About 18 months ago, out of the blue, I was offered something of a dream assignment. Penguin, the publisher, was looking to put together the first British collection of essays by the now-venerable American writer Wendell Berry, and they thought I would be a good person to make the selection, and write an introduction. Would I be interested? Of course, they would understand if I was too busy.
Needless to say, I was not too busy. I have been reading Wendell Berry for over 20 years, on and off, and have found him a constant source of nourishment and inspiration. It’s always difficult to explain exactly what you like about a writer, but Berry combines an earthy wisdom, an unashamed traditionalism, a love of his fellow man and passionate resistance to those who would desecrate the Earth which is his subject. It’s a combination I like. Also, to adopt his idiom, he has a damn fine way with words. I’d say he’s a writer who should be read by anyone wanting to find their place, or even figure out how to think about it, in an ever-churning age.
To cut a long story short, I sat down for two months with every collection of essays that Wendell Berry has written over the last fifty years, and I whittled them down to about 300 pages of what I think it is his finest work. That work was published last month by Penguin as The World-Ending Fire, and I feel I can openly boast about the quality of the book, because most of the writing isn’t mine. If you’re an admirer of Berry, or – especially – if you have never read before, I recommend reading him now. It would be the equivalent of reading Thoreau or Emerson when they were still alive and writing.
As a taster, we’re publishing here my introduction to the book, followed by one of my favourite essays from it, ‘Damage’. To find out more about the book, you can visit the Penguin website.
The World-Ending Fire: an introduction
With that in mind, and now that I think about it, I see that he would probably take issue with the way I have just lazily used the word ‘upgraded’. Not just because of the word’s ugliness, but because of its implication: that a pen is a lesser tool than a laptop, simply because it is older and less complex. Older and less complex, in Berry’s world, are often virtues. Now in his eighties, he still uses horses to work his Kentucky farm, not for the nostalgia value but because horses do a better job than tractors, and are more satisfying to work with.
As with all thinkers who choose to set their face against both fashion and power, Wendell Berry is regularly caricatured for the crime of thinking things through – accused of ‘living in the past’, ‘wanting to turn the clock back’ and various other predictable insults grabbed at random from the progressive toolbag. From one angle he can certainly appear, as he acknowledges himself, a relic from the past. Born at the height of the Great Depression into a farming family which, like all its neighbours, still worked their land the preindustrial way, he is a unique figure in modern American letters. Brought up as a farmer, he left the land as a young man to study and travel, eventually moving to New York City to ‘be a writer’. Writers, then as now, in the long shadow of Modernism, were supposed to ensconce themselves in the metropolis and live as placeless chroniclers of its unease.
But it wasn’t long before Berry felt drawn back to rural Kentucky, where he had grown up. The place was pulling him. Places, in my experience, often do that. I think that some places want writers to tell their stories. Wendell Berry was never meant to tell the stories of New York City; there were quite enough people doing that already. So, as his fellow scribes looked at him aghast, some of them trying to persuade him of his foolishness, he left the city and went back to the land, buying a farm five miles from where he had grown up, in the area where both his mother and father had grown up before him. This is the place in which he has lived, worked and written for the last half-century. This is the place whose story he has told, and through it he has told the story of America, and through that the story of modern humanity as it turns its back on the land and lays waste to the soil.
Soil is the recurring image in these essays. Again and again, Berry worries away at the question of topsoil. This is both a writer’s metaphor and a farmer’s reality, and for Wendell Berry, metaphors always come second to reality. ‘No use talking about getting enlightened or saving your soul’, he wrote to his friend, the poet Gary Snyder, in 1980, ‘if you can’t keep the topsoil from washing away.’ Over the last century, by some estimates, over half the world’s topsoil has been washed away by the war on nature which we call industrial farming. We may have perhaps fifty or sixty years of topsoil left if we continue to erode, poison and lay waste to it at this rate. As the human population continues to burgeon, the topsoil in which it grows its food continues to collapse. It is perhaps the least sexy environmental issue in the world, but for the future of human civilisation, which continues to depend upon farmers whether it knows it or not, it may be the most important.
Wendell Berry knows this, because he sees it every day, and because he works with it. I have spent the last several months reading every book of essays he has ever published, and the image which has stayed with me above all others comes at the beginning of his 1988 essay ‘The work of local culture’. An old galvanised bucket hangs on a fence post near a hollow, in a wood on what was once his grandfather’s farm. In the bucket, slowly and over many decades, soil is being born:
The old bucket has hung there through many autumns, and the leaves have fallen around it and some have fallen into it. Rain and snow have fallen into it, and the fallen leaves have held the moisture and so have rotted. Nuts have fallen into it, or been carried into it by squirrels; mice and squirrels have eaten the meat of the nuts and left the shells; they and other animals have left their droppings; insects have flown into the bucket and died and decayed; birds have scratched in it and left their droppings and perhaps a feather or two. This slow work of growth and death, gravity and decay, which is the chief work of the world, has by now produced in the bottom of the bucket several inches of black humus. I look into that bucket with fascination because I am a farmer of sorts and an artist of sorts, and I recognise there an artistry and farming far superior to mine, or to that of any human.
In patience, in slowness, there is hope. In the places where we often deposit our hopes, meanwhile, there is less. Berry’s questing thoughtfulness challenges traditional political categories; challenges notions of activism, of movements, of politics itself on a national and global scale. All this makes liberating reading for those who enjoy thinking for themselves. To the ‘right’ he shows the consequences of a love of money and markets, of government by corporation, of an economic growth unmoored from place, which eats through nature and culture and leaves ruins. To the ‘left’ he shows the consequences of a rootless individualism, of rights without rites, of the rejection of family and tradition, of the championing of the cosmopolitan over the rooted and the urban over the rural.
In place of these tired labels, and for those who still insist on categories, Berry suggests two alternatives, originally coined by his mentor, the writer Wallace Stegner: ‘boomers’ and ‘stickers’. ‘Boomers’ are those who rush through and past, chasing the green grass or concreting it for money, the acolytes of growth-n-progressTM. ‘Stickers’ are those who find a place and make it home, stay in it and try to leave it a little better than they found it. Wendell Berry’s formula for a good life and a good community is simple and pleasingly unoriginal. Slow down. Pay attention. Do good work. Love your neighbours. Love your place. Stay in your place. Settle for less, enjoy it more.
I have a steep wooded hillside that I wanted to be able to pasture occasionally, but it had no permanent water supply.
About halfway to the top of the slope there is a narrow bench, on which I thought I could make a small pond. I hired a man with a bulldozer to dig one. He cleared away the trees and then formed the pond, cutting into the hill on the upper side, piling the loosened dirt in a curving earthwork on the lower.
The pond appeared to be a success. Before the bulldozer quit work, water had already begun to seep in. Soon there was enough to support a few head of stock. To heal the exposed ground, I fertilized it and sowed it with grass and clover.
We had an extremely wet fall and winter, with the usual freezing and thawing. The ground grew heavy with water, and soft. The earthwork slumped; a large slice of the woods floor on the upper side slipped down into the pond.
The trouble was the familiar one: too much power, too little knowledge. The fault was mine.
I was careful to get expert advice. But this only exemplifies what I already knew. No expert knows everything about every place, not even everything about any place. If one’s knowledge of one’s whereabouts is insufficient, if one’s judgment is unsound, then expert advice is of little use.
In general, I have used my farm carefully. It could be said, I think, that I have improved it more than I have damaged it.
My aim has been to go against its history and to repair the damage of other people. But now a part of its damage is my own.
The pond was a modest piece of work, and so the damage is not extensive. In the course of time and nature it will heal.
And yet there is damage – to my place, and to me. I have carried out, before my own eyes and against my intention, a part of the modern tragedy: I have made a lasting flaw in the face of the earth, for no lasting good.
Until that wound in the hillside, my place, is healed, there will be something impaired in my mind. My peace is damaged. I will not be able to forget it.
It used to be that I could think of art as a refuge from such troubles. From the imperfections of life, one could take refuge in the perfections of art. One could read a good poem – or better, write one.
Art was what was truly permanent, therefore what truly mattered. The rest was ‘but a spume that plays / Upon a ghostly paradigm of things.’
I am no longer able to think that way. That is because I now live in my subject. My subject is my place in the world, and I live in my place.
There is a sense in which I no longer ‘go to work.’ If I live in my place, which is my subject, then I am ‘at’ my work even when I am not working. It is ‘my’ work because I cannot escape it.
If I live in my subject, then writing about it cannot ‘free’ me of it or ‘get it out of my system.’ When I am finished writing, I can only return to what I have been writing about.
While I have been writing about it, time will have changed it. Over longer stretches of time, I will change it. Ultimately, it will be changed by what I write, inasmuch as I, who change my subject, am changed by what I write about it.
If I have damaged my subject, then I have damaged my art. What aspired to be whole has met damage face to face, and has come away wounded. And so it loses interest both in the anesthetic and in the purely aesthetic.
It accepts the clarification of pain, and concerns itself with healing. It cultivates the scar that is the course of time and nature over damage: the landmark and mindmark that is the notation of a limit.
To lose the scar of knowledge is to renew the wound.
An art that heals and protects its subject is a geography of scars.
‘You never know what is enough unless you know what is more than enough.’
I used to think of Blake’s sentence as a justification of youthful excess. By now I know that it describes the peculiar condemnation of our species. When the road of excess has reached the palace of wisdom it is a healed wound, a long scar.
Culture preserves the map and the records of past journeys so that no generation will permanently destroy the route.
The more local and settled the culture, the better it stays put, the less the damage. It is the foreigner whose road of excess leads to a desert.
Blake gives the just proportion or control in another proverb: ‘No bird soars too high, if he soars with his own wings.’ Only when our acts are empowered with more than bodily strength do we need to think of limits.
It was no thought or word that called culture into being, but a tool or a weapon. After the stone axe we needed song and story to remember innocence, to record effect – and so to describe the limits, to say what can be done without damage.
The use only of our bodies for work or love or pleasure, or even for combat, sets us free again in the wilderness, and we exult.
But a man with a machine and inadequate culture – such as I was when I made my pond – is a pestilence. He shakes more than he can hold.