Wendell Berry goes global, sort of

The Essential Wendell BerryPaul Kingsnorth is a British writer, of both fiction and non-fiction. His fiction includes The Wake, nominated for the Booker a few years ago, which involved him creating a variant of Old English to tell the story. His non-fiction includes Real England, published more than ten years ago, but still topical in its description of the alienation even then afflicting England’s middle and working classes—much like the US. More recently, he has been involved in establishing a group, Dark Mountain, which describes itself as “a network of writers, artists and thinkers who have stopped believing the stories our civilisation tells itself.” That’s a pretty good description of where many of us are these days.

We have been led to believe a raft of stories about ourselves that turn out to be, well, just not true. Capitalism will kill us, it’s pretty clear. Globalization has helped a number of countries pull themselves up, but it turns out to be more of a zero-sum game than predicted, and the environmental consequences of unbridled capitalism are rendering places actually unlivable now. The neoliberal project brought us two of the most undesirable US presidential candidates in history, and the morass of US politics shows every sign of deteriorating even further. The UK isn’t much better, even though the food is—the current government seems to have neither a plan, nor even a clue, about how to deal with Brexit. Europe is going through its own contortions over whether the EU will survive, and in what form. Each and every one of these situations represents a failure of industrial civilization at some level. We need to find new stories, as the Dark Mountain group suggests.

Or old ones. Kingsnorth has just edited a volume of essays by Wendell Berry, of whom we have said kind things in the past—The World on Fire: The Essential Wendell Berry. Oddly, Berry is virtually unknown in the UK. While popular and influential in the US, particularly among agricultural and environmental circles, few have even heard of him here. Those in the US who are Berry fans have historically been liberal circles, but Berry has become surprisingly popular among some conservative circles as well, particularly younger conservatives with environmental credibility who also share Berry’s distrust of corporatism. Berry is a regular topic of discussion in the pages of The American Conservative.

This is interesting, of course, but the subject for another conversation. The interesting thing here is that, yes, indeed, Berry really is virtually unknown in the UK. But as we have noted before, Britain is in the grip of a revolution in nature and landscape writing these days. There is more of it now, and it is better than it has ever been. One of the things that has struck me after living here for nearly 19 years is that there really isn’t that much overlap in what you find in the bookstores in the US and the UK. Of course there is some overlap, but less than you would think. This is as true for what we call “nature writing” as anything else.

Not that I would call Berry a “nature writer.” He probably wouldn’t call himself that either, although one of the running themes of Berry’s writing is our relationship with nature, and how we need to fix it. What Berry really writes about is economics and community, but in a very broad way. One of his essay collections, in fact, is called Home Economics. Berry, as everyone who has followed him for decades knows, is a farmer, but a small farmer. He uses horses. He knows how to fix things. He understands drainage. He writes about the economics required to operate a small farm, as opposed to the economics of running agribusiness, which, unsurprisingly, is pretty much the exact opposite, but reflective of the economics of a global capitalist system. He values a sense of community, and this is necessarily rooted in localism and place. Berry is a conservative in many ways, in the old-fashioned sense of actually, you know, conserving things. Like the land. Particularly the land. Another of Berry’s essay collections is The Gift of Good Land, which conveys quite a lot about the essays themselves.

The basis of much of Berry’s writing has been how modern America has distorted its relation with its landscape, and as a result with its sense of place and community. Living in Kentucky, where mountain tops are leveled in the name of coal, and where coal waste will soon be dumped into rivers again, all in the name of a dying industry, he’s got a perspective that isn’t really debatable (even though the current Republican administration is going to do its best to prove Berry right.) The question then is whether this is unique. Well, possibly. One thing about land in America is that it’s available for ownership by anyone. This is very different from the European pattern, where land is either owned by an oligarchy, or the crown (as is the case here), and where land ownership is much more restricted. Then there’s the issue of scale. Europe lost its wilderness centuries ago. America doesn’t have what it had a couple of centuries ago, but still has more than most places in the world. It’s a big country.

Britain, on the other hand, is a small island (or two) in the North Atlantic. It has a range of physical environments—Cornwall is pretty different from the Peak District, or from Kent, or from the Orkney islands. But it’s still small relative to the US, and a lot more densely populated. But it still manages to support, barely, a larger farming population (as a percentage of the population) comparable to the US–the percentage of the working population engaged in farming is about the same in the two countries. There will soon be less than 2 million farms in the US. The UK has a tenth that, at just over 200,000, but the US has nearly 30 times the acreage of arable land than the UK. Land is framed a lot more intensively in the UK, in other words.

There has also been a longer relationship with land ownership in the UK, clearly—it’s a much older country. And the notion that land (among other aspects of the physical and cultural environment) should be preserved emerged earlier in the UK than in the US—the Society of Antiquaries was founded in 1717, well before the US was even a country. Granted, its focus was mainly on monuments such as Stonehenge, but it did start a preservation movement that eventually spread to include parks and natural areas. It’s a good country for bird reserves. It’s a good country for landscapes, too.

But this doesn’t explain why each country’s landscape writings have had so little impact on each other. The resurgence of such writing in the UK has been much remarked up here, but has barely been noticed in the US, where mentioning Robert Macfarlane and Richard Mabey would elicit blank stares. Conversely, it’s likely that Terry Tempest Williams and John Hay remain unfamiliar to Robert Macfarlane’s dedicated readership. I have to assume it’s because of the localism that necessarily pervades this literature. Nature writing, landscape writing, both involve a rootedness in place, and place is always specific. One can have a sense of place that is chock full of generality, but it will always be rooted in something specific—Williams in the American west, Hay in New England. Likewise, Macfarlane evokes specific places in Britain in the context of how we use language to describe them. What’s different, perhaps, is that the regions of place in the US are simply so much larger than they are in the UK that further local distinctions get lost. And, perhaps more imporantly, different places in the UK are closer to each other, and are reachable by most of the British population relatively easily. The notion of “distance” is very different in each country.

Place is central to Berry’s work as well, but Berry does something a bit different with it—he draws moral lessons from how we regard place. We have a moral imperative to treat places with respect, particularly with respect about the natural cycles of the land. I think this message will actually connect here in Britain. Just based on my own purely anecdotal observations over nearly two decades now, Britons have a deeper sense of place than Americans. A broad generalization, I know, but one I suspect is true. America has become a suburban culture. Suburbs exist in the UK, but not nearly to the extent that they do in the US. You can get around most places here without a car, a virtual impossibility in the US. You can find out what farm your meat comes from here, which is also virtually impossible to do in the US. Families have often been on their land (whether owned or not) for longer than you would find in the US. The UK is more urban than the US, in the sense that a lower percentage of its urban population actually lives in what we would understand as suburbs. There are some around some of the larger cities—London, Manchester, Birmingham. But nothing like the US, where over half the population reports that it lives in a suburban environment.

I think this is an important point, one understood by planners, and by writers, but for different reasons. For writers, which is who we’re concerned with here, the suburban population in America is rootless—there is no sense of place. Again, this is a broad generalization, but one I am inclined to accept. This is likely to be the case in the UK—even if you’re in a place that’s disagreeable for any number of reasons, it’s still a place, with an identity, and a history. This is pretty much true for everywhere in Europe, actually, even those areas (such as the Balkans) where history lasts too long. Americans hate history. Which is why “place” is becoming a novel construct in much of American society. Florida and the Sunbelt remain the fastest growing regions of the US, regions where the suburban landscape extends for miles and miles and miles, with no defining center. It’s not that the US doesn’t have places—it just has fewer and fewer people identifying with them. Since the second world war, it’s been a pattern of increasing mobility, with corresponding rootlessness. Who stays in one place any more?

Which is why Kingsnorth should be applauded for bringing Berry to a British reading public that gobbles up literature about place. Berry describes our need for place, the price we pay for denying it, and how we can re-engage. It’s a very E.F. Schumacher/Resurgence Trust view of the world, one that may well resonate with many British readers. As suggested earlier, this is an old story, and one that our civilization actually does need to tell itself. It is a story we can believe in. We need an alternative to the basic narrative that is being beaten over our heads constantly by consumer capitalism. Berry provides one. It’s a story that manifests itself in his fiction, and in his poetry, but chiefly in his essays. These deserve an international audience, since the problems he’s trying to address are problems that don’t respect national boundaries. I suspect, and hope, that he’ll find a welcome audience here.

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