Book Review: Berry’s ‘The Unsettling of America’

I first heard of Wendell Berry and his The Unsettling of America when I was a college student struggling to identify a study major.

I had enrolled with a plan to study agriculture. I loved animals and was thankful to land a job at the college dairy my first semester. But as I got deeper into my studies, I found myself a bit put-off by the big business emphasis of my classes. I was interested in small farming and homesteading — not agribusiness.

At the same time, I was feeling out of my element in my agriculture classes, I found myself pulled in the direction of English. My academic advisor at the time assured me that these passions were not mutually exclusive. He asked me if I had ever read any Wendell Berry, the agriculturist and novelist. I hadn’t, but I made a mental note to look the man up. 

Eventually, I changed my major to English. To my surprise, professors in my new department also frequently referenced Berry. One had met him. Another proudly displayed his signed copy of Jayber Crow to his students. I even read Berry’s Remembering in my Comp II class. 

But somehow or other, I didn’t pick up what is perhaps Berry’s most famous work for almost a decade. Finally, while on a road trip to Kentucky three years ago, I decided it was time. It seemed fitting, as we were planning our homestead venture and looking at property in Kentucky.  

In one of the prefaces, Berry explains that he wrote his book from 1974-1977 during an agricultural decline that was being described, at the time, as a “boom.” He writes,

That the situation was not good — for farms or farmers or rural communities or nature or the general public — was even then evident to any experienced observer who would turn aside from the preconceptions of “agribusiness” and look at the marks of deterioration that were plainly visible. (xi)

Berry was worried then, but things have gotten so much worse since the ‘70s. His concern was with big agriculture and how it was leading to the disintegration of small towns and the destruction of the natural resources. Unlike many contemporary environmentalists, Berry doesn’t see humans as an enemy of nature but as part of the created order. The problems only develop when humans fail to live within their limits.

The question of human limits, of the proper definition and place of human beings within the order of creation, finally rests upon our attitude toward our biological existence, the life of the body in this world. What value and respect do we give our bodies? What uses do we have for them? What relation do we see, if any, between body and mind, or body and soul? What connections or responsibilities do we maintain between our bodies and the earth? These are religious questions, obviously, for our bodies are part of the Creation, and they involve us in all the issues of mystery. But the questions are also agricultural, for no matter how urban our life, our bodies live by farming; we come from the earth and return to it, and so we live in agriculture as we live in flesh. (101)

I think we too often forget that God created man and placed him in a garden. In God’s good creation, we are home. In Berry, I found the agriculture of my youth — the love of creation and my fellow creatures. As a kid, I couldn’t have put it into words, but I thrived living connected to creation. I’ve spent most of my adult years trying to get back to that life. It’s ironic that in a society that prizes itself on flouting limits, it can feel almost impossible to build a simpler life. For my sisters and I, part of this journey has been sacrificing traditional careers for a time and embracing more physical labor than we have ever experienced.

We have made it our overriding ambition to escape work [particularly any form of hand work], and as a consequence have debased work until it is only fit to escape from. We have debased the products of work and have been, in turn, debased by them. … We have taken the irreplaceable energies and materials of the world and turned them into jimcrack “labor-saving devices.” … But is work something that we have a right to escape? And can we escape it with impunity? We are probably the first entire people ever to think so. All the ancient wisdom that has come down to us counsels otherwise. It tells us that work is necessary to us, as much a part of our condition as mortality; that good work is our salvation and our joy; that shoddy or dishonest or self-serving work is our curse and our doom. We have tried to escape the sweet and sorrow promised in Genesis — only to find that, in order to do so, we must forswear love and excellence, health and joy. (14-15)

I have always loved working hard, and I have found joy in many of the jobs I have had over the years. But there is something particularly healing in the work of creating something new with your own hands. It is empowering to realize that you can walk out onto a piece of land and build a shelter and live there. Far from feeling limited, I feel free. It is ironic that the limitless existence Berry warns about actually leads people to dependency, as we rely on experts for life’s basic necessities — food and shelter. By accepting our true limits, we move towards real liberty. 

I believe that the answers are to be found in our history: in its until now subordinate tendency of settlement, of domestic permanence. This was the ambition of thousands of immigrants; it is formulated eloquently in some of the letters of Thomas Jefferson; it was the dream of the freed slaves; it was written into law in the Homestead Act of 1862. There are few of us whose families have not at some time been moved to see its vision and to attempt to enact its possibility. I am talking about the idea that as many as possible should share in the ownership of the land and thus be bound to it by economic interest, by the investment of love and work, by family loyalty, by memory and tradition. … The old idea is still full of promise. It is potent with healing and with health. It has the power to turn each person away from the big-time promising and planning of the government, to confront in himself, in the immediacy of his own circumstances and whereabouts, the question of what methods and ways are best. It proposes an economy of necessities rather than an economy based upon anxiety, fantasy, luxury, and idle wishing. It proposes the independent, free-standing citizenry that Jefferson thought to be the surest safeguard of democratic liberty. (15-16)

There is some sort of poetry in the fact that I began reading The Unsettling of America while wandering, and I finished it once I was settled. We found our dream property right in our very own Ozarks, just down the road from where my great-great-great-great-grandpa settled in the 1830s. I finished the book in a tent near our spring, camping out while building a permanent dwelling.

Our country has been hurt by its unsettling. It’s time to resettle America. 

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