Wendell Berry

Our Only World

“There has always been a higher seeing that informs us that parts, in themselves, are of no worth.”

The most outstanding nature writers (if there is such a category) are not those who see and present nature, but rather those who question how we value nature.1 Tilting our gaze to our own limits of knowledge and empathy, these writers illuminate the perils of those limitations.

A stirring view of the human need for nature is actually about avoiding nature due to its overwhelming otherness:

“Fear”

I am afraid of nature
because of nature I am mortal

my children and my grandchildren
are also mortal

I lived in the city for forty years
in this way I escaped fear

From Grace Paley’s Begin Again: Collected Poems

"Edge of the Wood, Broadchalke" engraving by British engraver and print maker, Howard Phipps. Featured in Wendell Berry's "Our Only World" in the Examined Life Library.
“Edge of the Wood, Broadchalke” engraving by British engraver and print maker, Howard Phipps. Learn more.

Paley is absolutely right. It is a sentiment shared by Annie Dillard when she writes “Evolution loves death more than it loves you or me,” and even by Ralph Waldo Emerson, who thought nature led us to an eternal stream of consciousness.

Nature is an other. A non-humanness. It reminds us of our unknowable real mortality with its constant death, decay and renewal.

Nature also reminds us of our selfishness. A mirror of reproach for all that humans have taken and used and discarded. But that does not mean humans and nature must be mutually exclusive and/or mutually destructive.

These complexities2 are the fruit and pith of Wendell Berry‘s (born August 5, 1934) Our Only World, a collection of essays rooted in his long experience as a farmer and land steward in the American Midwest.

We may know the anatomy of the body to the extent of the anatomy of atoms and yet we love and instruct our children as whole persons. And we accept an obligation to help them to preserve their wholeness, which is to say their health.

[…]

This applies as well to the industries of landscapes: agriculture, forestry, and mining. Once they have been industrialized, these enterprises no longer recognize landscapes as wholes, let alone as the homes of people and other creatures. They regard landscapes as sources of extractable products. They have efficiently shed any other interest or concern.

We have come to this by way of the disembodiment of thought – a mentalization, almost a puritanization, of thought-depriving us of the physical basis of empathy that might join us kindly to landscapes and their creatures, including their human creatures.

Although he is quick to reject materialization of our economies and politicization of our moralities, Berry recognizes the need to live within nature in the models of farming, forestry, even mining.3

Forest owners, however, may have a good deal to learn from livestock farmers—little as such farmers may about forestry. No sane farmer would sell all her brood cows, keep their heifer calves, and wait for another calf crop until the heifers have become old enough to breed and calve. But forest owners do substantially that when they sell off marketable tree – except that the forest owners (or their descendants) may have to wait for generations, not years, for every another marketable “crop.”

Nor would a sane cattle farmer “highgrade” his herd by selling his best cows and keeping and breeding the worst. But people who highgrade their woodlands do exactly the same thing, selling the best and keeping the worst – which, if not thoughtless, as it usually is, would be insane.

The best logging, however, we may rightly call culling. The foresters’ name for it is “worst-first single tree selection.” By this method, the trees in the area to be logged are looked at individually, evaluated according to the standard of worth and health, and the worst are carefully removed, leaving only small openings in the canopy, and doing the least possible damage to the trees, young and old, that remain.

Photograph of Sussex forest by Ellen Vrana. Featured in Wendell Berry's "Our Only World" in the Examined Life Library.
Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

Mary Oliver’s poem “What was once the Largest Shopping Center in Northern Ohio Was Built Where There Had Been a Pond I used to Visit Every Summer Afternoon”, begins with sobering words “Loving the earth, seeing what has been done to it, I grow sharp, I grow cold.”

A few dozen miles south, Berry expresses the same petrified broken-heartedness.

The farmlands and woodlands of this neighborhood are being hurt worse and faster by bad farming and bad logging than at any other time in my memory. The signs of this abuse are often visible even from the roads, but nobody is looking. Or to people who are looking, but seeing from no perspective of memory or knowledge, the country simply looks “normal.” Outsiders who come visiting almost always speak of it as “beautiful.” But along this river, the Kentucky, which I have known all my life and have lived beside for half a century, there is a large and regrettable recent change, clearly apparent to me, and to me indicative of a drastic change in water quality, but perfectly invisible to nearly everybody else.4

In his early poetry Berry promised a reckoning, a rebellion: “a resurrection of the wild/Already it stands in wait/at the pasture fences.”

In these Our Only World essays, he writes “hope gets harder” and leaves a thud that was our last fragile chance falling on the ground.

And yet…

David Attenborough, who is a decade older than Berry, spent his life bringing nature into people’s homes and making the other-worldly seem familiar. Like Berry, Attenborough attributes environmental devastation to “the way humans have been living.” Not the way we could live or must live, but have been living. Perhaps there is hope in their minds? And from their mouths a similar antidote: change.

For Berry, this change originates at the most basic, immediate, and conceivable level:

For the fact is that if the land and the people are ever to be saved, they will be saved by local people enacting together a proper respect for themselves and their places. They can do this only in ways that are neighborly, convivial, and generous, but also, and in the smallest details, practical and economic.

[…]

If we are serious about these big problems, we have got to see that the solutions begin and end with ourselves. Thus we put an end to our habit of oversimplification. If we want to stop the impoverishment of land and people, we ourselves must be prepared to become poorer. If we are to continue to respect ourselves as human beings, have got to do all we can to slow and then stop the fossil fuel economy. But we must do this fully realizing that our success, if it happens, will change our world and our lives more radically than we can now imagine. Without that realization we cannot hope to succeed. To succeed we will have to give up the mechanical ways of thought that have dominated the world increasingly for the last two hundred years, and we must begin now to make that change in ourselves. For the necessary political changes will be made only in response to changed people.

Sussex field, winter. Featured in David Whyte's "Consolations" in The Examined Life Library.
Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

Berry’s writing is… unsettling. His focus on forestry and how to do it better might infuriate you. It seems so bloody obvious.5 To do justice to the patience of his feelings, the deep thoughtfulness of his conclusions and the multi-sided reasoning he seems to apply to even the smallest kernel of nature, I must summon something greater than my current gifts.

Instead I clutch to the thematic trunk which elevates Our Only World: how to see and value nature. Berry says – abundantly, patiently – that we can exist within nature, but it cannot be a commoditized, individualized or disposable resource.

Change within ourselves, not simply our lives, but our selves. Can it be done?

I leave you with the anchoring mind of Rebecca Solnit, American writer, environmental activist and believer in change and hope: “The things we want are transformative” Solnit writes in her study on the psychology and sociology of being lost, “And we don’t know or only think we know what is on the other side of that transformation.”

Into that tunnel of transformation we peek, lurk, maybe even press a toe or two. Not an easy task. It helps to know someone like Wendell Berry is already in there, beckoning.

Wendell Berry