Books

One of Our Most Beloved Environmental Writers Has Taken a Surprising Turn

The Trump era has messed with everyone’s head. Including, it seems, Wendell Berry’s.

The sun comes up over a gated meadow.
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For more than six decades, a steady breeze of earth-scented essays, novels, poetry, and short stories has tumbled from a small farm in Kentucky’s Bluegrass region, where the writer Wendell Berry, now 88 years old, has made his home. As comfortable with a hoe as with a pen, he has been one of the few intellectuals reminding us that country life is far more complex than its caricature, that industrial progress is nothing of the sort, that living in the country and working with the land can be a path to redemption, that living in the country and working with the land is the path to redemption. His latest book, The Need to Be Whole: Patriotism and the History of Prejudice, is the culmination of a lifetime of thinking and writing, and it is by turns infuriating, brilliant, lazy, startlingly radical, deeply disappointing, and filled with love, even as it seethes with resentment.

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Wendell Berry was born in 1934 into the tobacco country of Henry County, Kentucky. Kentucky at the time was overwhelmingly rural, and the U.S. as a whole had only just become a nation in which the majority of its inhabitants lived in urban areas. There were 1,501 farms in Henry County when Berry was a boy, and if the work was hard, it was also a way of life, with a coherent culture founded on neighborliness. From the very beginning, Berry had farming in his blood: Both sides of his family had been cultivating the same land for generations. Both sides had slaveowners among their ancestors. And Berry grew up working alongside hired Black laborers on his grandparents’ farm, learning from them many of the pleasures and skills and responsibilities of farm work.

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But Berry also had books on the brain, and he left the farm in Henry County, first for the University of Kentucky, where he studied English, eventually earning a master’s degree, and then for Stanford, as a Wallace Stegner fellow in the creative writing program that Stegner founded and which would turn out some of the 20th century’s most important place-based writers. Publication of his first novel, Nathan Coulter, which was inspired by his experiences in Henry County, was followed by a Guggenheim Fellowship, which allowed Berry and his wife, Tanya, to spend a few years living the expat writer’s life in Europe. Soon after, Berry scored prestigious teaching posts, first at New York University, then at the University of Kentucky. It was a good time for his writing. Always productive, by the 1970s Berry was publishing almost a book a year, a pace that has only just started to slacken.

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Then he gave it all up. In 1977 he turned his back on the urban, urbane academic life, resigned from the University of Kentucky, and went home to Henry County, where he turned to traditional farming. Ever since, he has attracted an ecumenical flock of devoted readers: organic farmers and homebrewers, picklers, and canners; rural DIY punks, writers of a pastoral bent, Christians who take stewardship seriously. Berry’s books are frequently found on the shelves of those who not only are critical of the wasteful course of mainstream American culture but also believe that we can change it ourselves with simple tools, a little land, lots of camaraderie, and plenty of sweat.

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The Need to Be Whole returns to these themes, even while it takes a bitter twist that many of his longtime fans, like myself, may find difficult and disappointing. Equal parts The Unsettling of America: Culture & Agriculture (1977), a scathing indictment of big agribusiness and factory farms, and The Hidden Wound (1970), his pathbreaking book-length essay on farming, American culture, and racism, The Need to Be Whole once again considers the question that Berry has spent his entire life contemplating: How can we live among our fellow creatures in a way that is honorable, just, and as sustaining of our souls as of our material needs?

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Most readers who know Berry know him for The Unsettling of America, which begins: “One of the peculiarities of the white race’s presence in America is how little intention has been applied to it. As a people, wherever we have been, we have never really intended to be.” Much of the rest of the book is devoted to tracing out the conflict of two different tendencies that Berry sees as defining American history: the exploitative one, characterized by the pioneer, the trader, the land speculator, the investor, the tycoon and stock trader, and the nurturing one, exemplified by small, subsistence family farms. The exploiters only ever stick around in one place as long as there’s easy profit to be made, but the nurturers “stay put.” Another way to describe what Berry is doing is that he’s casting American history as a conflict between capitalism and something more social, communal, and rooted in the earth—what he calls agrarianism.

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This elemental conflict between capitalism and agrarianism is also the driving tension in The Need to Be Whole, and Berry again recounts how capitalism has devastated the countryside (he is careful to distinguish “country,” the land on which we live, from “nation,” an imaginary thing for which he has little use): the staggering loss of topsoil; the concentration of farming by agribusiness; the increased reliance on heavily polluting, toxic fertilizers and pesticides; deforestation; mountaintop removal; climate change—the whole litany of environmental costs. And as he has done in many essays over the years, Berry convincingly shows how attempts to “modernize” agriculture, driven, since the 1970s, by the federal government’s policy of “get big or get out,” has led to the devastation of a once more or less independent rural culture.

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This is all old ground for Berry, delivered in the moralistic voice that readers are either thrilled or bored by, but what gives The Need to Be Whole its freshness is that he joins this critique of modern agriculture to the analysis of racism that he began in The Hidden Wound, a comparatively lesser-known book in the Berry canon. Lesser known but remarkable, especially given that in 1970 mainstream American environmentalism was almost completely unconcerned with anything related to social justice. This was the era of recycling and wilderness preservation, when the famous “crying Indian” implored Americans merely to stop littering. But Berry understood that the degradation ran deeper, was more than just an issue of where one dumped one’s trash. “The white man,” he wrote near the book’s end, “preoccupied with abstractions of the economic exploitation and ownership of the land, necessarily has lived on the country as a destructive force, an ecological catastrophe, because he assigned the hand labor, and in that the possibility of intimate knowledge of the land, to a people he considered racially inferior; in thus debasing labor, he destroyed the possibility of a meaningful contact with the earth.”

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This extended synthesis of the history of agriculture, the history of race, and the history of work is something new for Berry, and The Need to Be Whole is at its best when Berry, who often sounds like a homegrown, Christ-quoting mix of Karl Marx and the founder of anarchism, Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, argues that violence “is so far our history’s dominant theme,” that “the willingness to exploit people is never distinguishable from the willingness to destroy the land” and that “our race problem is intertangled with our land and land use problem, our farm and forest problem, our water and waterways problem, our food problem, our air problem, our health problem.” Everything is connected, and what connects it is exploitation. In that unity lies Berry’s despair, but also his hope. For if everything is connected through the violence of American-style capitalism, then it can be reconnected according to love—not the treacly, John Lennon Top 40 variety, but the radical love that Berry learned from his conversations with fellow Kentuckian bell hooks (published in hooks’ Belonging: A Culture of Place), with whom he opens his introduction. Indeed, he frames the whole book around hooks’ challenge that the true work of love is to repair what the artificial boundaries of race, class, gender, and (Berry adds) the human/natural has split apart.

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For Berry, as for hooks, love was more than a feeling. It was work. And if there is one overriding theme that has always defined Berry’s thinking (and has, to his critics, marked him as a dour Luddite), it is the sanctity and obligation to work with one’s own hands, no matter how lowly the task. Perhaps the most brilliant part of The Need to Be Whole is when Berry writes that one of the longest-lasting legacies of slavery has been the degradation of manual labor. For what was slavery, other than a way for the wealthy to avoid work by forcing another person to the fields and then stealing the fruits of their sweat? Like owning a factory, owning a person was a way to live in sloth. Though we have thoroughly rejected slavery, Berry writes that “the nation’s dominant ambition,” to never dirty our hands, “increasingly from the Civil War until now, was set by the slaveowner.” The results have been ruinous: “For the sake of freedom from certain kinds of work, we have seriously degraded the creaturely commonwealth of earth, water, and air, and ourselves along with it.”

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This is damage, Berry writes, that cannot be legislated away (though enlightened agricultural policy favoring small farmers and redistributing land to Black agrarians would help). The economists can’t solve it, nor will the engineers be able to design a machine that can innovate our way out of trouble. The only hope is to reclaim our willingness to work, individually and together. “We are now reduced to one significant choice,” Berry writes in the book’s final paragraph. “We can take our stand either on the side of life or on the side of death.” What he means is that each of us needs to decide if we’re going to live according to the rules of nurture or exploitation. “This will never be presented to us as one large and final choice, but only as a succession of small choices, continuing to the seventh and the seven-hundredth generation.” Though these choices are small—what food we eat and where it comes from, how we earn our livings and what we spend our time on, what we love and what we pay attention to—they are choices whose choosing will send us down different paths. Like any good anarchist, Berry knows that all we have is one another; like any good farmer, he knows that change takes time. “By a long persistence of human choosing, not of human life but of the world’s life, which is both its and ours, everything would be changed: how we would live, how we would live together, how we would earn our living, how we would work.” And like any good utopian, Berry also sees that the promised land is already at our feet: “If we worked for the world’s life, in good faith, with sufficient love … [i]t would make us happy as soon as we began to do it.”

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If that were it, an analysis of exploitation that united race and agriculture, drawn from a lifetime of thinking on the subjects and delivered as a homiletic fire-and-brimstone sermon calling us all to work, a style which Berry has perfected, The Need to Be Whole would have done its work faithfully and well. It also would have been about 300 pages shorter.

But between his introduction and concluding two chapters, there’s a revisionist history of slavery and its legacy that is largely unburdened by historical fact, laced with resentment about verbal slights flung at both the South and the rural U.S., and utterly incurious as to why, for instance, masses of Americans might find statues of Confederate generals objectionable and so be inspired to pull them down (Berry dismisses statue removal, as well as much of liberal politics, as simple “political correctness”).

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Though Berry is careful to state that slavery was indefensible, his hottest anger is reserved for industrialism, whose triumph, he maintains, loosed a virulent racism across the nation. And since, in his view, the Civil War was a battle between industrialism and agrarianism, and since he has long held that agrarianism is the path to a virtuous human place on earth, the history he ends up telling feels uncomfortably like Gone With the Wind. For instance, he writes early on that slavery would have been a relationship of mutual affection between owner and owned, that an enslaved person would “emerge from the abstraction of market value to become a known person, known moreover as a member of the farm’s community of humans and other creatures.” He posits that abuse and cruelty must have been rare, because such treatment would have “wasted time” and that, after the day’s work was done, enslaved people were “relatively free” to venture as they wished. We get the old myth of Robert E. Lee as a tragic gentleman soldier who hated slavery but fought for his love of Virginia, and the canard that however bad Southern chattel slavery was, the true horror of America came into view only after the war, when capitalism made slaves of us all, turned us all against one another, and ravaged the earth.

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It’s not worth continuing to enumerate Berry’s historical errors, nor is one’s time well spent rebutting them. But there are two points worth making. The first is that, contrary to Berry’s assumption, the North and the South, the factory and the plantation, were never mutually exclusive systems, but intricately linked, as much recent scholarship has shown. All those Northern factories, those cotton mills, were dependent on the South for their raw supplies, and as cotton became king in the mid-19th century, its sale and transformation into cloth made vast fortunes for a very few powerful people, North and South alike. If the industrial world was built on slave labor, then it’s also true that the agrarian/slave culture of the South was dependent on Northern capital. Nor were enslaved people “taken care of” in order to complete their work more efficiently. According to historian Edward Baptist, the enslaved increased their productivity by 361 percent between 1811 and 1860, not because of innovative machinery but “innovations in violence,” the “systematized torture” that caused mortality rates to skyrocket far above what was typical for white Americans.

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Neither was the South a region that prized a sense of place—cotton and tobacco were hard on the land, but it was cheaper to work the soil to exhaustion and then move on. Which is why the imperialistic Mexican-American War was fought: Slavery needed new lands, preferably in a cotton-growing climate, like Texas’, so that the plantation owners could become ever richer. When the South seceded, after the election of Abraham Lincoln in 1860, it was because Lincoln and the Republican Party to which he belonged wanted (at the time) to stop the expansion of slavery, not end the institution of human bondage.

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The second point is that the horrors of exploitation don’t need to be weighed against one another. Both slavery and the industrial world can be indefensible. Berry knows this—he knows that “the racial issue could never have been resolved by the plantation system,” just as it cannot be rectified by today’s market economy—but he keeps getting distracted by resentment.

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Late in the book, Berry writes that one of the results of Donald Trump’s win in 2016 was his discovery of just how much urban, liberal America disdains (as he would have it) those of us who live in the country. To take just one recent example, New York Times columnist Paul Krugman, who has always taken great delight in denigrating anyone from the country as ignorant, racist, and expendable, looked at social spending and concluded that since (Republican) rural America receives far more federal aid than it pays, all of us who live among woods and farm fields are lucky that our urban (Democratic) benefactors subsidize our lives at all. An intelligent analysis might point out that every bite of Krugman’s food, every sip of water he drinks, every bit of wood and stone and gravel and sand and metal and oil and cotton and wool and leather and rubber, every material aspect of his life came from the country and from those who live out here. A more judicious thinker might conclude that Krugman is getting quite the deal in return for scanty social spending, and that the bigger problem is not rural ungratefulness but urban exploitation.

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But why pay any attention to the Krugmans, let alone the fetid Twitter swamp? For some reason, Berry does, and it drives him wild with resentment—even his syntax starts to fall apart, as if he can’t capture his thoughts fast enough: “Confederate soldier = only a defender of slavery = only a racist = only a white supremacist = purely a Nazi or neo-Nazi,” he writes of what he calls Northern urban attitudes toward the South. It seems as if the only point to his revisionist history is to try to beat the thoughtless trolls at their own game, flinging back in their face the truism that the urban North has never been pure and virtuous.

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Too much of the book is befogged with such resentment, which is a great loss because resentment is cheap and mean. It’s lazy. And The Need to Be Whole is too often a lazy book, with little of the generosity that has always marked Berry’s prose. That bitter resentment winds up turning comrades into competitors, and it will turn away anyone who is thoughtful but not already familiar with Berry’s writing.

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I very much hope that this is not Berry’s last missive from Henry County—that, having taken hundreds of pages to vent his resentment, he can clear his mind, can air out his prose and return to what I understand to be his calling: caring for the land, caring for the community of life, caring for the integrity and clarity of his thought. In his great poem “The Peace of Wild Things,” he wrote: “When despair for the world grows in me … I go and lie down where the wood drake / rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds. … For a time / I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.” I hope Berry gets his rest and returns to his good work.