Wendell Berry’s Our Only World

Our Only World
“I can tell you confidently that the many owners of small farms, shops, and stores, and the self-employed craftspeople who were thriving in my county in 1945, did not think of their work as ‘a job.’ Most of these people, along with most skilled employees who worked in their home county or home town, have now been replaced by a few people working in large chain stores and by a few people using large machines and other human-replacing industrial technologies. Local economies, local communities, even local families, in which people lived and worked as members, have been broken.”     
Wendell Berry, Our Only World

Ten Essays by The Mad Farmer, an American prophet

A few days before I wrote this post, people in our government were planning to vote on a cruel, senseless health care bill that would have meant insurance companies would no longer be required to cover outpatient care, emergency services, hospitalization, pregnancy, maternity and newborn care, mental health and substance abuse treatment (mental health is a cause especially close to my heart), prescription drugs, rehabilitation, laboratory and diagnostic tests, preventive and wellness services and pediatric care.

I thought about all the working poor and those without jobs in Ohio, where I grew up. This health care bill would have wrought only further misery and suffering, and yet many of those who would have been adversely affected had voted in the current administration.

I was afraid to look at the news on Friday, and relieved and thankful when I finally did. There had been no vote on the bill. The fate of health care in the United States would be determined another day.

For some reason, it seems we are forcing ourselves to sort everything into the categories of liberal or conservative, and pro-government or anti-government, when of course the world is far more complex, and far more beautiful.

To keep myself sane and as a balm when I’m tired of all the vitriol, I’ve been reading Wendell Berry. I’ve wanted to dive into his writing for a long time. Needless to say, Berry doesn’t give much credence to strictly liberal or conservative world views.

He is a long-time Kentucky farmer and a devout Christian who writes poetry, short stories, novels, and essays, brilliantly. Affectionately known as “the mad farmer,” Wendell Berry is an American prophet, a voice of reason, humility, and humanity who has been compared to Emerson and Thoreau. If every person in America, young and old, read a few of his poems or stories, maybe we’d be in a better place.

Our Only World, a collection of ten essays, is a good choice if you want a concise introduction to Wendell Berry. (The book pictured above refers to eleven essays, but my copy had only ten, so I assume an essay was removed before publication.)

There were so many passages I wanted to quote, it was hard to choose. When I read the passages below, I thought of the economic devastation I’ve seen in my home town and in my home state of Ohio:

“….the disposability of people….is one of the versions of ‘creative destruction,’ which is to say the theme of heartlessness, heartbreak, and permanent damage to people and their communities….We now use ‘Luddite’ as a term of contempt, and this usage, often by people who consider themselves compassionate and humane, implies a sort of progressivist etiquette by which, in the interest of the future (and the more fortunate), we are to submit passively to our obsolescence, disemployment, displacement, and (likely enough) impoverishment. We smear this over with talk of social mobility, upward mobility, and retraining, but this is as false and cynical as the association of ‘safe’ with the extraction, transportation, and use of fossil and nuclear fuels.”

“The ruling ideas of our present national or international economy are competition, consumption, globalism, corporate profitability, mechanical efficiency, technological change, upward mobility – and in all of them there is the implication of acceptable violence against the land and the people. We, on the contrary, must think again of reverence, humility, affection, familiarity, neighborliness, cooperation, thrift, appropriateness, local loyalty. These terms return us to the best of our heritage. They bring us home.”

“If one accepts the 24th and 104th Psalms as scriptural norms, then surface mining and other forms of earth destruction clearly are perversions. If we take the Gospels seriously, how can we not see industrial warfare and its unavoidable massacre of innocents as a most shocking perversion? By the standard of all scriptures, neglect of the poor, of widows and orphans, of the sick, the homeless, the insane, is an abominable perversion. Jesus taught that hating your neighbor is tantamount to hating God, and yet some Christians hate their neighbors as a matter of policy and are busy hunting biblical justifications for doing so. Are they not perverts in the fullest and fairest sense of that term? And yet none of these offenses, not all of them together, has made as much political-religious noise as homosexual marriage.”

Even more than mental health and health care, I care about our earth and climate change. Here are some things Wendell Berry has to say about our relationship to the natural world:

“…. the limited competence of the human mind… will never fully comprehend the forms and functions of the natural world. With the development of industrialism, this misfitting has become increasingly a contradiction or opposition between industrial technologies and the creatures of nature, tending always toward the destruction of creatures, creaturely habitat, and creaturely life. We can respond rationally to this predicament only by honest worry, unrelenting caution, and propriety of scale. We must not put too much, let alone everything, at risk….

….all our uses of the natural world must be governed by our willingness to learn the nature of every place, and to submit to nature’s limits and requirements for the use of every place.”

A poet and writer I know writes of “the daily bread of language,” and lately I’ve enjoyed partaking of the daily bread of Wendell Berry. One of my blog readers suggested that I look at Berry’s fiction, too, so next week I’ll write about Hannah Coulter and a few other novels that take place in Port William, a fictitious Kentucky town.

The Bill Moyers interview below is a wonderful introduction to Wendell Berry. Listening to him measuring out wisdom in his musical Kentucky cadence calms the mind and soothes the soul.

*****

By the way, the march for climate, jobs and justice, sponsored by the People’s Climate Movement, will take place in Washington, D.C. on April 29, 2017, together with thousands of Sister Marches around the world. My husband and I are planning to march in Washington or New York City. Will there be a march near you?

Have you read Wendell Berry? Which of his books would you recommend? Are you a fan of other writers of a similar nature?

21 responses

  1. What a wonderful collection for you to be reading at this time Valorie, there are so many wonderful gems of creative non-fiction that never seem to get the exposure that other more escapist accounts receive, but I can always rely, like one of your commenters so eloquently put, on people like you and a few others whose readings I follow and I know I can ask, to unearth and share those works whom we could all benefit from reading.

    I think Wendell Berry might have a lexicon notebook like you and clearly loves using it! If not, he’s certainly a lover of words and nuances!

  2. Thank you for reminding me of Wendell Berry’s writings and life. He is a living example of groundedness. Your blog brought to mind another important author I haven’t visited in years, Aldo Leopold. His Sand County Almanac was first published in the late 1940s, I believe, but it is still relevant today.

    After work on Sunday, I popped into the bookstore and got a copy of Our Only World.
    The chapter on forestry is my favorite so far. That forester’s long term vision and devotion to sustainable forestry is a labor of love we rarely see today. It lifts me up to know there are people like you Val, who through your writing, direct readers’ attention to people like Wendell Berry, who through his writing, directs our attention to people like Troy Firth. Your writing enriches our minds and our lives. Thank you for your devotion to writing this blog. It makes a worthy contribution to the rational and compassionate exchange of ideas that matter.

    You asked about Earth Day Marches in our areas. I’m sure you know that in Rochester there will be a March for Science on April 22nd to speak out for government funding of the sciences in the face of Trump’s proposed cuts. The Rochester People’s Climate Movement and others have organized a local solidarity march for April 29th. I only mention it so your readers learn of the local commitment.

  3. You ask the question what Berry books we would recommend. Essays: any of his books of essays would be a good start. Novels: Jayber Crow, Memory of Old Jack, or Hannah Coulter. Short stories: my favorite is “Pray Without Ceasing”. Poetry: any of the Sabbath poems. Also check out Brother Tom’s website “Mr. Wendell Berry of Kentucky.”

  4. Pingback: Timeout for Art: Life as Art | cindyricksgers

  5. Lovely blog Valorie. I hadn’t encountered Wendell Berry before, but from what you’ve posted here I think I have to. And it’s an astute observation, this need to categorise things into either ‘this’ or ‘that’ as though the only choice is opposition when, as you rightly point out, the world is so much more complex than that. I’m not sure if you’ve read Ali Smith’s most recent work, Autumn, which is the first ‘post-Brexit’ novel, but in it she observes that there’s been a death of dialogue, and it’s an observation which throws our current ‘problems’ into sharp relief. Though perhaps it is only how they’re presented to us that makes it seem that way. Certainly the click-bait nature of the media, exacerbated by platforms like Twitter and Facebook which turn the mind towards a sharper and less nuanced form of communication, present a very black and white version of the world these days.

    • I haven’t read Autumn yet, but I read and really like How to Be Both. Yes, and it also seems like many of us would share common ground on some things, but we’ve forgotten how to find that common ground.
      Thanks so much for your comments!

  6. This is the first I’ve heard of Wendell Berry, but I’m looking forward to hearing more about his fiction. And, I was also very relieved to hear there would be no vote on your health care bill!

    • Naomi, you have informed me of so many fine Canadian writers. It seems that the conversation around literature and the arts in Canada is much livelier and more widespread than in the US. I wish we had more of that here, we’d be better off. Anyway, I can almost guarantee that you will find Berry remarkable. I’m going to read Hannah Coulter this week, and I think it’s great if you begin with his fiction. Let me know what you think.
      And on a side note, someone close to me had the opportunity to travel to Toronto and meet Margaret Atwood recently. I’m so jealous. I can’t print the details here until later, but….anyway, I’m finally getting around to reading Handmaid’s Tale, wanted to get to it before I watch the Hulu series that debuts in April! Are you planning to try and watch that, or would it spoil the book and characters that you have in our mind?

  7. I’ve read all of Berry’s fiction and most of his non-fiction. A number of things always amaze me about Berry. The first being how largely unread he remains. He is and has been, for a very long time one of America’s very best writers in any genre. Yet, even here- in the Ohio Valley- less than 100 miles from where he lives, Berry remains little known by the general public.

    And yet, while Berry remains largely unread by the general public, every time I meet a kind and intelligent person who impresses me and or whom I admire, it’s always only a matter of time, it seems, before they confess a love for Berry’s writing.

    Penultimately, I always go to be Berry for a sense of common decency and community which seems completely lacking in the real world. Without being unduly nostalgic or purple and without shying away from life’s hard problems- he reminds us that it is possible to live in this world with courtesy and common decency, and even a few laughs.

    Lastly I look to Berry to remind me what to means to be a good writer. I recently read an older collection of book reviews and essays- What Good Are People For? His review of an early Edward Abbey novel was one of the very best writing lessons I’ve ever had.

    Thanks for the essay and keep up the great work.

    • It amazes me too how few readers know him but I suppose we shouldn’t be surprised. If only people knew what they were missing, but they don’t. Honestly I think many people, if the were to read Berry, would feel so much better if they knew writers like him are in the world, and they in turn would uplift our cultural conversations. Thank for these encouraging words, it’s good to know someone is reading and appreciating!

  8. What a simply wonderful blog, Grace, I devoured every line and every word and every idea.. I will be finding that book as fast as I am able… wonderful thoughts and concepts so exquisitely and articulately expressed… as more and more people are inspired to think like Wendell Berry and like you, I know it will cause the thinking of the world to change, and the consciousness of us all to shift to another level of understanding, compassion, conservation and joy… thank you so much for this – an inspiring opening to my day in the Antipodes,where we too have to resist the despoliation of the land and communities… though on a far smaller scale than the rest of the world. Blessings to you..

  9. Reading more Wendell Berry seems like a good response to the madness in the world. I’ve also been irritated, lately, how it seems like many of us are being boxed into simplistic, extremist views; we have a march every week on our town square, and every time I make a new sign I have to think about how to condense my views down into a slogan that still says anything I believe. Immigration is particularly hard; I’m not in favor of letting everyone in with no restrictions at all any more than I am in favor of building a wall.

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