Reading Wendell Berry is always interesting, whether it is his fiction or his essays. The man has a way with words and the recent essay collection, Our Only World, is no exception.
The ten essays in this volume were written between 2010 and 2014. Some of them are the text of speeches. Others were published in various magazines. All of them are worth reading, even if you don’t agree with where Berry lands on issues.
If you haven’t read Berry before, do it. It may be better to begin with some of his novels, but they are worth the time, whatever you read.
He’s an advocate for rural life in Kentucky. His writing focuses on establishing a sense of place where you live, putting down roots, and being part of the community. There is wonder in what he writes and a quiet power.
He is a Christian of sorts, though he often stands on the liberal end of spectrum on social issues. He’s personally opposed to abortion and thinks it is wrong, but he admits in this collection that he’d help someone else get an abortion. He also argues that marriage precedes government, so he wonders aloud if the government has any business defining it. Many people wonder that, but Berry argues that since the government shouldn’t define it, marriage should mean whatever people want it to. At the same he argues for an order to creation and bases his environmental ethics on it. His single essay on this topic is perhaps the least convincing in this collection, but whether you agree with his logic or not, he writes well and makes his readers think.
Berry's Environmental Ethics
Berry’s bread and butter is in his arguments for taking care of the land. When he writes about his sustainable farming practices it makes me want to get a team of horses and farm. There is a sense of beauty in Berry’s description of life on his small acreage farm. His writing evokes a desire for a sense of place, a sense of belonging somewhere and to a group.
Even in the first, somewhat disorganized essay, which is aptly called “Paragraphs from a Notebook” there is a sense of beauty and balance in the writing. Though there is no direct link between the blocks of text that splash in sequence across the page, there is a cohesion of thought to it.
Berry writes, “We need to acknowledge the formlessness inherent in the analytic science that divides creatures into organs, cells, and ever smaller parts or particles according to its technological capacity.” This idea is the link between his paragraphs. It is the idea that animates his worldview.
Integrity, perhaps, is the theme of much of what Berry presents to the world. Beware artificial divisions, even between humans. He offers, “The phrase ‘be alone’ is a contradiction in terms. A brain alone is a dead brain. A man alone is a dead man.” Humans need one another. We are part of something greater, and should seek to be part of something greater than ourselves.
For Berry, conservation is the pursuit of integrity of the land, a search for wholeness. The farmer becomes part of the farm, not its master. He is part of the dirt that he walks on. The citizen is part of the community and should not strive to be somewhere else. Place is important because it is part of being integral. Integrity is the way you are, not just a sense of moral character.
Berry’s essays call the reader back to the sort of world that is coherent and whole. It feels like he’s describing a day and age that has been gone for generations and perhaps only ever existed in novels that romanticize country life. But for Berry such an integral sense of belonging is an eschatological hope, and one that he hopes for many more to realize in this life. Maybe some folks can.
In one essay about a trip to visit a forest in Pennsylvania Berry describes logging practices that he argues respect the goodness and integrity of the forest. The work is done by horse, which is a common theme for Berry, and it is done with a view to leaving the forest healthier, not for maximizing short term profit. The owner of the forest is part of the forest and loves it. He wants to use it wisely, and profit from it reasonably, but still leave it intact for another generation.
That’s another major theme in Berry’s essays. Take the long view. Don’t maximize profits today, but look for ways that a reasonable profit can be had for years to come. Both in forestry and farming, Berry is lobbying for a long term outlook.
Even though I disagree with Berry about many things, he makes me think well to figure out why he isn’t right. I’ve not met the man, but he seems like the sort of person I could enjoy a cup of coffee with even as we heartily debate an important topic. Reading Berry is learning how to argue well and graciously. Maybe someday he’ll win me over to more of his ideas.
Pick up this book and read it. It’s worth the time. But don’t rush through the essays. They are worth taking slowly and enjoying along the way. Our Only World is a volume that deserves to be considered and appreciated. Each of the essays is a little gem that can be appreciated on its own. Though perhaps Berry would argue the essays deserve to be held together with a sense of integrity.
Note: I received a gratis copy of this volume from the publisher with no expectation of a positive review.