What Wendell Berry stands on, quite literally, is dirt. And if dirt seems an odd thing to also stand for, then reading fifteen hundred pages of his essays will fill you in on the ramifying significance of dirt.
The importance of dirt may be the most prominent thread running through fifty years of Berry’s writing on remarkably diverse topics. When we neglect the health of the soil, Berry warns, it is not just our diet that suffers; our homes, communities, and politics wither. Without a healthy, sustainable agriculture preserving the soil’s fertility, no human culture can survive. In standing for dirt, it turns out, Berry stands for a countercultural view of humans as radically dependent creatures, formed from dust and sustained by the Creator’s breath.
The Library of America’s mission is to publish “America’s greatest writing in authoritative new editions,” and in 2018 they recognized Berry’s literary achievements by releasing a volume of his fiction. This year, they are publishing What I Stand On: The Collected Essays of Wendell Berry 1969 – 2017. Plans are in the works to publish a second volume of his fiction and one of his poetry. Although subtitled “the collected essays,” this is in fact a selection of his essays. Only The Unsettling of America and Life Is a Miracle are included in full; his books on Harlan Hubbard and William Carlos Williams, along with many of his essays on literary figures, didn’t make the cut. The volumes do, however, include a chronology of Berry’s life, and extensive notes, and they provide an excellent introduction to Berry’s well-wrought prose.
Berry relates that his wife, Tanya, informed him that “my principle asset as a writer has been my knack for repeating myself,” and those who read these essays will discover the truth of her assessment. The Unsettling of America, which put Berry on the map when it was published in 1977, is his seminal book of nonfiction; sentences or paragraphs from this book act as seeds which, sometimes decades later, sprout into full-grown essays. This chronological arrangement of his essays invites readers to follow his ideas as they bear fruit and ripen over the decades.
A handful of dirt may appear inert and lifeless. Nothing, it seems, could be more trivial. And yet nothing is more essential. As Berry writes in The Unsettling of America: “The soil is the great connector of lives, the source and destination of all. It is the healer and restorer and resurrector, by which disease passes into health, age into youth, death into life. Without proper care for it we can have no community because without proper care for it we can have no life.” As he ruminates on this theme, he moves from ecology to religion to culture. For instance, in describing the principles of soil fertility long practiced by good farmers, Berry concludes that these principles are “as new and common as biology, as old and exalted as the Bible: ‘Except a corn of wheat fall into the ground and die, it abideth alone: but if it die, it bringeth forth much fruit.’” Berry declares his theology of dirt even more bluntly in a poem, writing “Christmas / night and Easter morning are this soil’s only laws.”
For Berry, soil exemplifies the interdependence of creatures and their participation in the Creator’s ongoing work of redemption. Healthy dirt sustains a community whose members work together to convert the detritus of old lives into new. A culture violates this pattern when its members set themselves up as individual arbiters of meaning and value. Significantly, one of the symptoms of such a culture is that it will damage the dirt upon which it depends.
In one of Berry’s earliest essays, “A Native Hill,” he grieves over the harm that white settlers have caused the land. As he walks in an old woods, Berry reflects on the rich ecological order it embodies: “The country, as we have made it by the pretense that we can do without it as soon as we have completed its metamorphosis into cash, no longer holds even the possibility of such forests, for the topsoil that they made and stood upon, like children piling up and trampling underfoot the fallen leaves, is no longer here.” Because “we did not know where we were,” we have “destroyed the abundance” that was here. At the end of this essay, Berry lies down in the woods and imagines his body beginning “its long shudder into humus.” All of Berry’s writing stems from this awareness that he will die, that his individual life is not the measure of meaning, but rather that it finds its worth in a longer, communal story, a story that is both ecological and religious.
For Berry, the quintessential American error is that those who immigrated here saw the “New World” as a blank slate on which they could write their desires and ambitions. We decide who we want to be, and then we impose this identity on whatever place we happen to be. Berry is not alone in tracing this problem back to the colonial origins of American society. In his magisterial The Christian Imagination, theologian Willie Jennings warns that when identity is divorced from place, damaging distortions ensue. As European explorers experienced a new freedom from their own places, they projected this deracinated mode of identity on the people they encountered, reducing them to the color of their skin: “Without place as the articulator of identity,” Jennings concludes, “human skin is asked to fly solo and speak for itself.”
“The soil is the great connector of lives, the source and destination of all.”
Like Berry, Jennings urges us to ask ourselves where we are before we declare who we are. In a recent essay, he articulates the question that European emigrants failed to answer properly: “Who am I in this strange new place?” As Jennings explains, “This is the right question, the holy and good question. The newness of place should provoke from us such questions.” But we tend to answer this question in selfish ways rather than considering what this place and its members might need from us. At the beginning of The Unsettling of America, Berry traces America’s colonial history and argues that an exploitative mindset continues to characterize our relationship to our places and communities. Instead of asking who our place needs us to be, we tend to ask simply what we can extract from a place. Like Jennings, who proposes that renewal “begins with the land: with dirt, air, water, cities, towns, neighborhoods, and homes,” Berry suggests that healing begins when we recognize our dependence on our places, on the dirt under our feet.
When we are uprooted from our places and communities, portable, atomizing markers of identity such as race and sex and political faction take on outsized importance – both to how we see ourselves and to how we are seen. On the one hand, identity becomes one more commodity to choose. And on the other hand, these identities take on undue weight; in the absence of situated communities, they are all we have left to give our lives meaning and to ascribe meaning to others. For some, these identities are chosen and performed and for others they are borne as burdensome stereotypes. In sum, they erode our literal and figurative common ground. The unsettling of America leads directly to the polarization of America.
As an essayist, Berry’s greatest gift to public discourse is his ability to speak across increasingly rigid partisan divides. By rooting himself in a place and a community – rather than speaking from a platform or political party – he has cultivated an authentic voice that defies the categories of American politics. And this voice has reached a remarkably variegated audience, one that includes homeschooling moms and single urbanites, NRA-supporting farmers and Sierra Club environmentalists, bell hooks and Nick Offerman. It turns out that when you speak for the dirt, you might be able to sustain unlikely communities.
Yet in order for such communities to thrive, they must embrace a paradox articulated by Jesus and enacted in the life and death of each seed planted in the soil: if you want to find yourself, you first have to lose yourself. The cure for “so-called identity crises” does not lie in “finding yourself.” Rather, its resolution would
consist in the restoration of…connections: the lost identity would find itself by recognizing physical landmarks, by connecting itself responsibly to practical circumstances; it would learn to stay put in the body to which it belongs and in the place to which preference or history or accident has brought it.… The fashionable cure for this condition, if I understand the lore of it correctly, has nothing to do with the assumption of responsibilities or the renewal of connections. The cure is ‘autonomy,’ another illusory condition, suggesting that the self can be self-determining and independent without regard for any determining circumstance or any of the obvious dependences.… There is, in practice, no such thing as autonomy. Practically, there is only a distinction between responsible and irresponsible dependence.
We can be uprooted from one place and transplanted in another – and in some cases, this can be essential to our health – but we cannot live as uprooted, autonomous individuals. When we recognize that we are all dependent on the dirt, we are on our way to understanding ourselves as dependent members of complex communities. We are, as Berry says, “convocated” selves: called into being by the voices of those who need us, and whom we need.
We may bristle at the idea of being constituted in response to the needs of others, but if we resist the reality of our interdependence, we will, Berry cautions, “condemn ourselves to spiritual and moral loneliness, and others to want.” Elsewhere, Berry draws on Genesis 2 to remind Christians of our identity as “living souls, God’s dust and God’s breath, acting our parts among other creatures all made of the same dust and breath as ourselves.” Such an identity calls us to assume our responsibilities and renew our connections.
Wendell Berry has been speaking for the soil for over fifty years, yet for the most part, we continue to disregard it and the communal pattern it sustains. A day of reckoning is coming. Like a biblical prophet, Berry warns that nature is a stern mistress. She imposes limits: “Whether we and our politicians know it or not, Nature is party to all our deals and decisions, and she has more votes, a longer memory, and a sterner sense of justice than we do.” If we do not heed Berry’s call to attend to the dirt, we will soon find ourselves forced to do so.
Despite the ominous consequences that Berry fears will follow from our quest for autonomy, his essays do not leave readers depressed or paralyzed. For at the heart of Berry’s vision is his conviction that God so loves the world:
I believe that the world was created and approved by love, that it subsists, coheres, and endures by love, and that, insofar as it is redeemable, it can be redeemed only by love. I believe that divine love, incarnate and indwelling in the world, summons the world always toward wholeness, which ultimately is reconciliation and atonement with God.
Thus it is that a voice resolutely parochial and mundane has inspired so many readers. Like the mythical Anteaus, Berry draws strength and wisdom from the dirt beneath his feet:
All my dawns cross the horizon
and rise, from underfoot.
What I stand for
is what I stand on.