Wendell Berry
Wendell Berry; drawing by David Levine

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 day-to-day workings from his novels and poems. But he is frank about the mistakes he has made—the hillside he washed away with an ill-considered attempt to build a pond, for instance. It is clear from his writings that his farm is small, orderly, productive, and recovering its health after years of neglect by its former owners:

Growing weather; enough rain;
the cow’s udder tight with milk;
the peach tree bent with its yield;
honey golden in the white comb;

the pastures deep in clover and grass,
enough, and more than enough;

the ground, new worked, moist
and yielding underfoot, the feet
comfortable in it as roots;

the early garden; potatoes, onions,
peas, lettuce, spinach, cabbage, carrots,
radishes, marking their straight rows
with green, before the trees are leafed.

In his essays he writes somewhat more systematically about Amish agriculture, reporting on his visits to several farms in Indiana and elsewhere. Though “the Amish no doubt have their problems,” he admires their communities and farms, seeing them as useful models. The Amish generally disdain both government subsidy and debt, and are therefore free to concentrate on a method of farming that has endured for many generations. Like Berry they use horses instead of tractors, and this automatically limits the size of their farms and insures that the farmer pay closer attention to the subtleties of his particular fields, the peculiarities of its hills and gullies. Instead of relying heavily on oil-based fertilizer, the Amish practice strict crop rotations that employ legume crops to fix nitrogen in the soil. Their farms also tend to be far more diversified, with many small sources of food and what little cash income their self-sufficient lives require; not many Amish buy milk at the supermarket, a commonplace with America’s big-time farmers. This kind of farming results in healthier soils with better cultivation of land, more water retention, and reduced erosion. It also results in somewhat lower yields per acre.1


Are these old-fashioned practices just the aesthetic preferences of quaint religious folk and gentle plowing poets? The answer is obscured by the undeniable success of modern agriculture in growing food. Between 1950 and 1984, in large measure because of many of the practices Berry abhors, world grain harvests grew by two and one half times. That 3 percent annual increase outstripped the rate of population increase, and so per capita grain production rose by one third. With success of that sort, one could overlook a lot of disappearing topsoil.

But bad practices have a way of catching up with us. The 1990 edition of the Worldwatch Institute’s invaluable State of the World report concentrates much of its attention on food supply, and the news is not encouraging. Between 1984 and 1989 overall world food production rose only 1 percent. This meant, of course, a decrease in per capita grain production, since the world’s growing population requires 2 percent annual gain just to keep people eating at the same—in many cases inadequate—level. Though the Worldwatch Institute cautions that the five-year period is “too short to show a trend because weather fluctuations could be partly responsible,” they cite three apparent reasons for the plateau. For one thing, the world is running out of new cropland—even the rapid rise in irrigated fields has peaked. For another, there have been few new technological advances comparable to the Green Revolution and the spread of fertilizers to boost yields in recent years, and none seem forthcoming. (Agricultural biotechnology, they assert, will have at most a very limited impact for many years.) And finally, exactly the sort of environmental degradation long predicted by tiresome cranks like Berry seems to be taking place.

Each year, researchers estimate, the world’s fields shed 24 billion tons of topsoil, which means that in the 1980s alone the world has lost the equivalent of half of America’s rich supply. (We’ve managed to cut American losses somewhat in recent years, but elsewhere there is little improvement.) This reduces yields, as does the salinization of irrigated fields: in a great many cases, fields were artificially irrigated without proper drainage. Over time they have become waterlogged, and as the water reaches the top few inches of soil it is evaporated out into the atmosphere, leaving behind a layer of salt. One fourth of the world’s irrigated cropland may be affected to some degree, the Worldwatch Institute estimates.

As a result of such problems, the world’s food supply is dangerously vulnerable to other possible risks. The prospect of hotter summers from the greenhouse effect, for instance, is a real and deeply troubling one. Nineteen eighty-eight was the hottest year since human beings began keeping records—it may not have been a result of the greenhouse effect, but it was a fair warning of what we may expect soon if scientists are correct in their predictions of global warming. In that year the American grain harvest fell by 27 percent, the Russian by 8 percent, and the Chinese by 2 percent. Severe famine was averted by the use of reserve stocks. Last year was a normal weather year, and higher grain prices led US farmers to press more acreage into production. But the reserves were not built back up—“carryover stocks now amount to little more than pipeline supplies,” the Worldwatch Institute says, because the world needs to feed 100 million more people annually.

All of this would suggest that Berry may be a good prophet, all too correct about our capacity to sustain agriculture—that we may have reached that spot on the bell-shaped curve where we can no longer assume rapid advance in food supply, and indeed that it may decline, because we have been careless stewards of the land. The problem, of course, is that any rapid retreat to a saner but less productive method of agriculture might well mean famine in the nations that depend on America’s surplus, in the same way that any quick cut in the use of fossil fuels might cripple the economy. If all American farmers started emulating the Amish tomorrow, Malthus could quickly be proved right. If they keep farming using present methods, Malthus may have to wait a few decades—or at least until the next extraordinarily hot summer.

But Berry’s argument is not a purely or even chiefly scientific one: he is a moral critic. He has little patience with the American agricultural officials who boast that 95 percent of Americans have “been freed from the drudgery of preparing their own food,” for he believes that more of us should be doing the physical work of providing for ourselves, and not just because it would make for more intensive and careful farming. He believes that there are other, less practical reasons why more of us should do physical labor. We should be working not solely in the fields—there’s plenty of room in his world for, say, a good carpenter (though, better yet, the community carpentry of an Amish barn-raising) and even a part-time jurist, a part-time priest, a part-time legislator, a part-time writer. But, at least by implication, there is a good deal less need for the rest of us, the innumerable creators and fillers of the lesser human desires, the legions of middlemen, the tiers of executives. Such a view has a long pedigree, of course—Berry is a Jeffersonian. But Berry has two advantages Jefferson didn’t have—one is the particular credibility that comes from having worked his own acres instead of handing them over to slaves, and the other is the in many ways deteriorated state of our society. Jefferson anticipated what would happen if the speculators and the manufacturers won out; Berry sees the results all around him.


Our great aim “to this day has been ‘freedom from drudgery,’ ” Berry writes in his book of essays The Hidden Wound (1989). “The great motive and selling point of industrialism has been ‘less work’; our national goal, indeed, has been less work and we have succeeded.” But this success, he contends, has been a great loss, the cause of both environmental and psychological woe. And indeed he can make even the grittiest field labor sound so appealing that one begins to wonder what kind of down payment is needed for a small Kentucky farm of one’s own.

I can say, for example, that the tobacco harvest in my own home county involves the hardest work that I have done in any quantity…. This work usually occurs at some time between the last part of August and the first part of October. Usually the weather is hot; usually we are in a hurry. The work is extremely demanding, and often, because of the weather, it has the character of an emergency. Because all of the work still must be done by hand, this event has maintained much of its old character; it is very much the sort of thing the agriculture experts have had in mind when they have talked about freeing people from drudgery…. But for me, and I think for most of the men and women who have been my companions in this work, it has not been drudgery. None of us would say that we take pleasure in all of it all of the time, but we do take pleasure in it, and sometimes the pleasure can be intense and clear. Many of my dearest memories come from these times of hardest work…. Neighbors work together; they are together all day every day for weeks. The quiet of the work is not interrupted by machine noises, and so there is much talk. There is the talk involved in the management of the work. There is incessant speculation about the weather. There is much laughter; because of the unrelenting difficulty of the work, everything funny or amusing is relished…. Ultimately, in the argument about work and how it should be done, one has only one’s pleasure to offer.2

Such an account provokes the same sharp pleasure we feel on reading, say, Tolstoy’s account of Levin’s day in the field, when he shared the peasant’s food, “and talked to him about his family affairs, taking the keenest interest in them, and told him about his own affairs,…and could not help smiling at the affection he felt for the old man.” Levin learns to swing the scythe, and soon finds it moving almost without him, “as though by magic, without thinking of it, the work turned regular and precise by itself. These were the most blissful moments.” But with Levin one can’t help asking whether perhaps it’s only the knowledge that he’s working for a few days, by his own choice, that makes the work so inspiring. What if Levin had to go to the fields every day? Wouldn’t we all want to flee from the rigors of farm life as our forebears did, and as people in the third world continue to do?

Berry answers this in two ways. First he says it was the ruinous economics of farming (an economics often promoted by government policy) combined with the seductive promises of the “modern,” “advanced,” consumer life that drew people off the land. This may or may not be true—it depends in part on how truly happy you think most urban and suburban dwellers are. But there is no quarreling with his second answer, which is the testimony of his own life.

After beginning a conventional literary and academic career—teaching English at New York University, among other jobs—Berry returned, more than twenty years ago, to the Kentucky county of his youth and bought a farm. He has since brought in an annual harvest of hay, corn, tobacco, and books. I know of no other American writer who seems so happy with the conditions of his life, and whose delight does not seem at all false or forced; nor, to judge from his books, has it diminished with hard work or the years.3

Hard work is not the point. Farmers work no harder than coal miners, and their lives are regulated by the sun so that they can’t possibly keep working until ten at night, like Manhattan lawyers. But farming, almost uniquely, employs all the human skills, physical and mental:

On a good farm, because of weather and other so-called variables, neither the annual series of problems, nor any of the problems individually is ever quite the same two years running. The good farmer (like the artist, the quarter-back, the statesman) must be master of many possible solutions, one of which he must choose under pressure and apply with skill in the right place at the right time.4

But even the quarterback sits down on defense, and he doesn’t need to sell season tickets. The good small farmer is both manager and employee, and so he is neither one nor the other; his life is not abstracted. I once edited a small daily paper, where I assigned and wrote stories, designed and pasted up pages, then helped to prepare the plates for the press and bundled the papers as they came clattering off the conveyor at four in the morning. It was immensely satisfying, in a way no job since has been. But even that work was pretty much by rote, with none of the calibration and risk taking demanded of a farmer.

Good farming, the sort that doesn’t simply involve mining the soil or rely on packaged “inputs,” also requires enormous amounts of information, which must be passed along from one generation to the next. It requires continuity and, therefore, community:

That is, a neighborhood of people who know each other, understand their mutual dependencies, and who place a proper value on good farming. In its cultural aspect, the community is an order of memories preserved consciously in instructions, songs, and stories, and both consciously and unconsciously in ways. A healthy culture holds preserving knowledge in place for a long time. That is, the essential wisdom accumulates in the community much as fertility builds in the soil.

The communities Berry describes—communities where people help one another at harvest and slaughter, where they do the big jobs like barn building and quilting and canning together—are precisely the sort of communities we seldom find in this country. True, Berry minimizes the trouble such small societies can cause—the unnecessary feuds, for instance, that derive from some forgotten insult three generations back, or the mean prejudices and claustrophobia that so many people move to the city to escape. But someplace like the Port Williams he describes in his novels is where many of us would like to live. In “It Wasn’t Me,” one of six stories in The Wild Birds, Wheeler Catlett explains to Elton Penn, a young farmer he has helped, why Penn is not obliged to him. “It’s not accountable,” he says,

because we’re dealing in goods and services that we didn’t make, that can’t exist at all except as gifts. Everything about a place that’s different from its price is a gift. Everything about a man or woman that’s different from their price is a gift. The life of a neighborhood is a gift. I know that if you bought a calf from Nathan Coulter you’d pay him for it, and that’s right. But aside from that, you’re friends and neighbors, you work together, so there’s lots of giving and taking without a price—some that you don’t remember, some that you never knew about. You don’t send a bill. You don’t, if you can help it, keep an account. Once the account is kept and the bill presented, the friendship ends, the neighborhood is finished….

Berry’s stories often are accounts of rural communities and the skills and mutual concerns to be found in them. People rally around. But the thought of rebuilding these communities, and the farms that supported them, is daunting, not least because most of the information they once depended on has died out. Three percent of the country’s population now work on farms, and only a fraction of these people, by Berry’s definition, farm well. Even if we wanted to join them, it seems unlikely that we could do so; the circle may be irreparably broken. There are, he writes, two muses:

the Muse of Inspiration, who gives us inarticulate visions and desires, and the Muse of Realization, who returns again and again to say “it is yet more difficult than you thought.”

It is this second muse that knows about cover crops and harnesses and when to plant. Berry makes it abundantly clear how hard farming is—even building a decent farm road that won’t wash out requires “not only correct principles, skill, and industry, but a knowledge of local particulars and many years.” Not only is there a dire shortage of good farmers, there is no longer even a “considerable number of people knowledgeable enough to look at the country and see that it is not properly cared for.” Most of us can’t tell oats from barley at ten paces. Our fathers won’t tell us—they don’t know either. And anyway there are far too many of us to go straight back to Jefferson’s dream.

The question is, does Berry’s message have meaning for the majority of Americans who by choice or circumstance are not living on the land? I think it does—especially because, as I have said, we may be entering an era in which the world’s environmental problems will demand dramatic changes in the way we live.

Although he is widely read by environmentalists, Berry’s views are somewhat outside the mainstream of environmental thought, which as he says in The Unsettling of America has tended to be either “vacation-oriented or crisis-oriented.” Those American environmentalists who have seen past the most obvious problems of controlling noxious industrial emissions have usually followed John Muir and concentrated on the wilderness—on our need both to preserve the wild and to rediscover the wild in ourselves. The most eloquent exponent of this idea in recent times—and Berry’s only equal as an essayist of the real world—was Edward Abbey, the southwestern desert anarchist who died last spring.5 Berry appreciates and supports the case for the wilderness, and has always been a champion of Abbey’s. (“A Few Words in Favor of Edward Abbey,” in What Are People For?, is illuminating on both men. Berry remarks that an ability to laugh at himself was among Abbey’s greatest gifts, adding that it is not among his.)

Berry is Abbey’s ally in the fight against the “nature conquerors,” the strip miners, copper smelters, old-growth loggers, and other black hats of our landscape. But Berry differs from those who think the best use of most land would be to leave it alone. He is a farmer—the sight of a meadow reverting to young birch and bramble does not fill him with rustic delight. He is closer in spirit to John Burroughs, the most popular of all American nature writers in his day. One summer a Catskill neighbor of Burroughs cleared a field. “Land whose slumbers had never been disturbed with the plough was soon knee-high with Hungarian grass,” Burroughs wrote. “How one likes to see permanent betterment of the land like that!” Like Abbey, Berry wants to protect the wildcat and wolf, but he would also agree with what Burroughs said of the cow, “She is the cause of tranquil if not great thoughts in lookers-on, and that is enough.” Since, as Berry writes, in the foreseeable future “we cannot hope—for reasons practical and humane we cannot wish—to preserve more than a small portion of the land in wilderness,” we will have to decide how to use it. He argues, as I have said, that we should use it as personally as possible, and as responsibly.

In some sense, the controversy over the wilderness is philosophical, not practical—there is, even at this late date, land enough in North America to increase tenfold our wilderness without infringing on any but the poorest farmland. Millions of acres of the arid West, for instance, are disastrously overgrazed and yet produce only 3 percent of America’s beef. But there is an important difference in emphasis, in the view of what man is. What Are People For? contains a remarkable essay, “Writer and Region,” about Huckleberry Finn. In Huck’s escape from Miss Watson and the “enclosure of conventional piety and propriety” Twain touches, of course, on an important part of our national character. But Huck’s final decision at book’s end to “light out for the Territory,” his refusal to be adopted and “sivilized” by Tom’s benign Aunt Sally, represents for Berry not only the flaw in the book but also “a flaw in our national character, a flaw in our history, and a flaw in much of our literature.” Too much of our culture, he says, is suspended between the choices of stifling civilization or “an escape into some ‘Territory’ where we may remain free of adulthood and community obligation.” Boyhood and bachelorhood have “remained our norms of ‘liberation,’ ” creating a situation where the choices may seem to be narrowed to fishing all day or working in an investment bank—returning to a hunter-gatherer civilization or going on with the strip mining of America. With this stunted perspective, “we have hardly begun to imagine the coming to responsibility that is the meaning, and the liberation, of growing up.”

This almost fatherly message runs through almost everything Berry writes. His essays and poems are concerned with how to live with the land, but almost as often they are about how to live with others. He writes extensively about marriage, arguing that “people stay married for different reasons [from] those for which they get married,” and that though it may begin as dreamy romance, marriage must deepen (not descend) into an “insistently practical union.” In the ideal modern house, he says,

the residers do not work…. According to the ideal, work should be done away from home…. In such a “home,” a married couple are mates, sexually, legally, and socially, but they are not helpmates; they do nothing useful either together or for each other.

Worked out in place and time and circumstance, however, love and devotion, as Berry writes about them, can become tangible; in “The Boundary,” one of the short stories in The Wild Birds, he tells of an old man who thought of giving up his garden. His wife told him no, and she was right, for “after even so many years, he still needed to be bringing something to her.”

But before people can live in harmony with their communities, or their spouses, or their topsoil, they need to be at peace with themselves, and that is Berry’s main concern. We need to live in real places, not in the generalized lobbies that modern houses often are. We need to be at home in our bodies, too—not in the “useless, weak” husks that we drag daily to the fluorescently cheerful “health club,” but a body that each day knows the “elemental pleasures of eating and drinking and resting, of being dry while it is raining, of getting dry after getting wet, of getting warm against after getting cold, of cooling off after getting hot.” Of being tired at sundown and at life’s end feeling “a great weariness,…like the lesser weariness that comes with day’s end—a weariness that had been earned and was therefore accepted.”

The rigorous life, with some goal beside a higher “standard of living,” Berry implies, need come not only through farming. The same forces that distort and maim our agriculture—fear of drudgery, the endless demand for more, and faster—also cause many other problems, both environmental and social, that we face. We drive or take a taxi when we should walk or ride a bike—if we were on foot we would not only emit less carbon dioxide, we’d be in closer touch with our communities, the way a farmer on a horse-drawn plow knows his field better than the pilot of a huge combine. And we would use the muscles that we must have been born with for some better reason than bouncing in front of a video. We would be out in the weather, and at day’s end we’d be weary instead of tense.

There are a thousand other ways we could try to shift our lives to create a more sustainable world; but, as Berry makes clear, it would be foolish to underestimate how difficult this will be or how powerful are the habits and interests that must be overcome. As economic actors we, through our investments, require corporations to look ahead a quarter or a year at a time, to make for us as much money as possible, even if that means, to give the tiniest example from the most recent Exxon annual meeting, not building our oil tankers with double hulls. As consumers, even those of us who are well-to-do often demand the cheapest possible food, though this requires the most harmful farming, and the most comfortable cars and houses, though they may well be helping to create an uncomfortable planet.

As citizens we demand lower taxes, instead of devoting ourselves to figuring out how to share the world’s greatest concentration of wealth with an increasingly poor nation and world. Suspicious of real change, and of more work and less luxury, we place our faith in frequent incantations about unceasing economic growth and technological expansion, even though our logic tells us they are as unlikely as endless growth in the food supply and our scientific instruments tell us they are starting to harm our planet as surely as poor farming erodes our soils.

Wherever we live, however we do so, we desperately need a prophet of responsibility; and although the days of the prophets seem past to many of us, Berry may be the closest to one we have. But, fortunately, he is also a poet of responsibility. He makes one believe that the good life may not only be harder than what we’re used to but sweeter as well.

This Issue

June 14, 1990