Wendell Berry’s politics can be read as conservative, libertarian, or liberal, depending on whether one gives greater credence to his moral impulses or his political stances (such as they are). He ardently opposes bigness, but of markets and of governments. What makes him undeniably conservative is his deep concern for conserving the life and wealth of the land and the people. As partisan rancor in America continues to grow, it is useful to have a conservative voice to stand outside and ask who benefits from the cacophony in Washington. It is not the farmers of Port Royal, Kentucky.
But Berry has been at this a long time. Many Fare Forward readers will already be familiar with the Berry oeuvre, spanning poetry, a series of novels, essays, and even a children’s book. What do you get from Our Only World, his latest book, that you can’t get anywhere else?
To those already familiar with Berry, the essays mostly cover old territory, but Berry’s politics are much more evident. These essays have the sensibility of a man who is counting his days. In “Our Deserted Country,” it is clear that Berry realizes that Port Royal, as he knows it, is passing away. His neighbors have already gone to God, and there are none to replace them. The extractive economy has pulled their children off of the land and away from the place, and the “eyes-to-acres” ratio has been dropping steadily. And so, in that essay and many of the others, Berry lets his anger show. An economics of consumption has taken too much land, too many lives, and too much of our capacity to care for one another, and Berry doesn’t have the time left to be polite about it.
This collection is Berry’s least poetic, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Wendell Berry often has a certain Lorax-like quality—the wizened old man of the forest who reminds us of all of the precious creatures who live there and the myriad ways that they can be damaged in our carelessness. But this Lorax, like Dr. Seuss’s original, has an equally important lesson that is often forgotten—not that humans must leave nature undisturbed but that, ultimately, destroying the ecology destroys the economy. Berry’s beautiful meditations on place, memory, Creatureliness, and the interconnectedness of the world are mostly absent. In its place is a relentless argument. What is good for the land is good for the people—in the long run, ecology is economics. Careful human work improves the environment, protects it, and makes it productive. Careless human work (the far more common kind) brings short-term “profits” but leaves destroyed and unproductive land in its wake.
Berry has little patience either for those whose strivings leave him “Caught in the Middle.” Berry’s attempted via media on both sacred cows of abortion and gay marriage is sure to alienate himself from culture warriors on both sides of the aisle. And, to be honest, it seems like a thinker of Berry’s caliber should recognize that such a via media is doomed from the start. Berry’s life work suggests why abortion and gay marriage cannot be considered ‘private’ affairs, involving as they do the life of the family and the community. And the law must be something—it seems like prevarication to contend otherwise. But where Berry’s political advocacy fails, his overarching moral concern hits the mark. The connection that Berry sees between these two arenas is a crisis of kindness, understood as an appreciation for the kinship of all things. Legal questions aside, can we really say that we have begun our discussion of gay marriage from the position that people both gay and straight are brothers and sisters? Doesn’t the pro-choice position begin from a rejection of kinship with the “fetus” (a name for babies, Berry reminds us, that was unknown to mothers until the Sexual Revolution)? But how would the pro-life discussion change if all discussion began from a place of compassion for the economic (and it is usually economic) entrapment of young single moms?
That being said, Berry inexcusably overlooks the real impetus of the pro-life movement. It’s true that many pro-life politicians could use a dose of kindness. But anyone who has seriously engaged with the churches and college groups that are the organizing backbone of the pro-life movement cannot seriously find a moral equivalence between the two “sides.” Christians have sacrificed time and again through crisis pregnancy centers, diaper drives, and charities, engaging with real mothers and showing them every kindness. Berry would do well to observe more carefully the moral impulses of these two movements.
But besides this (not insignificant) misstep, Berry’s overwhelming concern for the kinship of all creatures creates a brisk book. Peace, forestry, farming, the family, fishing, energy, politics and economics are all made better (and made possible) by a humble awareness of our own Creatureliness and a knowing love (or loving knowledge) that moves us outside of ourselves towards the good of the others and of the earth. We need to move back towards a politics of scale and place, beginning from the recognition that “all men are created kin.”