If you’ve wondered about Wendell Berry or the “new agrarianism,” check out this profile by Mark Van Steenwyk


Wendell Berry speaking in Frankfort, Indiana

Wendell Berry speaking in Frankfort, Indiana

Folks, Wendell Berry is a challenging and even mind-altering guy. You need to read him. Here’s my co-professor from  the Resources for Radical Living course, Mark Van Steenwyk, head of the Missio Dei new monastic community in Minneapolis and editor on www.jesusradicals.com, on that redoubtable eco-prophet, Mr. Berry:

Wendell Berry, The New Agrarianism, and the Penitential Life

When we hear the word “penitence” we think of friars and monks living lives of austerity. We don’t usually think of farmers. We don’t think of living enmeshed within the abundance of creation as a penitential act.

Today we’re going to explore the “New Agrarianism” as a penitential movement. In particular, we’ll explore the life and writings of Wendell Berry as a penitential voice calling us to turn from our unbalanced lives into a better way (which is, after all, the heart of the penitential life).

By way of introduction, I want to quote respected Franciscan scholar and writer Ilia Delio who serves as a wonderful bridge between the Franciscan tradition and the New Agrarianism:

“We need a type of ‘eco-penance,’ a turning to the Earth in a spirit of pardon, forgiveness, humility, charity and poverty. We need to relinquish our radical self-centered ‘I’ and recognize our need for a ‘Thou.’ Conversion is engagement with the human AND nonhuman world…How do we overcome the modern sin of consumerism and renew the health of the Earth by finding ourselves integrated into the ecological web of life?”—Ilia Delio  (pp.182-183 Care for Creation)

Agrarianism (from the Latin word agrarius, “pertaining to the land”)

“Agrarianism, broadly conceived, reaches beyond food production and rural living to include a wide constellation of ideas, loyalties, sentiments, and hopes. It is a temperament and a moral orientation as well as a suite of economic practice, all arising out of the insistent truth that people everywhere are part of the land community, just as dependent as other life on the land’s fertility and just as shaped by its mysteries and possibilities.” (Eric T. Freyfogle, The New Agrarianism: Land, Culture, and the Community of Life, Washington DC: Island Press, 2001, xiii)

In the introduction to his 1969 book Agrarianism in American Literature, M. Thomas Inge defines agrarianism by the following basic tenets:

–Cultivation of the soil provides direct contact with nature; through the contact with nature the agrarian is acquires the virtues of “honor, manliness, self-reliance, courage, moral integrity, and hospitality” and follows the example of God when creating order out of chaos.

–The farmer “has a sense of identity, a sense of historical and religious tradition, a feeling of belonging to a concrete family, place, and region, which are psychologically and culturally beneficial.” The harmony of this life checks the encroachments of a fragmented, alienated modern society which has grown to inhuman scale.

–In contrast, farming offers total independence and self-sufficiency. It has a solid, stable position in the world order. But urban life, capitalism, and technology destroy our independence and dignity while fostering vice and weakness within us. The agricultural community can provide checks and balances against the imbalances of modern society by its fellowship of labor and cooperation with other agrarians, while obeying the rhythms of nature.

Back to the Land Movements and the “New Agrarianism”

there have been back-to-the-land population movements down through the centuries…as far back as ancient Greece. These have happened in different parts of the world, largely due to the occurrence of severe urban problems and people’s felt need to live a better life, often simply to survive. (Eric T. Freyfogle, The New Agrarianism: Land, Culture, and the Community of Life, Washington DC: Island Press, 2001)

Some key dates in the modern agrarian movement:

–18th Century: The French Physiocrats, particularly Anne-Robert-Jacques Turgot (1727-1781)and Francois Quesnay (1694-1774) advanced the idea that the wealth of nations was derived solely from the value of “land agriculture.”

Late 18th Century / Early 19th Century: European Romanticism idealized the country lifestyle and farming.

–Early 20th Century back-to-the-land movement was popularized by Bolton Hall (1854-1938), who set up vacant-lot farming in New York City and wrote many books on the subject. (“Bolton Hall, 84, Single Taxer, Dies,” New York Times, December 11, 1938)

–1933: Ralph Borsodi, who experimented in self-sufficient living during the 1920s and 1930s, writes “Flight from the City.” The book influences thousands of urbanites to embrace a homesteading life during the Great Depression. (http://www.soilandhealth.org/03sov/0303critic/brsdi.intrvw/the%20plowboy-borsodi%20interview.htm)

–1940: Sir Albert Howard writes “An Agricultural Testament”. It is a classic text on organic farming. Howard is considered (in the English speaking world) to be the father or modern organic agriculture and the father of modern composting.

–1949: Aldo Leopold’s  “A Sand County Almanac” is published shortly after his death. The book (which has sold over 2 million copies) has been influential in the development of modern environmental ethics and the movement for wilderness conservation.

–1955: Helen and Scott Nearing write “Living the Good Life” which chronicles the move to an older house in rural Vermont. The book influenced many in the 60s and 70s.

–1968: The periodical “Whole Earth Catalogs” is first published.

–1970: The periodical “The Mother Earth News” is first published.

Both periodicals presented very practical helps in living the agrarian life.

Many, including Eric Freyfogle, argue that we’re currently experiencing a “New Agrarianism…a resurgence of the sentiments present in the 60s and 70s…and that, perhaps more than by anyone else, this movement has been influenced by Wendell Berry.

Examples of the “new agrarianism” include the growth of CSA groups (community supported agriculture), citizen-led, locally based watershed restoration efforts, the growth of personal gardening or shared neighborhood garden plots, citizen-led efforts to promote greenbelts and recreational trails designed not just for human use but to improve runoff and wildlife habitat, in the embracing of sustainable practices among a growing number of concerned consumers. (Eric T. Freyfogle, The New Agrarianism: Land, Culture, and the Community of Life, Washington DC: Island Press, 2001, xv-xvi)

“To the diseases and degradations of the modern age, a New Agrarianism is quietly rising to offer remedies and defenses, not just to the noise, vulgarity, and congestion that have long affronted urban dwellers but to the various assaults on land, family, religious sensibilities, and communal life that have tended everywhere to breed alienation and despair.” (Eric T. Freyfogle, The New Agrarianism: Land, Culture, and the Community of Life, Washington DC: Island Press, 2001, xiv)

Agrarian Prophet: Wendell Berry

In Kentucky there lives an elderly farmer—well into his 70s—who still plows using horses. He is a family man, living near where his parents and grandparents and great-grandparents lived. He also lives within miles of his children and grandchildren. The man, who stubbornly refuses modern conveniences like a computer, is something of a writer—a prolific writer, in fact. And this man has become one of the most celebrated voices in 21st century America. His name is Wendell Berry.

Wendell Berry was born on August 5, 1934 in Henry County, Kentucky. His father was a lawyer and tobacco farmer in Henry County and both of his parents’ families have farmed in Henry County for five generations or more. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wendell_Berry)

A successful writer, Berry taught English at NYU (1962-1964) and then the University of Kentucky (1964-1977). (Andrew Angyal, Wendell Berry. New York: Twayne, 1995, 139)

In 1965, Berry moved to a farm (Lane’s Landing) that became a 125-acre farm. The farm is near Port Royal, Kentucky near his parent’s birthplace. In 1977 he “quit” the University (he didn’t retire…rather, he felt “called out of” the typical institutions of American life). (Thomas Healy, “A Conversation with Wendell Berry: Taking Care of What We’ve Been Given,” Counterpunch, April 15-16, 2006).

Berry continues to farm, reside, and write at Lane’s Landing to this day (Angyal, Andrew. Wendell Berry. New York: Twayne, 1995)

Berry had lived the urban life…even traveling to Italy. But he was drawn home. In his late 60s essay “A Native Hill” he writes: “After more than thirty years I have at last arrived at the candor necessary to stand on this part of the earth that is so full of my own history and so much damaged by it, and ask: What is this place? What is in it? What is its nature? How should men live in it? What must I do?” (The Art of the Commonplace: The Agrarian Essays of Wendell Berry. Ed. Norman Wirzba. Washington, DC: Counterpoint, 2002. 22)

These questions led Berry down a path that we may consider “penitential”: “[These questions] are part of the necessary enactment of humility, teaching a man what his importance is, what his responsibility is, and what his place is, both on the earth and in the order of things. And though the answers must always come obscurely and in fragments, the questions must be asked. They are fertile questions. In their implications and effects, they are moral and aesthetic and, in the best sense, practical. They promise a relationship to the world that is decent and preserving.”  (The Art of the Commonplace: The Agrarian Essays of Wendell Berry. Ed. Norman Wirzba. Washington, DC: Counterpoint, 2002. 22)

Berry has written at lease 25 books of poetry, 16 volumes of essays, and 11 novels and short story collections.

Berry is exceedingly difficult to pigeon-hole politically, theologically, and economically.

Although he is a life-long Democrat at home with most environmentalists, his vision is grounded by a profoundly conservative impulse to remember and preserve. This may be the key to his enduring witness: by being biographically “of the left,” he is able to speak traditional truths to people who are powerfully predisposed against order and tradition.

Although he has been called the “prophet of rural America”, his life and thought have meaning for people in cities and suburbs as well as for farmers like himself.

It would be easy to dismiss Berry as some sort of Luddite. But his analysis of contemporary American life is as timely as his way of life is traditional.

He sees the connection between the natural environment and the whole range of human activity. Ultimately his vision is of community in the largest possible sense. Berry sees and proclaims that humankind must learn to live in harmony with nature or perish.

Penitential Themes in Berry’s Work:

A call from individualism to community

“If we think locally, we would take far better care of things than we do now. The right local questions and answers will be the right global ones. The Amish question ‘what will this do to our community?’ tends toward the right answer for our world.” (from “Out of your Car, Off your Horse” by Wendell Berry)

“I believe that the community—in the fullest sense: a place and all its creatures—is the smallest unit of health and that to speak of the health of an isolated individual is a contradiction in terms.” (Wendell Berry “Health is Membership” in The Art of the Commonplace, Washington, D.C.: Shoemaker & Hoard, 2002, p.146.)

“Freedom, in Berry’s view, is not about unconstrained individual autonomy, but rather about choosing which constraints we will abide by and which communities we will be responsible to. It is about making active choices in an age of passive consumption. In a highly mobile era, when many people are involuntarily pushed about by the global economy, his choice to root himself in a single county is less a throwback than the exercise of a very modern and privileged freedom.” http://www.grist.org/article/engler-berry/

A call from natural alienation to interconnectedness with nature

“The passive American consumer, sitting down to a meal of pre-prepared or fast food, confronts a platter covered with inert, anonymous substances that have been processed, dyed, breaded, sauced, gravied, ground, pulped, strained, blended, prettified, and sanitized beyond resemblance to any part of any creature that ever lived. The products of nature and agriculture have been made, to all appearances, the products of industry. Both eater and eaten are thus in exile from biological reality…” (Wendell Berry, “Pleasures of Eating” in Art of the Common Place, 323)

A call from rootlessness to a sense of place

“As far as you are able make your lives dependent upon your local place, neighborhood, and household–which thrive by care and generosity–and independent of the industrial economy, which thrives by damage.” (“The Futility of Global Thinking.” Harper’s Magazine Sept. 1989: 16-22.)

“A community knows itself and knows its place in a way that is impossible for a public (a nation, say, or a state).  A community does not come together by a covenant, by a conscientious granting of trust.  It exists by proximity, by neighborhood; it knows face-to-face, and it trusts as it knows. It learns, in the course of time and experience, what and who can be trusted.” (Wendell Berry, “Sex, Economy, Freedom, and Community,” from The Art of the Commonplace (Emeryville, CA: Shoemaker & Hoard, 2002), p. 174.)

For Berry, “place” is more than merely locale:

“If the word community is to mean or amount to anything, it must refer to a place (in its natural integrity) and its people.  It must refer to a placed people.  Since there obviously can be no cultural relationship between a nation and a continent, “community” must mean a people locally placed and a people, moreover, not too numerous to have a common knowledge of themselves and their place.” (Wendell Berry, “Sex, Economy, Freedom, and Community,” from The Art of the Commonplace, Washington D.C., Shoemaker & Hoard, 2002, p. 178.)

A call to use appropriate technologies in a technological Society

“…in a time marked by unthinking adulation of all things electronic, careful consideration of technology is less antiquated than avant-garde: ‘If the use of a computer is a new idea,’ Berry writes in a sly moment, ‘then a newer idea is not to use one.’” http://www.grist.org/article/engler-berry/

“To make myself as plain as I can, I should give my standards for technological innovation in my own work. They are as follows:

1. The new tool should be cheaper than the one it replaces.
2. It should be at least as small in scale as the one it replaces.
3. It should do work that is clearly and demonstrably better than the one it replaces.
4. It should use less energy than the one it replaces.
5. If possible, it should use some form of solar energy, such as that of the body.
6. It should be repairable by a person of ordinary intelligence, provided that he or she has the necessary tools.
7. It should be purchasable and repairable as near to home as possible.
8. It should come from a small, privately owned shop or store that will take it back for maintenance and repair.
9. It should not replace or disrupt anything good that already exists, and this includes family and community relationships.

(from Why I am Not Going to Buy a Computer by Wendell Berry…which I, ironically, found here: http://home.btconnect.com/tipiglen/berrynot.html)

A call from globalization to local economies

“Any religion has to have a practice. When you let it go so far from practice that it just becomes a matter of talk something bad happens. If you don’t have an economic practice, you don’t have a practice. Christians conventionally think they’ve done enough when they’ve gone to the store and shopped. But that isn’t an economic life. It isn’t an economic practice. If you take seriously those passages in the scripture that say that we live by God’s spirit and his breath, that we live, move, and have our being in God, the implications for the present economy are just devastating. Those passages call for an entirely generous and careful economic life.” (http://www.sojo.net/index.cfm?action=magazine.article&issue=soj0407&article=040710x)

“The cardinal principle of the free market is unrestrained competition, which is a kind of tournament that will decide which is the world’s champion corporation. Ultimately, thanks to this principle, there will be only one corporation, which will be wonderfully simplifying.” (Sex, Economy, Freedom, and Community, xvi)

We’re pretty well advanced into a corporate or capitalist totalitarianism. And it’s a very strange thing to see happen, because we were lately so much afraid of communist totalitarianism. You can remove that choice we were talking about simply by making it impossible for small economic enterprises to survive. (http://www.sojo.net/index.cfm?action=magazine.article&issue=soj0407&article=040710x)

Wendell Berry promoted something he called “economic secession” in his 1991 essay Conservation and Local Economy:

“If we are serious about reducing government and the burdens of government, then we need to do so by returning economic self-determination to the people… we must do it by fostering economic democracy. For example, as much as possible of the food that is consumed locally ought to be locally produced on small farms, and then processed in small, non-polluting plants that are locally owned. We must do everything possible to provide to ordinary citizens the opportunity to own a small, usable share of the country. …I acknowledge that to advocate such reforms is to advocate a kind of secession – not a secession of armed violence but a quiet secession by which people find the practical means and the strength of spirit to remove themselves from an economy that is exploiting them and destroying their homeland.”

A call out of industralized life to sustainable agriculture

“I believe that this contest between industrialism and agrarianism now defines the most fundamental human difference, for it divides not just two nearly opposite concepts of agriculture and land use, but also two nearly opposite ways of understanding ourselves, our fellow creatures, and our world. The way of industrialism is the way of the machine. To the industrial mind, a machine is not merely an instrument for doing work or amusing ourselves or making war; it is an explanation of the world and of life. Because industrialism cannot understand living things except as machines, and can grant them no value that is not utilitarian, it conceives of farming and forestry as forms of mining; it cannot use the land without abusing it.” Wendell Berry, Citizenship Papers (Washington, DC: Shoemaker & Hoard, 2003) 144

“The farms were around a hundred acres when I was a boy, on the average; they’re about 150 on the average now. But the farming that was done here when I first knew it, in the 1940s and ’50s, at its best, was very good farming. In addition to the crops I named, we raised cattle, sheep and hogs, sometimes all three on the same farm. And every farm had a kitchen garden, a flock of chickens, meat hogs, and at least enough cows to supply the household with milk.” (http://www.sojo.net/index.cfm?action=magazine.article&issue=soj0407&article=040710x)

“In any consideration of agrarianism, this issue of limitation is critical. Agrarian farmers see, accept, and live within their limits. They understand and agree to the proposition that there is “this much and no more.” Everything that happens on an agrarian farm is determined or conditioned by the understanding that there is only so much land, so much water in the cistern, so much hay in the barn, so much corn in the crib, so much firewood in the shed, so much food in the cellar or freezer, so much strength in the back and arms—and no more. This is the understanding that induces thrift, family coherence, neighborliness, local economies. Within accepted limits, these become necessities. The agrarian sense of abundance comes from the experienced possibility of frugality and renewal within limits…This is exactly opposite to the industrial idea that abundance comes from the violation of limits by personal mobility, extractive machinery, long-distance transport, and scientific or technological breakthroughs.”

(Wendell Berry, The Agrarian Standard, Published in the Summer 2002 Issue of Orion magazine:  http://www.orionmagazine.org/index.php/articles/article/115/)

“I don’t think that being landed necessarily means owning land. It does mean being connected to a home landscape from which one may live by the interactions of a local economy and without the routine intervention of governments, corporations, or charities…In our time it is useless and probably wrong to suppose that a great many urban people ought to go out into the countryside and become homesteaders or farmers. But it is not useless or wrong to suppose that urban people have agricultural responsibilities that they should try to meet. And in fact this is happening. The agrarian population among us is growing, and by no means is it made up merely of some farmers and some country people. It includes urban gardeners, urban consumers who are buying food from local farmers, consumers who have grown doubtful of the healthfulness, the trustworthiness, and the dependability of the corporate food system—people, in other words, who understand what it means to be landless.” (Wendell Berry, The Agrarian Standard, Published in the Summer 2002 Issue of Orion magazine:  http://www.orionmagazine.org/index.php/articles/article/115/)

2 responses to “If you’ve wondered about Wendell Berry or the “new agrarianism,” check out this profile by Mark Van Steenwyk

  1. Am wondering if you would elaborate on why you posted this, what the implications are for faith, or what your thoughts are about Berry in relation to the church. I’m intrigued by it, just wondering more about your thoughts on it.

  2. Pingback: Tweets that mention If you’ve wondered about Wendell Berry or the “new agrarianism,” check out this profile by Mark Van Steenwyk | Grateful to the dead -- Topsy.com

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