ever since I read William Cobbett, I have realized that we can achieve our salvation even if we never leave home. If Berry does anything, he makes us nostalgic for our homes. To what extent we are also “restless” at home is not always clear. The Jefferson Lecture re-domesticates us. Still, it does not seem like a lasting city, let alone a lasting farm, even when we live there all our lives and care for the land and animals.

“And so I am nominating economy for an equal sanding among the arts and humanities. I mean, not economics, but economy, the making of the human household upon the earth.” Berry, I am sure, would not disagree with the famous phrase, “We have here no lasting city.” But the Jefferson Lecture does leave me perplexed about the admonition “Increase, multiply, and subdue the earth.” I had always supposed that this passage encouraged us to use our minds and hands so that we could accomplish these purposes. The Jefferson Lecture seems to oppose our minds to our affections, the city to the economy. One suspects that we would be better off if we could harmonize the two instead of pitting them against each other.

  • Fr. James V. Schall

    The Rev. James V. Schall, SJ, (1928-2019) taught government at the University of San Francisco and Georgetown University until his retirement in 2012. Besides being a regular Crisis columnist since 1983, Fr. Schall wrote nearly 50 books and countless articles for magazines and newspapers.

Join the Conversation

in our Telegram Chat

Or find us on

Editor's picks

Item added to cart.
0 items - $0.00

Orthodox. Faithful. Free.

Signup to receive new Crisis articles daily

Share to...