As this retrospective volume of essays demonstrates, Wendell Berry is a unique and gifted contributor to American literature and culture. Recognized early on as a poet, Berry soon developed as an essayist focusing on an agrarian vision of a healthy society. His persuasive, sometimes caustic, arguments have given him an almost prophetic stature among readers seeking to reduce personal anxieties and to avoid cultural breakdown. According to its supporters, agrarianism will reduce such ills as alienation, waste, crime, and environmental degradation. Only the restoration of the vital connections between people and their local environment and the reestablishment of the nurturing role of farming will lead to physical and spiritual wellness. In Berry’s case, his choice to leave a successful teaching and writing career in New York and to return to his homeland in Kentucky has enabled him to live as he advocates, combining the roles of writer, farmer, and family member in an agrarian setting.
The essays in the volume The Art of the Commonplace have been arranged thematically into five sections, but because Berry has maintained an unwavering belief in the same principles throughout his career, all overlap in content. Over time he may have expanded his vision and refined its application, but the fundamentals of his beliefs involve a woven fabric of life in which no element can be ignored. Sections of the collection may thus contain essays from varied time periods. However, part 1, “A Geobiography,” contains only the single essay “A Native Hill,” excerpted from The Long-Legged House (1969). It serves as an introduction to Berry’s essential beliefs.
As Berry makes clear in “A Native Hill,” his life and career are founded on his ongoing relationship with the land. For this reason his daily experiences include episodes of wonder and authenticity. His life is rooted in the soil and in his understanding of the historical relationships between the land and his forebears. His philosophy further requires responsible behavior, an element that he found sorely lacking in twentieth century culture.
Berry’s family has occupied a segment of land in Henry County near the Kentucky River since his great-grandfather emigrated from Ireland. It is here that young Berry came to learn important, traditional values from the last of an older generation. He also learned these values from the living ecosystem of the place itself. Through this knowledge he came to know a host of human qualities such as compassion, happiness, stubbornness, and their opposites—a knowledge essential to creating health in and for the earth as a whole. Berry quotes an autobiographical passage written by a young Methodist minister while he assisted in a road-building project in 1797. The violence of the men toward the land and each other supports Berry’s assertion that American settlers squandered resources, never learning to be a part of the land. This pattern has continued as generations of Americans have used resources primarily for commercial gain.
Although Berry’s own ancestors clearly engaged in soil- eroding farming practices, he relates to their influence in his life more positively. He describes how slopes that are now heavily eroded should never have been plowed. According to Berry, this kind of mistake results from an assumption that what is good for human beings is also good for the land. The reckless loss of topsoil despoils an element of earth that Berry believes to be Christ-like in its combination of peacefulness and energy. He is most troubled that people presume to impose their ideas and wishes on the land, using up its resources and then moving on, rather than attempting to understand its fundamental nature. Yet interspersed with these dour musings, Berry describes the beauty of the natural world as it persists. These revelations are triggered by seemingly ordinary events such as a heavy fog or the view through the window opening of an uninhabited old cabin. In the poetic ending of his “geobiography,” Berry relates how he is able to lie down upon the ground and feel himself to be a part of the earth, thus finding himself reborn when he arises.
Part 2 of the collection, “Understanding Our Cultural Crises,” elaborates the basic tenets of Berry’s philosophy in his many roles, including...
(The entire section is 1765 words.)