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Wendell Berry: A Steward of Place

The first book I read by Wendell Berry was Remembering: a profoundly moving novella about a journalist searching for identity and place, in the midst of a war between self and community. It was a deeply poignant story, and Berry’s diverse work has continued to have a profound effect on my writing and thought. Today, in honor of his 80th birthday, it seems appropriate to consider the impact he has had on our culture and ideas of place, in addition to the important role he continues to play in modern conservatism.

Wendell Berry doesn’t just appeal to “crunchy con” writers and conservatives, who probably enjoy his more pastorally-focused prose. His work is about more than farmers and fields, though he definitely promotes the rural. Anyone—urban dweller and rural citizen alike—can appreciate Berry’s focus and emphasis on place. A prolific novelist, all of Berry’s novels focus on one town, placing themselves within its geographic and relational limits. It is as if, even here, he wants to focus on the particulars, to love one place, even a fictionalized one. These are the characters, families, and social dynamics he wants to invest in.

Berry’s poetry has a similarly place-focused slant. His work plunges into theology and philosophy, but manifests itself in the lovely rhythms of countryside walks, meditations on the front porch, musings by the hearth. His work has soil beneath it, anchoring it.

In his essay on “Conservation and Local Economy,” Berry sets out a series of points that helps us understand his conception of place and its importance:

I. Land that is used will be ruined unless it is properly cared for.

II. Land cannot be properly cared for by people who do not know it intimately, who do not know how to care for it, who are not strongly motivated to care for it, and who cannot afford to care for it.

III. People cannot be adequately motivated to care for land by general principles or by incentives that are merely economic—that is, they won’t care for it merely because they think they should or merely because somebody pays them.

IV. People are motivated to care for land to the extent that their interest in it is direct, dependable, and permanent.

V. They will be motivated to care for the land if they can reasonably expect to live on it as long as they live. They will be more strongly motivated if they can reasonably expect that their children and grandchildren will live on it as long as they live. In other words, there must be a mutuality of belonging: they must feel that the land belongs to them, that they belong to it, and that this belonging is a settled and unthreatened act.

VI. But such belonging must be appropriately limited. This is the indispensable qualification of the idea of land ownership. It is well understood that ownership is an incentive to care. But there is a limit to how much land can be owned before an owner is unable to take proper care of it. The need for attention increases with the intensity of use. But the quality of attention decreases as acreage increases.

VII. A nation will destroy its land and therefore itself if it does not foster in every possible way the sort of thrifty, prosperous, permanent rural households and communities that have the desire, the skills, and the means to care properly for the land they are using.

All of these points also apply to urbanites and city dwellers. It matters not where we live: people have a tendency to treat property and land like consumers, with greed and a degree of detached self-focus that disregards potential long-term consequences. This leads to the deterioration of traditional towns, careless urban development and ruthless transportation policies that focus more on size and efficiency than on beauty and community.

This is why people like the New Urbanists call for a more humane, permanent understanding of city and town-building. They are looking for a sort of urban development that is “direct, dependable, and permanent”—one that fosters a vibrant community structure and rich urban fabric. New Urbanism takes Berry’s agrarian aspirations, and gives them an urban face. It encourages people who live in cities and towns, no matter their geographic location, to invest with a long-term focus: to build a place they will grow old in.

Berry writes, “As people leave the community or, remaining in the place, drop out of the local economy, as the urban-industrial economy more and more usurps the local economy, as the scale and speed of work increase, care declines.”

This isn’t, however, our future—or at least, it needn’t be. The sort of “radical disconnection” that Berry fears is becoming less and less popular, as people begin to realize the importance of place. Hopefully, through a more thoughtful introduction to Berry’s thought and theory, more people will understand that—regardless of where we live—place matters.

Happy birthday, Mr. Berry.

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#1 Comment By philadlephialawyer On August 6, 2014 @ 6:22 pm

What a bunch of folderol! Berry inherited his land, and he went and settled on it. (AFTER he had made his bones in the big city, on elite college campuses, and in Europe.) Most of us have no such luck. I guess we should have picked better ancestors!

“Land,” as in privately owned land, is overrated. Pretty soon now, we will able to meet all of our agricultural needs using fewer and fewer acres. That will free up lots and lots of land, now used as marginal farm and ranch land, for return to a natural environment.

I would much rather that land be used as a National Park, a State park, a wilderness area, a recreation area, a wildlife refuge, a wildlife management area, a city or town or county park, and so on, than as a marginally productive farm owned by some anachronistic “family farmer.” Such folks tend to produce overpriced goods for yuppies who want to pretend that they are living a “natural” lifestyle because they buy apples grown relatively nearby, as opposed to in Washington or New York States.

And the government in general and the Fed in particular is actually a much better steward of the land than most individual, private owners. Thus, the country does NOT need “thrifty, prosperous, permanent rural households and communities.” What it requires instead is to grow and raise its food on the minimum amount of land as possible, obviating the need for more than a few technicians to live on it, and thereby allowing those rural “households and communities” to go back to nature.

#2 Comment By Rob G On August 6, 2014 @ 7:28 pm

“What a bunch of folderol! Berry inherited his land, and he went and settled on it. (AFTER he had made his bones in the big city, on elite college campuses, and in Europe.) Most of us have no such luck. I guess we should have picked better ancestors!”

Yes, of course. Better that he should have kept roaming around unhappy after he realized that he liked life at home better than life away as an academic! And God forbid his family had property to pass on — he should have sold out and lodged himself in a condo in some high-end suburban cookie-cutter community!

Funny how the citified elites get all het up and contemptuous when someone makes a choice different from what they think is valuable.

~~~I would much rather that land be used as a National Park, a State park, a wilderness area, a recreation area, a wildlife refuge, a wildlife management area, a city or town or county park, and so on, than as a marginally productive farm owned by some anachronistic “family farmer.” Such folks tend to produce overpriced goods for yuppies who want to pretend that they are living a “natural” lifestyle because they buy apples grown relatively nearby, as opposed to in Washington or New York States.~~~

LOL. Plan to take their land away by eminent domain, do ya? Or are you just a Commie?

Oh, and by the way, “local” produce does not equate to “boutique” produce. Been to a farmer’s market lately? Try eating a tomato that’s actually been allowed to turn red on the vine, rather than one sprayed when green to turn it pink, and tell me there’s no difference.

#3 Comment By Rob G On August 7, 2014 @ 8:05 am

~~~And the government in general and the Fed in particular is actually a much better steward of the land than most individual, private owners. Thus, the country does NOT need “thrifty, prosperous, permanent rural households and communities.” What it requires instead is to grow and raise its food on the minimum amount of land as possible, obviating the need for more than a few technicians to live on it~~~

What is that? Stalin and the Ukraine Lite?

80% of our food production is currently controlled by a small handful of giant agri companies, with their big lobby in Washington, better known as the USDA. Crony capitalism par excellence. What you suggest would make the problem infinitely worse. But hey, if your McDouble’s cheaper, who the hell cares?

#4 Comment By Reinhold On August 11, 2014 @ 4:25 pm

“It encourages people who live in cities and towns, no matter their geographic location, to invest with a long-term focus: to build a place they will grow old in.”
But most cities are full of renters! And moreover they rent apartments in buildings, not ‘land,’ and most such ‘land’ is owned by landlords, who certainly don’t have a reputation for caring for their properties. You don’t address the huge, structural economic obstacles to the vision described here, which seems to misinterpret the nature of land ownership in cities especially.

#5 Comment By philadelphialawyer On August 12, 2014 @ 9:41 am

Rob G:

Mr Berry can and should live his life as he pleases. What I resent is his insistence that is pretty much the only way to live. As for his rural family property, my point is that most of us don’t inherit any. Or not so much. Or not at such a young age. We can’t replicate his experience even if we wanted to. I also point out that he seems to hold folks who move about in contempt, but he himself did so as a youth and young man.

Eminent domain is perfectly reasonable. But I prefer voluntary sales. When the remaining so called family farmers are more or less replaced by those agribusinesses which you despise, but which are in fact much more efficient and provide cheaper food, most small landowners will simply sell out. And that will lead to the abandonment of many small, “farm towns.” Which will mean that a great deal of land will be available to return to nature, which is good not only for wildlife and human recreation, but for re charging the aquifers, flood control, maintain a stable climate, long term soil and timber conservation and so on.

As for McDonald’s, your elitism is showing. Most folks actually, ya’ know, LIKE McDonald’s food. That is why it is so wildly successful. And, yeah, people like cheap food in general. Perhaps you would prefer that poor people pay higher prices for food, in order to subsidize inefficient family farms. But I see no reason for such a policy. Oh, and Berry favored USDA subsidies for family farmers, including tobacco farmers.

And, no, one need not be Joe Stalin to realize that the land, water, and other resources on property that is part of a National Park is better cared for, on average, than privately owned land.

Funny how you accuse me of various forms of close mindedness and totalitarianism while at the same time lumping anyone who disagrees with you about anything with Stalin! Berry or Stalin, those are our only two choices, according to you!