Back to Wendell Berry

August 27, 2010
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I wanted to tell you folks that I really think you should take a few hours and read Wendell Berry’s book, Bringing It To The Table.

There are really good essays in there, and I want to point you in particular at a couple which I was moved by. The first examines how we have shifted from an organic viewpoint to an industrial viewpoint over the last century or so, and how that affects not only our farming, but our food and our relationships to the people who grow it, and also the people around us. There is an excerpt of this article here: A Defense of the Family Farm. But it is only an excerpt — a chunk of the middle is cut out. I recommend you find and read the whole thing.

The part of the argument I find most striking is where he talks about how industrialization has depreciated the value of work. Because machines have made work simpler, easier, and more routine, it is less valuable now than it used to be, and many people no longer value work for work’s sake. This leads both to work being unfulfilling for many people, and also to peoples’ work being underpaid for what they do. It also leads to less of a craftsman/artist mentality about work, where people do not take pride in what they do because it is purely mechanical and no longer art.  It is no longer making, but merely doing. He further argues that when human work is treated as a commodity, it degenerates into treating people themselves as commodities. It’s worth reading carefully because I believe that his words can be applied across the board, and not just to farming. It is really important to both love your work and  be appreciated for the works you create, regardless of field.

The other essay I’d like to point you at is Renewing Husbandry, and unfortunately this link also does not contain the full text of the article, so again, I encourage you to seek out Berry’s book and read the full thing. I especially suggest it because the full article contains quoted material which is not present in this link, and this material is essential for understanding the emotional resonance of husbandry.

This essay ties into the previous essay in talking about how mechanical tools can lead one to look at the world in a mechanical rather than organic fashion, causing one to at the world in individual pieces rather than the sum of its parts.

This essay departs from that theme, however, and examines the act of husbandry; of saving, storing, conserving of things that are important. Husbandry is not a word that gets used a lot any more, and neither is housewifery, I think because of the implied gender role involved. But you do not need to be a man to practice husbandry — the saving and keeping of good things, practices, and culture for your household and family, and the maintenance of connections with people and the natural world. Berry argues that many of the failures in industrial agriculture are coming from attempting to farm without husbandry: without care for the complex relationships between man, earth, plant, and animal; and without care for long-term maintenance of the health and quality of these things.

It is a persuasive argument, and one that I also enjoyed reading. Berry’s writing style is crisp and accessible and personal, and at least in my experience, carries a ring of truth. My one regret with this essay is that it is purely on husbandry. Berry never addresses housewifery in this article. However, a bit of research points at a housewifery article in another of his books, The Unsettling of America.

I believe I’m about to go request that book from the library. Right now. And I encourage you, as I’ve said, to please read Bringing It To The Table.

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