I admire Wendell Berry’s poetry. Christianity Today (15 Nov. 2006) has a good article about Berry, his life and ideas, written by Ragan Sutterfield. Some extract
Wendell Berry defies easy description. His book jackets call him everything from social critic to farmer to conservationist, and he is all of these, though they do not contain him.
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For the last four-plus decades, Berry, 72, has been asserting in various ways that we Americans live without much care for the world and our place in it. [Australian city dwellers are similar, but we are perhaps better acquainted with the rural context of our life and economy.] Berry points out that most of us consume and adopt new technologies without considering the hidden costs. Berry asks, how many of us think about environmental degradation when we start up our computers, which depend on electricity from coal gouged out of the mountains of Appalachia?
Berry does not mean that no one should use a computer or technology. Indeed, at the 125-acre farm he calls home at Lane’s Landing, near Kentucky’s tiny Port Royal (population 116), Berry drives a truck, uses a chainsaw, and has a CD player-though there is no computer. He writes in a tree-house stand on his hillside farm.
"For some," Berry writes, "their involvement in pollution, soil depletion, strip-mining, deforestation, industrial and commercial waste is simply a ‘practical’ compromise, a necessary ‘reality,’ the price of modern comfort and convenience. For others, this list of involvements is an agenda for thought and work that will produce remedies."
What Berry advocates is a sort of Sermon-on-the-Mount conservationism. If we are going to care for the world, if we are to walk away from our modern hubris and destruction, then we must "wash the inside of the cup" and "take the log out of our eye." What makes Berry different from so many other conservationists is his argument that we must live with a consistency that finds its roots not in our institutions, but within ourselves.
Berry is a careful reader of the Bible . . . attractive to Christians because he offers a vision of care for creation that is tied up with the sacredness of life. "What Christians offer is an understanding that the world is not ours, that we are not the ones that give things value."
But as Berry’s friend, philosophy professor Norman Wirzba, says, he "sees the church as deeply and willingly implicated in an economy that has been unremitting and unrepentant in its destruction." As Berry told me, "The church and all of our institutions have failed to oppose the destruction of the world."
Berry’s primary targets are not institutions, but individuals, including himself. He once wrote, "My work has been motivated by a desire to make myself responsibly at home in this world and in my native and chosen place."
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As Berry reminds us, there is nothing inherently wrong with proxies. The problem comes when we do not recognize our proxies and thus abdicate our responsibility for them. A common example for Berry is food production. If we are not able to grow, hunt, or gather our own food, then someone else must do it for us by proxy. In most urban places and increasingly in rural ones as well, food eaters have become "mere consumers-passive, uncritical, and dependent."
They have forgotten that "eating is an agricultural act" and that food is tied to the land, ecology, and work of a particular place. Whether that work is good or bad, healthy or destructive, it is beyond the vision of most industrial food eaters. They simply buy what is given to them.
"Eaters . . . must understand that eating takes place inescapably in the world, that it is inescapably an agricultural act, and that how we eat determines, to a considerable extent, how the world is used." Berry suggests how to take responsibility for our food proxie "participate in food production to the extent that you can" "prepare your own food" "learn the origins of the food you buy, and buy the food that is produced closest to your home" "whenever possible, deal directly with a local farmer" "learn, in self-defense, as much as you can of the economy and technology of industrial food production" and "learn what is involved in the best farming and gardening."
Berry takes responsibility for his proxies. He has electricity, but the lights remain off because, though it is dim on this overcast day, we can see fine. Berry heats his house using a wood-burning stove with dead wood he has collected from his own forest (a task that becomes more difficult as he moves into his 70s). Behind his house is his garden, where Berry and his wife of nearly 50 years, Tanya, grow much of their own food. Berry’s farm is very much a "home economy." It is here that care or destruction begins.
The difficulty, for Berry, is that fewer and fewer of us have a household with the constancy of place and community required for creating a good home economy. We are a transient, moving people who do not stay in places long enough to know local problems. [. . . ] Both of Berry’s parents have at least five generations of farming roots in Henry County near the Kentucky River.
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Berry presents the goodness, neighborliness, and struggles of a small community like this one in his fiction. . . . Berry’s fiction is best read with his essays. With his poetry, they provide a door to an understanding that makes most dedicated readers of his work want to change their lives.