The Unsettling of America: Culture and Agriculture by Wendell Berry
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
I told my friend that reading a book by Wendell Berry was like your father sitting you down to have a difficult talk. You remember the kind. The kind you dreaded because you knew he was going to be right, you knew he was going to tell you things you didn’t necessarily want to hear, and you knew you were going to have to change. I told my friend this because we’re creating a course for next semester on sustainable agriculture and we’ll be using this as one of our texts. But I told my friend we needed to start with something easier, something to ease the students into considerations of food production, industrial agriculture, and sustainability, because Berry’s going to be difficult.
He’s not difficult to read because he’s a poor writer. He’s a fantastic, lucid, compelling writer. But he’s difficult because what he’s saying is correct and devastating. He says things you don’t want to but need to hear. And you hate it a little bit because you’re embarrassed that you never realized these things for yourself and you’re going to have to do the difficult work of changing.
Berry is the Kentuckian farmer, essayist, and activist who is the patron saint of much of the back-to-the-farm, slow-food, locavore movement. Some might argue he’s the guy who started these movements, though his books are simply about the land and our connection to it and the way this has been lost and abused by industrial agriculture and destructive practices and structures– what Berry calls “agribusiness.” He writes fiction and poetry as well, but from what I’ve read and heard of these works the central theme is the same: fidelity to place.
The Unsettling of America is a collection of some of Berry’s classic and most influential essays. Most were originally published elsewhere, but they all fit together in a structural whole yet independent enough to be read on their own. This makes the work especially useful as a primary text to give readers some introduction to Berry.
Berry’s major claims are that our relationship with the land– primarily through agriculture and animal husbandry– is an essential part of our culture and has been lost through the machinations of agribusiness. In the past, small farmers owned their land and grew a variety of crops with care and attention to the local constraints and conditions of culture and soil. Far from being “quaint” or “rustic,” this represented an integrated, varied system that was robust, culturally-rich, and sustainable. It was, Berry argues, drawing on the writings of Thomas Jefferson and others, an essential part of the structural fiber of our nation: independent land-holders tied to the land and local communities. Berry takes this analogy even farther, offering a holistic view of health as concentric circles radiating from the marriage bed to the family to the land and local community.
Berry has written a jeremiad. He’s mourning the loss of something most of us don’t even realize is gone or– most frustratingly for him– that we’ve been convinced was a good or inevitable thing to lose. He’s arguing small scale, independent farming was more effective for community stability and more efficient at producing a sustainable, varied, intelligent harvest that respected locality, soil, and climate. Essentially, it preserved culture. We’ve lost all that, Berry says, and we’ve been told it was a good thing to lose, that it was backward and dated and couldn’t feed a hungry world.
Berry’s not buying it. He denies the technological determinism most of us accept without thought. Why should a certain way of doing farming– a way dominated by industrial agriculture– be presented as the only effective way when it so obviously has led to the erosion of soil, the dependence on foreign oil and chemicals, and the erosion of local communities. Why is farming such a mess? Why are small family farms being forced out to make way for ever larger, ever less stable, ever more environmentally degrading farms? We’ve broken connections, Berry argues, and he argues this methodically and relentlessly, giving dozens of examples self-evident in retrospect.
Consider something as simple as the relationship between animals and crops on a small farm. Leaving aside the question of horse-powered agriculture, which is also something Berry says has been dismissed completely for no good reason, raising animals on the farm in the context of raising crops simply made sense. They were linked together. Industrial agriculture separates these and immediately creates problems. The huge concentrations of animal waste, which on smaller farms served as important fertilizer, now become pollutants to be disposed of. And for fertilizers, of which good manure would be ideal, farmers now must purchase chemically-prepared substitutes. With Berry’s characteristic, weary sarcasm, he points out the fact that the “efficiency” of industrial farming had separated two solutions and elegantly created multiple problems.
People could protest. Probably many do. They think Berry is old-fashioned or idealistic or that his offered solutions don’t make economic sense. Some of these people simply haven’t read Berry carefully. He patiently gives argument after argument that I’ve never heard truly refuted, let alone directly responded to. But some of these people are right: Berry’s not offering economic solutions, because they don’t work. That sort of thinking is what got us in this mess to begin with, he maintains. You can’t discuss agriculture– our relationship with the land– solely in economic or business terms. It’s a much deeper question, a question of culture, and that’s what’s been lost.
Another way of looking at it is the a question of hidden costs. Agribusiness isn’t interested in the hidden costs to the environment, to the community, and to a culture that values farming as an art and heritage. And neither, unfortunately, are most of us. Berry’s work will remind you why you should be.