What are People For? by Wendell Berry

What are People For?
What are People For? by Wendell Berry
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This was another of the books my husband got for me from the library for Christmas. I put it on my list about a year ago when I was reading back through the materials from Northwest Earth Institute’s Voluntary Simplicity discussion course, which my husband and I took more than a decade ago. Two of Wendell Berry’s essays were reprinted in those materials, one—“The Pleasures of Eating” from What Are People For?—made such an impression on me, I decided to pick up the book. And am I glad I did.

Berry’s essays include book reviews, poetry commentary, and personal essays of the kind that, in 20 years’ time, would appear on blogs in much simpler form and cut down to <800 words, most likely. Their tone is conversational and their insights simple and relatable. In fact, I was impressed by the sense of conversation that pervades the pieces. Writing for print media at a time when internet was in its infancy, Berry communicates with his readers and other authors, both contemporaries and those throughout history, in a way similar to that to which I strive in my blogging. Like a good conversation, the essays meander through literary and historical references, personal anecdotes, and assertions of strong personal opinions; I found it a pleasure to follow the trails he blazed.

The topics of the essays vary, but certain themes come up again and again. One theme is working in harmony with nature. Berry offers examples from his own experiences as a farmer, those of farmers he’s known and those of the wider community of farmers throughout history, like Nate Shaw, the subject of “A Remarkable Man,” as well as biblical support for the practice of moving with the rhythms of nature rather than trying to subdue it. This theme also shows up in his suggestion that we become knowledgable about and active in the process by which food travels to our plates, which includes eating locally, an idea that I find surprising from essays written in the late 1980’s. This idea of local eating comes up in “The Pleasure of Eating,” and is one of the rare instances when Berry actually offers possible solutions; mostly he just asks really good questions.

The theme of local action is another that runs through his essays. Berry supports local eating, yes, but he also posits the idea that family farms are failing in our country because our society devalues the work that is done in the places where we live. He writes about the disconnection many of us have with our communities and even our families, a phenomenon he attributes to the fact that we are so dependent on careers that we feel we must be willing to relocate far from our home communities, breaking ties with family and friends each time we do (this one hit home for me). “Living is a communal act,” he writes, “whether or not its communality is acknowledged.” The entire culture, Berry suggests, is oriented towards centralization, pulling us away from the connections we build with those near us in favor of more diluted connections with those over a broad geography. And this was well before Facebook.

Berry does a little of the nostalgic “back in my day” musing, but it’s not gratuitous or overbearing. He points out that in the time of family farms (actually before his day), people would visit with each other in the evening after supper. They’d just drop by and talk or play music or tell stories in the time-honored tradition of building community memory through storytelling. They would create their own entertainment while today people expect their entertainment to be delivered to them through the television or the internet. Instead of connecting in person with those near us, we hole up in our homes and connect with those geographically distant from us (or with those who are fictional), and we’re losing not only that connection to local community, but also the stories and memory that make up a community.

Berry worries that we have adopted a societal idea of progress that is ultimately destructive to our society itself. Throughout his essays, Berry seems to be wrestling with his obvious optimism that change is possible and his deep anger at how blindly we are driving society towards dissolution and self-centeredness. Our economy is based on waste, he says, an idea that others have suggested in their criticism of the way in which GDP is calculated. For example, if I stay at home with my children, do the work of keeping a home, keep a garden, and cook our meals at home, I’m considered less valuable to the economy than if I were to have a full-time career and outsource child-rearing, housekeeping, and food production and preparation. I don’t hear many people touting divorce as a practice for improving the health of families and communities, but with the way GDP is calculated, our economy looks healthier if people get divorced because they’re spending so much on attorneys and breaking one household into two. But this waste isn’t just something dictated from on high. Each of us plays a part in driving this wasteful economy. “Our waste problem,” Berry asserts, “…is the fault of an economy that is wasteful from top to bottom—a symbiosis of an unlimited greed at the top and a lazy, passive, and self-indulgent consumptiveness at the bottom—and all of us are involved in it.” We are each part of the problem, himself included, and we each must be ready to change as individuals in order to effect broader change. “The possibility of change,” Berry writes, “depends on the existence of people who have the power to change.”

Many of his essays seem to be speaking directly to me, and not just in an abstract, preaching-to-the-choir way. He writes in one essay about his experience as a Stegner Fellow at Stanford in the late 1950’s. I once applied for a Stegner Fellowship. I’m a little embarrassed to admit this because at the time I didn’t fully comprehend the history of the fellowship and the boatloads of Really Big Writers who’ve been Stegner Fellows. I just thought it was an awesome program and, even better, I could bike to it from where we were living at the time. I didn’t get the fellowship, naturally, but I don’t know…somehow reading Berry’s essay about it helped me feel less silly for taking the chance on applying. Not because he made the fellowship sound any less awesome—quite the contrary. More I think it was just the fact that here was this writer-and-farmer from Kentucky, an unassuming fellow and a working man, someone with values similar to mine who’s writing about subjects with which I’m grappling in my own life; if he was a Stegner Fellow, then it’s not so crazy that I could have been, too, had I been able to convey that I was committed to improving my skill as a writer and that I would be a valuable addition to that year’s fellowship class, which I wasn’t able to do because I wasn’t either of those things at the time, something I’ve realized over the years.

The essay entitled “Why I Am Not Going to Buy a Computer” and its follow-up essay, “Feminism, the Body, and the Machine,” spoke to me as well. I have a computer, but I am staunchly opposed to owning a smart phone for many of the reasons Berry lists, not the least of which is this: “I should ask, in the first place, whether or not I wish to purchase a solution to a problem that I do not have.” Berry notes the unintended consequences of the rapid and widespread adoption of the automobile, and he just advises caution before blindly adopting any new technology. I am very much in favor of caution.

So, I love these essays because they’re satisfyingly complex, they express strong opinions in a respectful way, they echo many of the things I say to myself (and other people within earshot), and they are written in a style which I long to emulate, but I also love them because Berry’s style is friendly and, at times, surprisingly funny. He wrote “Feminism, the Body, and the Machine” in response to some very heated reader replies to his “Why I Am Not Going to Buy a Computer.” He is tallying his supporters and detractors from among the responses and comes to one that would fall into the latter category. He quotes the letter and then remarks, “I like this retort so well that I am tempted to count it a favorable response, raising the total to four.” I laughed out loud at that. But then, I like public radio a lot, too.

I could keep writing and writing (and writing) about this book, but I’ll stop myself here with a quote from “Healing,” one of the poem-like essays from Part I of the book, which speaks to what I hope to experience each time I return from seeking solitude:

True solitude is found in the wild places, where one is without human obligation.

One’s inner voices become audible. One feels the attraction of one’s most intimate sources.

In consequence, one responds more clearly to other lives. The more coherent one becomes within oneself as a creature, the more fully one enters into the communion of all creatures.

One returns from solitude laden with the gifts of circumstance.

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6 comments

  1. Pingback: Bookends: January 2013 « Imperfect Happiness
  2. Paul Baerman · January 5, 2013

    I’m fascinated by the tension between what I think of as centrifugal force and centripetal acceleration, the move toward globalization that once made us feel so virtuous, and the move toward localization that now makes us feel so virtuous. Both impulses have been front and center throughout at least the last century, and I struggle to map my place. There are people who hate the idea of a League of Nations / UN because it might rob us of our sovereignty, force our children into public schools, and take away our muskets; I find myself out of step with them. There are people who ridicule “eating local” because it costs more, and it’s better to have a tasteless tomato at any time of the year than not to have tomato at all; I find myself out of step with them too. What am I? Is there a name for us?

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    • CJ · January 5, 2013

      In his book, Berry touches on the idea that there are many people (although he was specifically talking about Edward Abbey) who don’t align with the definitions of one group or another, and that this is confounding to the groups who wish to claim these freethinkers. It sounds, perhaps, like it could also be alienating to those of us who refuse to conform to an external definition. I wonder if the “feeling so virtuous” is the problem. Rather than explore each option individually for which seems to match best with our values, we seek out the action that leads us to that virtuous feeling. I’m thinking here of the California family who challenged themselves to produce zero waste over the course of the year and so bought compostable toothbrushes that were shipped from Australia. Virtuous feeling: check. Aligned with the spirit of their challenge: not so much.

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  3. Kylie · January 4, 2013

    I’m so glad I saw this. Thank you!

    I’ve heard of Wendell Berry, and this is a good reminder to check this book out from the library.

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    • CJ · January 4, 2013

      It’s the only thing of his I’ve read (in addition to that second essay that was in the Voluntary Simplicity stuff). I read that he recently published a new work of fiction; I’m planning to check out more of his writing.

      Thank you for commenting! I am glad you enjoyed the post.

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      • Kylie · January 4, 2013

        I took a sustainability of food class years ago and must have read at least one essay by him… going to the library tomorrow, and now I know what I’ll be looking for 🙂

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