book cover imageThe Unsettling of America: Culture & Agriculture, 3rd edition,
by Wendell Berry
(Sierra Club Books, 1996; originally published in 1977), 234 pages.

In one of his syndicated columns published during the 1970s, the founder of The University Bookman famously wrote, “There is nothing more conservative than conservation.” Russell Kirk, considered one of the founders of post-war conservatism—that supposedly heartless, devil-catch-the-hindmost view of life that (again, supposedly) considers nature a nuisance to be tamed or destroyed—was a great admirer of the outdoors, a country man at heart, and an indefatigable planter of trees. During his lifetime, Kirk planted hundreds of trees on his property in Mecosta, Michigan and throughout Mecosta County.

Kirk apprehended a truth that has been identified by an increasing number of environmentally concerned people in recent years: conservation—the prudent stewardship of the Earth—is essentially a conservative concern, not the domain of the statist progressive or the seething radical, who is more often a despiser of mankind than a lover of nature; more often a man who knows nature sentimentally and secondhand, through overheated magazine articles and television specials, than a being who has ever gotten his hands dirty in the outdoors.

Conservative views of conservation, so utterly at odds with the more cosmopolitan conservative voices heard out of New York and Washington, are seldom heard. Essayist John R. E. Bliese, Associate Professor of Communication Studies at Texas Tech University, has performed yeoman service in articulating this truth, publishing numerous articles and an important book, book cover imageThe Greening of Conservative America (2002) on the subject. He has written, “This notion that conservatives should be anti-environmental is absurd and dangerous.”

One key proponent of wise stewardship of the land is Wendell Berry, a Kentucky farmer and man of letters whose short treatise The Unsettling of America: Culture and Agriculture (1977) is a minor classic. In this closely argued work, Berry examines with sorrowful rage the transition of the American farm into a factory, an entity based upon productivity, statistics, and management from a bureaucracy high above the dark fields of the Republic: a world away from the family farm, with its perpetual striving for balance between the needs of man and nature. Egged on by arrogant individuals at the top of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the American farmer has been encouraged to abandon the principles of conservation—crop rotation, organic fertilization, topsoil nourishment, and small-holding in general—for what might be called “giantism”: farming run on a grand scale at a great distance by efficiency experts and self-promoting busybodies. For what purpose? At best, to achieve economies of scale, resulting in low prices for the consumer. At worst, to achieve surpluses that can be used against nations overseas in a cause that angers Berry deeply: “Food as a weapon.”

But the main effect of this top-down management of the American farm is a loss of something deeper and more costly: the time-honored, almost spiritual bond between the good land and the people who live on it and work it. This goes beyond the now-cliché phenomenon of city-bred children believing that milk comes from a factory. That is a symptom of something much more serious: a world in which the land is viewed as a sort of giant facial tissue, to be used and discarded, with more people working the land in an increasingly thoughtless manner, poisoning the earth with inorganic chemicals, growing foodstuffs of questionable nutritional value, and enriching a relative handful of agribusinesses at the expense of the smallholder, creating a vast gulf between the grower and the consumer. And all the while, there is promoted the general sense that smallholding is a mug’s game that is best abandoned for the more lucrative attractions of small-town and urban life. The overall result is a loss of orientation, the understanding of who man is and what his place is in the world. Humility, hope, a sense of pilgrimage on the earth, and the role of stewardship are replaced by a prideful, no-holds-barred domination.

Himself no believer in a mythical golden age of the apple-cheeked American farmer—as a farmer himself, he knows the work is bone-wearyingly hard—Berry himself succinctly describes his intent in words that cannot be improved upon by any commentator: “In The Unmaking of America I argue that industrial agriculture and the assumptions on which it rests are wrong, root and branch; I argue that this kind of agriculture grows out of the worst of human history and the worst of human nature. . . . It was written, in fact, out of the belief that we were living under the rule of an ideology that was destroying our land, our communities, and our culture—as we still are.”

In a review of The Unsettling of America published in the Birmingham News, Russell Kirk wrote, “Berry is possessed of an intellect at once philosophic and poetic, and he writes most movingly. Human culture has no better friend today than he. If, on taking up this book the reader fancies that agriculture is all a matter of economics—why he will have his eyes opened for him.” He adds that the matters of which Berry writes “ought to be every thinking American’s urgent concern.” Seconding this, KevinCanfield, writing in Commonweal, has claimed that when writing on matters of the greatest substance, “Berry is an indispensable voice of reason.”

At the outset of his poem “The Gift Outright,” Robert Frost wrote, “The land was ours before we were the land’s.” In The Unsettling of America, Wendell Berry warns of a day in the not-distant future when Americans may incredulously wonder, “Ours? The land was ours? 

James E. Person Jr. is a biographer and longtime book reviewer and essayist. His reviews have appeared in The University Bookman since 1990. He is the author of Russell Kirk: A Critical Biography of a Conservative Mind (1999) and Earl Hamner: From Walton’s Mountain to Tomorrow (2005).