Berry established himself as a key figure in bridging a gap filled with
mutual suspicion. He was born among older farmers and had returned to
their fold. But he had also spent time surrounded by the emerging New
Left and had campaigned against the wanton destructiveness of strip
mining. He was at once a native and a "back-to-the-lander." He
represented the new face of organic farming, and its old face as well.
Smaller, Slower, Better
"Like almost everybody else, I am hooked to the energy corporations,
which I do not admire. I hope to become less hooked to them. In my work,
I try to be as little hooked to them as possible. As a farmer, I do
almost all of my work with horses. As a writer, I work with pencil or a
pen and a piece of paper."
Thus began the essay that, perhaps more than any other, has generated
controversy and criticism for Wendell Berry: his 1987 work, "Why I Am
Not Going to Buy a Computer." As far back as The Unsettling of America,
some supporters had suggested that Berry's unabashed admiration of the
Amish gave his detractors too easy a target. But it was the writer's
rejection of Windows and Mac that really hit a nerve. The essay, which
was published in Harper's, prompted a spray of derisive letters.
Berry was undeterred. Then as now, when branded a Luddite, Berry
rises to the group's defense. "These were people who dared to assert
that there were needs and values that justly took precedence over
industrialization," he writes; "they were people who rejected the
determinism of technological innovation and economic exploitation."
We would do well to maintain such skepticism today, Berry contends.
He does not reject new inventions out of hand. He flies in airplanes,
drives a car, and cuts wood with a chainsaw. But he is not willing to
accept technological "advances" for their own sake. He challenges us to
ask "what higher aim" each new innovation serves, and what its likely
impact on our communities will be.
In a society that steadfastly equates technology with progress, such
questioning is heresy. It would condemn Berry to the outhouse of public
opinion -- except that, with his impeccably logical prose, he makes his
position seem so close to common sense. Instead of rolling our eyes, we
wonder why we didn't think of it first.
Take his view of the computer: "[A] computer, I am told ... will help
you write faster, easier, and more. ... Do I, then, want to write
faster, easier, and more?" he asks. "No. My standards are not speed,
ease, and quantity. I have already left behind too much evidence that
... I have written too fast, too easily, and too much." He writes
elsewhere: "Going off to the woods I take a pencil and some paper ...
and I am as well equipped for my work as the president of IBM."
Quoting Edward Abbey, Berry charges that the global economy operates
on "the ideology of the cancer cell." That is, it must grow to survive.
"The aims of ... limitless growth, limitless wealth, limitless power,
limitless mechanization and automation," Berry writes, "can enrich and
empower the few (for a while), but they will sooner or later ruin us
This is the larger point of his technological criticism. You may not
agree with Berry about where to draw the line, but if we are to survive,
surely the line must be drawn.
Freedom, in Berry's view, is not about unconstrained individual
autonomy, but rather about choosing which constraints we will abide by
and which communities we will be responsible to. It is about making
active choices in an age of passive consumption. In a highly mobile era,
when many people are involuntarily pushed about by the global economy,
his choice to root himself in a single county is less a throwback than
the exercise of a very modern and privileged freedom. Likewise, in a
time marked by unthinking adulation of all things electronic, careful
consideration of technology is less antiquated than avant-garde: "If the
use of a computer is a new idea," Berry writes in a sly moment, "then a
newer idea is not to use one."
Left, Right, Left, Right
unconcerned with people labeling his personal acts of resistance
"insignificant." "Thoreau gave the definitive reply to the folly of
'significant numbers' a long time ago: Why should anybody wait to do
what is right until everybody does it? It is not 'significant' to love
your own children or eat your own dinner, either. But normal humans will
not wait to love or eat until it is mandated by an act of Congress."
This attitude of personal responsibility defines Berry's politics. It
also infused several of his early poems, which looked critically upon
the Vietnam War. In "February 2, 1968," he writes:
In the dark of the moon, in the flying snow,
in the dead of winter,
war spreading, families dying, the world in danger,
I walk the rocky hillside, sowing clover.
The poem offers an eloquent personal response to the ravages of war.
At the same time, it pointedly avoids embracing the protest movement
that so troubled Lyndon Johnson.
Indeed, Berry's political orientation has been notoriously difficult
to label. If his anti-war sentiment, his environmentalism, and his
distaste for the market economy have suggested that he is a leftist,
other characteristics have made some wonder if Berry isn't, at heart, a
In an environmental movement more accustomed to New Age mystics and
bioscience agnostics, Berry's devout Christianity stands out. His
stalwart adherence to a Biblical framework has endeared him to many
more-conservative churchgoers and has produced metaphors uncommon in
mainstream environmental literature. (Topsoil "is very Christ-like," he
writes in his 1968 essay "A Native Hill.")
Berry's praise for the Amish and his lectures on marital fidelity
suggest that he favors a stern social order. And, whether he is speaking
of bad behavior ("foolishness," "pride," "sin," "error," "carelessness")
or good ("character," "virtue," "moral law," "fidelity," "reverence"),
his language is moralistic, which risks making him sound like an
agrarian Dr. Laura.
Several factors, however, indicate that Berry has succeeded in making
progressive ideas appear conservative, and not vice versa.
Having undertaken a serious reckoning of his own faith and having
grounded himself in the Christian tradition, he shows no trace of
zealotry. He acknowledges a deep debt to Buddhism and proposes, in the
wake of 9/11, that "[o]ur schools should begin to teach the histories,
cultures, arts, and languages of the Islamic nations." His willingness
to struggle openly with religion ends up enhancing his moral authority.
Combining his care for the earth with his articulate spirituality, he is
able to propose that a properly Christian economy (like a properly
Buddhist one) is unlikely to permit strip mines. Finally, Berry avoids
self-righteousness by implicating himself in the evils he criticizes.
He, too, is hooked to the energy corporations, and he won't hesitate to
remind you of it.
A friend once said to me of Berry, "If he were a movement, I would
oppose him." But he is not a movement, and he would not care to be one.
Rather, he is a moral voice. He means not to be emulated so much as
That he has no interest in disciples is fortunate, for his many
admirers could hardly fit in Henry County. At 70 years old, Wendell
Berry is reaping the rewards of having found his place in the world. He
admonishes his readers to do the same.
Berry writes in his poem, "Stay Home":
I will wait here in the fields
to see how well the rain
brings on the grass.
In the labor of the fields
longer than a man's life
I am at home. Don't come with me.
You stay home too.