Several misunderstandings of Wendell Berry in Richard Greydanus’s “The Cultural Mandate and the Spirit of Agrarianism” (Comment, V. 24, I.3), a response to my article, “Life in a Machine: The Crisis of Modern Agriculture” (Comment, V. 24, I.2), prompt me to attempt Berry’s argument, again. First, there is Greydanus’s concern that Berry’s agrarianism reflects a romantic return to the soil having appeal mainly for those of us with rural roots or living on small hobby farms with “two sheep on every hill.” Berry’s vision for and definition of agrarianism has nothing to do with a nostalgic dream that all of us would become farmers again. Instead, it is a sturdy, responsible, broad view of farming as “the proper use and care of an immeasurable gift.” The problems and responsibilities of farming belong, therefore, to everyone, with the farmer standing as a poignant “enactment” of our shared dependence on earth, air and water. His fate is ours.
This straightforward definition of agrarianism is made sadly necessary by the often wasteful, abusive practices of the industrial model of farming which, with its dependence on the machine metaphor, regularly runs the risk of living in a destructive relationship to nature rather than in a sympathetic, thankful, respectful one. Questions of scale are uppermost to Berry, but he does not propose, as Greydanus interprets, that we “do away with infrastructure that transcends localities.” However, he is always in favour of shortening the distance between producers and consumers, a protectionism he believes is sound and just. In Berry’s own words, “authentic and responsible thought is not restricted to the local or regional but does depend on the clarity and precision that comes from sustained attention to the particular.” It is precisely at this point that specialized, mechanized, corporately based economies are weak.
Berry’s concern is with long-term sustainability of the earth so that it can continue to feed cities, not kill them. The “urban suicide” that Greydanus fears will be the result of Berry’s agrarianism is actually the very thing Berry would prevent. Berry’s work and writing over the years can be been viewed as a sad litany on the ways in which the human economy lives in conflict rather than in harmony with the economy of nature. So long as urbanites remain ignorant of agrarian concerns, we will act or allow action that is harmful to our own future. Garbage disposal in cities is just one example of general, urban ignorance of the delicate cycle of life.
It is not efficiency or sophistication, not even industry itself to which Berry is opposed, but the way such things are defined. Is it really so industrious to replace workers with machines? So sophisticated to pollute air and water? So efficient to rely on cheap, long-distance transportation which typically forces regions and nations (that Berry includes in his understanding of “local”) to abandon economic self-sufficiency in order to specialize in production of a few things it can cheaply produce? Over and over again it is to nature’s “elegant” ways of renewing itself that Berry turns for foundational principles. While industrial economies have certainly brought prosperity, Berry’s point is that the prosperity rests on spurious definitions and shaky foundations, the cracks of which are becoming more and more visible.
It is precisely here that Berry’s religious foundation is so important. Urban readers will no doubt resist some of Berry’s heated critique of the global, corporate free market: “it is,” he says, “as if all the rabbits have now been forbidden to have holes, thereby ‘freeing’ the hounds.” But it is harder to resist the biblical theology on which his thinking rests, Greydanus’s concerns about the blessings of empire aside…
It is ironic that Greydanus accuses Berry of “quashing” creativity and so diminishing humanity when the central movement of Berry’s entire living pulses with poetry and exploration and the profound flourishing of humanity as it lives humbly within the Great Economy. One of the justly celebrated gifts of modernity has been medicine, yet accompanying it has been an age-defying, death-denying that does little to increase our dependence on God. So it is rare to find one as spiritually mature as Berry, who considers his own death regularly, peacefully imagining the whole of his life as a “long, patient descent into the grass.”
More easily than anyone else, the small family farmer accepts and lives within limits: “There is only so much land, so much hay in the barn, so much corn in the silo, so much strength in the arm… and no more. This is the understanding that induces thrift, coherence, neighborliness and renewal within limits.” Berry has for so long chronicled the list of our collective, intentional, and unintentional abuses against the nature of things that, perhaps, like Israel’s response to the prophets, we would just rather not listen. It’s easy to find points of disagreement with Berry, but this should not justify ignoring the conversation he started. Isn’t it telling that in Scripture the often dark and strident collection of prophetic writing is firmly embedded? Evidence, surely, that a desperate people finally seek what brings life, not death.