The Unsettling of America

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 17)

The ancient term agriculture has, in recent years, spawned a growing family of such newspeak neologisms as “agribusiness,” “agriscience,” “agripower,” and “agridollars” which collectively dramatize the widening schism between our American earth and our culture. But as Wendell Berry reminds us,the word agriculture . . . does not mean “agriscience,” much less “agribusiness.” It means “cultivation of land.” And cultivation is at the root of the sense both of culture and cult. The ideas of tillage and worship are thus joined in culture. And these words all come from an Indo-European root meaning both “to revolve” and “to dwell.” To live, to survive on the earth, to care for the soil, and to worship, are all bound at the root to the idea of a cycle.

As the traditional farmer and husbandman of the soil has increasingly been replaced by the academic agronomist and agribusiness technologist, these fundamental connections between the land and its people have been broken, Berry believes, with disastrous cultural results. The Unsettling of America reviews the national farm policies which have led us to the brink of cultural as well as agricultural disaster, but it transcends that immediate purpose to succeed as a deeply humanistic appeal for the restoration of “agriculture founded upon life, upon the use of living energy to serve human life,” the primary purpose of which must “be to preserve the integrity of the life cycle.”

A poet as well as a farmer, Berry recognizes the importance of metaphors in shaping our perceptions of reality and thus finally governing our development of national policies and priorities. The agricultural crisis, especially in terms of energy use and conservation, is seen as the result of changing perceptions of the earth and of man’s relationship to it as described by the conflicting metaphors of tradition and technology. Under the impact of an attitude toward biological energy that treats living systems as though they were simply stores of energy to be extracted by mechanical processes like ore from a mine, “the living part of technology began to be overpowered by the mechanical” as farms began to be treated more like machines than living ecologically balanced systems. Allowed to develop without the regard for life that might otherwise have defined its purposes and limits, the machine was freed from any moral standards or responsibilities.The machine was also let loose in another way: it replaced the Wheel of Life as the governing cultural metaphor. Life came to be seen as a road, to be traveled as fast as possible, never to return. Or, to put it another way, the Wheel of Life became an industrial metaphor; rather than turning in place, revolving in order to dwell, it began to roll on the “highway of progress” toward an ever-receding horizon.

The violence to agricultural ecology implicit in the “mining” mentality would be disaster enough in itself, Berry argues, but unfortunately the implications are more general. Because of their close connections, “if we corrupt agriculture we corrupt culture, for in nature and within certain invariable social necessities we are one body, and what afflicts the hand will afflict the brain.”

To a large extent, agriculture itself becomes in Berry’s work an elaborate metaphor mirroring the many ills which beset contemporary American society. When he writes, for example, “the disease of the modern character is specialization,” the implications clearly encompass the entire culture rather than only modern farming. Though theoretically meant to concentrate responsibility in the...

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(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 17)

Science Books and Films. XIV, September, 1978, p. 77.

Sewanee Review. LXXXVI, October, 1978, p. 595.