Of the Soul and the Soil
About a year after we moved to Rockford, Illinois, my wife and I were working in our freshly dug garden as our neighbor, roughly the same age as I (28, at the time), was chatting with us over our back fence. He watched as I prepared the soil in our raised beds and then carefully placed a plant in the center of each one-foot square. Finally, he inquired, “What kind of plants are those?”
“They’re tomatoes,” I replied, a little surprised that he couldn’t identify them, even as seedlings.
“Cool,” he responded. “Now, will those come back up each year, like bulbs?”
The conversation soon changed to other topics, but my neighbor was still fascinated by the tomato plants. “Did you buy those at Wal-Mart?” he asked. I gently explained that we don’t shop at Wal-Mart, and then it was his turn to be surprised: “Really? We couldn’t afford not to.”
Now, I firmly believe that my neighbor thought that he was telling the truth. Still, he was a lawyer; his wife was a paralegal; and they had no children. I was working for a non-profit; we had two children; and my wife was staying at home, rearing them. One of us had considerably more money than the other, and I’ll leave it to the reader to guess which one.
I also firmly believe that the two parts of our conversation were intimately related: My neighbor’s lack of knowledge about one of that staple plants of backyard gardening (let alone agriculture) went hand-in-hand with his inability to recognize that he could, indeed, afford to shop somewhere other than Wal-Mart. And both stemmed from the all-too-common loss, in the modern world, of our connection with two of the most important things that make us human: nature and community.
The title of Eric T. Freyfogle’s Agrarianism and the Good Society, therefore, is especially appropriate, because the agrarian worldview allows us to see the fullness of the connection between nature and community. Freyfogle, an instructor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (right in the center of an underpopulated agricultural area dominated by industrial agriculture), gets to the heart of the matter in the first paragraph of his Introduction: “A culture writes its name on land for all to see. . . . The land reflects not just what people have done but who they are, what they understand, what they value, and what they dream.”
The land, however, does not simply reflect; it also shapes those who live on it. Concrete and asphalt and steel produce a different kind of man than streams and woods and fields. With the massive migration throughout the twentieth century of rural dwellers to the city, American culture, both at the regional and national level, has dramatically changed. And those changes are reflected in our political and economic life, in the choices that we make and in the choices that we are allowed to make.
Urban life, we’re told, maximizes our choices, but the urban ethic of the United States as a whole severely restricts the choices of those who continue to live on the land. In “Framing Our Choices,” Freyfogle lays bare the inherent liberalism of both major parties (and of modern-day “conservatism”), and declares, “As things stand now, . . . neither liberals nor conservatives seem to care much about land as an integrated whole. Neither side pays attention to people who are laboring to use land well.”
Sometimes, it’s a good thing to escape the attention of others, especially of big government and of big business. But when your livelihood and the health of your community depend on the attention of others, the countryside can seem an awfully lonely place. The centralization of “agriculture” (a term that hardly applies to the industrial production of crops and livestock) hasn’t marginalized family farming; it has pushed it entirely off the margins.
Thus, as Freyfogle points out, one of the natural responses to our current dilemma—“Get back to the land, disconnect from the electric grid, and cut unnecessary ties with the industrial juggernaut”—may work for an individual for a generation, but it’s hardly a long-term solution, either for society as a whole or even for a family. While Freyfogle wisely resists topdown, one-size-fits-all, national solutions, he recognizes the need for changing the underlying culture—and, through it, our political and economic life. In a fascinating chapter entitled “Back Toward Community,” he examines the historical development of property rights and suggests ways to “reintegrat[e] the individual land parcel into the social and ecological communities of which it, and its human owner, are parts”—a truly conservative goal that would ultimately help us to value property in all of its dimensions, not simply its monetary one.
That’s also a theme commonly found in the labors—literary and manual—of the subject of Wendell Berry: Life and Work, a collection of 27 essays (29, really, because the Introduction and Afterword are complete pieces in their own right) edited by Jason Peters, an associate professor of English at Augustana College in west-central Illinois. About a third of the essays are original to this volume, while the others (it appears; they aren’t all credited) are reprints from other works or revisions of previously published material. Those who admire Berry’s work will want to pick up this book even if they may already own some of its contents, because there is no other single volume that paints so complete a portrait of this remarkable man.
Berry’s decision to return to his native Kentucky in 1964, foregoing a promising academic career in New York City to farm and to write, is, in a sense, all one needs to know about the man. In a country that has long equated success with “going places”—literally—those who refuse to budge will, at best, be looked upon with suspicion and, more often, be dismissed out of hand. Even some admirers of Berry, such as Kimberly K. Smith, have found his emphasis on localism too limiting for the challenges we face today. (Smith only hints at this in her chapter, “Wendell Berry’s Political Vision”; she develops her argument more fully in her 2003 book, Wendell Berry and the Agrarian Tradition: A Common Grace.)
For the moment, let’s grant the argument. In a world where the entire political spectrum seems united in its anti-localism, where left and right simply quibble about what kind of globalism and internationalism is desirable, there’s surely a place for a dissenting voice, calling us home to farm and field, hearth and kin. Forget the silly claim of National Review to “stand athwart history and cry, ‘Halt!’” Berry understands that history rolls ever onward, but that not all movement is progress, whether in foreign affairs (see Bill Kauffman’s contribution, “Wendell Berry on War and Peace; Or, Port William Versus the Empire”), technology and industry (Sven Birkerts, “Looking the Technological Gift Horse in the Mouth”), economics (Norman Wirzba, “An Economy of Gratitude”), or education (Jason Peters, “Education, Heresy, and the ‘Deadly Disease of the World’”).
That last essay addresses, in part, a topic mentioned in several other essays, but which deserved an essay of its own (the absence of which is the only major flaw in this volume)—namely, Berry’s religious sense and, in particular, his relationship to traditional Christianity. As Berry revealed in an interview in Chronicles with Katherine Dalton (whose own contribution to this volume, “Fidelity,” is a gem among gems),
I was never satisfied by the Protestantism that I inherited, I think because of the dualism of soul and body, heaven and Earth, Creator and creation—dualism so fierce at times that it counted hatred of this life and this world as a virtue. From very early that kind of piety was distasteful to me.
Against that dualism, Berry has developed what Peters calls “an essentially Catholic orthodoxy,” as in this passage that Peters cites from “A Native Hill,” an essay in Berry’s collection, The Long-Legged House:
I can only imagine [heaven] and desire it in terms of what I know of the earth. And so my questions do not aspire beyond the earth. They aspire toward it and into it. Perhaps they aspire through it.
This is Christian incarnationalism at its best, but Berry has never quite been able to unfold its consequences—by which I do not mean to become a Catholic per se, but to embrace the non-dualistic historical mainstream of liturgical Christianity, which encompasses traditional Catholicism, Orthodoxy, and non-Calvinist mainstream Protestantism. In Christian agrarian societies, the liturgical calendar played a central role, tying the unfolding of the salvation mystery to the changing of the seasons—and vice versa. The destruction of that liturgical cycle (including—or, perhaps, most especially—in the Catholic Church) has both furthered, and been furthered by, the destruction of agrarianism and, more broadly, of man’s traditional relationship with nature.
This, I think, is a legitimate criticism of Berry’s parochialism (though one I’ve yet to see anyone make), and it is one that he could address while (literally) standing his ground. But his piety—and I use the term in its broadest sense—does not allow him to abandon entirely that version of Christianity that he inherited (despite his discomfort with its dualism), or, at least, it does not allow him to adopt another that lies outside of his inheritance. To embrace Catholicism or Orthodoxy, for instance, would be, in some sense, to turn his back on his family and community, something that is abhorrent to his thought.
Whether an agrarian worldview can continue to survive in the modern world without an explicit connection to Christian belief is a serious question. Industrial capitalism has proved quite efficient at what Joseph Schumpeter called “creative destruction,” yet, at best, it is unclear whether what it has created has been, on balance, better than that which it has destroyed. The bulk of the artistic and literary legacy of Christendom (whether English, French, Italian, German, Greek, or Eastern European), for example, may have its direct roots in cities, but those cities had yet to be cut off completely, or even substantially, from the life of the surrounding countryside.
Industrial society has its own art and literature, but, as Gene Logsdon argues in The Mother of All Arts: Agrarianism and the Creative Impulse, it is increasingly abstract and inhuman, cut off from both nature and community. He illustrates his point by highlighting examples of its opposite: agrarian writers (Berry, Harlan Hubbard), artists (the Wyeth family, Peter Hurd, Karl J. Kuerner), and musicians (Joe Dan Boyd, even Willie Nelson and Johnny Cash) whose imaginations, and therefore creations, are rooted in the concrete reality of the land and the agrarian communities upon it.
If Logsdon overstates his case, he does so largely by what he leaves out—namely, the literary and artistic legacy of Christendom that I mentioned above. Logsdon once studied for the priesthood before leaving seminary and eventually making his way home to Upper Sandusky, Ohio, where he farms and writes. His references to Catholicism in the Afterword highlight his unresolved tensions with the Church (he describes his religion as “irreligion”), and he has come to regard institutional Christianity as, essentially, an instrument of urban imperialism. Yet the very forces that have devastated the countryside, besieged agrarian communities, and attacked representational art and literature have the Church in their sights, too. Man is body and soul, flesh and spirit, and the reintegration of the two—the destruction of the fierce dualism that so bothers Berry—cannot be accomplished by agrarianism alone.
The real question, of course, is whether either Christianity or agrarianism can revive without the other. The answer, alas, is not to be found in these three, otherwise excellent, volumes.
Scott P. Richert is the executive editor of Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture, the monthly magazine of The Rockford Institute.
Posted: December 25, 2007