THEOSOPHY, Vol. 82, No. 3, January, 1994
(Pages 80-85; Size: 13K)



[Part 14 of a 16-part series]

The Unsettling of America: Culture and Agriculture is the provocative title of Wendell Berry's major work, published in 1977 by Sierra Club Books. Dr. Berry is a poet, writer and agriculturist. His writing is direct, deeply philosophic, and understandable. With a Kentucky base of operations, he has close ties to the University of Kentucky. His ideas, as we shall see, are close to theosophical ideals and ethics.

The "Unsettling" of America

Instead of settling this country in a peaceful and harmonious manner, many of our ancestors changed the land and its environment enormously. They carelessly exploited the natural resources of this beautiful country and ruthlessly eliminated most of its native inhabitants. At the outset of his book, Dr. Berry makes clear the difference between exploitation and nurturing:

I conceive a strip-miner to be a model exploiter, and as a model nurturer I take the old-fashioned idea or ideal of a farmer ... The standard of the exploiter is efficiency; the standard of the nurturer is care. The exploiter's goal is money, profit; the nurturer's goal is health -- his land's health, his own, his family's, his community's, his country's. Whereas the exploiter asks of a piece of land only how much and how quickly it can be made to produce, the nurturer asks a question that is much more complex and difficult: What is its carrying capacity? (That is. How much can be taken from it without diminishing it? What can it produce dependably for an indefinite time?)
Ecological Crises

The chapter on "The Ecological Crisis as a Crisis of Character" is about our situation today, where responsibility and concern have been replaced by indifference or ignorance. Most of us are educated in a single field of study and are then trained as specialists who understand and contribute little to the basic needs of existence. An old, humorous definition of a specialist says it well: One who knows more and more about less and less until he knows everything about nothing. Dr. Berry's strong and candid conclusions on p. 21 may perhaps be surprising to some:

The specialist system fails ... because a person who can do only one thing can do virtually nothing for himself. In living in the world by his own will and skill, the stupidest peasant or tribesman is more competent than the most intelligent worker or technician or intellectual in a society of specialists.

What happens under the rule of specialization is that, though society becomes more and more intricate, it has less and less structure. It becomes more and more organized, but less and less orderly. The community disintegrates because it loses the necessary understandings, forms, and enactments of the relations among materials and processes, principles and actions, ideals and realities, past and present, present and future, men and women, body and spirit, city and country, civilization and wilderness, growth and decay, life and death, just as the individual character loses the sense of a responsible involvement in these relations. No longer does human life rise from the earth like a pyramid, broadly and considerately founded upon its sources. Now it scatters itself out in a reckless horizontal sprawl, like a disorderly city whose suburbs and pavements destroy the fields.

"Modernization" In Agriculture

Our reckless abandon is reflected in what we have done to agriculture. Products of the small farmer used to have many direct markets. But the equipment required to make sure that products meet mandated sanitary standards is too expensive for the single small farmer. Dr. Berry puts it with a touch of irony:

Those markets were done away with in the name of sanitation -- but, of course, to the enrichment of the large producers. We have always had to have "a good reason" for doing away with small operators, and in modern times the good reason has often been sanitation, for which there is apparently no small or cheap technology. Future historians will no doubt remark upon the inevitable association, with us, between sanitation and filthy lucre. And it is one of the miracles of science and hygiene that the germs that used to be in our food have been replaced by poisons.

In all this, few people whose testimony would have mattered have seen the connection between the "modernization" of agricultural techniques and the disintegration of the culture and the communities of farming -- and the consequent disintegration of the structures of urban life. What we have called agricultural progress has, in fact, involved the forcible displacement of millions of people.

"Culture" Within Agriculture

It has become clear in this country and in developing nations that production driven by quantity alone leads to inferior products. Dr. Berry believes that food is, or should be, a "cultural" product rather than a technological one. The attitude and experience of the farmer are transmitted as a cultural passion for his life's work and its products. If we completely dehumanize farming in the U.S. and elsewhere, we will "invoke calamity." The farmer is the cultural agent:

... the best farming requires a farmer -- a husbandman, a nurturer -- not a technician or businessman. A technician or a businessman -- given the necessary abilities and ambitions -- can be made in a little while, by training. A good farmer, on the other hand, is a cultural product; he is made by a sort of training, certainly, in what his time imposes or demands, but he is also made by generations of experience. This essential experience can only be accumulated, tested, preserved, handed down in settled households, friendships, and communities that are deliberately and carefully native to their own ground, in which the past has prepared for the present and the present safeguards the future.

The definitive relationships in the universe are thus not competitive but interdependent. And from a human point of view they are analogical. We can build one system only within another. We can have agriculture only within nature, and culture only within agriculture. At certain critical points these systems have to conform with one another or destroy one another.

The Secret Doctrine I, 641-42 fn., throws more light on the subject:
(the Kabiri) ... ruled the earth once upon a time under the human form of actual living, though truly divine and god-like man. ... The Kabiri were the instructors of mankind in agriculture, because they were the regents over the seasons and Cosmic cycles. Hence it was they who regulated, as planetary Spirits or "Angels" (messengers), the mysteries of the art of agriculture.
The emphasis given to agriculture as a mystery and an art is significant. It is these attributes of agriculture that we have lost, but perhaps men like Wendell Berry, Wes Jackson, and Masanobu Fukuoka are rediscovering them for us. H.P.B. writes further on divine instructors, S.D. II, 364:
... they gave the first impulse to civilizations, and directed the mind with which they had endued men to the invention and perfection of all the arts and sciences. ... and of the medical use of plants....

It is the Kabiri who are credited with having revealed, by producing corn or wheat, the great boon of agriculture.

When machines were introduced into agriculture to increase production, the effects on workers and small farmers were not thought out responsibly. Along with the machines and their use on larger tracts of land, came the massive use of chemicals with virtually no use of humus or animal manure. The subsequent massive loss of soil and introduction of dangerous toxins may be seen as the result of "moral ignorance" and irresponsibility.

Living in the Future

Living in the present is a highly wasteful, destructive affair; yet most of us are so conditioned to it that we do not realize the extent of the waste. Even traditional food preparation in the home, once a vital part of family life, has largely been replaced by processed and wastefully packaged food: for example, take-out, canned, and frozen food. Dr. Berry observes:

With its array of gadgets and machines, all powered by energies that are destructive of land or air or water, and connected to work, market, school, recreation, etc., by gasoline engines, the modern home is a veritable factory of waste and destruction. It is the mainstay of the economy of money. But within the economics of energy and nature, it is a catastrophe. It takes the world's goods and converts them into garbage, sewage, and noxious fumes -- for none of which we have found a use.
Specifically, the "comfortable" modern home is usually remote from the workplace and from the sights of devastation: acres of clear-cut forests, "badlands" or eroded soil, and filthy urban slums. In the pre-modern world the small farmer lived on his farm, sometimes in a barn, with few luxuries. Cottage industries were a frequent part of home life and produced objects for daily use of quality and beauty. Shopkeepers often lived in the same building with their shop, which was an extension of their home life and family relations. Work, home, and culture were one fabric. We had not yet become captives of the need and urge for transportation and its insatiable demands for energy.

In the same vein, but with karmic implications, Lao Tse, near the close of the Tao Teh King, writes of staying in one's own village, where the barking of dogs and crowing of cocks in the next village may be heard but the people never seen or contacted. Today, this may sound too isolationist, but it demonstrates an important truth relating to the necessity of concentrating on present duties.

COMPILER'S NOTE: The following is a separate item which followed the above article but was on the same page. I felt it was useful to include it here:

It would be misleading, perhaps, to say that Wendell Berry is an expositor of the religion of nature. ... His writing is a Taoist expression which generates the feeling of an abiding faith without a single cant phrase or familiar piety. The spirit of the Odyssey moves through his pages -- and Montaigne, Shakespeare, and Blake become his mentors. But he also writes about ditches and privies and hedgerows, plows and manure. He is dealing with prevailing illusions for the most part "sincerely" believed in. He shows from evidence that the illusions result in programs of self-defeat, ultimately self-destruction.

Mr. Berry undertakes mainly to set forth the vision, demonstrate its validity in principle and in instance, and to suggest certain positive steps that are now possible toward its fulfillment. He campaigns against delusions, not against people. We need more writers who combine this generous missionary temper with the devotion to both vision and fact that is found in Berry's books. 


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