The one good thing about teaching (I’ve heard there are others–vicious rumors, I contend) is I get to introduce my students to the work of Wendell Berry. Berry is an academic, but he is also a farmer. He is a cultural critic, yet also an agriculturalist who creates rather than just deconstructs. He is neither a liberal nor a conservative (though he is often misread as being one or the other by, well, one or the other), and he is the author of numerous novels, poems, essays and children’s books. I didn’t discover Berry until I was in my first year of graduate school, but I quickly made up for it. While I was at Duke it seemed as if I averaged reading one Wendell Berry book per class. It didn’t matter if the class was on Kant or Kierkegaard, those professors found a way to sneak in a Berry text.
I now have the luxury of passing down my indoctrination (sue me–I’m a traditionalist). I’ve required Sex, Economy, Community and Freedom as well as The Hidden Wound in a few of my courses. The former is loaded with incredible essays. It never fails to offend my trendier ‘green’ students (I’m not complaining, I’ll take it as a trend) when Berry questions the rather strabismic maxim, ‘Think Globally, Act Locally.’ He argues such a sentiment, put into practice by corporations and governments, often leads to the very opposite of conservation. Indeed, it is the ‘global thinkers’ that we should most often fear due to their ability to think of nature in the abstract. As Berry suggests, you cannot know that which is not under your feet. He worries that it was our abstract thinking that led us to this mess in the first place. Instead, a strategy of thinking locally and acting locally may be wiser. As he states in The Mad Farmer Liberation Front, “Praise ignorance, for what man has not encountered he has not destroyed.” (This is, of course, a bit tongue-in-cheek. Berry often demands that, when it comes to food, we only eat with the full knowledge of what we are eating and where the food originates. This way our connection with the natural world is not undone via passive consumerism. He heavily decries that sort of ignorance.)
Granted, it’s suggestions like the one above that make reading his work such a breath of fresh air. His essays are like little peaceful bombs on our multi-faceted (but not really) cultural playground (Barthians, please forgive me for hijacking that reference). And even when you do find yourself in disagreement with Berry, your clarification as to why you are in disagreement often proves as revelatory as when you find yourself in agreement. Indeed, I am often suspicious of myself (and others) when I read Berry and go, “Yes!”–as I think his work is so thoroughly against the grain that I fear my “yes” could have been a misreading. It should take some work to get to that point. It shouldn’t come so easily. By work, I mean, I’m not sure you can fully understand him, fully agree with him, unless you’re immersed in a manner of life that is similar to that which he is constantly advocating.
And I’m not sure my feeble attempts to grow herbs and tomatoes on my porch count.
And why is the following poem by Berry one of the most ridiculous/absurd/profound manifestos I’ve ever read?
THE MAD FARMER LIBERATION FRONT
Love the quick profit, the annual raise,
vacation with pay. Want more
of everything ready-made. Be afraid
to know your neighbors and to die.
And you will have a window in your head.
Not even your future will be a mystery
any more. Your mind will be punched in a card
and shut away in a little drawer.
When they want you to buy something
they will call you. When they want you
to die for profit they will let you know.
So, friends, every day do something
that won’t compute. Love the Lord.
Love the world. Work for nothing.
Take all that you have and be poor.
Love someone who does not deserve it.
Denounce the government and embrace
the flag. Hope to live in that free
republic for which it stands.
Give your approval to all you cannot
understand. Praise ignorance, for what man
has not encountered he has not destroyed.
Ask the questions that have no answers.
Invest in the millenium. Plant sequoias.
Say that your main crop is the forest
that you did not plant,
that you will not live to harvest.
Say that the leaves are harvested
when they have rotted into the mold.
Call that profit. Prophesy such returns.
Put your faith in the two inches of humus
that will build under the trees
every thousand years.
Listen to carrion – put your ear
close, and hear the faint chattering
of the songs that are to come.
Expect the end of the world. Laugh.
Laughter is immeasurable. Be joyful
though you have considered all the facts.
So long as women do not go cheap
for power, please women more than men.
Ask yourself: Will this satisfy
a woman satisfied to bear a child?
Will this disturb the sleep
of a woman near to giving birth?
Go with your love to the fields.
Lie down in the shade. Rest your head
in her lap. Swear allegiance
to what is nighest your thoughts.
As soon as the generals and the politicos
can predict the motions of your mind,
lose it. Leave it as a sign
to mark the false trail, the way
you didn’t go. Be like the fox
who makes more tracks than necessary,
some in the wrong direction.
I should leave it at that but I’m too much of a narcissist to let anyone have the final word. Plus, I have a few questions.
How do I find a food ‘product’ (note the word ‘product’) that is not owned or has been tampered with by a corporation? Why are they in total control of my health in a culture supposedly predicated on the free market, choice, etc.? As Michael Pollen and Eric Schlosser discovered, to even question where our food comes from brings down the wrath of the gods. Just eat, don’t ask.
How do we eat well knowing that what happens on our plate may very well represent our most important engagement with the natural world?
How do we do something that doesn’t compute? I want some examples please. More non-computing actions are drastically needed.
How do we make more tracks than necessary without those tracks being detrimental to the good that is creation?
What does the practice of resurrection actually look like? The Berrigan Brothers ability to resist ‘ultimate’ power? Clarence Jordan’s ‘Demonstration Plot’? Sojourner Truth’s declaration that she, too, is human? Jane Goodall’s attempt to save that which we seem hell-bent on destroying? I need to know. Now, please. As I do not have the virtue of patience (though, according to Laura Yordy’s lovely book, Green Witness, I should).
Okay, now go back and re-read that poem. And then, when you’re feeling righteously perplexed by it all, read what may be his second most famous poem.
THE PEACE OF WILD THINGS
When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.
Okay, this time, I am not going to say anything else. I’m not going to mention how the last time I found peace amidst the wild things I ended up with Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever nor am I going to mention how my use of the word ‘strabismic’ is probably a stretch. I’ll just end with his poem and let Berry have the final–ah, dammit. I did it again.
About the Author
Tripp York teaches religious studies at Virginia Wesleyan College in Norfolk, Virginia. He is the author of more than half a dozen books including, Third Way Allegiance, The Purple Crown, and Living on Hope While Living in Babylon. He is the co-editor of the forthcoming three-volume collection called the Peaceable Kingdom Series. An actor and a lighting designer, Tripp also surfs and spends his weekends shoveling elephant and giraffe poop.