“The problems are big, they are even big emergencies,” he wrote,
but they can’t be solved by big solutions. What our understanding of nature tells us is that the big problems can be solved only by small solutions, unrelentingly practical, that will be made by individuals in relation to small parcels of land farmed or forested or mined, in their home watersheds.
If you were hungry for a summation of Berry’s unwavering message as an essayist over the last 50 years, there you go. In his new anthology of essays spanning those years, The World-Ending Fire: The Essential Wendell Berry, the now-84-year-old Berry eloquently, lovingly, and fiercely confronts the “big emergencies.” The most symptomatic of them all, from his perspective, is the horror of industrialized farming.
Maybe you don’t care much about farming, but these essays, which move from food culture to feminism to literacy to global economics, confront the idea that the rotten ways we treat one another are rooted in the rotten ways we treat the land.
Agrarianism is the theme he returns to with great regularity and is also the subject of his best-known book, the 1977 classic The Unsettling of America, a compressed version of which is included in this collection. A good part of Berry’s career has involved excoriating mechanized, chemicalized mega-farming as a brutal, life-threatening assault that kills the soil and sends it down the river, guts farming communities, renders moot our relationship to animals and sky and other people, and widens a dualism between us and the earth that is ruining our health, our minds, our ability to live satisfying lives, and the American (and global) culture.
These works are mostly about small-town America, and mostly set on Berry’s farm at Lane’s Landing, once a riverboat stop on the Kentucky River near Port Royal, Kentucky. But not one word stoops to smug nostalgia. He is instead trying to prove that science and economics happen in a place: he draws endlessly and non-repetitively on the deep well of the lived truth of farm life, which delivers up sweet, clear lines of poetry and local lore and a kind of immediate authenticity.
That authority is the reason we read Wendell Berry. When he tells us precisely what ails us as a nation, that a “Faustian economics” of “corporate fundamentalism” fuels a “world-ending fire” of limitless consumerism that is our ruin, we believe him. We want to scream it from the rooftops. But he goes a step further. He doesn’t leave the question begged, but answers it:
Small solutions, unrelentingly practical, that will be made by individuals in relation to small parcels of land.
In other words, agrarianism. Which, in a technology-mad society desperate for Elon Musk or Facebook to solve all of its problems with an algorithm change or a ticket to Mars, seems like a disappointment, because it means you and I have to do it, and not our technology. But do what, exactly? That’s why I had been writing to Berry in the first place.
On a cold, rainy day in October 2013, Berry and I drove up the hill behind his house to gorgeous pastures of thick, dark green grass and a tobacco barn. I haven’t written about this before. The hill there, which is actually the ridgeline high above the Kentucky River and which sweeps down the Cane Run creekshed, is the same one described in the new book’s opening essay, “A Native Hill,” first published in The Hudson Review in the winter of 1968–’69. This far-ranging piece is a first foray into his take on the abuse of the land. As he walks the hill in the essay, he describes how men he knew — including his own forebears — planted that hill to row-crops and watched all the topsoil wash into the chocolate-colored river below. He estimates that, in some places on the hill, he’s standing “shoulder deep” in lost topsoil that no indigenous person or culture ever destroyed.
And yet, those white families who weren’t simply forced out of farming by the degradation to their land made bigger and bigger farms, growing more and more corn and beans, and to this very day their soil floats down the river to the Gulf of Mexico by the truckload. Despite lessons to the contrary, modern farming still assumes that what is good for people — industrialized production — is good for the land.
In that essay, he writes:
We have been wrong. We must change our lives, so that it will be possible to live by the contrary assumption that what is good for the world will be good for us. And that requires that we make the effort to know the world and to learn what is good for it. We must learn to cooperate in its processes, and to yield to its limits. But even more important, we must learn to acknowledge that the creation is full of mystery; we will never entirely understand it.
What Berry wanted me to see was that grass. As we pulled up near the barn, the slopes above and below us, steep in some places, were turfed with rich pasture Berry had put in decades ago. The upper was peopled with a couple-dozen sheep and the lower with a pair of giant Percheron horses, Berry’s plow team. Cane Run ran there.
“These hillsides need to be in grass. Grass stops the runoff and actually builds topsoil,” Berry said that day. “Grass and grazing. This is one of nature’s inflexible rules: keep the ground covered.”
The sheep and horses and their manure are part of a system that deepens the living soil year after year. Berry had a sweet donkey named Dorothy, whose job it was to guard the sheep from coyotes, and she was waiting by the fence with a bad foot, wanting some attention. So while he tended to her, we talked.
You can do something about climate change, and species loss, and poison food, and the dualism that makes you insane. You can plant some sloped acres to grass, which sequesters carbon and protects soil. You can buy the hay baled on that hill and the mutton grown on that grass. You can vote for politicians who will change the Farm Bill (currently up for its every-five-years renegotiation) to support farmers who protect the soil. Or support the growth of perennials. Or eat locally grown food and buy locally made products. And stop staring at that phone. The healing we so desperately need is not in there; it’s in the land.
The 31 essays in The World-Ending Fire were selected by Irish writer and environmental activist Paul Kingsnorth, and thus they have a certain thematic cohesion around soil as “[the] writer’s metaphor and [the] farmer’s reality,” which leads Berry to some truly astonishing insights.
My favorite piece in this book is a 2002 essay called “Two Minds.” It sheds some light on life in the age of Trump, and not in the way you might imagine. Throughout his work, Berry attacks both conservatives and liberals with equally damning precision, and in this piece, predating our current obsession with a divided American polity, Berry identifies two ways of seeing the world. The two ways are not a matter of identity, but rather as an application of intellect to the question of land use. These are the Rational Mind and the Sympathetic Mind.
The Rational Mind is “objective, analytical, and empirical; it makes itself up only by considering facts; it pursues truth by experimentation; it is uncorrupted by preconception, received authority, religious belief, or feeling.” That sounds good, right? It’s the mind of progressivism and rational thought, seeking the best information to make “informed decisions.”
The Sympathetic Mind, on the contrary, is concerned with being “considerate of whatever is present, to leave nothing out.” Where the Rational Mind is exclusive, weeding out material to get to the hard kernel of truth, the Sympathetic Mind is inclusive, seeking wholeness. The Rational Mind is the indoor mind, where the multitudinous and inefficient shapes of nature are shut out; the Sympathetic Mind is the outdoor mind, which is messy and glories in the inefficiencies.
The Sympathetic Mind gives us the diverse family farm, with its limitations and its eccentricities like a three-legged dog or flowers that are grown just because someone likes them. The Rational Mind gives us the industrial farm, which eliminates the very fertility of the soil itself in its drive for hyper-efficiency.
Berry’s purpose is “to argue in defense of the Sympathetic Mind.” As an example, he gives us the story of the lost sheep from the book of Matthew — the shepherd in the story leaves his 99 sheep to find the one who goes astray, and rejoices more in finding it than in the others that were never lost. The Rational Mind says that makes no sense: don’t risk the 99 to save one. But the Sympathetic Mind knows the flock is only a flock if all are present, that all have intrinsic value, that the individual is as important as the group. It acts from affection.
In reading this, of course, I thought of the election of Donald Trump. In his open embrace of white nationalism, Trump employs a warped Rational Mind to divide his fawning acolytes from people of color, immigrants, educated people, even the European countries from whence American settlers originally came — even from Canada. His brand of authoritarianism finds democracy too inefficient. He’s willing to sacrifice all 99 sheep to save the one he likes. But here’s the thing: Trump’s opponents used the same logic. Democrats and modern progressivism left behind white, rural Americans, who felt bullied by the tyranny of the new. The Rational Mind says to forget those people, who do not represent the future. But forgetting them was a very, very costly mistake.
Maybe someone is paying attention now. The Sympathetic Mind says the president, and the country, has to work for every single individual, barring none.
And since it’s Wendell Berry talking, the country also has to work for sparrows, soil fauna, pumas, the cold Kentucky rain, your memories, and every other part of life that happens in a place. Nothing left out.
“Two Minds” was written not too long after the attacks on the World Trade Center on 9/11, and in it Berry eventually gets around to addressing an ongoing danger: the Rational Mind has led us into a technological society that puts us more at risk every day: “[Y]et we now are obliged to notice that placelessness, centralization, gigantic scale, crowdedness, and anonymity are conditions virtually made to order for terrorists.”
The Sympathetic Mind leads us to place-full-ness, to a recognition that, despite our deep involvement in the internet, we live in a neighborhood with fellow living creatures and even rivers and hills that are worthy of love, and from whom we are not actually divided, but rather inescapably entangled. Freedom is in the entanglement. Berry’s findings in this essay range over a vast terrain of human endeavor, but he ties it back, as ever, to the sweet life that is possible within the relative confines of a community.
Wendell Berry is obviously as bugged by life as anyone else, but not by the conditions of his own home life at Lane’s Landing. We had dinner there with his wife, Tanya, and I saw in that kitchen the joys of a long life of hard work in the dirt: a simple meal, a slug of Kentucky bourbon, laughter, a marriage of (now) 60-some years, a recitation of poetry and discussion of books, stories about the local critters and neighbors. And yes, he’s basically a pretty conservative guy who believes in marriage and babies and the influence of scripture and he spends an overabundance of words talking about men who work, but his whole project is really to hold the patriarchy to account. He works from the assumption that the vast majority of men and women within it feel wrung-out and lost.
Do you feel wrung-out and lost? Berry also assumes that we’d all like to figure out why and what to do about it. Maybe you, like me, like almost all of us, have failed to embrace the limits of a local life. He points out, in “A Faustian Economy,” that a faith in the limitless economy falsely offered by corporate capitalism, in limitless growth, in the unlimited potential for expansion of the human endeavor, for no end to one’s own personal ambition, is the definition of hell. Heaven, as described by Christopher Marlowe in The Tragical History of the Life and Death of Doctor Faustus, is a place, but “Hell hath no limits, nor is circumscribed.”
To be placeless is to be “lost.” When we give up the idea of self-imposed limits, he writes: “One abandons any hope of the formal completeness, grace and beauty that come only by subordinating one’s life to the whole of which it is a part, and thus one is condemned to the life of a fragment, forever unfinished and incomplete, forever greedy.”
I believe in the project laid out in The World-Ending Fire, the project of finding our humanity in humility, in living as described in the essay “The Agrarian Standard” as “local adaptation, which requires bringing local nature, local people, local economy, and local culture into a practical and enduring harmony.” This is something you can do, something that no government, corporation, church, or law enforcement body can stop you from doing, an action in which you can find some measure of empowerment and freedom for you and your neighbors. It’s as easy as planting a tree.
What it is not is trying to find a universal solution that works everywhere, for everyone, taking care of everything. When I asked at dinner if it was worthwhile to pursue big technological fixes, Berry said to me:
“You can’t — I think that anybody who would have a recipe for changing the whole scene on a schedule would be dangerous. Almost inevitably wrong, and almost inevitably totalitarian in some way,” he said. “So what you have to do is you have to commit yourself to the small things that can be done.”
In writing about the fate of the natural world, Berry is a prophet of the domestic. These essays are about how to make a household here on Earth. That project is made of the “unrelentingly practical” things that can be done and that give us hope. Feel the dirt under your feet. You have the power.
Dean Kuipers writes on ecology, art, and politics and was an editor at the Los Angeles Times. He is the author of the book Burning Rainbow Farm and his work has appeared in Rolling Stone, Playboy, Outside, and other publications. He lives in Los Angeles.