What Are People For?
Collected Poems, 19571982
The Hidden Wound
Meeting the Expectations of the Land: Essays in Sustainable Agriculture and Stewardship
Standing By Words
A Continuous Harmony
A Place on Earth: Revision
Earth Day provided the occasion for publishing dozens of environmental books, most of them along the lines of Fifty Simple Things You Can Do to Save the Planet. The hints these books contain—use Tupperware instead of plastic wrap, separate your bottles, put a brick in the toilet—are unexceptionable. But unfortunately, if scientists are at all correct about the magnitude of the perils we face, then the changes eventually demanded of us will not be so simple. If, for instance, the fossil fuel era must come rapidly to a close, then the changes required are likely to be far more dramatic and difficult.
That is why Wendell Berry’s new collection of essays, What Are People For?, was probably the most important book published on Earth Day, even though it has very little to say about ozone depletion or global warming. (It is also, I feel sure, the best written.) What Are People For? continues Berry’s quarter-century-old argument with the modern world:
There is no longer any honest way to deny that a way of living that our leaders continue to praise is destroying all that our country is, and all the best that it means.
Berry is a poet and novelist as well as an essayist, but most of all he is a farmer. He believes that we face an agricultural crisis, and that it is a part of a moral, philosophical, and social crisis that demands that we change our lives.
The first question—whether we can continue to farm the way we are currently farming—has been perhaps Berry’s chief concern since his earliest books. He rarely writes more than a few paragraphs without mentioning the word “topsoil.” Over and over he argues that farming done on too large a scale, and in too mechanized a fashion, inevitably degrades the layer of rich and fertile earth that is America’s greatest single asset. Today’s farmers, he maintains, can’t produce a bushel of corn without sending a bushel of topsoil floating down the Mississippi. This sort of degradation, he argues, is nearly irreversible under the present system, because too few people are farming—the care and the highly localized skill needed to protect and nourish the soil is impossible when a single farmer, riding high in the cab of a modern tractor, must tend hundreds of acres. The overemphasis on production has also caused most of the economic crises that frequently ravage the Farm Belt. High production means high costs—for the petroleum-based fertilizers that provide much of the soil’s fertility and for the equipment needed to manage so large an area—and this in turn means high debt and high vulnerability.
By contrast, Berry gives the examples of his own farm in the agriculturally marginal hill country of Kentucky and the farms of the Amish communities across the country. Jealous of his privacy, he tells us little in his essays about his own land; one gets a better sense of its …
This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.