I met E. Martin in 1958 at summer camp, where he was not only our bunk’s starting shortstop and point guard but the only one who read I. F. Stone’s Weekly. He went on to lead the anti-war movement at Penn medical school, participate in Physicians for Social Responsibility and practice psychotherapy from a self-characterized “radical social-economic justice perspective.” At age 70, he relocated from suburban Boston to a sustainable farming community in western Massachusetts. So when he recommended reading Wendell Berry’s The Unsettling of America, I did.
Unsettling had been published in 1977. The title and cover design make me suspect that Avon hoped to duplicate the success of Charles Reich’s The Greening of America, a best seller list-topping, cultural phenomenon a few years earlier. While Unsettling never attained Greening’s iconic status, it came to be considered a classic of American letters. And Berry became a revered figure within the Whole Earth movement and beyond, authoring 32 books of non-fiction, 15 of fiction, and 28 of poetry, while operating a 125-acre farm, teaching English at the University of Kentucky, and protesting coal plants, strip mining, nuclear power, the death penalty, our national security strategy, and a federal program of animal identification. He has received Guggenheim and Rockefeller fellowships, a National Humanities Medal, awards named for, among others, T.S. Eliot, Thomas Merton, Richard Holbrook, and Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt, and been named to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.
Unsettling’s thesis is that, by sacrificing the family farm to industrial agriculture, America has inflamed its energy crisis, ruined its environment, and lost its soul. The farm breeds, Berry believes, quoting Jefferson, our “‘most valuable citizens,’” hard-workers, healthy in body and mind. By rooting people to the land, farming connects them to the life cycle of death and rebirth, curbs their urge for competition and profit, fosters co-operation, the sense of continuity, and the need to live within limits. Farm life teaches us, “the earth is what we all have in common.”
Dislocating people from farms to cities, in Berry’s opinion, compelled a need for “specialization,” which corrupted our society and selves. We succumbed to the destructive values of our upper class, pursuing wealth, gratifying ourselves by consumption. The quantitative, not the qualitative, rules. (“The one with the most toys at the end wins.” “Greed is good.” We’ve all heard that.) We measure our worth by what our work pays, not what it contributes to society. We exploit, not assist, others; we ravage, not replenish, the earth. We abuse our bodies and debase our spirits. We are “the most unhappy average citizen in the history of the world.”
I take much of Berry to heart. I agree that man must recognize his commonality with others. I agree that the drive for acquisition is a planetary-abusing madness. But I have my doubts about his solution.
Maybe it’s because my grandfather, as a teenager, fled his family’s plot in Alliance, New Jersey, for the Babylon of South Philadelphia; but I feel Berry left unanswered the old musical question, “How You Gonna Keep ‘Em Down on the Farm After They’ve Seen 10th & Bainbridge?” An altered national consciousness seems necessary which I can’t imagine happening. Oh, I knew those in the ‘60s who lit out for cabins in the Cascades and spreads in the Smokies; but psycho-tropic drugs usually influenced those journeys; and with the opposition fluoride still stirs, I don’t see LSD in our reservoirs any time soon. And even if a reverse migration happened, I’m unconvinced the desired result would follow.
Berry’s argument is long on poetry and short on proof. He quotes Shakespeare and Blake but discounts “statistics and experts.” He relies heavily on “personal observation,” but, his awards and deep feelings not withstanding, they advance no balls for me. (I would love to see, for instance, the amount of carbon emitted by Berry’s farm compared to that of a normal city dweller’s home, let alone the 2000-watt-limitation experts say must be reached by individuals if disaster is to be averted.) The goal Berry seeks is man becoming “healthier and happier,” and the American community he most admires is that of the Amish. But statistics measure some things, like health, more accurately than observations, and the Amish’s life expectancy is almost identical to that of most Americans (74.3 for males vs. 75.1; 79.4 for women vs. 78.3); and they have the same leading cause of death (heart disease) as the rest of us.
Happiness is more difficult to assess, but, observation-wise, the Amish have never struck me as a particularly jolly bunch. More tellingly, recent studies report Switzerland, Norway, Canada, Denmark, and Australia are the countries with the happiest citizens. I don’t know the percent of farmers among their populations, but what those polled valued most about work was the income it provides and leisure time it affords, which doesn’t recommend dawn-to-dusk labor as a likely mood-enhancer.
As I age, I think about the world a lot. Despite our seemingly endless wars and plagues, people, world-wide, are living longer. So we must be doing something right. On the other hand, our ability to destroy life is advancing too. The question of our continued existence seems up for grabs, and I’m inclined to not mind being absent for the answer.
What is it about man? Does something lurk within us that requires we destroy? Or is it only in some of us but, combined with other inner somethings, it enables them to drive the rest of us, lemming-like, off cliffs? Berry asks us to believe that the redemptive powers of the soil will sooth our appetites, that country lads are more apt than city boys to proffer neighbors helping hands and less likely to march to battle against them; but our history doesn’t seem to justify that faith. Three-quarters of the Confederacy’s troops killing and dying at Gettysburg to perpetuate slavery were farmers. And within the few decades before Berry wrote, low income-white farmers contributed heavily to the neo-fascist populism of Huey Long and George Wallace. (In fact, Berry’s entreaty echoes uncomfortably the NaziBlut und Boden doctrine, which called the volk “back to the land” to re-experience the “natural order” of things, while celebrating the life of rugged “true Aryans,” as opposed to urban, Jew-tainted “asphalt culture.” (Forgive me if I’m a bit sensitive on this point, but I just watched Night Will Fall, HBO’s concentration camp documentary.)
If the planet is to be saved, I think, it will be through education, epiphany, and political compulsion. Forty-acres and a mule won’t do it. And it will require those remaining within walking distance of espresso bars and the A train in full participation.
1 This demonstrated the generosity of my spirit, since my recommendation to him of the collected Barnaby strips, volume one, had been ignored.
2 It may be argued that increased life expectancy, sustainability -wise, isn’t such a good thing, since after reaching a certain age, most people consume more than they replenish. But carrying out a policy to remedy that trend may make LSD-infusion into our water supplies look easy.
3 An acquaintance who has spent significant time among—and written well about—the Amish says that those who fit within the group are content, but that it affords no room for anyone with stirrings of individuality. Anyone, she says, with a sense of “I” will experience high levels of discomfort.