A Review of
Wendell Berry and the Agrarian Tradition: A Common Grace
Kimberly K. Smith
Paperback: UPress of Kansas, 2003
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Reviewed by Sam F. Chamelin
With the establishment of every new farmer’s market and urban rooftop garden, the marriage of agrarianism and environmentalism becomes more an assumption than experiment. In a different era, concerns about issues such as GMO’s and topsoil erosion would be considered divergent and unrelated subjects. Increasingly, we see these topics related to one another in critical ways, and there is a deep hunger for communal living in an intentional place. Much of the enthusiasm for these movements can be attributed to the inimitable pen of Wendell Berry. In Wendell Berry and the Agrarian Tradition: A Common Grace, Kimberly K. Smith offers us a thoughtful roadmap to Wendell Berry’s environmental agrarianism. If, in the 21st century, we assume an easy combination of these divergent DNA strands, it is because of Berry, as Smith notes, “If Berry’s ecological agrarianism doesn’t look particularly innovative to us, it is because he makes the marriage of agrarian and environmental though seem so natural that we assume agrarianism always implied ecological sensitivity – or that ecological sensitivity always implied support for family farming.”
Berry’s value as a philosopher lies not in the creation of a new environmental or rural ethic, but rather his skilled blending of the two schools, and Smith’s task throughout the book is to navigate between these poles and illustrate Berry’s creative and thoughtful combination. The book opens with a careful recounting of the moral, social, and political highlights of American agrarianism in chapter 1 and environmentalism in chapter 2, and will ground it all in Berry’s rural Kentucky, and his experiences in each of these traditions. She begins with the godmother of all American agrarianism, Thomas Jefferson’s democratic agrarianism and its “yeoman farmer” paradigm that he believed would create virtue, economic opportunity, and independence, the perpetual hallmarks of agrarian thought. From there, she moves to the more social justice oriented Populist movements that distrusted government and large corporations and their goal of independence from partisan influence and corporate dominance. In chapter 2, she traces roots of the modern environmental movements, beginning with the agricultural antagonism and rugged individualism of Thoreau’s preservationism and the more agriculturally friendly conservationism of Roosevelt and Liberty Hyde Bailey. Conservationism opens the door for a more productive dialog with agriculture even while it criticizes environmentally ignorant agricultural practices. Finally, Smith twists these together, reflecting on the destruction of land due to the corporate strip mining practices that tore through Berry’s Kentucky home. It was these experiences that led him to believe that “the health of the environment and the economic and political status of the small farmer and intimately linked.”
Armed with a convincing blueprint for these divergent strains and the personal way they found their way into Berry’s personal narrative, Smith thoughtfully heads out to trace the social, moral, and political implications of Berry’s philosophy. As a small pastor in a rural village, I was struck particularly by Smith’s presentation of Berry’s understanding of community and the social and moral implications of communal living. Berry constantly sought to redefine the rugged individualism of environmental and agrarian movements by insisting on the limits of human nature, the necessity of dependence, and the necessity of vital community, and it seems that one does not need to be invested in either camp in order to benefit from the compelling vision Berry offers. It is neither conservative machismo nor liberal utopianism, because it is an argument about our American convictions. Berry values our independence, while challenging our frontier mentality. The land is not something to be conquered, but an essential location for human realization. Berry’s notion of place will inspire all who, in Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove’s words, live in “one of the abandoned places in the empire.” Even the abandoned places are indeed “places,” a setting that values the preexisting land, the communities, and the traditions that occupy it for a time. Underneath is all is Berry’s central moral notion of “grace,” his notion of the elements that make for a meaningful life and create the conditions for human flourishing. His proposals for what it means to be fully human (including the notion of human limits) and what constitutes human flourishing are riveting and, for rural settings that live under the looming specter of death, empowering. Smith is skilled at parsing out these important elements of Berry’s thought, and she refuses the utopian vision to make his vision real and ultimately livable.