“What I Stand On”: Sustainable Inspiration from Wendell Berry

What I Stand On box set cover, cropped

According to Wikipedia, Wendell Erdman Berry (born August 5, 1934) is an American novelist, poet, essayist, environmental activist, cultural critic, and farmer. He is an elected member of the Fellowship of Southern Writers, a recipient of The National Humanities Medal, and the Jefferson Lecturer for 2012. He is also a 2013 Fellow of The American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Berry was named the recipient of the 2013 Richard C. Holbrooke Distinguished Achievement Award. On January 28, 2015, he became the first living writer to be inducted into the Kentucky Writers Hall of Fame.

What I Stand On by Wendell Berry - image of the box set.What I find more profound than all these accomplishments is the breadth and scope of Berry’s understanding of people, society, and farming, and how they can work together to form the ground and foundation upon which our civilization literally and figuratively stands. In his deeply moving collection of essays What I Stand On (The Collected Essays of Wendell Berry in Two Volumes, 1969-2017; Jack Shoemaker, Editor, published by the Library of America, 2019) Berry takes what he has lived and observed, and uses it to give sense to the heart of what we need to internalize and act upon, as we confront a world in which climate change and agricultural challenges are growing at an ever-increasing rate.

The back cover of Volume 1 summarizes this feeling: “Wendell Berry is our essential voice on the cultural and ecological crisis brought on by industrialization, technology, and the market economy, urging us to live differently, better, more sustainably. This Library of America volume…presents the complete text of his landmark 1970 book, The Unsettling of America—a far-ranging meditation on the intrinsic connections between culture and agriculture—along with thirty-two essays from eight other books published from 1960 to 1990. It reveals the younger Berry as an already masterful stylist, whether challenging corporate greed and innovation for its own sake or treating topics as varied as family, farming, the dignity of hard work, and racism. Anticipating such contemporary concerns as organic farming, buying local, renewable energy, even the do-it-yourself and slow food movements, Berry’s incomparable essays peak with gathering urgency today.”

The back cover of Volume 2 notes, “Iconoclastic, inspiring, powerfully moral, democratic in tone and attuned to the rhythms of nature, Wendell Berry’s essays are quintessentially American. … [This volume] finds him turning to issues of political and social debate—big government, science and religion, technology, and the meaning of citizenship following the tragedy of 9/11—and burnishing his reputation as one of the master prose stylists of the last century. Here is the complete text of his 2000 book Life is a Miracle in which E.O. Wilson becomes an unlikely adversary—and forty-two essays and speeches from nine other books published from 1993 to 2017, among them his 2012 Jefferson Lecture to the National Endowment for the Humanities, It All Turns on Affection, an eloquent plea for practiced love of the land.”

I have worked for almost 50 years developing GROW BIOINTENSIVE, seeking to heal the depletion of agriculture, and to help farmers live and work in harmony with the everyday miracle of the seasonal and biological cycles that nourish and sustain our civilization. I am drawn to Berry’s writing because he expresses so well the thoughts and emotions that keep me inspired to continue this work. Two other individuals come to mind, whose writings have given us (me) such a rich sense of humanity and inspiration for the difference we can make in the world as individuals, particularly in the area of farming and tending the Earth.

Gandhi said, “To forget how to dig the earth and to tend the soil is to forget ourselves.”

Lincoln said, “Ere long the most valuable of all arts will be the art of deriving a comfortable subsistence from the smallest area of soil. No community where every member possesses the art can ever be the victim of oppression in any of its forms.”

And Berry says “The soil is the great connector of lives, the source and destination of all. It is the healer and restorer and resurrector, by which disease passes into health, age into youth, death into life. Without proper care for it we can have no community, because without proper care for it we can have no life.”

There has never been a better time to read and draw inspiration from Berry’s writing than right now, as we work to save a world where mechanized, chemical, herbicidal farming is wreaking havoc on our ecosystems, and as little as 21 years of farmable soil remains to feed future generations.

(Did you know that nitrate fertilizer used to grow crops exist as a result of surplus TNT explosives left over from World War II? It’s true. Also true is the fact that nitrate fertilizer use depletes soil organic matter and the ability of soil to hold on to organic nitrogen, in a vicious cycle: the more nitrate fertilizer a farmer uses, the faster the soil loses its organic matter (and its ability to produce food). In one loosely figurative sense, when we use synthetic nitrogen fertilizers, we are dynamiting our soils in order to grow food as we focus on products rather than dynamic, living biological processes! Without a good, closed system, fully sustainable farming paradigm, we are “at war” with nature, and it is not possible for individuals, families, communities, ecosystems and the world to live well, or live at all. In contrast, it can be seen though the data in a University of California-Berkeley Masters Thesis, that living closed-loop sustainable food- and soil-growing biologically intensive practices, have the potential of building up to 20 pounds of fertile, carbon-rich, biological nitrogen-friendly, farmable soil per pound of food eaten.)

As I noted in The Soul of Soil, a heaping tablespoon of fertile living soil can contain approximately the same number of life forms as there are people on the Earth. May this living force be with us! It certainly is with Wendell Berry, a Master of Soul and Soil; we can all learn from his writings how to better live in and proactively transform our living, thriving mini ecosystems as we create a wonderfully livable Earth no longer besieged by climate change.

As you stand in your part of the Earth, your garden, and as you work in the living soil to grow a better and more sustainable and just tomorrow, read and be nourished by the wonderful opportunities Wendell Berry’s words speak to the deepest good in each of us. It is the cultivation of healthy souls, the conscious and unconscious parts of our inside selves that determines what we create.

In fact, the way we cultivate the soil is how we cultivate our souls.

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