Monday, April 30, 2012

more from Wendell Berry

Last week, Wendell Berry delivered a speech to the National Endowment for the Humanities. All who have ears can give it a listen by watching the video here.

I'm cautiously heartened that Wendell Berry's work is lately getting attention. The fact that he gave this speech at an event put on by our federal government, and the fact that he was chosen to write the forward to Prince Charles's book about feeding the planet sustainably means that more people will hear his thoughts.  And we need to hear what Mr. Berry's been prescribing for the last 40 years; from the way we eat, to the way we pattern our weeks, to the way we raise our kids, to how we think about where we live. It is ancient wisdom, wearing (semi-)modern lenses, and spoken in a Kentucky accent.

I was struck in listening to the speech, how consistent Mr. Berry's message has been throughout his career. The book that put him on the map, and the one that first captured my thoughts, is a collection of essays called The Unsettling of America: Culture and Agriculture. Much of what he said in his speech last week is a reworking of the same themes he developed in that book, which was publishing in 1977.

Below are some excerpts from the book that grabbed my attention right away; they struck me as both startlingly different from anything I'd heard before, and startlingly true.

Here is his first paragraph:
One of the peculiarities of the white race’s presence in America is how little intention has been applied to it. As a people, wherever we have been, we have never really intended to be. The continent is said to have been discovered by an Italian who was on his way to India. The earliest explorers were looking for gold, which was, after an early streak of luck in Mexico, always somewhere farther on. Conquests and foundings were incidental to this search – which did not, and could not, end until the continent was finally laid open in an orgy of goldseeking in the middle of the last century. Once the unknown of geography was mapped, the industrial marketplace became the new frontier, and we continued, with largely the same motives and with increasing haste and anxiety, to displace ourselves – no longer with unity of direction, like a migrant flock, but like the refugees from a broken anthill. In our own time we have invaded foreign lands and the moon with the high-toned patriotism of the conquistadors, and with the same mixture of fantasy and avarice.

A few paragraphs later, he goes on:
If there is any law that has been consistenly operative in American history, it is that the members of any established people or group or community sooner or later become "redskins" - that is, they become the designated victims of an utterly ruthless, officially sanctioned and subsidized exploitation. The colonists who drove off the Indians came to be intolerably exploited by their imperial governments. And that alien imperialism was thrown off only to be succeeded by a domestic version of the same thing; the class of independent small farmers who fought the war of independence has been exploited by, and recruited into, the industrial society until by now it is almost extinct. 

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