Monday, February 12, 2007

Wendell Berry, part one

About fifteen years ago, wanting tools for thinking about alternatives to contemporary consumption-crazy capitalism, I read E. F. Schumacher’s Small Is Beautiful (1973). In certain circles, it has the status of a classic, but I found it an almost complete disappointment. Schumacher is thoroughly anti-modern, suspicious of technology and capitalism, and throughout the book he rails against the excesses of industrial production. But his argument is almost entirely a negative one: he wants to destroy our current economy and the way of life it creates and enables, but he offers no compelling alternative vision. Small Is Beautiful left me with the impression that Schumacher simply liked the (mostly imaginary) old days—maybe even medieval times—better than today, but that, whatever our doubts about contemporary life, there was no reason for the rest of us to follow him.

Years later, I discovered Wendell Berry, who, while sharing a lot of Schumacher’s suspicions of modernity, unlike Schumacher succeeds in presenting a positive alternative vision. For nearly forty years, in stories, novels, poems, and essays, he has both detailed the problems with industrial life and demonstrated the many benefits—and even the necessity of—alternatives. He is, to use Isaiah Berlin’s formulation, a hedgehog, having one big idea: that a local economy, tied to a healthy stewardship of the land and a sense of responsibility towards it and one’s family and neighbors, is the only economy that is sustainable over the long term. The land, in Berry’s mind, is given to us in trust, handed from one generation to the next, and it is the job of every generation to tend it well, repair damage that has been done, and pass it on healthier than it was when we received it. If we do that, argues Berry, we will have healthy land, strong communities, and successful families.

Berry’s essays are an always interesting combination of agrarian thought and personal reflection, making use of personal experience to illustrate larger points about community and land use and drawing the essential links between environmentalism and politics. They’ve taught me a lot about my own small-town background, explaining how the rapid post-World War II industrialization and the subsequent widespread adoption of automobiles and industrial farming techniques led to the current state of rural population loss and environmental degradation. They’re also a great starting point for anyone questioning, in particular, the way we currently raise and distribute our food in the West, and in fact they were a major source for Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma (which I wrote about here).

The ideas Berry lays out in his essays also underlie his fiction, where they are explored through the lives of the interlocking families of the small Kentucky hill town of Port William. Since 1960 Berry has written seven novels and two dozen stories about what he calls the Port William Membership, from Reconstruction to the present day. Much of the large cast and many of the major events in the life of the town are presented in A Place on Earth (1967), which takes place in 1943 and 1944, as World War II begins to make its effects shown, though no one in the town yet realizes how extensive and long-lasting those effects will be, or that the result will be the loss of a long-sustained agrarian way of life. In subsequent novels and stories, Berry draws attention to different groups of characters and different periods, showing us alternative views of the same stories, earlier or later incidents in the lives of people we have already come to know well through A Place on Earth.

Berry's books are full of manual labor and the constant conversation that accompanies it, of families and marriages and deaths, of surprises and violence, of tired old jokes and sudden seriousness. They’re vastly entertaining, as captivating as a soap opera, and, as novel adds to novel, each fleshing out a different portion of the overall story whose contours Berry limned in A Place on Earth, the breadth and sweep of the narrative becomes breathtaking.

More tomorrow.

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