Standing on Earth: Selected Essays by Wendell Berry (Golgonooza Press, 1991)

I am hopelessly urbanised. So much so that I don’t think I could ever flourish in the country. But some part of me wishes this otherwise. Among my favourite writers is Thomas Hardy, who never forgave the Industrial Revolution for trespassing on those idyllic Wessex hills. And I feel a similar bond with the novelist, poet and farmer Wendell Berry. This collection of essays may have revealed just how distant I am from his agricultural experience, but I also felt its tug at my heartstrings, calling me back to the land.

The essays are selected from four volumes published between 1977 and 1987, but I found them extraordinarily contemporary (perhaps simply because I am too unaware of developments in my lifetime). Yet, others may find them like something from a bygone era. For instance, in the essay ‘Horse-Drawn Tools & the Doctrine of Labor Saving’ Berry provides a defence for his decision to purchase a team of horses rather than a tractor. His rationale is that not only do horse-drawn tools do a better, albeit slower, job, but they also have value over the tractor precisely in their failure to ‘save’ labour. The corporate definition of labour saving, Berry argues, fails to recognise it as human labour which necessarily has social and cultural significance. The aim of much technology, he contends, is not ‘to “save” labour at all, but to replace it, and to displace the people who once supplied it’ (p. 71) with grim consequences for rural communities.

Despite initial appearances (given, for example, in his sympathy for the Amish way of life), Berry is neither unable nor necessarily unwilling to adapt to change; rather his qualm with technology is its failure to adapt to the ecological reality. In our consumer society, technology has served to disconnect people like myself from the land and natural cycles and accept social breakdown and waste on an epic scale.

An example of this is our perception of the body as ‘a consumer of food’. He writes,
we reduce the function of the body to that of a conduit which channels the nutrients of the earth from the supernatural to the sewer. Or we make it a little factory which transforms fertility into pollution – to the enormous profit of ‘agribusiness’ and to the impoverishment of the earth. (pp. 62-3)
It is our very definition of the products of our body as ‘waste’ that leads to our misuse of them.
The technological purification of the body [by the flush toilet and water-borne sewage system] requires the pollution of the rivers and the starvation of the fields. It makes the alleged offensiveness of the body truly and inescapably offensive and blinds an entire society to the knowledge that these ‘offensive wastes’ are readily purified in the topsoil – that, indeed, from an ecological point of view, these are not wastes and are not offensive, but are valuable agricultural products essential both to the health of the land and to that of ‘consumers’. (p. 63)

After reading this I recognised the negligent ignorance in which I exist as a lifelong city dweller. I thought of the service I could regularly provide to lemon tree in my parents’ backyard and I even considered whether I might start making greater use of my balcony for the recycling of the nutrients I consume. However, I was forced to admit that, notwithstanding my noble intentions, my neighbours and building manager would likely object to such actions. In my current residence, it would be impossible for my body to be anything other than a waste factory.

This, Berry contends, is precisely the problem. The misuse of energy is not only pervasive in our societies, but built into its structure. Our urban centres are designed to consume, which in turn maximises demand and production and fuels economic growth. However, Berry argues that
it is easy to produce examples of nonindustrial human cultures in which waste was or is virtually unknown. All that is sloughed off in the living arc of a natural cycle remains within the cycle; it becomes fertility, the power of life to continue. (p. 79)
In contrast, our energy industry,
is not a cycle, but only a short arc between an empty hole and poisoned air. And farming, which is inherently cyclic, capable of regeneration and reproducing itself indefinitely, becomes similarly destructive and self-exhausting when transformed into an industry…industrial agriculture is forced by its very character to treat the soil as a ‘raw material’, which it proceeds to ‘use up’. (p. 79)

Wendell Berry argues that societies can only maintain their health by imposing limitations upon themselves, rather than trying to reach the limits of output. Although he reaches this point from a biblical framework, he sees this code equally expressed in other religious thought.

When he moves away from topics of ecology and industry I found him someone less engaging, but he is certainly a careful and wise social critic, and, as one might expect from a poet and literary critic, a clear and eloquent communicator.