Wendell Berry

Surviving the Disintegration

Culture: “the arts and other manifestations
of human intellectual achievement regarded collectively.”

Wendell Berry’s The Unsettling of America shows the disintegration of culture and agriculture; two things that must exist together to exist well.  We are living in the era of modernization in which humans have manifested a way to run the art of agriculture via machines. The laws and restriction have resulted in the “displacement of millions of people.” Berry said this in his essay, “The Agricultural Crisis as a Crisis of Culture.” He talks about how something that used to be in the hands of the people and gave a direct benefited to those who produced the goods and those who consumed the goods has now fallen into the cruel hands of the mechanical society, “and along with the rest of society, the established agriculture has shifted its emphasis, and its interest, from quality to quantity, having failed to see that in the long run, the two ideas are inseparable.”

So you must ask, what are the consequences of moral ignorance?
The ignorance that has allowed the agribusinessmen to overlook the fact that
“food is a cultural product; it cannot be produced by technology alone.”

When it is removed from the hands of the people it loses its importance and hurts the community in which the culture thrives around. It takes the unity away from the consumer, the farmer, and the land. Berry discusses how when you fragment agriculture you in turn fragment culture. This division is not only shown through modern agriculture and today’s society but also in relation to the body and the earth. Later in the collection of essay’s Berry focuses on this form disintegration in “The Body and the Earth.”

He starts this essay by questioning what effort we put forth in the connection between our bodies and the earth; the earth that includes the land and those that farm upon it.  The soulful connection is lost when agriculture becomes machine run. The chemicals and immoral ways to mass produce our food disconnects us further and this disconnect hinders our culture. Those who can acknowledge this and survived through this era of ignorant should be praised and followed.

In Berry’s essay, “Organic Farms,” he builds division between the popularized method of agriculture and those that possess strong moral belief; the organic farmers that reject societal norms and the modernization cop-outs.  “The attitudes and values of traditional agriculture still survive in our time.” Berry considers those that still poses these ideals as the survivors and “they are connected by a sort of network that one travels by hearsay and friendship.” These friendships are still budding today, over forty years after this book was published. The sense of community associated with organic farming and living a lifestyle free of “chemical shortcuts,” it to my hometown of Keene. Every Saturday morning there is the same gathering of people at the Farmer’s Market. There is a sense of trust in these people, the vendors, and their product.

What happens when a culture loses the capacity to think particular questions?

The particular question presented to me in this chapter is why has mainstreaming agriculture and farming become inorganic, and why are people content with this new norm? The result of our culture’s unwillingness to leave normality and or their naivety to the harm it’s causing is scary. Perhaps it has been my upbringing and those I associate with that allow me to ask these questions, and find comfort in the challenge of buy product from agricultural businesses that have gone organic. The family members that believe my lifestyle choice of being a vegetarian and eating organic is crazy or “too hard” as my uncle says. Why is it too hard? Perhaps because the new style of agriculture has forced those producing organic to become in high demand because it is harder to mass produce and the intense labor that is involved makes it financially inaccessible to the average family.

Berry asks, “What can I do with what I know? without at the same time asking, How can I be responsible for what I know?” This question gave me an unsettling feeling that was further triggered by reading on in this collection of essays. Thinking back to the sarcastic criticisms I have received from my uncle, I have to wonder what effort I have put forth in showing him why I make the choices I do to be able to afford and eat what I do. I have taken very little responsibility for what I know. Berry pushes me to claim the knowledge I have and allow other to indulge in the healthier lifestyle.

Berry’s language to describe an organic farmer is thoughtful and straight to the point. They are independent thinkers. When he visited a farm in Iowa, he prompted questions about if the laws and regulations created by the Secretary of Agriculture had impacted his farm, and the farmer said, “that it had not done so in the least.” This man and those alike have a system of beliefs about their food and their lifestyle, and they do not let others in our destructive culture influence them.

The strength derived from Berry’s use of independence aroused a way of thinking for me. Thinking about the integrity these farmers possess and the unity they have between their bodies and their land is something to celebrate. Survivor is a fitting term for these people.

Berry writes about some organic farms that he had the opportunity to visit and learn about and considers them just as modern as any other. This presents the, “Where am I?” question. A question I believe has a simple answer,

            The modern era of agriculture and within a system partaking in moral ignorance and disintegration. But, when asked Who am I?
A magnificent answer could be a survivor.

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