The Art of the Commonplace

by Wendell Berry

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"People, Land, and Community" Summary and Analysis

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 927

In a healthy culture, people, land, and communities are joined in a complex and mutually beneficial way. Unfortunately, as we gain more knowledge, we struggle to be able to determine which new solutions we should adopt and which will make us more ignorant. It is difficult to make an informed decision about how to improve our lives.

The institution of marriage is one example: we cannot ever have enough knowledge to know whether marriage will be a good thing until we have already been married. Marriage used to be understood as a solution to loneliness, but this is no longer the case. Now we do not know who can inform our decisions about marriage or other worldly decisions.

We can argue that love can inform our choices, but this is dangerous. Love can be fraudulent and misleading, and people can sensibly stay married for other reasons. We are all bewildered by the human condition, but we are, at least, all the same in this.

Making a marriage is much like making and keeping a farm. Agricultural sources are now diminishing, and technology is limiting our capacity to nurture. The same is true of marriage. At the same time, a farmer’s connection to his farm should be one of love. A farmer should think of a farm as a permanent place to live and invest their nurture and love. Discipline should enable the farmer to improve and keep their farm and come to love it better.

Discipline is something that develops over time. Once work has been done, it takes some time before it can prove its worth. A farmer must stay on their land to understand the consequences of their work and then correct them if necessary. In modern America, it is now commonplace to move away from land after it has been farmed, but this is not sensible or productive. A good farmer understands that they must listen to nature and wait, taking their time to let the land come to fruition.

Once a person starts to farm a place, especially a place that has not been farmed before, they have to put in the work to be able to use that place without diminishing it or causing it to erode. Over years of understanding the place, the farmer and their family become better at farming it. They also develop a community that enables farming to take place within a group of mutually dependent people who place great value on good farming. They build, together, the fertility of the soil.

Land, work, people, and community all come together to form a culture. These elements should not be in competition and should not exploit each other—but today, of course, they do, because of the corporate nature of our culture. The Amish, who reject that culture, have managed to remain farmers, and remain productive, while many others cannot. We cannot depend on “information,” or modern knowledge, if we do not understand the nature of our lives in the whole context of our world. Amish horse-powered farms work well not only because horses are efficient, but because they are living things that fit into the holistic cycle of agriculture and the land.

Farming with a tractor does not necessarily make a person a bad farmer, but a tractor does not fit into the natural pattern of a farm. A farm built on machines is not harmonious. Although machines may shorten our work, they also wear out quickly and do not fit into the order of things or into the connection that should exist between humans and the land they work.

A truly...

(This entire section contains 927 words.)

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intelligent modern person is not somebody who knows a lot of facts, but somebody who is able to live in harmony with their surroundings. At the same time, public programs to preserve land or produce food are not intelligent if they do not encourage long-term connections between families, communities, and land. Farms should be passed on to future generations of family, lengthening our memory of the land and preventing previous mistakes from recurring. This would also enable the development of local cultures that would exist independently, imbue love into the land they work, and enable it to thrive. This would be true harmony.


This essay is concerned with the connection between people and the land on which they live. As elsewhere in this collection, Berry is concerned with the tendency in modern American culture for land to be exploited for the greatest immediate economic gains, rather than to be nurtured over generations as land has historically been farmed. He alludes, here as elsewhere, to the Amish communities who have a true and long-lasting understanding of their farms. While technology is prized in modern American culture in the mainstream, it is notable that many American farmers have in recent decades lost their farms, despite the fact that they have adopted modern technologies, such as tractors. Berry’s argument is that tractors and technology are no substitute for proper and long-lasting understanding of the land that is being farmed. To illustrate this, he points to the fact that Amish farms, which are sustained using horsepower and old-fashioned technologies, are some of the most well-sustained and long-lasting in the modern United States. This he attributes to the fact that the Amish people are at one with the land and understand its particular foibles and requirements. They do not need modern technology in order to be efficient; what they really need is to understand and love their land, as we all should in order to help improve it.


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