University of Kansas
“Nature” for most Americans has some well-established, stereotyped meanings: lofty, snow-covered mountains; towering green forests; large wild animals prowling through the picture. These are images that have been associated with the idea of nature since the 18th and early 19th century--that is, since the rise of European- American romanticism. We have been trained to think about nature in these grand romantic images by generations of painters, poets, photographers in the romantic tradition.
In this century we have added to those popular landscapes the spectacular canyons and deserts of the Southwest. Though seldom snow-covered or green with forests, they have also become part of the pantheon of romantically wild places that evoke awe and wonder. And draw tourists by the millions.
On such places have focused most of our efforts to preserve nature. Far less attention has been given, in contrast, to the great interior grasslands of the country, or even the interior woodlands of states like Iowa, Missouri, Illinois, and/or the South. Those areas have lost out in the American search for the sublime. They seem comparatively ordinary, tame, monotonous. They are, in one of the most damning words that Americans know, “flat.”
The playwright William Inge suggested that we think of the Kansas landscape as “level” instead of “flat,” “level” being a more positive word. But I doubt if it would make much difference to most people. The exception would be farmers. Level is a good word for farmers. Level means land that is easy to handle, easy on the legs and on the farm machinery; level is efficient and productive.
Part of the reason why the landscapes of the Midwest and the Great Plains do not appeal much to Americans as “nature” is due not only to the fact that they tend to flat, or level, but also to the very obvious fact that they have become so intensely agricultural. They are the heartland of American farming and, in the drier areas, they are devoted to ranching. The nation has consigned them to that role and seldom wants to consider any other. So it is that even Great Plains farmers, who love living here, when they start thinking about taking a vacation, about visiting nature, head for the Colorado Rockies.
We’ve had a long-standing controversy in this state over whether the federal government should establish a prairie national park. The idea is not new; in fact, the very first appearance of the national park idea was in the 1830s, and it came as a suggestion by the painter George Catlin that the whole Great Plains be set aside as the “nation’s park”--a vast region where the plains Indians could continue to hunt, where white agriculture would be kept out. But since that suggestion there has been no follow-up; today, there is no national park anywhere in the grasslands of the United States. And during the acrimonious debate over setting up a mere 10,000 acre park in Chase County, Kansas, a lot of farmers and ranchers scoffed at the whole idea. Who would ever want to come to such a park, they asked, when they could go to Yellowstone? Wyoming, Colorado, Utah, California are where we are supposed to keep our crown jewels. Kansas, Nebraska, Oklahoma, in contrast, are where we are supposed to give everything over to agriculture.
Not only are nature and agriculture segregated in terms of national landscape ideals, but most environmentalists today have come to believe that agriculture is a major threat to nature. They have good reason to think so. Perhaps more of our environmental problems are the result of agriculture than any other economic activity, including mining and industry. Soil erosion is one of the oldest and most serious problems; states like Iowa have lost half of their topsoil since white settlement began. Since World War Two we have added to that list of problems: persistent pesticides (see Rachel Carson), other agricultural chemicals (like inorganic fertilizers), other pollutants (today, the largest source of nonpoint pollution in the U.S. is agriculture, much of it coming from livestock). Also, habitat loss (stopping the destruction of wetlands, mostly due to agricultural expansion, has become a very important goal for conservation biologists).
This antagonism between nature and agriculture goes way, way back in history;. In fact, it goes back to the book of Genesis. The first appearance of agriculture was due, the Bible clearly says, to the weakness and failure of human beings not to our imagination or industry or virtue. When Eve and Adam, who had been living a harmless, idyllic life as gatherers in the Garden of Eden, plucked and ate the forbidden fruit, they disobeyed God and were thrown out of paradise. And from that day on they were forced to start plowing, planting, and sweating over their crops. Life would never again be so easy. From that point on they had to work very hard for their food, they had to fight with nature for survival, and they had to live with the consequences of their sin. Farming is the result of that original sin. That is good Biblical doctrine.
Of course, it is not the doctrine that most rural, or many urban, people in farm states like Kansas believe today. They may read the book of Genesis faithfully and defend it against evolutionists, but they don’t take any notice of the Biblical idea that agriculture is evidence of our corruption and disobedience. On the contrary, in most rural churches you can still hear the old adage, “God made the country.” Country people, it is still widely believed, are more virtuous than city people. They are more godly, spiritual, and trustworthy than anybody else; and their agriculture is God’s plan for the land. The land was meant to be farmed. Any other use, or any non-use like a tall-grass prairie park, would be less godly, less Christian--and indeed more pagan.
When agriculture is turned this way into a moral ideology, as it has been in Kansas, we are dealing with something called “agrarianism.” Its roots are not Biblical, I have indicated; instead, they lie in Europe, and generally in the Europe of more recent centuries. They have been traced back to the poet Virgil’s days, when the countryside came to be seen as a virtuous landscape of peace and harmony in contrast to the corruption and decadence of Imperial Rome, and such thinking has come down to us through centuries of further idealization of agriculture, an idealization that accelerated with the emergence of modern urbanization and industrialization in the 18th and 19th centuries.
Our own great American spokesman for agrarianism was, of course, Thomas Jefferson. His view was that farmers were “the almost chosen people” of God; the “almost” in that phrase has pretty well dropped out of use, and we are left with “God’s chosen people.” Farmers were supposed by Jefferson to be more virtuous than other people because they lived closer to nature, to the soil, a nature and a soil that are good, virtuous, spiritual. Because America had an abundance of nature that could become farm land, because it therefore could support a nation of farmers for an indefinite future, Jefferson believed that this country would for a long time be the bright shining moral example for the rest of the world.
Agrarianism. It may not be Biblical in origin, but it has been a powerful theme in American history. It may be in fact our most influential environmental ideal. It has been held by more people for a longer period of time than any other ideal, even that of the romantic wilderness. It tells us that nature is essentially good, and that those who live close to nature are essentially good too. It tells us that the ideal relationship with nature is farming- -working with nature to produce an abundance of the good things, to produce wealth and prosperity. It tells us that non-use of land, leaving wilderness alone and unmanaged, is immoral. At its most fanciful, it compares farming to an ideal marriage between man and wife. And in that loving marriage, little kids come along like so many ears of corn--one with every year’s harvest.
I have been asked today to talk about “agrarianism and nature,” which I have taken to mean talking about agriculture as an environmental ideal. There is another meaning of agrarianism that I will not address: dictionaries sometimes define the word as a movement for the equitable distribution of land, for agrarian reform. Often that movement has been identified with communism or socialism, especially when it involves breaking up concentrated land ownership and distributing it to the landless. That, however, is not going to be my focus here. There are four sets of questions that I want to address:
1. What in fact was the relationship of traditional American farming to the natural environment? How do we describe it? Was it truly a benign marriage, or have we been in the grip of a false, sentimental ideal of our past? Though there is no “typical” example of that tradition, I will examine John Ise’s family memoir for what it can reveal about those 19th-century attitudes, particularly on the homesteading frontier.
2. What did the agrarian ideal contribute to the conservation movement in the U.S.? I think that there was an important contribution, even though agriculture was often the subject of conservation reform, and I will suggest what that contribution was in the thought of both John Ise and Aldo Leopold.
3. What has been the connection between agrarianism and environmentalism in more recent years? Despite the fact that most environmentalists seem to prefer thinking about and visiting wild romantic places, they have also turned for philosophy to some deep-thinking agrarian figures. The most important of these today is undoubtedly Wendell Berry, the poet-farmer of Kentucky, who has been called the philosopher of the modern environmental movement. What are some of his major ideas and how does he connect nature and agriculture?
4. What insights can we derive from agrarianism for the practice of environmental history? This will be a very brief footnote pretending to be a conclusion.
1. If a loving, long lasting marriage between nature and agriculture was what we were after in American history, then it was seldom achieved. The process of settlement was too rapid, aggressive, ruthless, and transient for that. Wendell Berry has written, “One of the peculiarities of the white race’s presence in America is how little intention has been applied to it. As a people, wherever we have been, we have never really intended to be.” A lot of one- night stands, in other words, arranged almost casually in a bar, would come closer to describing the history of American farming.
That, to be sure, is too simple a characterization. It may do to depict our dominant tendencies, but it hardly will cover all cases in all places. Some areas have been farmed now for nearly four hundred years by white people, though in most cases there has been a rapid sequence of different white families doing that farming over time.
Studies of population mobility give us some idea of just how unstable, how temporary the relation between farmers and land has been. Using the dicennial manuscript censuses, historians have discovered that the common pattern throughout the 19th century was that 70-75% of the residents of a farming area would turn over every ten years. That is, nearly three-fourths of those in a given area would be gone by the next census, selling or abandoning their land to newcomers. Decade after decade things went on in this fashion, making it impossible for people to acquire much intimate knowledge of their environments or probably to develop much deep affection for them.
What effect did this intense mobility have on the land itself? How could it have had any but a destructive effect? Our history is one of rampant land depletion, land abandonment, land rehabilitation, etc. Farm land has been no different than forest land in this pattern. Nor is the pattern behind us. It is still going on, despite heavy population pressures to keep land in permanent production.
But let’s look at the Ise family who came to homestead a hundred or so miles west of here, near Osborne and Downs, Kansas, in the 1870s. The first thing I think you should notice is that their attitude toward this place was hardly simple or simply exploitative. In fact they fell in love with the place. The modern-day tourist driving west on I-70 may see nothing interesting out that way, but the Ises saw a diverse, lovely country. Maybe it was Rosie’s rosy-eyed spectacles working, but they found variety in the terrain (valleys, hills on every side). But then of course you would if you had to get out and walk across that landscape. They found spectacular skies, appealing rivers, scanty but green cottonwood forests in the bottomlands. They found birds--meadowlarks singing, and they noted that their song was different in the west from in the east. They named their post office “New Arcadia,” which is the old name for a natural paradise.
But then they also found real, specific threats coming from nature: floods, intense cold, intense heat, drought, grasshopper plagues that were probably the result of dry, warm winters. They had to face rabid wolves and skunks, prairie fires, the wind. And then in the book, after describing such plagues, comes the chapter, “Dangers of Pioneering.” The dangers posed by people to each other were at least as severe as those posed by nature.
So nature here was not in any simplistic sense good or benevolent, nor did contact with nature make people automatically good. Still, the Ises persevered, and they succeeded.
Succeeded in what? Not in building a home for their own future generations of children, grandchildren, and so forth. Despite their pleasures in this place, they eventually left. When Henry died, Rosie sold out the whole estate, and it is clear at that moment that, in her eyes at least, the main point in being here was to acquire property which could be turned into mobile capital. Everything gets sold, even the farm animals. The family has done moderately well, and now all the children will go to college, while the widowed mother will follow them. Son Joe (who is author John Ise himself, the boy who is paralyzed and cannot walk) becomes a professor at the University of Kansas, and Rosie moves with him to Lawrence.
And the cost of that economic success in turning land into capital is immense. Rosie herself admits that she has become shriveled up emotionally, that she has been unable to enjoy life, to take time for her children or husband, to relate to nature in non-materialistic ways. What is the point then of their agriculture? It is primarily a means to an end, and the end is social mobility.
I should repeat that no single family’s memoir could be considered typical for all Americans, but there is plenty of evidence that much of American agriculture has been exactly like this life of the Ises: a struggle to accumulate wealth and capital, a hard, demanding struggle, and it has been that more often than it has been a loving, steadfast marriage.
2. Despite the fact that agriculture in America has seldom measured up to the agrarian ideal of Thomas Jefferson, the ideal has had an important effect, and sometimes in areas that are well removed from actual life of farming and in ways that Jefferson could not have predicted. The conservation movement, for example, has been deeply influenced by agrarianism.
Generally, we mean by the conservation movement a political effort to enlarge the role of the federal government, making it much more responsible for safeguarding the nation’s natural resources and using them more efficiently. This meant securing perpetual federal ownership of many resources, those on the public lands that constitute about one-third of the nation’s acreage. It meant the establishment of National Forest and National Park systems. It meant the Bureau of Reclamation. But also, to some extent, it meant offering more guidance to the private sector on the efficient use of resources.
The conservation movement achieved its first great national success during the presidential administration of Theodore Roosevelt, from 1901 to 1909. Among the many initiatives made during those years was the Country Life Commission, whose task was to improve the social and economic condition of farmers. The head of the commission was Liberty Hyde Bailey, dean of agriculture at Cornell University. And Bailey himself was at once an agrarian and what he called a “naturist,” one who sought a more ethical, sympathetic relationship between humans and nature. You can read a selection from his writing in the Thomas Lyon anthology, This Incomperable Lande. Bailey called for a new “biocentric” thinking toward nature, and for a sense of brotherhood between humans and the rest of nature.
Who read that stuff so many years ago? Well, among others, Aldo Leopold did. Bailey was an important source of Leopold’s “land ethic,” which called for a new sense of ecological community. Bailey was an agrarian, in other words, one who put a special value on the rural life and on its preservation, who saw that project as part of the conservation movement, and out of that same agrarianism he drew a new, more spiritual and moral approach to using the land. Bailey passed that thinking on to Aldo Leopold, who passed it on to millions of American environmentalists, particularly after World War Two.
For his part Leopold was also influenced by the Forest Service and its thinking about resource conservation. Indeed, he was one of the Service’s first employees, sent out to New Mexico and Arizona, before moving to the University of Wisconsin. Besides his famous “land ethic” he is known today for his pioneering work in wildlife conservation. And if you look closely at that work, you can see the influence of agrarianism all over it. The conservation of wildlife, in his mind, was basically an application of good, responsible agricultural techniques to wild animal populations--raising a different kind of crop.
“The central theme of game management is this,” he wrote in his 1933 book, Game Management: “Game can be restored by the creative use of the same tools which have heretofore destroyed it--ax, plow, cow, fire, and gun.” Or later in the same book, “Like the other agricultural arts, game management produces a crop by controlling the environmental factors which hold down the natural increase, or productivity, of the seed stock.” Now, shortly after he wrote that, Leopold would begin to see that the problem of wildlife management was much more complex than he realized. If producing a crop of deer meant eliminating all its natural predators, then you would fail. Good management in either growing corn or raising deer meant working with all the complex forces of nature, not ruthlessly eliminating and oversimplifying the ecological complexity.
But there can hardly be any doubt that Aldo Leopold’s training in conservation, his philosophy of conservation, has some roots in agrarianism. He makes it part of the moral responsibility of farmers to do more than raise crops, sell them, and make money. Farmers must do so in an ecologically harmonious manner. They must take an ecological approach to farming that is both practical and ethical.
As you read Leopold’s Sand County Almanac, try to see for yourself how much it is directed (1) to farmers as private landowners, with great potential to do good or harm; and (2) to agricultural areas of the country like the Midwest and Plains, rather to the distant romantic wildernesses of the country.
In this case the conservation movement had evolved to become one with the country’s agricultural policies and practices. This union was achieved by the decade of the 1930s. And it is still being promoted today, wherever and whenever Aldo Leopold is read.
In that same decade of the 1930s John Ise published his family memoir. By that point Ise was a nationally known economist, and himself a recognized figure in the conservation movement. This is not clear from Sod and Stubble; nonetheless, Ise went on from the homestead life on the plains to become an important advocate of conservation. He wrote books on the national forest and national park systems. In his classes at the University of Kansas, which dealt with resource economics, he brought many students to think about the wise, frugal, and responsible use of natural resources, from soils to wildlife to forests. And he became highly controversial in many circles for doing so; he was labeled that communist or that socialist from Red Hill in Lawrence.
So in both of these cases, we have men who grew up in the Midwest under agrarian influences, in close proximity to rural life, and who became leaders in the conservation movement. There are other parallels: both came from German immigrant families of Protestant background. Both families were, as far as I can tell, Republican in their political inclinations. Both were influenced by other notable Republicans, Roosevelt and Gifford Pinchot, Chief Forester of the U.S., and by the Progressive reform movement in American politics in the early part of the century. Both were college graduates who went on to become professors. Both wrote extensively, and what they wrote about was the need for a more careful, caring use of the land. They called for a more respectful attitude toward nature. They emphasized our dependence, even in the 20th century, on the land for our welfare. They were concerned about the future of rural life as well as the life of nature. They both preached thrift and frugality. I am suggesting that part of their common conservation ethic came from that age-old tradition of agrarianism.
3. And now let us bring this historical linkage between agrarianism and nature down to our own times and examine the life and work of Wendell Berry.
Back in the 1950s Berry was a young man preparing to leave his family and ancestral home along the Kentucky River not far upstream from where it joins the Ohio River. His ancestors had settled in that same area in 1803, and they had been farmers, lawyers, and legislators ever since. But like so many other young Americans he was eager to get an education and make something of himself. He moved away, married an artist from Berkeley, California, and ended up teaching English at New York University, near Greenwich Village. A few years of this new life went by, and both he and his wife Tanya became disillusioned, longing for home.
You can read about his return in the Thomas Lyon anthology, in Berry’s essay, “The Making of a Marginal Farm.” He gave up his position at NYU and took, against the advice of some of his New York friends, a job teaching in the English Department at the University of Kentucky, not a very distinguished university then; and there he has been on and off until his retirement a couple of years ago. Soon after their return Wendell and Tanya bought a house on the Kentucky river, a couple of hours from the university, where they made their home. This was an area, I emphasize, that Berry had known and loved since a boy. Their lives increasingly turned toward agriculture more than education, until today they farm approximately 120 acres, most of that steep, hilly land rising from the river. They have raised sheep, draft horses, and tobacco on that place. For them, their life has been at once a recovery of a relationship with nature, and a restoration of land and agriculture to a place where both had eroded away.
Berry has by now also written many books, some thirty in all, including novels, poetry, and essays. Perhaps the best known of them is The Unsettling of America: Culture and Agriculture, published in 1977. Interestingly, that book was published by the Sierra Club, even though it is in part a critique of the kind of environmentalism that the Club has long represented--outdoor recreation in pristine wilderness. The typical middle-class urban environmentalist member of the Club, Berry complains, divides the world into two separate halves: areas of wilderness and areas of use. Since use is generally viewed by that member as a degrading activity, the environmentalist shows little interest in that second category. He or she fails to think about or work to improve places where people must live and get their living.
This criticism is surely overstated and, in many cases, it is wrong. But in the 60s and 70s, more than today, it was true enough to be worth a critique. Berry was not opposed to the idea of saving wilderness areas; quite the contrary, he granted that such work “must stand at the apex of the conservation effort, just as it probably must stand at the apex of consciousness in any decent culture.” We need places that we do not use at all, he admitted, places where we can learn humility before nature, places we can use as a standard for measuring our civilization against. But such places will necessarily be only a small part of the landscape. Most of the earth will be used to support human life. And the major form of use will be agriculture. Therefore, we must also, in addition to saving wilderness, think about and work toward an active, daily life in nature.
Berry’s phrase for this kind of environmentalism is “kindly use.” It echoes Leopold’s land ethic and Liberty Hyde Bailey’s biocentric attitude, though I think he formulated it independently of their writings. He means a lot more than I can go into here.
In the first place, we must understand, in our farming or forestry or whatever use we make of the earth, that nature is a world of cyclical processes in which we must live and get along. We have no choice. We have no other place to live. We must fit ourselves to nature’s patterns or we will come to harm. The most basic is the cyclical process called the soil. It is in truth a living community, taking thousands of years to evolve and develop, and on it our well being depends.
Berry tells about how earlier farmers in his part of Kentucky tried to plow and plant crops on the steep hillsides, until the topsoil washed away and they had to leave. Later, bulldozers came into the very same land that he now farms and cut deep gashes for a second-home development project, which went bankrupt before any houses were built. It became his task to restore that wounded land to its present state: a well-grassed slope where the soil erosion has been stopped and sheep graze. That is an example of “kindly use”: adapting agriculture carefully to the possibilities and contours of the land. It is asking, he says elsewhere, what is this place and what will it allow us to do here?
That kindly use requires something not many earlier settlers ever had: an intimate knowledge of the place. One of Berry’s major points, made over and over, is that nature is not an abstraction that you can either love or hate. Nature is a whole complicated set of natural forces and agents, coming together in very specific ways in specific places. This is critical to understand. Each place sets its own challenge to us. We meet it only by long, intimate, careful observation and through much trial and error. We cannot take the habits of use and experience from, say, Ohio and apply them readily to Kansas. Nature is different here, and indeed nature is different from watershed to watershed, from soil type to soil type. Nature is place. And acquiring intimate knowledge of nature means really acquiring a sense of a place.
Some places are much more forgiving than others. Along a rich flat bottomland, for example, you can plow and plow and plow and do little damage. The soil is deep and rich, it gets replenished quickly by silt deposited from flood years. . But most of the country is not nearly so forgiving; most of our land poses complicated problems of use--those Kentucky hillsides, for example, and, I would add, the Great Plains. Failing to understand the cyclical processes here and to adjust to them is not kindly use.
Another way of talking about kindly use is to say that it involves an awareness and acceptance of limits in nature. That nature puts limits on what we can do is not an idea that many Americans like. They resent being restrained by anything or anybody. Success for them means confronting limits and overcoming them. For Berry, on the other hand, limits are not bad things. Accepting them leads to a more stable, sane life, one in which there are fewer mistakes made and fewer messes that someone, commonly someone else, has to clean up.
The soil puts limits on us. So does the climate. So do other forms of life. A large part of living in a place should be learning when not to use at all--when and where to tolerate wildness in the landscape. Every good farmer, in Berry’s view, gives a broad margin to the natural world--tolerates and protects riparian areas, wetlands, woods, areas that may bring no economic gain whatever but work as a buffer, a safety margin, a refuge where nature dominates and from which we can learn.
What kind of society or people is most capable of achieving that ideal of kindly use? What kind of society is not? This is the critical problem for Wendell Berry, as it is I suppose for all of us. We might readily agree on the arguments that we need, for reasons of self-interest as much as ethics, to use nature wisely and kindly. But we are likely to disagree much more on what such behavior may require in the way of a society. Are we there today, or can we get there easily without making radical changes?
Berry’s own view, and it has become the view of a large part of the environmental movement in the United States, is that American society is not capable, in its present condition, of achieving a harmonious relation with nature, and in fact it is rapidly moving farther and farther away from that ideal.
We have organized our society, Berry argues, on the economic principles of industrialism, and those principles stand in direct opposition to kindly use. The industrial society, according to Berry, is one in which our relationship with nature becomes more and more abstract, to the point where we are unaware of the relationship at all. It does not even enter into the thinking of most people most of the time.
Over the last two hundred years people have been moved off the land in multitudes and into cities. At the time of the American revolution over 90 percent of the population was involved directly in agriculture or fishing (a large part of those were slaves, working on plantations, which were already like large factories). The number working directly with the land has fallen, more or less steadily, but the decline accelerated after World War Two. Today, less than three percent of the nation is engaged in farming, and in states like California the percentage is even lower--one percent. Even then, most of the food is actually being produced by only a few hundred thousand farm operators for a nation of 260 million people.
Those who are left in a direct relationship with nature are, necessarily--they could hardly be otherwise-- people who must ride large machines over large acreages. They may have three, four, five thousand acres to farm with little help. They may do that farming in an air-conditioned cab of an immense tractor, far off the ground, with the dirt, noise, smell, heat all kept outside, listening inside to a tape deck. Most of their senses, in other words, may not be in direct contact with the earth much of the time. Such may be an extreme case, but I think you will acknowledge the trend not only to fewer people on the land but people who themselves have an increasingly impersonal, disembodied, abstract relationship with the cycles and forces of nature.
Farming offers the most striking evidence of the changes that have gone on, but they can also be found in all the ways and places where humans use the earth.
But that is not all: the knowledge that is applied in that use is increasingly derived from experts who have little or no direct experience of their own with nature as it exists in specific places. Agricultural knowledge increasingly comes from a college textbook, which in turn is based on laboratory research. Or it may come from a computer model into which a scientist programs soil, water, sunshine, nutrients and watches them interact, not in the full complexity of nature but in a contrived, simplified model. We spend billions of dollars a year in the U.S. perfecting our scientific models of agriculture, and in many ways they have been extraordinarily successful. They have allowed us to extract immense quantities of food and fiber from nature, which have made the scientists, the universities, the manufacturers, and some of the farmers immensely rich and proud. By that single standard of quantity of production and of wealth the industrial model of agriculture has been a shining success story.
Or has it? Berry would point to mounting evidence of weakness, failure, and degradation out there on the land that ought to make us worried. The whole system is becoming more and more dangerous to the people left working in it (cancer rates among farm families are high) and to the rest of us (who eats chicken anymore without a few anxieties?). It contributes to a list of environmental problems, ranging from habitat destruction to global warming. It consumes enormous amounts of fossil fuel. And so on down the list of reasons to be worried.
Many leaders within the agricultural establishment are beginning to share Wendell Berry’s concerns. In the highest levels of U.S.D.A., among some of its research scientists, and within the land-grant colleges and universities, where much of the industrial farming model has been designed, there is growing doubt. But they generally do not yet accept Berry’s own solution, which would put them out of a job altogether.
Berry believes that we will never achieve an ideal of kindly use of the earth so long as we live in an industrial society dominated by experts, specialists, and characterized by a radical division of labor. The intimate knowledge required for that use is simply out of the reach of almost all of us. Our knowledge will always be way too abstract, general, too global. If nature in fact is a swirling complexity of local events, then knowledge of nature, to be truly effective over the long term, to be responsible, must also always be local.
How much can a single man or woman truly know of the natural world? What is a realistic scale? How many acres per individual? The details you would need to know to live carefully on a hundred acres would take more than a lifetime to learn. They would require generation following generation, passing knowledge down from individual to individual. Such knowledge is impossible for our industrial civilization.
So what is Berry’s alternative? It starts with preserving the people who already live on the land and work with it daily. We cannot lose any more of them. That would mean a farm program that seeks to put more income into local rural communities, which is only what we do now in lip service. It would necessitate higher government subsidies and/or higher commodity prices. It would mean more expensive food for the consumer in the supermarket.
But that would be only the beginning of a vast cultural change that would have to occur. Three percent of the population in agriculture is far too small; we would need, to meet Berry’s challenge, millions of more people living on farms, and they would have to be on smaller farms. They would have to reverse several centuries of specialization and go back to some kind of mixed farming system, with mixtures of wood lots, pastures, and croplands to manage. Our giantized forest corporations would have to be dissolved, along with agribusiness. Cities would have to diminish considerably in size. More Americans, wherever they lived, would have to begin growing far more of their own food in their backyards, learning to know nature on the smallest scale, taking responsibility for their own lives.
Berry’s ideal of kindly use is, finally, one that would require all of us to accept more physical labor, pursue more independence and self-reliance on the basics of survival, and exercise more thought and discipline in our use of nature.
Is such a vast cultural, economic, and ecological change conceivable? Or is Berry’s fusion of agrarianism and environmentalism doomed to fail? Will it be dismissed by the rich and powerful, even by the masses of Americans?
I happen to believe that the industrial way of life has a great deal of momentum behind it and that it likely to survive well into the foreseeable future. I don’t expect to see any massive emptying out of our cities into the countryside, or a redistribution of land, a resettlement of people on their own homesteads like new Rosie and Henry Ises, certainly not in what remains of my lifetime. Yet the logic of Berry’s critique, and the moral challenge in it, seem to me to be hard to deny. We have in fact created an environmental crisis that gets more and more complicated every day, and there is no way for the industrial (or I would say the industrial capitalist) system to address that crisis adequately, at its roots.
We may end up therefore with an industrial civilization mildly challenged and reformed by a shallow environmentalism. A shallow environmentalism is one that is content to save a few pristine places of beauty, which we visit once or twice in a lifetime. It saves a few species in remote refuges that are guarded and fenced-- essentially zoos. It cleans up the worst of our health hazards so that we at least don’t die from our own inventions. Maybe it even succeeds in reducing the runaway population growth so that the machinery can keep up with the task of feeding people. But the environmental crisis does not go away. It only becomes barely manageable. And it keeps repeating itself in new ways and forms, often more serious than the last.
The simple fact is that we do not know this continent very well. In many ways the average person knows less about nature today than a hundred years ago, regardless of how many scientific papers we have in the libraries. Even many of the experts are ready to confess today that their increasing knowledge only reveals our ignorance more clearly.
But resolving these difficult issues is not my chief purpose here, which has been merely to discuss the relation of agrarianism to nature. I have tried to do so on several levels, ending up with Wendell Berry’s work because I think it is the most profound and deeply reasoned body of writing that we have in the American agrarian tradition and because it has so brilliantly fused that tradition with the environmental or conservation movement. Whether you agree with him or not, Berry ought to be read not only by members of the Sierra Club, but by teachers, students, politicians, agronomists, economists.
4. And by environmental historians. I promised to end with a few thoughts about the significance of the agrarian ideal for doing history. That is fairly easy to state. Studying the history of national, or international, conservation movements or changes in our thinking about nature over time is only one kind of work we need to do. In some ways it is the easiest. Much harder is it to do what Berry has tried doing on his Kentucky River farm: to learn to know a place in real depth, to understand what has been happening there. We need, in other words, lots and lots of people exploring and thinking about the environmental history of the specific places where they live. We need more intimate knowledge.