Friday, 5 January 2018

'The most radical and important­ environmental thinker at work today' >>> "The World-Ending Fire: The Essential Wendell Berry"

This book was on several 'books of the year' lists:

I’ll go out on a limb: the most radical and important­ environmental thinker at work today is an octogenarian, socially conservative, Christian tobacco farmer from Kentucky. His name is Wendell Berry and his new collection of essays, The Art of Loading Brush, is the capstone to a profound body of work. Also check out Paul Kingsnorth’s recent selection of Berry’s earlier work, The World-Ending Fire: The Essential Wendell Berry.
Geordie Williamson’s summer reading list (with help from his friends) - The Australian

A new voice to me is that of the radical conservative Wendell Berry, a Kentucky farmer who works with horses not tractors and writes with a pencil not a word-processor. Now in his eighties, he is an eloquent defender of the local, and fierce critic of corporations, agribusiness, war, waste and environmental destruction. The World-Ending Fire (Allen Lane) is a selection of his essays over some forty years.
What have the great and the good been reading in 2017? | Herald Scotland

Andrew Marr wrote a review at the time the book came out:

After Donald Trump’s election, we urgently need to rediscover the best of radical America – that of Mark Twain, Gary Snyder and Edward Abbey. An essential part of that story is Wendell Berry. It is axiomatic that such a bold and questioning writer should be an uncomfortable writer and difficult to swallow whole. Few of us can live, or even aspire to, his kind of life. But nobody can risk ignoring him.

Farmer, activist, economist, seer: why Wendell Berry is the modern-day Thoreau

And he subsequently invited the author onto Start the Week:
BBC Radio 4 - Start the Week, Wendell Berry: The Natural World

This blog has also looked at the work of Wendell Berry:
Futures Forum: Transition and the Commons
Futures Forum: Living without technology for a year
Futures Forum: The demands for "more jobs, equal pay for equal jobs, and more pay for every job" are beside the point, as they are "not worth a damn to begin with"
Futures Forum: Environmental voices on Radio 4's Start the Week >>> "It's unlikely that this general election campaign will really touch on the deepest challenges to our accelerating industrial, global civilization."

Paul Kingsworth also appeared on Start the Week: he had put together the collection which became The World-Ending Fire. Here on his blog he introduces the piece:
The World-Ending Fire | The Dark Mountain Project

Here D J Taylor reviews the volume:

The World-Ending Fire: The Essential Wendell Berry review – how America’s farmers betrayed the land

These prescient essays are drawn from a 50-year campaign on behalf of old-style US agrarianism

 Field days … Berry’s native Kentucky. Photograph: Alamy

The writer who maintains that “progress” is a sham can always be fairly sure of a hearing. After all, whatever the wonders of its gadgetry, no advanced society has ever quite been able to convince a substantial part of its populace that present and future have the edge on an endlessly mythologised past. Much less certain is the political context of this ardent backward glance. GK Chesterton and Hilaire Belloc’s interwar era “Distributist League”, for example, was the last genuinely reactionary political movement in the UK (with the possible exception of Ukip). It brought together a bizarre coalition of traditional Conservatives, keen on individualism and self help, and left-leaning radicals eager to defend small property holders against the oligarchs.
All this is further complicated by the particular locales (or rather, locale, as the author has stayed tethered to his native Kentucky for the last 50 years) through which Berry so observantly passes. He is not, for instance, a great-outdoors merchant in the manner of Edward Hoagland and Annie Proulx; he is more interested in soil quality than fauna. The mistiness that most British writers bring to considerations of that tantalising notion of “the land” is altogether beyond him, and on the evidence of the 30 or so pieces collected here, he never wrote a sentimental line in his life. About the closest equivalent to his tough-minded, small-scale environmentalism on this side of the Atlantic would be the George Ewart Evans of Ask the Fellows Who Cut the Hay or the John Stewart Collis of The Worm Forgives the Plough, and even that is not very close.In the end Chesterton’s mock-medievalism – his idea that we should all be much better off with a pig than a radiogram – defies most of the classifications of contemporary politics. In his brief introduction to The World‑Ending Fire, Paul Kingsnorth makes the same point about Wendell Berry’s half-century campaign on behalf of old-style US agrarianism, the sanctity of the dairy farm and the sharecropper’s 40-acre plot. From one angle, Berry (born 1934), with his sonorous, preacher’s style and his horror of colonising concrete, looks like an arch-conservative, and yet money, markets and corporatism are forever looming into his sights. From another, he looks like a classic eco-lefty pitting himself against the big battalions of agri-business, and yet his assaults on individualism, rootlessness and urban snobbery will be enough to leave most leftwingers feeling deeply uncomfortable.
Berry’s essays roam widely over such topics as “Writer and Region” (an A-grade discussion of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn), “The Work of Local Culture” and his high-minded disinclination to swap his ancient typewriter for a computer (complete with several shocked technophile responses). But the majority of them return, out of a kind of disgust, to the idea of betrayal, and the way in which the US farming industry has abandoned its responsibility to the terrain it has been cultivating for the last century and a half. The startling aspect of this charge sheet is its proxy villain, which is neither the cereal companies nor the burger chains but the American dream.
Ronald Reagan once named his favourite children’s books as Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House series, in which the resourceful Ingalls family head west across the newly available prairie states. Pa chops trees, builds shacks and plants corn while Ma keeps house and thinks the native population “dirty”. To Berry, by contrast, the Pa Ingallses of the 1870s midwest are simply opportunists casting aside the old ways without bothering to reflect on their value, exploiters whose hard work and high moral tone obscure the absence of any real relationship with the land they are bent on despoiling. “A Native Hill”, a series of pointed reflections on the landscape of Henry County, Kentucky, notes that the original inhabitants had managed to preserve its integrity for thousands of years. The pioneers “in a century and half plundered the area of at least half its topsoil and virtually all its forest”, and constructed a road they may not have needed in the first place.
On the one hand, Berry is placing the Native American Indians and Pa Ingalls in false opposition: the effervescing Ingalls brood were different kinds of people – most obviously, nomads and settlers – wanting different things from the world they inhabited. On the other hand, Berry’s agrarian arguments are persuasive. To produce five feet of topsoil, he suggests in “The Making of a Marginal Farm”, takes 50,000 to 60,000 years. Meanwhile, the rallying cries are mounting up: think small; distrust the combines; a family can live for a year off a 60 sq ft vegetable plot; nobody ever did themselves any good by living in a city (he derides “the assumption that the life of the metropolis is the experience, the modern experience … ”).
If we have heard a lot of this before, then a glance at the essay dates – many of them from the late 1960s and early 70s – is enough to award Berry full marks for prescience. “The Total Economy”, a comparatively late piece from 2000, pulls most of the threads together. This indictment of consumerism is viewed from the angle of the small farmer who fails to see why we should be encouraging people to acquire things they don’t actually need. It argues that a modest sufficiency, aimed not at making a profit but fulfilling a need, is better for us – economically and morally – than a surplus. “Without prosperous local economies,” he defiantly concludes, “the people have no power and the land no voice.”
This takes us back to Chesterton and that odd combination of libertarianism and social justice that drove the Distributists. If there is an argument against Berry’s icy anti-corporatism it is simultaneously practical – what works well in Kentucky may not solve the food problems of an overpopulated planet – and philosophical. It’s all very well railing against consumer materialism, but, as Orwell once pointed out in a slightly different context, consumer materialism is about all the western world’s poorer classes have got left.
As for The World-Ending Fire’s implications, you can just about envisage a future in which, once the fossil fuels have run out, necessity forces us all to live in smaller, self-sustaining societies without the benefit of the internal combustion engine. So perhaps Berry will have the last laugh. Whether by that stage in human evolution it will be worth having is another matter.

The World-Ending Fire: The Essential Wendell Berry review – how America’s farmers betrayed the land | Books | The Guardian

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