Agriculture as a Cultural Response to God’s Creation: A Reflection on Wendell Berry’s “The Unsettling of America: Culture &Agriculture”

By Maggie Rogers

Written in 1977, almost thirty years before Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma, the agricultural systems that Wendell Berry critiques in The Unsettling of America appear remarkably similar to the systems Pollan describes in 2006. Biases aside, there luckily seems to be some improvement since The Unsettling of America was written in the shape of a greater acceptance and demand for organic farms and permaculture.  One of the major philosophical differences in these two books is that unlike Pollan, Berry clearly sees a connection between agriculture and spiritual health, both on a personal and community scale.

Wendell Berry stands before the solar panels on his farm in Henry County, KY.  Photo by Guy Mendes. Wikimedia Commons.
Wendell Berry stands before the solar panels on his farm in Henry County, KY. 2011
Photo by Guy Mendes. Wikimedia Commons.

Berry declares “Creation is a unique, irreplaceable gift, therefore to be used with humility, respect, and skill” (213).  Throughout the book, Berry makes a clear differentiation between those who exploit and those who nurture. Big agricultural corporations, or “agribusiness” as Berry calls it, exploit the earth, degrading the soil and polluting waterways. He clearly favors the small family farm, where farmers work with natural processes and value and respect their land and tools.

A continuing theme is the negative effects of specialization in our society, where everyone is confined to one area of expertise and labor. Berry claims that the modern worker “has not the power to provide himself with anything but money, and his money is inflating like a balloon and drifting away, subject to historical circumstances and the power of other people” (20). This differentiates the modern specialized worker from the small farmer, whose labor directly provides food for his family, and often also has their own source of water and the ability to build their own shelter as well.

Berry makes a determined point that “By dividing body and soul, we divide both from all else” (106), meaning that by not being in control of fulfilling our own needs, we are separated we lose the ability to fulfill the needs of our souls, and so community degrades.  I think it’s very interesting that Berry provides the Amish as an example of a successful community that does not create this division between body and soul, explaining that “Whereas most contemporary sects of Christianity have tended to specialize in the interests of the spirit, leaving aside the issues of the world, the Amish have not secularized their earthly life. They have not hesitated to see communal and agricultural implications in their religious principles, and these implications directly influence their behavior” (211).

These understood implications are important because they can have a great effect on the world we live in. Agribusiness focuses almost solely on profits and ignores the resulting pollution, soil degradation, and social effects of taking away jobs from the agriculture. According to Barry, it is irresponsible to assume that anything is self-sufficient, saying “There is, in practice, no such thing as autonomy. Practically, there is only a distinction between responsible and irresponsible dependence” (111). Even the Amish contribute to the greater society, paying taxes and providing charity to their surrounding communities. They are not, however, especially dependent on those systems, which gives them the freedom to continue to value and respect the Creation they understand they did not create and so have no right to destroy or degrade.

I find the relationship Wendell Barry discusses between sustainable agriculture and spirituality to be very interesting. In the Abrahamic religions, many of the metaphors used to describe God and our relationship to God are based on agriculture, because at the time the major religious texts were written, almost everyone had a very close connection to agriculture and the production of their food. How can these metaphors and parables be truly understood, and so how can our relationship to God be truly understood, when as a society we attempt to separate ourselves from the need to nurture God’s Creation as a means of survival?

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