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The Art of the Commonplace: The Agrarian Essays of Wendell Berry

af Wendell Berry

Andre forfattere: Norman Wirzba (Redaktør)

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750730,375 (4.15)4
"Here is a human being speaking with calm and sanity out of the wilderness. We would do well to hear him."--The Washington Post Book World The Art of the Commonplace gathers twenty essays by Wendell Berry that offer an agrarian alternative to our dominant urban culture. Grouped around five themes--an agrarian critique of culture, agrarian fundamentals, agrarian economics, agrarian religion, and geobiography--these essays promote a clearly defined and compelling vision important to all people dissatisfied with the stress, anxiety, disease, and destructiveness of contemporary American culture. Why is agriculture becoming culturally irrelevant, and at what cost? What are the forces of social disintegration and how might they be reversed? How might men and women live together in ways that benefit both? And, how does the corporate takeover of social institutions and economic practices contribute to the destruction of human and natural environments? Through his staunch support of local economies, his defense of farming communities, and his call for family integrity, Berry emerges as the champion of responsibilities and priorities that serve the health, vitality and happiness of the whole community of creation.… (mere)
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Summary: Twenty essays articulating an agrarian vision for society that offers health to land, food, and the wider society.

If you have followed Wendell Berry over the years, you probably have encountered most of the essays in this collection in other works. In this collection, edited by professor of theology and environmental writer, Norman Wirzba, we are given twenty essays that articulate Berry’s vision for the reform of agricultural practice and what that can mean for food, for the land, for local communities, and the health of the wider society. Wirzba’s fine introductory essay underscores key themes of Berry’s writing: that an agrarian vision focused on wholeness with the earth, each other, and God simply reflects a proper understanding of our place in the world and that is significant for all of society, both rural and urban.

The essays are grouped into five sections with a brief introduction to each. The first is “A Geobiography” and consists of a single essay, Berry’s early “A Native Hill.” and is Berry’s description of the history, topography of the upland on which his farm and community is situated. the evidence in pastures and old walls of those who farmed there before him, his many walks over it, through forests, hollows, the soil, and his own place in all of this.

Part Two, “Understanding Our Cultural Crisis” connects our cultural crisis to agricultural practices. He speaks of the harm to land when we make food a “weapon” and pursue endless growth. He challenges “Big Thinking” suggesting we need to “Think Little,” planting our own gardens, and focusing our production within our communities rather than importing energy and exporting produce and waste. He observes the seemingly intractable problem of racism, aggravated when agricultural was industrialized and the “competent poor” able to subsist on the land were forced into our cities for which they were not prepared. In “Feminism, the Body, and the Machine” he explores how separating work from the household has changed marital relationships. Where once couples worked together, indeed families, in the work of a household, what is shared now in marriage is little more than the marriage bed. In this he also defends the way he and his wife work together as she edits his handwritten work, not as an act of subordination, but shared work in the body, believing they are better without computers.

Part Three offers the positive counter to the preceding negative critique in “The Agrarian Basis for American Culture.” This begins with a long essay on “The Body and the Earth.” Berry challenges the ways we divide up the body medically and the dualism of soul and body that downplays the vital importance of our embodied, material existence. He returns to how this plays out in sexual relations, households, and our changing ideals of fidelity which includes our fidelity to the place of our shared life. These ideas recur in “Men and Women in Search of Common Ground” considering how place, shared work, and community sustained the fabric of fidelity between couples. He asks questions about our health care system including why rest, food, and ecological health are not basic to our approaches to staying healthy and to healing. He maintains that key to restoring community is restoring local community and the respect of the differences of different communities. “People, Land, and Community” uses the example (again) of the hillside farm, and how the skillful, multi-generational work of a community is required to preserve that land.

Part Four focuses on “Agrarian Economics.” He writes of the problems of relentless competition for agriculture, and the destruction of pleasure in work, leading to our vapid pleasure industries. The first essay, “Economy and Pleasure” closes with Berry spending a day doing farm chores with his grand-daughter, letting her drive the team, unloading dirt on a barn floor, at the end of which she said, “Wendell, isn’t it fun.” In “The Two Economies” he contrast our industrial economy where we create value with the Great Economy, which recognizes the inherent value in things and what is lost when they are used–soil for example. “The Idea of a Local Economy” is perhaps Berry’s clearest articulation of how the Global Economy has been destructive of the local, and how his vision of what a local economy built on neighborhood and subsistence would look like. “Solving for Pattern” includes a list of farming and land use practices that preserve farm economies..

The book closes with “Agrarian Religion,” in which Berry makes more explicit the theological convictions that undergird his agrarian vision. Interestingly, the section begins with “The Use of Energy,” citing our sewage systems and the internal combustion engine as two prime examples of wastefulness. Good energy use recycles into the environment in a cycle of production, consumption, and return. He reads Genesis 1 as “The Gift of Good Land” to be stewarded with the care with which we’d handle the sacrament, not desecrating it. He affirms that the charges by conservationist against Christianity are, by and large, warranted. He criticizes the focus on the holiness of churches but not on the holiness of all of life and the dualism that denigrates the body rather than understanding our souls as dust plus the breath of life from God. This leads us to deny the goodness of physical work and to be indifferent to the physical creation. Like the economy we are concerned with relentless growth. He also articulates the political captivity of the church that has risen to extremes in our own day. It is a trenchant critique from a churchman.

In one sense, the final essay brings together all he has been saying as he discusses “The Pleasure of Eating.” He urges urban audiences to “eat responsibly.” This simple act, followed to its logical conclusions addresses all the concerns discussed here. As we can we grow our own food, prepare our own food, learn the origins of what we buy and buy food grown as close as possible, dealing with local growers where possible. We become aware and wary of what is added to food, learn about the best farming and keep learning by observation. Eating responsibly, we become reluctant to eat food, animal or vegetable, that has been grown under poor conditions.

These essays challenge us to think of agriculture not as a reality separate from the daily existence of most of us but rather the bedrock on which that existence rests. They challenge us to see that the health of our bodies and our culture cannot be separated from our agriculture, and our highly industrialized agriculture has put the fabric of our communities and our health at risk. Berry focuses so much on local community, but I wonder if these have been so decimated that it will take several generations to restore them. I wonder if a beginning is to think about seeing states or regions become as self-sufficient as possible in agriculture, reducing long distance logistics and diversifying local production and in the process, improving land use and crop rotation. In my own part of the country, studying how the Amish do (and prosper) might be helpful. But what will ultimately drive this is the idea of eating responsibly. That will require a different agricultural economy. And if Berry is right, it will change our culture. ( )
  BobonBooks | Apr 27, 2023 |
We have lived by the assumption that what was good for us would be good for the world. And this has been based on the even flimsier assumption that we could know with any certainty what was good even for us.

The Art of the Commonplace is a collection of twenty-one essays written by Wendell Berry over an expanse of time. In the collection, he presents his philosophy regarding agrarian life vs. urban life, and sets a comprehensive case for why separation from the land leads the modern man into social, spiritual and economic desolation.

Within these pages, I found all those heart-warming, wholesome qualities that make Berry’s fictional books such a joy to read. The first section was a literal walk with him through his own farmland and into the woods that neighbor it, and I found that very enjoyable. His connection to the past, the present and nature herself is somehow very gratifying.

One of his greatest qualities is his ability to find the majestic in the mundane, the beauty in the everyday, the delight in the details. He is a sharp observer of life, and he knows how man ought to fit into the natural world and exactly where he has missed doing so. All the right questions are asked, and I believe we are further from the answers today than we were when this book was published. What is the cost of losing our farmland to conglomerates, allowing our families and communities to disintegrate, and leaving the bulk of our populations stranded in cities that are havens for stress and isolation?

The points being made here are both relevant and interesting, however, as I read one essay after another, I found them less captivating. Often the point was the same and expressed in much the same terms, so that it seemed repetitive and then almost evangelical. I agree with him on 95% of his points, and I knew if I had read each of these essays individually, as they were written and originally published, I would have probably enjoyed each and every one of them. It seemed to me the best way to read them was not as a collection, one after another, in too close succession, but spaced over time.

I have the utmost admiration for Wendell Berry, for who he is, how he lives, what he believes, and how he writes. There is no doubt, however, that he has my heart more soundly in hand when I am with him in Port William and the points are made subtly and soundly through the characters that I have come to love.

We would do well to listen to his voice, whether through his fiction or his non-fiction, for he is issuing a warning to us all that the life we are living is lacking something essential, something we were meant to have. The loss is ours. ( )
  mattorsara | Aug 11, 2022 |
Wendell's stuff is beautiful. The title pretty much describes it. A legend in the local food movement. He has a ton of books, so this one is as good as any to start with. ( )
  willszal | Jan 3, 2016 |
An excellent compilation of essays from a challenging writer. ( )
  Earth619 | Jul 18, 2012 |
Urban Jungles

Living in a city, I sometimes find nature a nuisance. Snow might display beautiful characteristics as it coats a meadow, but it certainly exhibits headache-inducing qualities when it materializes during the commute. Vibrant evergreens coating a mountain convey the finest forms of art, yet no tree stands in the way of a property owner desiring a better view. Urban life is ultimately divorced from the land. A simple block-to-block walk downtown provides little to no evidence of ecology. The Art of the Commonplace decries these realities as it presents a case for an agrarian-minded society.

Berry’s collection of essays is divided into five parts: a geobiography, understanding our cultural crisis, the agrarian basis for an authentic culture, agrarian economics, and agrarian religion. In these sections, Berry makes the case for a counter-cultural understanding of society, a way of life rooted in and sustained by the land.

Critiquing the System

Central to Berry’s thesis is a scathing critique of consumerist culture and industrial business practice. Where our ancestors lived in unity with the land, we exist in tension with the land. The Art of the Commonplace contains prophetic passages where Berry takes the form of a minor prophet beating the drum of repentance in the face of giant institutions.

Along these lines, Berry writes,

“It is possible to make a little economy, such as our present one, that is so shortsighted and in which accounting is of so short a term as to give the impression that vices are necessary and practically justifiable. When we make our economy a little wheel turning in opposition to what we call ‘nature,’ then we set up competitiveness as the ruling principle in our explanation of reality and in our understanding of economy; we make of it, willy-nilly, a virtue. But competitiveness, as a ruling principle and a virtue, imposes a logic that is extremely difficult, perhaps impossible, to control. That logic explains why our cars and our clothes are shoddily made, why our ‘wastes’ are toxic, and why our ‘defensive’ weapons are suicidal; it explains why it is so difficult for us to draw a line between ‘free enterprise’ and crime. If our economic ideal is maximum profit with minimum responsibility, why should we be surprised to find our corporations so frequently in court and robbery on the increase? Why should we be surprised to find that medicine has become an exploitive industry, profitable in direct proportion to its hurry and its mechanical indifference? People who pay for shoddy products or careless services and people who are robbed outright are equally victims of theft, the only difference being that robbers outright are not guilty of fraud” (233).

In Berry’s mind, the contemporary industrial economy shoulders much of the blame regarding what is wrong with the world. Not only does capitalism create a system where efficiency requires low quality and high profits, but also it compels business leaders to act right up against the barriers of what is legal. In such instances, it is no surprise to see broken laws and broken people.

Eating Strawberries on a Cold, January Day

Moreover, the industrial economy creates a civilization incapable of sustaining itself. Berry laments,

“Most of us, for example, not only do not know how to produce the best food in the best way – we don’t know how to produce any kind in any way. Our model citizen is a sophisticate who before puberty understands how to produce a baby, but who at the age of thirty will not know how to produce a potato. And for this condition we have elaborate rationalizations, instructing us that dependence for everything on somebody else is efficient and economical and a scientific miracle. I say, instead, that it is madness, mass produced” (85).

Forget growing a potato, I could not tell you when they are in season. As a child, I vaguely remember my mother buying blueberries in mass quantities because they were in season. Today, I am a grocery store away from an infinite resource of blueberries year-round. While I have not taken a poll of my generation, it seems that most people my age are in a similar position. The seasonal connection to the land by way of fruits and vegetables has slowly gone the way of the buffalo. If I do not understand the seasons, how can I expect to establish a green thumb?

Ultimately, Berry argues that our industrialized economy has created a consequentialist culture focused on efficiency. Berry asserts,

“Logically, in plenitude some things ought to be expendable. Industrial economics has always believed this: abundance justifies waste. This is one of the dominant superstitions of American history – and of the history of colonialism everywhere. Expendability is also an assumption of the world of efficiency which is why that world deals so compulsively in percentages of efficacy and safety. But this sort of logic is absolutely alien to the world of love. To the claim that a certain drug or procedure would save 99 percent of all cancer patients of that a certain pollutant would be safe for 99 percent of a population, love, unembarrassed, would respond, ‘What about the one percent?’ There is nothing rational or perhaps even defensible about this, but it is nonetheless one of the strongest strands of our religious tradition – it is probably the most essential strand – according to which a shepherd, owning a hundred sheep and having lost one, does not say, ‘I have saved 99 percent of my sheep,’ but rather, ‘I have lost one,’ and he goes and searches for the one” (154-155).

In short, reconnecting ourselves to the land both through a local economy and an agrarian-based religion reminds us of the power of pursuing the one as opposed to neglecting it by rationalizing that the 99 are enough.

Let’s Pack Our Bags, We’re Going to Eden!

While I appreciate and typically side with the critiques posed by the Art of the Commonplace, I find the conclusions to be slightly utopian in nature. In other words, Berry’s urge to reconnect with nature seems slightly akin to arguing that humanity ought to go back to a place and time before the fall, living a reconciled life in God’s Creation.

The fall, in my estimation, significantly alters humanity’s relationship with nature. Granted, industry possesses a poor track record of domination over the natural world. Nevertheless, biblically mandated stewardship does not negate the possibility of development. As with most things, the extremes on both sides of the economic argument fall into untenable positions. Business provides valuable opportunities to assist those in need; local economies connected to nature remind humanity that it is a creature and not a creator.

Even though I do not find anything inherently evil about urban life, Berry’s writing presents a counterpoint to the dominant views. As a society, we ought to remember and enjoy the natural world and humanity’s connection to it. Berry’s economic, cultural, and religious positions found in the Art of the Commonplace are wholeheartedly worthy of study. He poetically renders his positions unashamedly; his critiques remind us that business as usual will never solve all of the world’s problems. For this reason, I recommend this book.

Originally published at http://wherepenmeetspaper.blogspot.com/ ( )
  lemurfarmer | Feb 15, 2011 |
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"Here is a human being speaking with calm and sanity out of the wilderness. We would do well to hear him."--The Washington Post Book World The Art of the Commonplace gathers twenty essays by Wendell Berry that offer an agrarian alternative to our dominant urban culture. Grouped around five themes--an agrarian critique of culture, agrarian fundamentals, agrarian economics, agrarian religion, and geobiography--these essays promote a clearly defined and compelling vision important to all people dissatisfied with the stress, anxiety, disease, and destructiveness of contemporary American culture. Why is agriculture becoming culturally irrelevant, and at what cost? What are the forces of social disintegration and how might they be reversed? How might men and women live together in ways that benefit both? And, how does the corporate takeover of social institutions and economic practices contribute to the destruction of human and natural environments? Through his staunch support of local economies, his defense of farming communities, and his call for family integrity, Berry emerges as the champion of responsibilities and priorities that serve the health, vitality and happiness of the whole community of creation.

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