Saturday, April 28, 2007

From the bookshelf – Wendell Berry’s agrarian conservatism

In the Presence of Fear
By Wendell Berry
Orion, 2001, $8

One of the most profoundly conservative writers currently at work in this country is Wendell Berry, a farmer, poet, and essayist living in Kentucky. He would probably as thoroughly reject any suggestion that he is associated with the right as he would the idea that he is a part of the political left. Montana Headlines doesn’t need to worry about him reading this, though, since he doesn’t own a computer.

In the Presence of Fear is a little book with three of Berry’s essays. They are neither his most representative, best written, or most influential works – one would have to read The Unsettling of America, his collected poetry, or a collection of essays like Sex, Economy, Freedom, and Community for a better introduction to his writing.

But, besides having the advantage of being the Wendell Berry book currently lying around the Montana Headlines library, In the Presence of Fear contains essays that address the relationship of the local economy to political liberty, the preservation of the environment, and living the good life.

Words like “conservative” retain little meaning when some of those who embrace that mantle consider the disappearance of small farms and ranches, the pollution of air and water, or the destruction of local industries in favor of international ones to be hallmarks of conservatism.

While there are perhaps family farmers and ranchers who treat their land rapaciously, we at Montana Headlines haven’t seen it. Quite the contrary, most farmers and ranchers are instinctively environmentalist or conservationist – or whatever the term might be at the moment. That they generally haven’t had much use for environmentalist movements, organizations, or legislation tends to be a function of the fact that these organizations are driven by urban perspectives that have little room for them or for people who otherwise make their living from the land.

The lack of a place for human beings (unless they are clad in loin-cloths) is one of Berry's most significant beefs with traditional “environmentalism.” For examples, consider an essay such as “Conserving Farm-raised Children,” or a collection of essays like What are People For?"

Wendell Berry’s writing is shot through with the idea that land is best preserved when it belongs to someone who has an interest in taking care of it – and who is able to avoid economic forces that would tempt him to push the limits of what that land can handle.

Well, all of us who live in the suffering rural landscapes of the United States know that most people are available to those landscapes only recreationally. We see them bicycling or boating or hiking or camping or hunting or fishing or driving along and looking around. They do not, in Mary Austin’s phrase, “summer and winter with the land”; they are unacquainted with the land’s human and natural economies.

Though people have not progressed beyond the need to eat food and drink water and wear clothes and live in houses, most people have progressed beyond the domestic arts – the husbandry and wifery of the world – by which those needful things are produced and conserved. In fact, the comparative few who still practise that necessary husbandry and wifery often are included to apologize for doing so, having been carefully taught in our education system that those arts are degrading and unworthy of people’s talents.

Educated minds, in the modern era, are unlikely to know anything about food and drink, clothing and shelter. In merely taking these things for granted, the modern educated mind reveals itself also to be as superstitious a mind as ever has existed in the world. What could be more superstitious than the idea that money brings forth food?

When we said that farmers and ranchers don’t treat their land rapaciously, we didn’t say that they never to anything to hurt it – the tons of chemicals dumped on land these days in order to squeeze more production out of it, driven by market forces that threaten the existence of independent farmers and ranchers, give an example of less than healthy practices that are commonplace.

What, though, does any of this have to do with the “presence of fear,” to use the phrase of the book’s title and the title of the lead essay? Berry wrote that essay shortly after the events of 9/11 – an essay that is remarkable to read today, given that it was written before the second Gulf War, before the Patriot Act, and during a time when Democrats and Republicans alike were united politically in response to the threat of Islamic terrorism.

Berry immediately put his finger on the reasons that such terrorism or the presence of “rogue nations” were such a threat – namely, that our system of global free trade depends on inexpensive and safe long-distance transportation. He postulates that the primary choice that lies before us is whether or not to try to perpetuate this global trade system in its present form – something that will require what amounts to some sort of increasingly intrusive international police force and loss of political liberties.

The alternative is to take steps to develop local and regional economies (as in regional within the U.S. – not international regional economies such as those created by NAFTA or the E.U.) that can provide the basic necessities of life. The more local the production of food, clothing, energy, etc., the less vulnerable it is to terrorism.

An emphasis on a local economy doesn’t mean an opposition to broader trade – far from it. It simply means such trade should deal as much as possible in non-essentials and surpluses.

Those of a conservative bent who oppose making a religion out of free trade tend to base our opposition on exactly these grounds – it is the height of foolishness from a variety of perspectives to create situations where we become unable to provide for our own needs just because the goods or services can be provided more cheaply overseas.Berry also demonstrates another of his distinctives when discussing his distrust of movements: an emphasis on personal responsibility.

I have been pondering about the necessity of getting out of movements -- even movements that have seemed necessary and dear -- when they have lapsed into self-righteousness and self-betrayal, as movements seem almost invariably to do. People in movements so readily learn to deny to others the rights and privileges they demand for themselves. They too easily become unable to mean their own language, as when a “Peace Movement” becomes violent...

Ultimately, I think, they are insincere; they propose that the trouble is caused by other people; they would like to change policy but not behavior.

Personal responsibility, local communities with local economies and local control, conservation of old ways and old ideas, preservation of land by families who own it and work it – all suffused with genuine patriotism and deep Christianity. These are hallmarks of Berry’s work, and make him well worth reading regardless of where one stands on the political spectrum.

In fact, his writings demonstrate that when it comes to the things that are most important, the political spectrum has little meaning or relevance.

No comments: