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An Unexpected Hybrid: The Environmental Agrarianism of Wendell Berry

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.”

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Thomas Sieger Derr recently posted a critical review of Liberty Hyde Bailey’s THE HOLY EARTH on the blog for FIRST THINGS ( http://www.firstthings.com/onthesquare/?p=1390 ), concluding that this book is an “ambiguous guide” for environmentalists in the Church.

Having published one of the three editions of THE HOLY EARTH released in the last year, we believe that Derr’s criticisms are misguided.  Most notably, he fails to see that Bailey’s work steers a course between anthropocentrism and biocentrism. For Bailey, a true ecologist, there is really no difference between human need and the needs of the nature.  The two are thoroughly interrelated since both lie on the plain of creation under God.

Bailey’s work, we believe, casts a theologically-rich vision for the Church’s ecological witness to God’s redemptive work.  We offer these two passages from THE HOLY EARTH in response to Prof. Derr.

“The Earth is holy”

Verily, then, the earth is divine, because man did not make it. We are here, part in the creation. We cannot escape. We are under obligation to take part and to do our best, living with each other and with all the creatures. We may not know the full plan, but that does not alter the relation. When once we set ourselves to the pleasure of our dominion, reverently and hopefully, and assume all its responsibilities, we shall have a new hold on life.


We shall put our dominion into the realm of morals. It is now in the realm of trade. This will be very personal morals, but is will also be national and racial morals. More iniquity follows the improper and greedy division of the resources and privileges of the earth than any other form of sinfulness.


If God created the earth, so is the earth hallowed; and if it is hallowed, so must we deal with it devotedly and with care that we do not despoil it, and mindful of our relations to all beings that live on it. We are to consider it religiously: Put off thy shoes from off thy feet, for the place whereon thou standest is holy ground.

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