Until I retired in May, I worked for a company prominent in agriculture, a company that was no stranger to controversy. Maintaining a near-religious belief in science, the company often struggled with what it saw as the forces of “anti-science” arrayed against it. To observe openly, as I occasionally did, that this often intense criticism actually didn’t spring from “anti-science” but from something else was typically met with a blank look.
That something else was Wendell Berry. People in the company weren’t familiar with him. Michael Pollan, yes. Wendell Berry, no. It was a serious mistake.
For most if not all of his adult life, writer Wendell Berry (born 1934) has been remarkably consistent in his belief and his worldview that the industrialization of America had created a kind of violence upon the land, communities, and the people. In more than 50 works of fiction, poetry, and non-fiction, he’s adhered to that belief, which is informed by his Christian faith.
Industrialization includes everything from an agriculture dependent upon fossil fuels and chemicals and mining practices that scour the landscape to the destruction of forests. He sees both major political parties have having facilitated this, and indeed often with the collusion of environmental groups. And he sees corporate capitalism as having wreaked destruction upon the political, social, and economic landscapes as well as the physical landscape.
In Our Only World: Ten Essays, Berry continues his discussion of that violence and destruction, along with a focus on examples of where he sees people are making a difference. The title is something of a misnomer; the 10 essays are actually 10 articles, speeches and essays. But they are simultaneously vintage Berry and contemporary Berry. And he has much to say, and much that needs to be listened to and heeded.
The two longest essays in the book are the fullest discussions of his philosophy and belief. “A Forest Conversation” discusses historical forestry and logging practices but focuses on a family in Pennsylvania that has undertaken sustainable forestry for decades. “Our Deserted Country” focuses on agriculture, and considers how industrialized agriculture has changed local communities, the land, our attitudes about the land, and even our attitudes about the value of people.
“Caught in the Middle” tackles two social issues that Berry sees as connected to what industrialized has wrought – abortion and homosexual marriage. He generally opposes the first and supports the second, but he laments that both have become so politicized that the middle ground has essentially been destroyed. Even if you disagree with him on these issues, his gentle and thoughtful arguments will at least make you consider just how well your own beliefs are thought out. And his arguments are well worth reading.
Our Only World is not a long book but it is a worthwhile one. Much of what he says resonates with common sense, and much of what he says about industrialization is, I would say, on the mark. The question, as he well knows, is what do we do about it.
Top photograph by George Hodan via Public Domain Pictures. Used with permission.