The Unsettling of America: Culture and Agriculture by Wendell BerrySince its publication by Sierra Club Books in 1977, The Unsettling of America has been recognized as a classic of American letters. In it, Wendell Berry argues that good farming is a cultural development and spiritual discipline. Today’s agribusiness, however, takes farming out of its cultural context and away from families. As a result, we as a nation are more estranged from the land—from the intimate knowledge, love, and care of it.
Sadly, as Berry notes in his Afterword to this third edition, his arguments and observations are more relevant than ever. We continue to suffer loss of community, the devaluation of human work, and the destruction of nature under an economic system dedicated to the mechanistic pursuit of products and profits. Although “this book has not had the happy fate of being proved wrong,” Berry writes, there are good people working “to make something comely and enduring of our life on this earth.” Wendell Berry is one of those people, writing and working, as ever, with passion, eloquence, and conviction.
The Unsettling of America
It is so strange to think that farmers work so hard to produce great amounts of food, but they can barely make a living and generally die very far in debt. This portrayal is fascinating because it describes an accepted way of life to make it seem strange and unnatural, which, in reality, it is. Berry clearly writes for a more educated, analytical readership than the average American, who would simply be offended by his thoughts. In many suburbs, the center of blocks used to be a large field that served as a communal backyard for many houses, where children could play safely. However, most of these areas are being fenced in and divided up, as trust declines and the need to display ownership increases. This contributes to being less connected to neighbors and community, and consequently place attachment. The idea that humans should examine how we fit into nature, rather than how nature exists without us, is often forgotten page
Culture and Agriculture
Ironically, the Sierra Club, whose tourist-style conservation methods Berry criticizes in his opening chapters, published this latest edition in , including two earlier prefaces and an afterword. While the ethics of agribusiness—emphasizing high petroleum use, large scale monocultures, big business land management, winner-takes-all competition—still figured prominently in national farm policy, and while American food consumption patterns continued to display little responsibility for these conditions, some cultural-economic-institutional ecological maturity had flourished on American soil.
In The Unsettling of America: Culture and Agriculture , Wendell Berry strings together a series of essays touching on the state of the culture in as it related to agriculture, the environment, energy use, and even the human body. After hearing many farmers and other agriculturally-minded folks reference Wendell Berry as a major influence, I decided it was time to go back to the source and see what I could glean firsthand. Instead of going online and ordering a book from a major retailer, I just started keeping an eye out for Berry in the many used bookstores I seem incapable of avoiding. It seems people don't get rid of Berry very lightly. In looking at Berry's bibliography, I didn't exactly start at the beginning in terms of his agrarian writing. I approached the book, however, as a long, well-written postcard from the nascent sustainable farming movement as it was in Thirty-five years later, some chapters resonate more than ever, while some of his social philosophy is in need of a 21st Century update.
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