Magazine article The Christian Century

The Post-Agrarian Condition

Magazine article The Christian Century

The Post-Agrarian Condition

Article excerpt

The Art of Loading Brush: New Agrarian Writings

By Wendell Berry

Counterpoint, 240 pp., $26.00

When I first read Wendell Berry's parabolic novels, I began to notice the recurring word place. His characters demonstrate that a healthy life is all about place: specifically, having a farm to honor, love, respect, and care for.

In Berry's world that agrarian perspective is in profound tension with industrial agriculture's ways and means.

This collection of essays is part lament for what is being lost as industrial practices crowd out agrarian ones, part advocacy for a recovery of prior values, and part testimony to the difference that can be made by the wise exercise of land care.

He acknowledges at the outset that the original Southern Agrarians (the movement included Robert Penn Warren, Allen Tate, and John Crowe Ransom) had some culturally inherited racism (which they later repudiated). He allows, moreover, that growing tobacco as the major crop--a practice in which his own family was long invested--was not the best choice. Yet he insists that much is to be learned from the way tobacco farmers managed their land and their economy. Their way of life respected the land's needs and demands and was rooted in dependence upon neighborly interaction. They eschewed exploitation of the land and refused to engage in greedy competition with neighbors.

With a trace of nostalgia, Berry grieves the loss of viable communities centered on towns that looked after their own. This Jeffersonian model that he cherishes has been displaced by a ruthless, greedy monetization in which farmers have lost the capacity to farm wisely and everything has been reduced to commoditization.

In tracing this condition, Berry is equally dismissive of conservatives and liberals. Both groups show indifference to the specificity of farm life and the soil upon which food provision depends. Conservatives like Secretary of Agriculture Ezra Taft Benson in the 1970s follow the mantra, "Get big or get out." Liberals, though concerned about "global warming and the environmental crisis," are flyover advocates who never touch the actual earth that generates our food.

These are not new themes for Berry, but he voices them here with the passion and wisdom of an old man who knows enough to be discouraged and alarmed. In "Leaving the Future Behind: A Letter to a Scientific Friend," Berry assaults a scientism that imagines it can use the past to predict and control the future. Such flat certitude makes no room for surprise or the emergent quality of life, Berry contends, and no openness to "weighted possibilities." This arrogance, contemptuous of faith, operates with the illusion of limitlessness. It fails to see that the art of "provision" consists in taking good care of the resources that fund our futures.

"The Presence of Nature in the Natural World" (with footnotes) is the longest and most learned essay in the collection. Here Berry reaches back to Geoffrey Chaucer, Edmund Spenser, and the 12th-century poet Alan of Lille--all of whom had high regard for the liveliness of nature as a generative presence. …

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