There would still remain the never-resting mind,
So that one would want to escape, come back
To what had been so long composed.
The imperfect is our paradise.
Note that, in this bitterness, delight,
Since the imperfect is so hot in us,
Lies in flawed words and stubborn sounds.[i]
–Wallace Stevens

At the heart of religious motivation lies a longing for a lost unity, real or imagined.  One is alerted to the presence of religious or spiritual discourse by language of wholeness, reconciliation, and reunion.  To return to God is evoked as a sort of homecoming after an earthly sojourn, our forty days alone in the desert.  “The concern of faith is identical with the desire of love,” writes Paul Tillich: “reunion with that to which one belongs and from which one is estranged” (130).  The spiritually blessed are promised a sort of healing which, in turn, is almost always described in terms of unity and integration, wholeness and health.

It is fitting that a pluralistic society like ours is devoted, in some quarters at least, to managing diversity with justice.  But as this justice is terribly uneven, ours is a society that celebrates separation and fragmentation in the form of individualism and autonomy.  Unity and integration, in contrast, may receive some nostalgic praise or weekly homage, but politically are often viewed as hazardous constraints, remnants of a “closed” society which is persistently held up against the Liberal values of the open and unbounded.  Freed from tradition and its stuffy propriety, almost anything goes, at least if performed in a private sphere, which is also to say that nothing is sacred.  The sacred, in contrast, is untouchable, contains within it principles of limits, boundaries, and constraints.  The sacred tells us what does not “go.”

This explains the uneasy relationship between religion and modernity and the rise of secular values in Liberal society.  In a “fallen” state, from a religious perspective, one suffers from internal division, split and pulled by conflicting purposes: working for one objective, playing at another, and worshipping something entirely different, each sphere organized around instrumental reason, which by design has nothing to say about values.  But secular society values this differentiation and separation.  For better and for worse, our values are entirely personal and diversified like a hedged portfolio, selected from the global buffet, whether to suit our personalities, our whims, or wounds—the difference between which Liberalism has increasingly ceased trying to discern.

Although certainly embraced more frequently and ardently by liberals than by what passes for a conservative today, Wendell Berry is clearly a religious rather than Liberal thinker, praising the unified and relentless in his criticism of the fragmented.  As he summarizes it in The Unsettling of America, “it remains only to say what has often been said before—that the best human cultures also have this unity.  Their concerns and enterprises are not fragmented, scattered out, at variance and contention with one another.  The people and their work and their country are members of each other and of the culture” (47).   Berry’s invocation of a religious vocabulary is in no way disguised.  His poetry and prose bask in metaphors of wholeness as health, and separation as disease.  “The disease of the modern character,” he says, “is specialization,” for in specialization we see the abdication of responsibility due to the division of cause from effect, as life is separated into distinct spheres by a series of checks and balances and division of labor, creating discrete moral, political, and economic realms; the private is rigidly distinct from the public, while the law maintains safe distance from morality according to normative Liberal orthodoxy.  Specialization is a principle of difference and separation.  It allows us to work far from where we live and play.  Berry indicts modern Liberal society with absolute judgment on grounds of our differentiations: “if we do not live where we work, and when we work, we are wasting our lives, and our work too” (79).

Berry does not merely employ religious-sounding metaphors; he calls explicitly on Christianity as a guide to the sort of reunification or spiritual homecoming that he also associates with small-scale organic farming and husbandry.  When he says that the best cultures have a unity to them, he is at the same time determining “best” as that which expresses a unity.  His circular reasoning in this case revolves around a tradition imbued with Christian authority.  As he explains it, “the soul, in its loneliness, hopes only for ‘salvation.’  And yet what is the burden of the Bible if not a sense of mutuality of influence, rising out of an essential unity, among soul and body and community and world?  These are the works of God, and it therefore the work of virtue to make or restore harmony among them” (109).

Part of the attraction of Berry to liberals (and likewise his lack of purchase on the hearts of political conservatives) resides in his skepticism towards the values of the market economy.  But if Berry is anti-capitalist, it is not in the way liberals are today.  Unable to indict capitalism on its values or its principles of disunity (for this value-free freedom of choice is the foundation of Liberalism), liberals have turned their focus to capitalism’s grave inequalities, the way accumulation and its resulting leverage creates unequal consumption and unfair access to opportunities.  In the Liberal utopia, consumption has been equalized, and at a high level, while labor has lost all grueling or physical nature except as freely chosen.  This abundance and ease equips the Liberal individual with the leisure and education necessary, perhaps, to pursue higher values—but at most as an aspiration or option rather than requirement.  For Liberal Freedom is the freedom to embrace the perverse and the profane and is at this way entirely at ease in its unsettling capitalist home.

Berry’s anti-capitalism, in contrast, is old-fashioned and conservative: it is capitalism’s destruction of spiritual unity that concerns him—its unsettling, fragmenting, and scattering forces, its “highly simplified” machine economy of production and consumption, extraction and waste, all inimical to “the best human cultures.”  The progressive side of Marx looked to the machine as the eventual source of universal liberation; skeptical that history and its labor of the negative will do our heavy lifting, Berry demands that we make history as human necessity requires and that we restrain ourselves, impose our own negations, resist the ease and simplicity that machines and cheap energy offer.

Thus his unembarrassed appeal to morality and its requirements.  More specifically, the moral order of a unified society, Berry says, “requires the addition of a third term: production, consumption, and return.  It is the principle of return,” he continues, setting up perhaps the most beautiful lines in The Unsettling of America, “that complicates matters, for it requires responsibility, care, of a different and higher order than that required by production and consumption alone”:

In an energy economy appropriate to the use of biological energy, all bodies, plant and animal and human are joined in a kind of energy community.  They are not divided from each other by greedy, “individualistic,” efforts to produce and consume large amounts of energy, much less to store large quantities of it.  They are indissolubly linked in complex patterns of energy exchange.  They die into each other’s life, live into each other’s death.  They do not consume in the sense of using up.  They do not produce waste.  What they take in they change, but they always change it into a form necessary for its use by a living body of another kind.  And this exchange goes on an on, round and round, the Wheel of Life rising out of the soil, descending into it, through the bodies of creatures. (85-6).

The soil, he concludes, “is the healer and restorer and resurrector.”  In contrast, Capitalism cannot afford return and Liberal freedom requires that all communities can be left behind on the principle of individual autonomy.

Thus the great internal conflict within Liberal Environmentalism, not to mention left-leaning politics in an age of limits.  Our natural environment requires this “care and responsibility of a higher order,” yet Liberal choice forbids any such requirements.  We desperately need limits and constraints; yet our Liberalism requires that they be freely chosen and that they reflect our personal style.  One of my main purposes, here and elsewhere, is to reflect on the way a reconciliation to this contradiction is or might be imagined.  An originary Liberal attempt, lost long ago in the trenches of the Somme and scattered by the fragments of modernist culture, was the dream that Enlightened knowledge would guide us to freely choose a higher order.  More recently, the systematic depersonalization of power, order, and authority represented by the market economy has been a facile proxy.  Communitarians, in contrast, have hoped that finding a true natural order would provide a “reunion to that which one belongs and from which one is estranged.”

But life in a pluralistic society is not so simple and if there is a stubborn contradiction at the heart of Liberal Environmentalism, there is also a perilous conceit in the dream of a society resurrected upon “natural foundations” or the “wheel of life”—a belief that conflict and division might whither away, along with coercion and order, as we are stripped of our torments, melting into singularity the “evilly compounded, vital I,” as Wallace Stevens puts it.  If only we decolonize ourselves, embed our life in natural rhythms, join hands in communal surrender, the state becomes unnecessary, hierarchies will be given and accepted, or may become obsolete, the rigor and excellence needed for human survival and abundance arising effortlessly from the vapors of communal unity.  This sort of untroubled belief, at any rate, is latent in the dream of an ecological conversion and salvation.

Henry County

Aside from a number of pragmatic and logistic reasons for our divided and unintegrated (and thus wasted) lives in our post-industrial and bourgeois sector of global capitalism, there is a valid philosophical reason that we don’t simply drop the autonomous, limitless, and profane values of Liberalism in whole-hearted pursuit of communal unity.  The contradiction I just mentioned, in other words, is real.  Both sides of it have legitimate pull—the one calling for religious integration with tight communal bonds, the other for unbounded individuated freedom; both make compelling claims, something visible when we examine more closely what it would actually mean to embrace the side favored by Berry.  Before proceeding further we should be clear that in his rejection of pluralism or Liberal choice and the resulting fragmentation of our lives and culture into separate spheres, Berry is absolute.  Consider this example, one whose basic form and tenor is repeated throughout The Unsettling of America:

There is nothing more absurd, to give an example that is only apparently trivial, than the millions who wish to live in luxury and idleness and yet be slender and good-looking.  We have millions, too, whose livelihoods, amusements, and comforts are destructive, who nevertheless wish to live in a healthy environment; they want to run their recreational engines in clean, fresh air.  There is now, in fact, no ‘benefit’ that is not associated with disaster.  That is because power can be disposed morally or harmlessly only by thoroughly unified characters and communities. (12).

While it is true that Berry believes it impossible to inhabit a pure “outside,” entirely separate from this destructive economy, in his writing, at least, he seems unwilling to make any compromises with disunity.  His moral universe is strictly divided between principles of health, wholeness, and unity, on one hand, and division, fragmentation, and destruction on the other.  He provides no middle ground or, it often appears, principle of compromise.

What makes Berry so effective as an uncompromising moral and religious writer, and also so perilous, is the concrete beauty with which he both makes his ruthless discriminations and describes the lost Eden where healing might begin.  This is true in his books and poems and is given stirring visual magnification in the recent retrospective on Berry’s life, “Look and See,” a documentary that is the proximate catalyst for my reflections, here.

Some of my favorite images from Berry are those that focus on soil, work, and the qualities of care and a responsibility that centers on the act of being responsive to the earth beneath our very feet, of looking and seeing, touching and sifting.  I cited one earlier.  Here he is again on a flight of soaring symbolism, again dividing the world into the healing and destructive, the profane and the sacred:

Once, the governing human metaphor was pastoral or agricultural, and it clarified, and so preserved in human care, the natural cycles of birth, growth, death, and decay.  But modern humanity’s governing metaphor is that of the machine.  Having placed ourselves in charge of Creation, we begin to see the whole Creation merely as a raw material, to be transformed by machines, into a manufactured Paradise.

Berry continues:

“And so the machines did away with mystery on one hand and the multiplicity on the other. . . . By means of the machine metaphor we have eliminated any fear or awe or reverence or humility or delight or joy that might have restrained us in our use of the world” (56).

Berry’s meditations–full of life and beauty, strike in their clarity the awe and wonder he craves—are, we might say, theoecological and cleave to a severe moral order that is rarely seen fit for public display in industrial civilization or Liberal society.  Even the religious right is far more tolerant of internal divisions and, to an even greater extent, accepting of the split between a realm of faith and a realm of work, righteousness and consumption or comfort.

The accomplishment of Berry’s writing is extraordinary, this conservative, moralizing, discriminating, absolutist, invited to sit with progressives who would generally be wary of uncompromising distinctions such as his and whose lives he proclaims to be largely wasted.  In my mind it speaks to the way many of us have, for forty years, been groping for a perspective that includes both freedom and necessity, limitlessness and constraints.  Writing in the same period as Berry, Daniel Bell spoke of our collective yearning for “a new vocabulary whose keyword seems to be limits: a limit to growth, a limit to the spoliation of the environment, a limit to arms, a limit to the tampering with biological nature” (xxix).[ii]  While as a culture we have clearly chosen freedom and limitlessness, the yearning has nevertheless not completely disappeared and, if presented artfully enough, it can occasionally slip by our Liberal demands.

There are of course a number of ways in which Berry slips past our Liberal guards.  One is through abstraction that appears religious and thus, according to our current habits, beyond any capacity for day to day integration.  Another way is by turning, sometimes very suddenly, to his biography and, more significantly, its setting:

In my boyhood, Henry County Kentucky, was not just a rural county, as it still is—it was a farming county.  The farms were generally small.  They were farmed by families who lived not only upon them, but within and from them.  These families grew gardens.  They produced their own meat, milk, and eggs.  The farms were highly diverse. . . . In those days a farm family could easily market surplus cream, eggs, old hens, and frying chickens.  The power for field work was still furnished mainly by horses and mules.  There was still a prevalent pride in workmanship, and thrift was still a forceful social ideal.  The pride of most people was still in their homes, and their homes looked like it (40-1).

In a way that is also central to “Look and See,” Berry’s credibility lies in his experience as a farmer, but not in a simple empirical sense of having technical knowledge and expert experience, but in the way he develops what students of classical rhetoric would refer to as ethos.  Central to his art and thought is the lived-experience that it expresses.  This is especially important given Berry’s focus on culture which, as sociologists remind us, is not something invented or dictated but grows from collective experience.  Berry’s abstract meditations on soil, energy communities, or complex patterns are tethered through his body and his life to the land and people he lovingly describes—the world of eggs, frying chickens, mules, and well-kept homes as well as neighbors singing the fields or challenging each other to friendly contests of strength or endurance.

For it is one thing to generally, if poetically, talk about the ecology of soil and the biological community of beings, and another thing to point to a time and a place where this community actually existed and was lived-in by the poet.  Just as Berry’s writing, and thus his religion, is buttressed by the plainly described lived-beauty of it all, “Look and See” is a montage of pictures and home-movies depicting the hand plowing, seeding, and harvesting, and, notably, a striking and repeated image of Berry looking out his window at The Kentucky River from his 40-pane window.  Here, significantly, we see Berry himself looking and seeing.  This place is real and he is there, or so the image tells us[iii].  It transports us from the symbolic world of devout distinctions and sacred images to something we can look at.  Unlike the Bible’s Garden of Eden, one leaves “Look and See” wondering if or how we can “go back” or recreate what we have witnessed.

To put this another way, the actual existence of the sort of farming that he elevates as a model of community allows Berry to crossover from religious visionary to something far more pragmatic.  Berry is too reflective and too symbolic to be referred to with as unpoetic a label as “social activist.”  But he seems to have inspired more social activists than religious institutions or practices.  And this inspiration is, I think, grounded in the possibility of place—or, perhaps, the illusion of the possibility of place.

Berry is quick to say that “this was by no means a perfect society” (40), but its imperfections notwithstanding, the vision of wholeness still captures the reader’s imagination, as do the snapshots from “Look and See” of the harvest, the hard work, the writer in overalls sitting at his typewriter gazing out at the Kentucky River.  I want that life!—never mind its imperfections which certainly don’t appear to be much more than the beauty-marks of old age and a life well-lived: that’s what I said to myself while watching “Look and See.” Prominent on the cover of one of my editions of The Unsettling of America is a quotation from a Los Angeles Times review: “A return to the art of nurture not as a romantic dream, but as an alternative to possible nightmare.” But this return is a return to a distinct time and place that, in fact, no longer quite exists and, it turns out, never really did.

To “romanticize the past,” of course, is to selectively isolate positive aspects from a previous era, removing them from the broader context or historical system in which they were embedded.  It is an act of displacement, often accompanied by a rigid hierarchy of distinctions, whereby the difficult and often intractable problems of human life in general or of a specific society in particular are sanitized by their travel through time and crystalized as they fall into our present imagination.  Nostalgia fails us, or can, by excusing us from whole-system thinking, by mistaking the isolated fragment for the whole.[iv]

And yet it is difficult to gain critical perspective on the present and how it might be different without reverting to images of the past, for what has been provides realistic-seeming examples of what is therefore possible.  Hegel warned us against building “a world as it ought to be” in a “pliant medium in which the imagination can construct anything it pleases” (22).  It’s capacity for imaginative recreation notwithstanding, history at least appears to be a less pliant medium than mere imagination.  If we want to imagine how one might live with communal connections, or with greater respect for natural systems, or with a reverent sense of limits, there are cultures and societies from the past to which we can turn for models, examples, and inspiration.  It is almost inevitable that in its search for resilient communities, the Transition movement took inspiration from the English market village or that in his reflections on creating alternatives to the market economy David Fleming resurrects the middle ages.  Nature abounds in C.S. Lewis’s Narnia Chronicles—as does the great chain of being and a discarded image.

But when historical consciousness—the crucial knowledge that people have thrived in radically different ways than we—is combined with a sort of religious fervor and devotion, the mix can turn dangerous.  There is a duty and obligation, then, to be as clear and complete as possible about what all[v] in fact was, with as much critical range and variety as possible.  This is to read the Romantic writer against his or her grain, to refuse to accept the image strictly on the terms with which it is provided.  Perhaps we need to keep our religion separate from our history — or reading, perhaps, must itself be an art containing the complexities Berry attributes to farming.

Consider from a critical historical perspective the proposition—or perhaps it’s more of an image presented as a model–that the farms of Henry County were in some ways integrated, wholesome, and a place where the Wheel of Life might make full rotations within a unified culture.  I have been using the word “integrated” with some sense of self-consciousness because of the centrality of segregation to our history and the way in history’s reimagining it is far too easy to selectively remove the segregation (or multiple ones) from the integration that was always accompanied by segregation as a matter of historical fact and, perhaps, logical necessity if history and its recounting is indeed a system (see note v).

Berry, after all, is, with his notion of “return” (a principle of inescapability) embracing a “whole system” way of thinking.  He likewise points out the way ecology shows “’that you can’t do one thing’—which means that in a natural system whatever affects one thing ultimately affects everything” (46).  According to Berry’s astute logic, one therefore cannot think with any accuracy or justice about the system of America and American agriculture without recalling our system of race and segregation, of separate and unequal, of a culture and agriculture split at its roots from the moment white people set foot in the Americas, and later as they moved westward from Virginia and into Kentucky.  Berry’s hallowed ground was, as he does realize, stolen and conquered land, fertilized with the blood of untold massacres, watered with the tears of a vanishing people.  Like everything else in the system this affects everything else.

After viewing “Look and See” I also did some brief research into the history of racial violence (beyond that endemic to all slavery and white conquest) of Northern Kentucky.  It is true that compared to Western Kentucky, where there was an extraordinarily high concentration of lynchings, Henry County was relatively free from this most terrible violence, with reports of “only” 1 or 2 recorded lynchings, all performed well before Berry’s time.  Berry grew up in a family, he admits, that recalls owning slaves.  In his 1968 The Hidden Wound he does grapple deeply[vi] with racism and its impact on American culture, another source, he suggests of disunity and separation.  Although Berry argues that our racial division has also divided us from the Earth, I’m still not sure to what extent his vision of agriculture belies the broader system of white supremacy, the historic source of the freedom to engage freely in this sort of nurturing farming and husbandry, available exclusively to white farmers whose ancestors stole the land from its natives and, directly or indirectly, enjoyed the surpluses created by a system of slave labor.  According to the 2000 census, Henry County was 93.7% white.   There was a time, of course, before censuses were needed, when it would have been 93% Cherokee, Chickasaws, and Shawnee.

Based on the footage shown in “Look and See,” the supplementary labor force used to bring in the tobacco crop in the 1950s and 60s was largely white, composed, I imagine, by the lost men of another kind of industrial segregation.  Today, as in most of America, the transient and mobile army of surplus labor in tobacco country[vii] is mainly Latino.  Then as now, I wonder, how “integrated” were “the crews of workers or neighbors laughing and joking, telling stories, or competing at tests of speed or strength or skill” (74) and whether such festivities were open to all–the toothless men or the dark-skinned people?  As Berry suggests in The Hidden Wound, they were not.

Berry, it bears repeating, admits that these were not perfect societies but merely provided qualities that might be “cultivated and built upon.”  But, for the sake of historical decency, we still need to consider the conditions under which such qualities arose in a social ecology where everything that affects one thing affects everything else.  A racial or ethnic history cannot, as Berry knows, according to this correct logic, be seen as a marginal or arbitrary fact, without which the primary (white) system could continue unaffected. If whatever affects one thing affects everything else, can we even imaginatively recreate a vision with multiple roots in Henry County Kentucky that can with honesty be given the label “unified” or “integrated”?  Well of course we can–imaginatively.  But what affects are we forgetting?  What inconvenient truth will “return” as we attempt to recreate the qualities of a unified culture undisturbed, for a moment, by the disunity poised at its margins?  Are there ineluctable principles of community and unity, that we ignore and at what risk?  What are the principles of communal attraction and repulsion, bonding and delineating?[viii]

It is to his credit, we should note, that Berry does not try to force a carefree intermingling between the world of Henry County, on the one hand, with its contrasting urban counterpart, on the other, nor imagine a peaceful synthesis between industrial agriculture and traditional husbandry.  He is vigilant in his work of keeping things separate, fiercely protecting his distinctions.  He doesn’t suggest that we might transplant his idealized nurturing, reverent, and restrained world of biological rhythms into an urban landscape shaped by autonomy, self-creation, and wage (or salary) labor whose objective never escapes the clutch of its instrumental means.  Middle class environmentalist fans of Berry’s work are likely to contain their longing for the world of which Berry speaks into a distinct realm, separate from the work that provides that middle class status.  Berry exhibits little sympathy for this sort of non-integrated spiritual sphere, this kind of once a week religious devotion.  Although one may associate Berry with empathy, empathy is hardly his dominant trope, as least not in The Unsettling of America.

Never a progressive or liberal posturer, unmoved by tolerant sympathy or undiscriminating egalitarianism, Berry does not disguise the rigid conservativism of his ideals, accepting, if not celebrating, “natural hierarchies” and “proper roles” as principles of an ecological community and thus of a social unity modeled after it.  True, he doesn’t accept a new kind of segregation, at least on the grounds of race.  But nor does he suggest that urban and rural, industrial and agriculture, the machine and the body, the specialist and the generalist, the exploiter and the nurturer might find harmonious union as they meld and melt together in a “mush of heart, friendship, and enthusiasm,” as Hegel puts it.  Barry’s imagination is in this way a rigid, rather than pliant, medium.   And that is certainly part of its attraction, but also a feature that creates some too-often neglected contradictions.

Community and Its Discontents; Integration and its Exiles

I have been pressing on Berry’s use of uncompromising distinctions in the service of a unified communal order[ix] as a prelude to a broader point about community—a point that brings us back to the contradiction between Liberal freedom and the possibility (one, admittedly, I ultimately favor) that only unified communities and characters imbued with “higher responsibility” and the principle of “return” can responsibly dispense with energy or allocate resources.  We modern urban individuals who dip in and out of our carefully selected communities (and like the feel of the word “community”—an antidote to the most aggressive aspects of the market–as it slides off our tongues) may not like to hear it, but if we’re talking about unity or integration—to the extent that we have a communal order–we have a basic problem: what to do with heterogeneity, diversity, and irreconcilable differences of belief and social practice.

It is sometimes imagined that the force of nature and its harmonious systems, which are “naturally” right, might solve the problem of human differences if we can finally submit to nature rather than the latest human (mis-)rendition of it.  Some suppose that matriarchy or sociocracy or living in a commune of tiny houses will solve the existential problem of identity and difference.  Others believe that decolonizing our souls, our nations, and our institutions will result in an a harmoniously peaceful unity—a unity lacking coercion and exile alike, community with both the benefits of community and individualism.  As much as I believe many of these curative efforts might help create a just communal order, maybe substantially, the thought of solving the problem of heterogeneity, rather than somehow managing it, involves too much wishful thinking and untethered idealism.  In addition to what I think are structural contradictions, history gives us a dim record of this hope, which goes by names such as the empire of liberty, a classless society, the triumph of the will, the hippie drop-out, or the global knowledge economy.  It is for this reason that I asked, above, what sort of inconvenient truths might return from the repressed if we imagine the principle of unity without observing the forces required both to unify and to banish the un-unifiable.

So if we relinquish the dream that, once understood, everyone will live according to the loving embrace of permacultural principles, and that, having seen the light (or the Wheel of Life) there will be no persistent outliers, adversaries, or discontents, we have to admit that there are only a few possible ways to deal with heterogeneity. [x]  The modern Liberal one is to erect as absolute a divide between private wants and public duties as possible, while decreasing the demands of the latter.  The communitarians (of which I count myself) are correct if they point out that the Liberal solution works, such as it does, only under conditions of immense surplus and expanding space.  Under these conditions, Liberalism seems to offer immense and permanent promise.  But we have yet to see an evolved Liberal society that doesn’t also unleash as part of its promise of freedom, individual want-creation, and thus limitless wants, and thus the destruction of our biosphere.[xi]   But critics of Liberalism are wrong to assume that Liberalism’s ultimate unworkability promises us an easy, let alone utopian, alternative.  Liberalism’s unsustainability is under no obligation to promise us a clear or simple successor.

Absent an infinite universe, and this is our second alternative, the fact that people may want different things here on lifeboat Earth, or may refuse to submit to the program, however decolonized it is, is a problem for community that can be dealt with either through exclusion, repression, or some combination of the two.  Of course one might object by pointing to the great moments of human coming-together or when we patriotically “put our differences aside”—after a hurricane or flood, in the days following 9/11, during WWII.  These, of course, are examples in which difference was temporarily repressed (even if voluntarily [“set aside”]), and, moreover, in the face of something else requiring more urgent exclusion or sequestration.  When the common enemy or threat disappears, and perhaps also the heavy-hand permitted to enforce the temporarily strong social norms, the internal differences quickly reappear.   That these moments participate in a dialectic of identity and difference, at any rate, is suggested, I have tried to show above, in the very terms we use to discuss them.  One exclusion or set of differences is replaced with another.  The logic of differentiation doesn’t disappear.

One of the fascinating things about Berry is the way he tacitly seems to agree with this rather unyielding notion of communal homogeneity, but in a way that is not, I think, fully grasped in the reception of his work.  Consider the opening sequence of “Look and See.” Berry can only imagine community and unity by dismissing as false and self-deceptive the gains and privileges of radical individualism.  While I encourage readers to view this several minute trailer at this time, for those who don’t in this first scene of “Look and See” we hear Berry read the poem “The Timbered Choir” against a visual backdrop that starts with mountain top coal removal and its despoiled landscapes, mechanized deforestation, follows poisoned rivers to an anonymous city and its purposeless bustle as the film is speeded-up, finally focusing in successive flashes on the highly individuated urban characters who display marks of difference conceived, we are given to imagine, in the act of aesthetic self-creation, freedom, and liberation.

Though Berry seems to have little use for Marx, the notion of commodification is audible in the lines of this poem, while in the visual score individuation is depicted as self-commodifying pseudo-freedom:

The races and the sexes now intermingled perfectly in pursuit of the objective.
The once-enslaved, the once-oppressed were now free
To sell themselves to the highest bidder
And to enter the best paying prisons

Berry clearly believes[xii] that modern individuals working in the so-called knowledge economy, pursuing market values and living according to market justice are homeless rather than “authentically” free, that liberation from certain kinds of bonds have resulted in a more insidious sort of bondage, as humans become estranged from their biological nature and the moral order it requires.  As Berry puts in in Unsettling, “The fact is, however, that this is probably the most unhappy average citizen in the history of the world” (20).[xiii]

Okay, perhaps.  As Sebastian Junger notes in his excellent book, Tribe, during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries white Americans abandoned their culture to live amongst American Indians by the tens of thousands with hardly an example of the opposite: “Indians almost never ran away to join white society” (2).  But why Berry’s overt and mildly dismissive reference to the racial and sexual integration?  Is he only saying that these battles aren’t as significant as we might suppose—and if so, less significant to whom?  Or are we seeing a sort of slip of the tongue in which he reveals the presence of a deeper, perhaps necessary, historical connection—the same sort we saw in our all too brief reflections on the history and demographics of Henry County?  Perhaps the dismissive attitude towards certain kinds of equality—or that achieved under non-agrarian conditions–is functionally necessary to his critique of our culture.  Let there be no sense that I am accusing Berry of cruel-hearted white supremacy—far from it.  Rather, if anything, I’m applauding him for following out the logic of community to the utmost ends of its reach, while also regretting where that logic might sometimes lead us.  For even though I would like to have nothing to do with “the objective,” and believe that only community can provide us with an alternative, I don’t magically assume that the alternative will be redemptive.

If I could share a meal with Berry, at any rate, I’d ask him this, curious of his response:  what is the relationship between the perfect intermingling of the sexes and the pursuit of the objective?  Is it causal, symptomatic, coincidental?  Why, I would ask, did you want to highlight the specific differentiation that that particular phrase and image suggests? To what extent, I would follow up, does the nurturing husbandry you describe require a hierarchy, and if so, how is this hierarchy to be determined?  What is the “natural” order and hierarchy of things?  We know how this was determined, know it all too painfully; but how might we deal with it in the future, or even the present?

In the next verse Berry redefines the “individuated, the autonomous, the self-actuated,” as, in fact, the “homeless. . . having never know where they were going, having never know where they came from.”  In the accompanying montage of “Look and See” these individuated souls are shown, finally, as part of a mass of undifferentiated picture-takers, passengers with eyes fixed on screens, earbuds completing their solitude, as lonely selves posing for a “selfie,” as a tattooed artist or designer or knowledge worker brandishing his emblazoned arms, bright with the esoteric hieroglyphs of individuation.  But how might we find a human homecoming for people who have no Henry County to which they might return?  Berry has a discriminating intellect, but where does the discrimination end and the intolerance begin?  The poetry, as stirring as it is, lacks compassion or even an attempt to understand the lives whose individuality he dismisses.

The Liberal answer is that since any kind of discriminating (as in identifying significant differences) can lead to discrimination in the intolerant (or worse) sense of the word, we must put a ban on looking at life choices as anything more substantial than the terrible word, “lifestyle”—terrible because it reduces morality or existence and much of life itself to a morally-neutral aesthetic choice.  This approach works, at least under some specific conditions of which Liberals remain unconscious, and with very real collateral damage that Liberals have yet to accept.

Berry’s response doesn’t solve the problem, either, but instead puts a finer point upon it while also dismissing a different collateral damage.  For amidst the call for a return to nurture and community, there may be a lack of empathy for those alienated and estranged, not by modern industrial society, but perhaps by remnants of a local community such as that found in Henry County: the gay or transgendered person, as one example, escaping the bullying small-town high school for the discretionary communities of an urban diversity; the forced and inescapable marriages of a past era; the white supremacy that cleared the land for white yeoman farmers.  Berry is close, to say the least, to dismissing the lives and struggles lived in response to all that.  An industrial money economy does estrange us from nature and community; but it also allows people to escape from nature and community turned repressive.

To consider the contradiction in Liberal environmentalism (or whatever we may choose to call this struggle) from a slightly different and more pointed angle, the idea and ideal of community deserve further consideration.  As one side of our liberal desire, we like to think of community in terms of its warm embrace.  Like Berry, we often herald its bonds of obligation and reciprocity, transfiguring them in our imagination into song-circles, potlucks, or the caring hand reaching out to a brother or sister who is stumbling.  These are not imaginary qualities.  Yet what makes a community real—and by that I mean available as a model for a non-individualistic and non-competitive society that offers an alternative to “the objective,” and not just a name for the group one most enjoys “hanging out” with—is its high barriers to entry and exit. 

In case my ambivalence is not yet clear, note I am not saying this to privilege individualism, to suggest that the Liberal and capitalist dismemberment of community has in fact set humans free except in a few specific way—but ways at the center of some people’s lives.  Rather, I want to be clear-eyed about the stakes: for bonds of obligation are bonds that may not be easily untied; the obligations are not voluntary.  They are saved by the reciprocity, when it exists, but there is a violence to community and its unities that should not be ignored.

As sociologist Daniel Bell explains it, speaking of the pre-automobile sociality of rural America, “the repressive threats of nineteenth-century morality. . . relied in large measure on the impossibility of escaping from the place, and consequences, of misbehavior” (67).  In America this had its roots in a Puritan culture whose norms were created as a response to the difficulty of forging a place for itself on the edge of a great wilderness.  As Bell puts it,

The core of puritanism, once the theological husks are stripped away, was an intense moral zeal for the regulation of everyday conduct, not because the Puritans were harsh or prurient, but because they had founded their community as a covenant in which all individuals were in compact with each other.  Given the external dangers and psychological strains of living in a closed world, the individual had to be concerned not only with his own behavior but with the community.  One’s own sins imperiled not just oneself but the group. (59)

The progressive, Liberal response was to open the world, figuratively and in all sorts of practical ways, such that openness has become a synonym or associated quality for almost all social goods.  That this opening required an open frontier, or one that would be pried open at great cost, is generally not acknowledged.  But even if we set this aside, the American and Liberal response to Puritanism and community required that its social function be ignored.  Ignoring social function is a bad habit of Liberalism, but perhaps of most communitarianisms as well.  In creating an alternative social order, Liberalism adopts an adversarial response to communal bonds, as a sort of universalizing principle that forgets historical necessity.  This social order is tolerant (or can be) and accepting of social change and evolution, and intolerant of the stable, ordered, or traditional.  It ignores the dislocation of community always in favor of individual spontaneity. “To each his own,” it declares.  “Be cool,” it orders the moralists; buttons unbuttoned and hair let down, its antipathy to hierarchy, order, and propriety are culturally and politically enforced.

Can we have it both ways?  Can we create cohesion, not to mention norms demanding of restraint and limits on consumption, while at the same time obeying the liberal imperative to be your irreverent self?  In Liberal society, concerning the self and his or her private style, nothing is sacred.  Community and its restraints, something we probably require in the face of our ecological culture, has always required propriety and reverence. It sticks its nose into places that Liberalism has declared, “none of your business”—including how much palm oil we use to put on the face to meet the faces that we meet.  Perhaps Berry is correct that this Liberal openness leads to a destructive, alienating individualism that, in time will always lead to the death of the land and the death of the soul, as purposeless individuals pursue “the objective,” whatever it happens to be and whatever latest style it may find as a package.  A limitless morality, Berry says, is no morality at all.  This is why “morality” has in Liberal society been given over to the insufferable prigs.

The Imperfect Is our Paradise

I must complete the disappointment, at this point, of any readers still expecting a grand synthesis that might reconcile the demands of community and the demands of individualism, of ecology and of freedom, the group and the self.  History may provide a reconciliation, but it will probably not be pretty—which is one of the reasons I’m not going to force one here.

There will, in other words, be no image of a natural order so lovely and naturally natural that it creates a civilization entirely without discontents as we all fall into a reconciled reunion in which we are made fresh in a world of white.  But what about some practical middle ground?  Not my strong suit, I’ll admit, but I nevertheless hold out hope that as community becomes more necessary in the face of reduced individual room to roam, we will spend as much careful time as possible determining which obligations are practically necessary (and by that, I mean spiritually necessary as well)[xiv] and which ones are not.  May we discriminate on grounds that lead to as much life, and abundance, and kindness as possible.  May the barriers to entry be generous and the barriers to exit be gentle; may the bonds be tied with the care of an art or craft and not the lashes of an overlord.  As Berry notes in “Look and See,” we are all children of divorce, the state of American marriage a microcosm for broader disruptions and separations of unsettled America.  The response, he says, it to start by putting two things back together that belong together.  I like this, though it doesn’t solve the broader problem of belonging, nor the ownership that is always poised within it.

I want to conclude with two points about an art and craft dear to my heart—one neglected more and more today and not often considered an actual art or craft.  I’m talking about reading, and reading carefully, with the sort of care that a farmer may bring to his or her observations.  We’re not talking about digital-age skimming, but the sort of reading that leaves the physical book itself sometimes in tatters, like a childhood stuffed animal that has suffered too much intense love as well as a number of consequent spills and accidents.

First, however, a general point about reading: a writer need not be the best guide to his or her own thoughts and their consequences—indeed quite frequently not.  That’s one of the reasons we shouldn’t only read only one book any more than we should plant monocultures.  Note for instance that by reading against Berry’s grain, or perhaps by reading (and watching) him alongside all sorts of other books, we’ve in fact managed to use his discussion of Henry County as an opening to discuss all sorts of issues that Berry might be seen as evading.  In effect (and I use that word carefully), Berry’s use of Henry County and his boyhood farming experience has aided our project of inserting a discussion of race into a “reading” of Berry and his oeuvre.[xv]  The same could be done with gender.  And with other significant issues of Liberal freedom.  Does The Unsettling of America or “The Timbered Choir” ignore at a crucial point the issue of race and attempt to limit discussion on the Liberal project of racial equality? Or does The Unsettling of America or the poem open the issue up and demand an even more direct discussion?

The answer, of course, depends on what we do and probably who we do it with. I’m not suggesting that, if we let them do so by themselves, writers won’t lead us to places we might not want to go unaccompanied.  Writers can be tricky in that way.  That’s why reading should not be a passive act, but is best considered a practice, craft, art, and ritual.  That’s why it requires community and how community, as I imagine it at least, requires reading, not unlike the way it requires farming and food, culture and agriculture.  I may of course be unwittingly introducing a Liberal principle of reading that embraces a certain kind of heterogeneity and disunity, of playing various ideas off each other in what is unfortunately referred to, sometimes, as “the marketplace of ideas.”  But if so, so be it.  Even if we were to imagine some transition to a unified culture (in which unruly thoughts are always censored), during the transition phase the necessity of civil dissensus may remain high.

My second concluding point, fittingly in the context of this essay, reverses to some extent the point I just made.  While a writer is not the best guide to his or her own writing, there is an elegant sort of symmetry or harmony in finding within a writer’s oeuvre a principle we may use to clarify or amplify its wisdom or insight—a sort of self-contained allegory of reading.  This, of course, is also the best way to round out a literary essay.  Ideally, here, one finds within the writer under review a principle upon which apparent contradictions might be synthesized—that’s how an essay such as this is supposed to conclude, according to the “elegance,” as they say, of a well-wrought formula.

While I won’t be locating any such fearful symmetry within Berry, I do think he offers a principle of reading that is of some use to our apprehension of his work and that of our broader efforts.  This principle, if we call it that, has to do with the poetry of Berry’s work, and the way the discipline of poetry may more generally warn us against the same sort of literal pragmatism a certain desire to return to Henry County may invite.  While “Look and See,” as its title suggests, indulges in the visual, the documentary is, for me at least, dominated by the poet’s voice.  The visual strength of the film is immense, but its auditory score is even more powerful, as Berry drawls with elegance and care, refusing to appear in his current form, except in voice, in the film.  The voice is as distinct an unmistakable as the “voice” one “hears” in Berry’s writing.  (Dropped blindfolded into Berry’s poetic prose, I would quickly know exactly where I was.)  In his speaking voice, though, his moralism is given warmth, the solemnity of his purpose at the same time revealed by his dour cadence.  The sharpness of his distinctions are rounded over with the deliberate and thoughtfulness pace in which he speaks, as we hear the slow rise and fall of his intonations of mortality.

What I refer to poetic language, at the risk of generalizing, is that which gives precision to ambiguity, shines the dappled light of distinctions on the still unknowable, and holds in loving tension irreconcilable desires.  Poetic language is to life as crumbling soil through your fingers is to farming or gardening, or smelling the blossoms and tasting the leaf.  Poetry turns meaning over in your mind the way you might wander at dusk through the fields, turning over the leaves and stalks of squash, looking and seeing, listening and hearing, all the senses enlivened by the moment of encounter.  It knows and judges, as Berry might say, not by technology or science, formal education or training, but by experience and passion, passed down from elders to the young by example in words and deeds.  This is not to say that poetry or the poetic attitude I’m grasping at is allergic to concepts—just the opposite, but that it treats concepts like a turnip, whose heft you might test by bouncing it deliberatively in your hand.

The purpose of the self-imposed difficulty of poetry is not always easy to grasp, but Berry explains it as well as anyone according to the narrative arc of a year of farming.  As he put it in an essay that he also reads in “Look and See”:

There is a kind of idealism that seems to be native to farming.  Farmers begin every year with a vision of perfection.  And every year, in the course of the seasons and the work, this vision is relentlessly whittled down to a real result–by human frailty and fallibility, by the mortality of creatures, by pests and diseases, by the weather.  The crop year is a long struggle, ended invariably not by the desired perfection but by the need to accept something less than perfection as the best that could be done. [xvi]

In distinct contrast both to the modern culture of convenience and our expectation for fast-food prose or dinner-theatre, this whittled idealism is difficult to its root, and its difficulty, like imperfection, lies at its heart.  “Do or Do not,” Yoda tells Luke; “there is no try”[xvii]  In this, he is entirely wrong.  There is only try—the reach for perfection, the good, the ideal, a vision of what is possible, the putting together of two things.

I would like to conclude, as does “Look and See,” with another of Berry’s poems, “Work song, Part 2, A Vision”:

If we will have the wisdom to survive,
to stand like slow growing trees
on a ruined place, renewing, enriching it…
then a long time after we are dead
the lives our lives prepare will live
here, their houses strongly placed
upon the valley sides…
The river will run
clear, as we will never know it…
On the steeps where greed and ignorance cut down
the old forest, an old forest will stand,
its rich leaf-fall drifting on its roots.
The veins of forgotten springs will have opened.
Families will be singing in the fields…
native to this valley, will spread over it
like a grove, and memory will grow
into legend, legend into song, song
into sacrament. The abundance of this place,
the songs of its people and its birds,
will be health and wisdom and indwelling
light. This is no paradisaical dream.
Its hardship is its reality.

The last line is the most important with the focus on hardship as the binding principle of human endeavors, turning lightly against the poem’s song, rescuing the idealism of our hopes from the grasp of the paradisaical dream.  And in this hardship, this imperfection, perhaps poetry meets the longings of religion.  Or, maybe, this is where the divine is separated from God and returned to the Earth, where human frailty, mortality, disease and pests, and weather abound.


[i] The Poems of Our Climate


Clear water in a brilliant bowl,

Pink and white carnations. The light

In the room more like a snowy air,

Reflecting snow. A newly-fallen snow

At the end of winter when afternoons return.

Pink and white carnations – one desires

So much more than that. The day itself

Is simplified: a bowl of white,

Cold, a cold porcelain, low and round,

With nothing more than the carnations there.



Say even that this complete simplicity

Stripped one of all one’s torments, concealed

The evilly compounded, vital I

And made it fresh in a world of white,

A world of clear water, brilliant-edged,

Still one would want more, one would need more,

More than a world of white and snowy scents.



There would still remain the never-resting mind,

So that one would want to escape, come back

To what had been so long composed.

The imperfect is our paradise.

Note that, in this bitterness, delight,

Since the imperfect is so hot in us,

Lies in flawed words and stubborn sounds.


[ii] We forget how utterly unexpected Reagan and Thatcher were to political scientists, and sociologists such as Bell.  The Reagan and Thatcher response to the cultural contradictions of capitalism were almost unimaginable in the face of increasingly managed economy and the growth of an administrated civil society that appeared to be the natural trajectory of history.


[iii] Interestingly, this use of imagery and its limiting perspective is close to Berry’s stated aversion to film.  He might share my suspicion of the picture of him looking at a framed picture without the insertion of any critical irony.  But Berry’s work is not receptive to irony or to distance, unlike Wallace Stevens who revels in the way the “end of imagination had itself to be imagined.”  It is in his immersive sincerity that Berry’s work finds its power and its peril.


[iv] It is no accident that one of Berry’s primary rhetorical tropes is microcosm-macrocosm.


[v] Of course Hegel’s great error was to believe he had captured the “all” by way of Geist, an essence of what was in fact a riot of identity and difference.


[vi] In The Hidden Wound Berry does an excellent job of diagnosing the wounding of America, and especially American’s relationship to work and the land, in racial terms.  Berry writes: “It involves an emotional dynamics that has disordered the heart both of the society as a whole and of every person in the society. It has made divisions not only between white people and black people, but between black men and black women, white men and white women; it has come between white people and their work, and between white people and their land. It has fragmented both our society and our minds” (91).   Racism, he seems to conclude, is another symptom of specialization.  As I mention in another note, Berry often thinks in terms of microcosms and macrocosms. Berry’s agricultural image does require a racial reconciliation, both between African Americans, Native Americans, and Europeans.  Berry, as always, is less useful as a guide to the contradictions of a heterogenous, urban, and dis-integrated society, nor, as a sort of transcendental thinker, does he understand the way the Hegelian dialectic of master and slave as been more lately viewed as irreconcilable.


[vii] Never mind that we are even gracing tobacco, one of the founding staples of a global market economy and its overlapping systems of exploitation, with the dignity that should be reserved for the farming of food.


[viii] Offering as good an understanding of the Hegelian master/slave dialectic and the logic of differentiation as any, Berry writes: “it may be the most significant irony in our history that racism, by dividing the two races, has made them not separate but in a fundamental way inseparable, not independent but dependent on each other, incomplete without each other, each needing desperately to understand and make use of the experience of the other. After so much time together we are one body, and the division between us is the disease of one body, not of two. Even the white man and the black man who hate each other are, by that very token, each other’s emotional dependents” (78).  Their still remains the issue or reconcilability.


[ix] Berry is in this way an easy target for deconstructive reading, in large part because deconstruction was developed as a critique of violent unifications, especially when unity was made by an appeal to a “transcendental signified” like nature, Geist, the people, or man.  Deconstruction is a process which shows, in reverse, how meaning is constructed.  Often focusing on distinctions and binary oppositions that thought and discourse employs, more specifically, it notes the way the excluded other remains necessary for context, placement, differentiation—for the whole enterprise of meaning-making.  If the sick, unwholesome, compounded, disunified other is truly excluded as the metaphysician twanging in the dark hopes, meaning would cease.  The goal of purification fails. A deconstructive reading of Berry would might start by focusing on his insistence on both unity and separation, distinctions and integration and the way his language and rhetoric always strains against the way his appeal to unity requires unrelenting separation, the way integration will trip over distinctions and difference.  In my reading of the poem “A Timbered Choir,” below, I note this sort of trippage.  It is equally significant to our topic, however, that radical as it may have initially appeared, deconstruction is ultimately compatible with Liberal limitlessness and global markets where all value becomes exchange value.


[x] Everything hinges on this question—whether there is in fact a natural and decolonized order that can remain rigid and uncompromising in its principles yet tolerant and universally inclusive.


[xi] Some might suggest that once we separate democracy from capitalism the craving for limitlessness will cease.  Perhaps.  I still believe that Liberalism, capitalism, industrialism, and a mass society form an interconnected constellation and that there is little hope to be gained from something like a socialist industrial, Liberal order, should it even be possible.  With Berry, the key to the responsibility comes from community and its restraints and thus inherently restraining nature


[xii] As my friend David Voelker astutely points out, Berry did not arrange this montage and may or may not appreciate it as an “accurate” portrayal of his perspective with the emphasis where he would put it.  Even if it is not, we still might wonder whether it expresses the logic of his illiberal (I’m suggesting) thought.


[xiii] He continues: “He has not the power to provide himself with anything but money, and his money is inflating like a balloon and drifting away, subject to historical circumstances and the power of other people.  From morning to night he does not touch anything that he has produced himself, in which he can take pride.  For all his leisure and recreation, he feels bad, he looks bad, he is overweight, his health his poor.  His air, water, and food are all know to contain poisons.   There is a fair chance he will die of suffocation [with no help from Kentucky tobacco].  He suspects his love life is not as fulfilling as other people’s.  He wishes he had been born sooner, or later.  He does not know why his children are the way they are.  He does not understand what they say.  He does not care much and does not know why he doesn’t care.  He does not know what his wife wants or what he wants.  Certain advertisements and pictures in magazines make him suspect that he is basically unattractive.  He feels all his possessions are under threat of pillage.  He does not know what he would do if he lost his job, if the economy failed, if the utility companies failed, if the police when on strike, if the truckers went on strike, if his wife left him, if his children ran away, if he should be found incurably ill” (20-1).


[xiv] At which point this whole distinction may fall apart: the difference between “practical” and spiritual or cultural, in other words, is far less self-evident than we are in the habit of assuming.


[xv] Of course Berry does not ignore the issue of race, focusing on the “white man’s presence in the Americas.”  But race also seems to emerge where Berry wants to talk about the possible fraternity [sic] of natural man.


[xvi] From Tobacco Harvest: An Elegy.


[xvii] I bring up Star Wars in the curmudgeony spirit of Berry.  Like Berry’s poetry and prose, Star Wars revels in distinction but handles them with the childish clumsiness of its confused but simple-minded symbolism, technically hidden in a flurry of anachronistic imagery and special affects wizardry.  As a fable of wisdom, Star Wars is at best an allegory for the failings of a “smart” culture mired in the quest for the simplicity of blind force or trust, in which good triumphs in the absence of any or all intellectual or conceptual obstacles.


Works Cited


Bell, Daniel. 1996. The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism. New York: Basic Books.

Berry, Wendell. 1988. The Hidden Wound. Berkeley: Counterpoint.

—. 1977. The Unsettling of America: Culture and Agriculture. San Francisco: Sierra Club Books.

Fleming, David. 2016. Lean Logic: A Dictionary for the Future. Edited by Shaun Chamberlin. White River Junction, Vermont: Chelsea Green.

Hegel, G.F.W. 1991. Elements of the Philosophy of Right. Translated by H. B. Nisbett. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Junger, Sebastian. 2016. Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging. New York: Twelve.

Stevens, Wallace. 1954. The Collected Poems of Wallace Stevens. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.

Tillich, Paul. 1957. The Dynamics of Faith. New York: Harper Collins.