The Luddite tradition that Wendell Berry hails so eloquently is the same, he insists, that caused the men of 76 to break from Britain. It is the Jeffersonian Democratic tradition that was partly destroyed (in both the North and the South) by the War Between the States, and almost wholly wrecked by the one-world fantasies of men like Woodrow Wilson, and the centralizing notions of men like Franklin Delano Roosevelt. In his latest book, Berry proves that the tradition, though too often ignored today, is alive and well. He has been farming and writing in his native Henry County, Kentucky, for 30 years now. He has experienced the glitz of cosmopolitanism at Stanford and New York University, yet he prefers the hills overlooking the Kentucky River to the fashionable academic scene. He prefers his community of Port Royal to virtual communities on the information superhighway. Foremost, Berry prefers truth to the drivel fed to us every day by the purveyors of popular culture.
Berry begins Another Turn of the Crank with a strike against rampant globalism. In “Farming and the Global Economy,” he reminds us that “the whole population of the world cannot live on imported food.” Since World War II, local farming communities have been systematically annihilated, their populations moved to urban centers. The start of this, Berry notes, was the switch from solar energy to an almost complete reliance on fossil fuels. Farmers are not its only victims: so are the consumers of their produce. Cities have watched complacently as food production has become more and more concentrated in a few, often distant areas. Local food production is ignored, and even thought to be unnecessary. Yet it is in the best interest of cities to encourage a vibrant countryside surrounding and supporting them, rather than to rely on food transported from thousands of miles away. In this way, both country and city are bolstered, the origin of the produce known and its quality monitored; also, community can be strengthened.
Berry recognizes that our national political leaders do not have the “local affections and allegiances” that would permit them to understand such concerns. They will be of no help. As Berry writes in “Conserving Communities,” “American farmers, who over the years have wondered whether or not they counted, may now put their minds at rest: they do not count.” Having destroyed the farming interest, politicians can now ignore them. But reformists should no longer direct their efforts toward convincing men of power that their cause is just: it is on the local level that changes must be made—through the civic groups, conservation groups, and co-ops, as well as, most importantly, through direct consumer choice. As in his last book of essays and in his poem, “The Mad Farmer, Flying the Flag of Rough Branch, Secedes From the Union,” Berry urges secession: not formal political secession, but secession from the global economy and a return to our communities. Rather than remaining subservient to the Democratic and Republican parties, to NAFTA and GATT, to Disney and Warner, we need to align ourselves within the new political division that has come to exist between the party that holds that the community has no value, and the other that believes that it does. In the interests of promoting the health of communities, Berry suggests a number of rules for action, including, “Always supply local needs first,” and “Make sure that money paid in to a local economy circulates within the community for as long as possible before it is paid out.”
Berry addresses the theme of community self-sufficiency in a wonderful essay, “Conserving Forest Communities,” where Berry highlights the needs of Eastern Kentucky. What Berry fears, and what Appalachia should fear, is that what happened with coal will happen with timber: outside interests will move in, exploit what is there, and leave, requiring the next generation to cope with the damage created by a boom-and-bust economy. Berry is not a tree-spiker opposed to the harvesting of timber; he is a realist who sees that the needs of Eastern Kentucky will outrun the next 20 years. He regards Kentucky’s forest lands as a sustainable resource that can be maintained to support an area indefinitely. Foresting communities should not allow themselves to remain a colonial economy, shipping logs to distant places; instead “People in the local community [should] be employed in forest management, logging, and sawmilling, in a variety of value-added small factories and shops, and in satellite or supporting industries.” Berry offers as an example of the practicability of his suggestion the Menominee Indians of Wisconsin. In the 140 years during which they have held their forest reservation, they have cut two billion board feet of timber on a forest currently estimated to contain one and a half-billion board feet. The Indians there do not regard logging as an economy, but as a culture.
Such an economy is impossible without clear concepts of both private property rights and stewardship. In recent years, private property rights have been under assault from the government and from so-called environmentalists. Berry, as a conservationist as well as a private property owner, perceives the dangers in this attack against the private property rights of individuals, and also against stewardship as it is properly understood. In “Private Property and the Common Wealth,” he argues that in order for land to be properly cared for, it must be privately held in small parcels; the people who are then dependent on that land will do the best job of caring for it. We cannot, Berry says, “get good care in the use of the land by demanding it from public officials.” Four hundred and forty thousand private landowners in Kentucky would be “fierce” in their opposition to the restriction of their property rights, and Wendell Berry would be with them in their opposition. He urges in place of the environmentalist vision the Jeffersonian one: a land dotted with small landholders who know their land, depend upon it for their livelihood, and have great affection toward it. This is how the land ought to be protected and used.
In “Health is Membership,” Berry quotes Sir Albert Howard and argues that “the whole problem of health in soil, plant, animal, and man [is] one great subject.” Typically, Berry takes the broad view: “I believe that the community—in the fullest sense: a place and all its creatures—is the smallest unit of health and that to speak of the health of an isolated individual is a contradiction,” Toward a more proper understanding of health, we must distance ourselves from the modern idea of the body as a machine and the mind as a computer. Hospitals exemplify this modern attitude toward health by their constant noise, poor food, and detached staff, as Berry suggests in his account of the events surrounding his brother’s recent heart attack. Though Berry acknowledges that the hospital saved his brother’s life, he recounts an incident that gives a disturbing insight into the state of modern medicine:
When John was in intensive care after his surgery, his wife, Carol, was standing by his bed, grieving and afraid. Wanting to reassure her, the nurse said, “Nothing is happening to him that doesn’t happen to everybody.” And Carol replied, “I’m not everybody’s wife.”
As Berry realizes, without a full appreciation of death and love, we can never have a proper understanding of true health.
[Another Turn of the Crank, by Wendell Berry (Washington, D.C.: Counterpoint) 122 pp., $18.00]