Cultivating a Better America

Wendell Berry, photo by Ryan Rodrick Beiler

WENDELL BERRY was on stage being interviewed by Bill Moyers when the old Baptist minister (Moyers) asked the unchurched Christian (Berry) about his faith. “The world is maintained every day by the force that created it,” Berry intoned solemnly. In the Old Testament, he noted, “Elihu says to Job, if God gathers his breath, all creatures fail. All creatures live,” Berry emphasized, “by breathing God’s breath, breathing his spirit. It’s all holy—the whole shooting match.”

At 78, Wendell Berry shows no sign of failing, either in his breath or his spirit. But the Kentucky writer-activist-farmer is already enjoying a sort of immortality as the namesake of a degree program in ecological agrarianism at St. Catharine College. In April, that small Catholic institution in Springfield, Ky., hosted a conference titled “From Unsettling to Resettling: What Will It Take to Resettle America?” in honor of the 35th anniversary of Berry’s landmark book, The Unsettling of America. The interview with Moyers was part of the conference program.

Drastically oversimplified, the thesis of The Unsettling of America held that two types of Europeans came to America. Elsewhere, citing his teacher Wallace Stegner, Berry has called them the “boomers” and the “stickers.” The boomers were the unsettlers. They moved into the New World, cut down the trees, extracted the minerals, used up the land, and then moved on in search of new places to despoil. The stickers, however, settled into a place and made it their own. They cooperated with the land and the local resources to make a life and a livelihood that could be sustained over generations. Our problem, Berry contended, is that in America the boomers, backed by the power of money, have for too long set the agenda and won most of the fights.

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