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Summary of Wendell Berry; The Unsettling of America, Culture and Agriculture

Just finished reading “The Unsettling of America, Culture and Agriculture” by Wendell Berry. His writings make so much sense as to make a complete mockery of what commercial agriculture has become in our modern age. I doubt anyone has done such a thorough job of explaining just how deep the erosive fissures run in industrial agriculture, or “agri-business” as it is known in his book. He weaves together the failed policies and practices of the “get big, or get out” era of farm consolidation during the ‘70s which caused a landslide in the numbers of small farmers and a consequential detriment to the quality of the farms and food they produce. His book is a scathing account of how farms have been forced into our cultural impression of a succesful capitalist business, to take any means necessary to gain the highest possible profit margins at the expense of all else; health of the land, health of the food, health of the people. In order to survive the pressures of the political policies and capitalism - and because farmers where advised by virtually every agricultural “authority”, farmers began using machinery to do the work of human hands and horses. They were sold these devices to “save labor” while Berry argues that these “labor saving” devices where actually just putting thousands upon thousands of people out of work, and they were not asked if they wanted their labor to be replaced by machines in the first place. The work which machines have replaced on the farm was hard work, but it was also good work, work which many people earned their living by and which some even enjoyed doing. The machines have also caused harm to the land; when tractors replaced horses and the means of cultivating a field, the incredible weight of the tractor and the type of plow used causes severe compaction of the soil. He notes interestingly that the when the Amish (who use only traditional horse-drawn chisel plows) begin farming on land which was formerly tractor plowed, their harvests increase dramatically year after year as the land is restored from the damage caused by the tractor plowing.
Of course his book also includes critical essays on the abuse of chemical fertilizers - their negative impact on the land, and the pollution they cause from runoff. Also included is the astronimical harm caused by leaving fields barren and the consequential erosion of top soil, and a chapter on the abuse of energy, specifically fossil fuels, but more interesting to me are how he ties together these problems with our inherant social and cultural ideals. For instance, he makes a point of critiquing the modern human concept of “the future” as a utopian fantasy brought true by the saving graces of technological advancement. He insists that our culture is obsessed with “the future” as a space age place of ultra convenience where no one has to work and all of our needs are met by technology. Another example is the modern human interpretation of “nature” as now being a place to “get away to” a place to “go view the scenery”, we (mass culture, not you and I!) now consider ourselves to be apart from nature and not a part of nature.
Although a bit of a stretch, he delves right into such topics as body and soul, and romance and marriage as related to agriculture, he certainly has a way of relating just about anything…his ultimate point being: Everything is connected.
I recommend this book to anyone deeply interested in how agriculture relates to American culture, but I caution also that this book is thick reading chock full of 1970’s political policies and the long drawn out raving rants of a man who cares deeply for the land and can’t stand to see it being destoyed through ignorance. His viewpoints and solutions may be highly idealized, but also insightful and best utilized as a manual to teach a new generation of farmers and re-educate our current farmers worldwide.

“The care of the earth is our most ancient and most worthy and, after all, our most pleasing responsibility. To cherish what remains of it, and to foster its renewal, is our only legitimate hope.”

-Wendell Berry

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Comment by Heather K on November 14, 2009 at 1:28am
The concepts of land stewardship & community resilance through local economy have been promoted by author Wendell Berry's since the 1970's, and especially in his classic - "The Unsettling of America - Culture & Agriculture". He is my favorite living American author & poet and his writings that promote care of the land, and respect for the mysteries of life & family, are timeless.
David, your gifts as a farmer & writer shine in your above blog summary of his book..

A current summary of Wendell's thinking and its relevance for our current challenges, is in a recent article by Rod Dreher posted this newspaper link" (I just received this from my Biodynamic network)

Another farmer book by Wendell Berry I can recommend is "The Gift of Good Land - Further Essays Cultural & Agricultural".
And, I also especially appreciate the 3 essays he later wrote, "The Idea of the Local Economy", and "In Distrust of Movements", which were published after 9/11 by Orian Society in the book "In The Presence of Fear".

Wendall Berry is 74 now and still living in his homeland valley in Kentucky. I was honored to meet him years ago when he was 50. He is a gentle-man, a farmer, and an outspoken writer who speaks the truth outside many of our cultural & political boxes. I rejoice in his life and I give thanks for my friends who also read & relate to his writings.

Below is a quote from one of our local writers, who also is gifted with an elegance & clarity in his writings:

"We live in a fascinating world where every place has a unique story to tell,
the stories are billions of years long and we have only short lives to listen with."
- David Pike
Comment by Deanna Lloyd on November 1, 2009 at 11:42am
David, I just got done reading the "The Art of Commonplace" a collection of essays from Berry's different works. What I found most intriguing (and depressing) was how he highlighted so many key problems with industrial agriculture back in the 70's that we are still dealing with today! He really has a wonderful way with words though that truly demonstrate his love for and knowledge of the land. And has you pointed out, he does an excellent job highlighting how everything is connected. Glad you enjoyed the read!

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