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.
In 1978, there were signs that the boomers’ path was reaching a dead end. In the prior few years, Americans had glimpsed the finitude of the earth’s resources during the OPEC oil embargo, the limits of economic growth in the accompanying recession, and the limits of American military power through the defeat in Vietnam. In agriculture, we had begun pursuing a chemical-addicted, export-driven strategy of industrial farming that would simultaneously destroy both the land and the communities that depended upon it. In short, the time seemed ripe for reconsidering the national mission statement. In those days, Berry was already a noted poet and fiction writer, but The Unsettling of America made him one of the nation’s most important prophetic voices, too.
As we all know now, America did not heed the voice crying out from Port Royal, Ky. Instead, we bought a recycled fantasy of American exceptionalism from a retired movie star and proceeded to waste the next three decades trying to recapture a glory that never was. As a result, we now face a truly apocalyptic climate crisis, and our food system has given us a population so unhealthy and obese that, in the lower economic classes, average life expectancy is actually beginning to decline.
All this and more was on the minds of the people who came to St. Catharine to hear Bill McKibben, Wes Jackson, and others join Berry in searching for a way back to the future. One direction, promoted by both Berry and Jackson, was for “A 50-Year Farm Bill” that would return vast acreages of U.S. cropland to grass and refocus American agriculture on diversified food production that would require millions of new farmers.
A pretty dream, one might say, but, as Berry told Moyers that day, all you need to have hope is one good example. Fittingly the conference ended with Berry’s reading of his poem, “A Vision,” which concludes:
... The abundance of this place,
the songs of its people and its birds,
will be health and wisdom and indwelling / light. This is no paradisal dream.
Its hardship is its possibility.
Danny Duncan Collum teaches writing at Kentucky State University in Frankfort. He is the author of the novel White Boy.