Wendell Berry’s poetry sings with the love of a man for his home, enticing the reader to embrace his vision of local agrarian economy as sufficient for the good life.
“From knowledge of the forest comes/at last knowledge of forestry:/what, without permanent damage,/can be spared and carefully removed,/leaving the whole forest whole. This learning/’takes decades. That’s all there is to it.’” —Wendell Berry, A Small Porch
“The proper study of mankind is man.” —Alexander Pope
Reading Wendell Berry is an exercise in cultivating complexity. His love of Nature, the vision of locality, and understanding of the costs of a global economy resonate with what remains of my small-town southern upbringing. I did not live the Hillbilly Elegy experience; instead, my memories of childhood evoke an almost Berry-esque playing by the creekside on our five acres in Montgomery County, Tennessee. Reading Berry calls my soul to abandon the city life I live and move to a mythical farm.
And yet, there are goods the city cultivates which Mr. Berry’s vision would demand sacrificing. This morning, I sit on a larger porch than usual at a bed and breakfast on Mackinac Island sipping Seattle’s Best Coffee as the birds chirp their way towards dawn. I can sit here in this fascinating place preserved from the hubbub of automobiles and smog because of the complex economic system which I inhabit. My salary is generated through the web of goods and services, institutions and individuals, founding vision and daily execution which makes up my school; I can travel to this northern clime because of the work unknown men have put into the national interstate system; thanks to the effects of the global economy Mr. Berry decries, I can sip coffee 2100 miles from its origins in Puget Sound.
Wendell Berry is a poet of our times; like the best of poets, his prophetic voice speaks both literally and figuratively. As an undergraduate, I fear I read Mr. Berry too literally. Like the Southern Agrarians, I built palaces in the sky which fail to sustain real human living. A few years later, I hope that perhaps I might glean more wisdom from a different reading of Mr. Berry. Alexander Pope famously wrote that, “The proper study of mankind is man.” This claim may provide a way to read Mr. Berry analogically to better understand human habits of living.
In his 2015 collection of poems A Small Porch, Mr. Berry meditates on the meaning of Nature, globalization’s destructive influence on local loves, and the hope for restoration. In one passage, he writes about the forest:
“From knowledge of the forest comes/at last knowledge of forestry:/ what, without permanent damage,/ can be spared and carefully removed,/ leaving the whole forest whole. This learning/ ”takes decades. That’s all there is to it.”
Within the context of the overall poem, this passage literally describes the forest. Fortunately, it can also be taken analogically to describe the human life of the polis.
Human beings are community driven creatures. Genesis describes Adam’s search for one like himself, with God eventually making Eve because “it is not good for a man to be alone.” Aristotle portrayed the human community of the city to be the human habitat: “Man is by nature a creature designed to life in a polis” (The Politics). While scientists theorize multiple evolutionary leaps, archeology has found that the earliest records of human life exist in the city-states of Mesopotamia, the Nile-side farming arrangements of Egypt, and so on. There is something about humanity that requires living together.
Analogically, then, Mr. Berry illustrates how we can best understand what it means to be human. Just as the man who wishes to know trees must study the forest to learn the art of forestry, so the student of human nature must study the city to develop his anthropology. If knowledge of the forest as a whole gives rise to an ability to judge “what can be spared and carefully removed” after decades of learning, study of man within the political context of the polis allows for recognition of cultural health and illness. Rather than flowing from briefly acquired specialized knowledge, this sense is cultivated over a lifetime of broad learning.
The question then arises concerning how one acquires this knowledge and how one could apply it. Simply living in a city does not suffice; the tree lacks awareness of the whole forest. Richard Weaver, in his Visions of Order, argues that if one wishes to be a “doctor of culture” working towards the health of the whole, then he must observe the culture from outside. This vision of one considering the whole pairs neatly with Chesterton’s observation that those living in the present exist in concert with the “democracy of the dead.” How then must we learn to evaluate the health of a culture? Critical distance allows for objective judgement of the cultural whole.
Through this meandering meditation we seem to have arrived at a description of a sound liberal arts education. Such an endeavor involves studying the best humans have thought over time within a small community of scholarship at a remove from the normal patterns of human life, allowing for comparison with the larger culture of the city. The trouble with an undergraduate study lies in the last line of the above Mr. Berry quotation: where the student may see his commencement as the conclusion of his studies recognizing mastery, “This learning ‘takes decades, that’s all there is to it.’” An undergraduate study focusing on a liberal study of mankind initiates the student into a lifetime pursuit of studying the perennial questions: what is man, how does he flourish, and what ought he to do.
Wendell Berry’s poetry sings with the love of a man for his home, enticing the reader to embrace his vision of local agrarian economy as sufficient for the good life. When reading Wendell Berry, however, one discovers the need to balance the good achievable in a larger global context with Mr. Berry’s love of local community. His poetry, analogically, drives us not to abandon the city but to see the humane task of studying man as a worthy task which may take lifetimes to pursue; a liberal education equips one for this task, and perhaps grants him some parameters by which he can chart his path. Cultivating the complex vision required in reading Mr. Berry further equips the reader to study human choice in a fallen world, and in so doing Mr. Berry makes us more human through his poetry.
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The featured image is courtesy of Unsplash. The in-text image is a photograph of Wendell Berry speaking in Frankfort, Indiana (2007), taken by by David Marshall, and is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license. It appears here courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.