It was like I won the lottery. Picked as the lucky winner, I could pick virtually any book on Earth and have it shipped to me for FREE! Being a frequent user of the library, and facing a significant cash shortage, I haven’t purchased a book for myself in years. Such extravagance! Additionally, I’ve been purging books from the collection. I don’t need hundreds of books laying around and gathering dust. They should be out in the world doing their job. With such considerations in mind, what book would I choose?
After 72 hours of careful deliberation I settled on Wendell Berry. This dude is The Man. He’s pretty much a prophet for the local food movement and the local movement in general. This is a man whose words I will always have room for on my bookshelf.
What Are People For? is a collection of Wendell’s essays that I received by mail all the way from England’s Book Depository as a result of winning the drawing from Caffeine and Books. Alicia is the English book blogger who wrote the amazing review of my book you can read here. So, it’s like I won the lottery twice with her.
On the heels of sampling more of Berry, I was absolutely floored by the vivid imagery in John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath. This is one of the greatest American books of the 20th century. It reads well after a little Wendell Berry. Perhaps I also found it to be particularly moving following my own job loss of a year ago, a situation that still has me reeling.
The Grapes of Wrath is the sort of book that has the power to change your life and attitudes, which is the type I gravitate toward. Published in 1939, it deeply impacted the nation. The following year it won the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize for fiction, and has sold a total of 14 million copies thus far. Controversy swirled all around it. The Associated Farmers of California were greatly incensed over the depiction of their treatment of migrant workers. Big business was also not thrilled over the national conversation that developed.
In a nutshell, the story is about the hundreds of thousands of Oklahomans that fled the Dust Bowl, and the banks that had driven them off their land, by packing old jalopies and travelling Route 66 all the way to the Promised Land of California. Handbills had circulated throughout the region impacted by the Dust Bowl promising good paying jobs at the many fruit and cotton farms. They arrived to discover that the clever marketing was merely a ploy to have a surplus of workers competing for jobs picking produce at wages that failed to even feed a family adequately (much less provide decent shelter).
Entire families starved, and society did nothing in many cases as children slowly withered away to nothing. Unreal. They were exploited by the rich, forced to endure desperate poverty, abused by the police, and basically spat upon by “polite” society. A century and a half after securing independence from England, our nation faced its greatest challenge as the Great Depression raged on. The very soul of our people was hollowing out. The national dialogue produced real change, but the story remains relevant today.
The book’s wrath is directed at those who abuse power and concentrate wealth in the hands of a few. Then, and now, large corporate interests squeezed small farmers out through deplorable practices. The subject is complex, multifaceted, and one that we should all be acquainted with. What’s more, we should actually give a rat’s rear-end about these themes.
Steinbeck’s work is timeless, and Wendell Berry’s words fit squarely into this tradition. Prophetically, he deftly navigates the worlds of fiction, non-fiction, and poetry. The man is mad as hell, as seen in his Mad Farmer poems. We all should be alarmed at what is taking place in the countryside and within our local economies that rot away from within. We the people have the power to slow the concentration of wealth into a plutocracy, which is where we’re headed if we continue on business as usual.
Better than any other living human being I’m aware of, Wendell Berry articulates the need for strong, local economies. This includes local agriculture, prosperous farmers, locally owned shops, and much more. The current system would reduce us all to nothing more than consumers, as we mindlessly fill our gas tanks and drive around to characterless big box stores owned by amoral corporations in shapeless suburbs bereft of soul or identity.
Locally grown food is a great place to start. Just this past week I read a story about salmonella-tainted cucumbers grown in a land far far away sickening individuals, even to the point of death. Meanwhile, I eat my cucumbers whole, kind of like apples, with confidence. Some I grow myself, and others I receive in my weekly CSA box from a local, organic farm. I don’t even need to wash the darn things. They taste better, and the experience is qualitatively superior. Now that’s just cucumbers. Extend this to countless other fruits of the land and even the clothing you wear, and life for all can be better in a myriad of ways. For me, the challenge is figuring out this great task of being a locavore and that of being a locally minded individual and family within the context of having very limited resources. I believe it’s possible. These ideals need not be limited to that of the boutique, snobbish even, luxury for the wealthy few.
It requires a restructuring of life from the bland status quo of suburban life that suffices as the American Dream for so many. Perhaps we don’t need to consume so much. Maybe then we can afford the additional cost of only a few higher quality items, while enjoying more leisure and quality time with our families. Perhaps 10,000 pounds or more of automobiles aren’t necessary for sustaining the American Dream for a family. Maybe, just maybe, we can get by with one modest vehicle (or even none). Daily life can rather easily be centered around a two to four mile radius from one’s home if careful consideration is given for where you put down roots.
Wendell Berry helps show us that caring for the land is not just the purview of hippy environmentalists, for one cannot divorce the treatment of the land from people. We all depend on the land, and should work with nature in promoting healthy, decentralized economies that are not fully dependent on greedy outside interests who only wish to rape and plunder the good land we’ve been given by extracting minerals, lumber, and other God-given assets, all in the name of providing “jobs,” but in the express purpose of sucking the profits into the far off bank accounts of the privileged elites who will abandon your community later on (in a much worse condition than they found it) when the economics direct them to another part of the world that can be plundered more cheaply.
It is possible to harvest the fruits of the land and forest sustainably, and this almost always means by locally owned small businesses. In other words, people who have a vested interest in caring for the land and people, if for no other reason than to maintain a good reputation.
Wendell has changed my opinion on a lot of things, and I love that he self-identifies as a Christian. He’s one of the few individuals who share my faith that are articulating these ideas effectively. For the most part it seems the church is virtually silent in these matters, which really chaps my hide. Change is coming, though. It billows up on the horizon like an impending storm. The status quo is morally and spiritually bankrupt. An increasing number won’t stand for fast food culture and mindless consumption much longer.
I have barely scratched the surface of Wendell Berry, but here’s my suggestion for where you may begin:
- The Memory of Old Jack – fiction
- The Unsettling of America – non-fiction
- Jayber Crow – fiction
- The Mad Farmer Poems or perhaps A Timbered Choir – poetry
- Pick a collection of essays to wade through, slowly and contemplatively. What Are People For? is pretty good, but there are numerous others. For whatever reason this collection is front-loaded with thoughts on writing and literary criticism in the first section that may cause some to lose interest. He writes on quite a variety of topics. I value the wisdom of the old man in all of them, even when they aren’t exactly page-turners. I’ve wanted to give The Art of the Commonplace (a collection of agrarian essays) a look for a while, so perhaps that’ll be next for me.
You will find a great deal of repetition and overlap in his works. This is because the subject is so large and overarching of all of our lives. The problems facing both rural and metropolitan communities are incredibly complex. Wendell breaks off a little at a time, as should we all. Do not read him or Steinbeck if you wish to remain ignorant, refuse change, or can’t see the value in being brought to the point of tears over what has been lost.
Finally, I wish to share a bright moment that transpired just the other night. My daughter, who has been forced to end the summer on crutches, asked me to retrieve her new brush for her. I handed it to her, and her face beamed with pride as she said, “That’s my brush….” There was so much in that look. Happiness. Contentment. Love. My wife shelled out the two or three bucks for her to have her own brush, and Emma was filled with gratitude. This makes me so happy as we find ourselves navigating a world of far less cash, one in which gifts are relatively few and infrequent.
My great hope is that our kids will be blessed in and through this experience. We simply can’t afford many things. That which we have been entrusted with should be loved and taken care of. All of life should be marked by gratitude, even for things like a brush, clean running water coming out of a tap at will, and for our chickens that will soon produce fresh eggs daily. We have so much to be thankful for. Why, just yesterday Duluth experienced one of only a handful of days each year that are marked by oppressive heat and humidity. I was afforded the luxury of finishing the last 150 pages of The Grapes of Wrath, guilt-free, in a cool air-conditioned room. Normally I resist turning the window unit on at all costs, but with a daughter in a cast we enjoyed the luxury without compulsion.
What a gift, and what a contrast to the lives the Okies experienced in the book I read. I have nothing to complain about. If you lack the desire to read this book, you should probably find the 1940 movie starring Henry Fonda. This is how I plan to introduce some of these difficult ideas to my family.
Lastly, and I realize I’ve rambled rather incoherently here, I’ve been left with a sense of the great value in being mad at the things that make God mad. Scripture is replete with God’s great hatred and condemnation of injustice of all kinds. I found myself mad as a hornet at how these people were treated, and rightly so. The book doesn’t exactly portray all Christians positively. Unfortunately, I found Steinbeck’s image of the judgmental “Jesus-lovers” sneering in righteous indignation at the “hug-dancing” taking place during Saturday night dances in a government camp to ring with authenticity from the era. Once again, there is value in being mad about the things God is most angry about—real things worthy of real anger—while doing something about them.