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Health within Limits: A Reading of Wendell Berry

A few months ago a friend and I drove to Indianapolis on a pilgrimage to see and hear Wendell Berry. I was struck by the difference between my own heroic construct and the reality before me. Here in Indianapolis stood an elderly man, albeit a sharp, irascible, very tall and vigorous personage. He reflected on the limitless demiurge of consumerism that has come to blight our culture, on the anachronistic vigor with which he seeks to guard over his own money, and on the exercise of that rare and ephemeral notion called “thrift.” Beneath his anecdotes and off-the-cuff remarks, I sensed anew that profound theme that permeates all of Berry's work, one that serves not only as an agricultural trope but also as a guiding image for most human endeavors: we are limited creatures, and we find health most readily when our manner is one of humility.

This is not new ground Berry is breaking. For the past forty years, he has been sounding forth in essays, fiction, and poetry the call to local commitments and local communities. Berry's work as a farmer (a vocation which he chose after a decade as a graduate student at Stanford and literature professor at NYU and the University of Kentucky) has profoundly shaped his understanding of human systems and human beings. This can and does lead to awkward and hasty judgments of economic systems that Berry sees as marginalizing local communities; certainly free-market economists who read his work will find much with which to quarrel. As an apologist for a particular way of life, he can and does miss some other helpful possibilities. Within this tension, I'd like to open up some of Berry's very helpful ideas, in order to clarify better both his limitations and his substantial thoughtfulness. More than anything else, Berry seems concerned with a recovery, a revivifying of the human connection to place and people, finite in scale and yet rich in embodiment. This has been well-articulated by Berry in scores of essays, only a few of which I can cite here. One of the best lengthier accounts of this is from an early collection, A Continuous Harmony: Essays Cultural and Agricultural . The main essay from this volume is entitled “Discipline and Hope,” in which he posits the twin poles of his title as the guides for our work. It is in reinstituting disciplines into our lives—technical disciplines and, more importantly, communal disciplines and disciplines of faith—that we find hope emerging out of dissatisfaction. In limiting our selves, we fulfill our selves: “Community discipline imposes upon our personal behavior an ecological question: What is the effect, on our neighbors and on our place in the world, of what we do?” This comes at a cost, ultimately, of easy answers to the difficulties of lived community, for “all such disciplines reach their limit of comprehensibility and at that point enter mystery. Thus an essential part of a discipline is that relinquishment or abandonment by which we acknowledge and accept its limits.” Far from some existential leap into the void, this relinquishment is, for Berry, an essential element of recognizing ourselves as part of God's vast Creation—a loved and privileged part since we are made in His image, but also a limited part. We will never be whole except within the boundaries of His order.

The implications of striving to live within proper limits, and the terrifying human consequences of our steadfast refusals to do so, provide the subject matter for most of Berry's fourteen or so volumes of essays. Although the plight of agriculture in the wake of boundless scale and boundless manipulation of land, crop, and livestock is his enduring central theme, he has noted the effects also in the realms of education, politics, and economics, in ways often controversial but always provocative. His constant pull back to the local concerns that lie behind global projections, and to the human faces behind abstract declarations, is a check on our flight not so much outward toward a world community as inward toward a kind of autonomy that is not freedom. Instead, it is an imprisonment within the diseased, self-imposed boundary of personal pleasure and empowerment. In another essay, titled “Solving for Pattern” (collected in The Gift of the Good Land North Point Press, 1982), Berry is clear in stating that human enterprise and ingenuity are at the root of culture—he recognizes that when we say “organic” we only use an analogy, since humans can't make organic things, only “artifacts.” But we can control to some extent the clarity of our analogies. Berry argues that “Our ability to make such artifacts depends on virtues that are specifically human: accurate memory, observation, insight, imagination, inventiveness, reverence, devotion, fidelity, restraint. Restraint—for us, now—above all: the ability to accept and live within limits; to resist changes that are merely novel or fashionable; to resist greed and pride; to resist the temptation to 'solve' problems by ignoring them, accepting them as 'trade-offs,' or bequeathing them to posterity. A good solution, then, must be in harmony with good character, cultural value, and moral law.” Here, we return to the proper understanding of the human, and the connection of proper limits to true freedom is the foundation.

This notion of limit and humility in human endeavor is also present in Berry's poetry, probably most notably in his Sabbath poems. Gathered in the volume A Timbered Choir (Counterpoint, 1998), these poems offer an elegant testimony both to the inextinguishable mysteries of creation, and also to the limited nature of life after the Fall. In many of the Sabbath poems, Berry seeks and locates the appropriate tone of accepting our limits gratefully. For instance, in Poem IV from 1979, Berry speaks of “A tale of evil twined/With good, serpent and vine,/And innocence as evil's stratagem.” But he shows that we can and should continue good work in this breach: “I let that go a while,/ For it is hopeless to correct/ By generations' toil,/ And I let go my hopes and plans/ That no toil can perfect./ There is no vision here but what is seen:/ White bloom nothing explains/ But a mute blessedness/ Exceeding all distress,/ The fresh light stained a hundred shades of green.” Here is finitude that sharpens our sense of hope. But it is not simple, not a limit without its toll, because we are fallen creatures and must seek our hope within pain. Nowhere does Berry better capture this bittersweet reality than in his superb poem “Marriage” from the 1968 collection Openings , where he articulates that closest human bond: “It is to be broken. It is to be/ torn open. It is not to be/ reached and come to rest in/ ever. I turn against you,/ I break from you, I turn to you./ We hurt, and are hurt,/ and have each other for healing./ It is healing. It is never whole.” The acceptance that we are imperfect and all our institutions, from household to market to nation-state, are likewise flawed is not to condemn or surrender, but to see our task as humans in culture as it should be seen: whereby all of us, not just the farmers, are cultivators.

I would be remiss if I didn't mention the thorough embodying that Berry has made of these ideas over the years in his fiction (his seven novels and a few dozen stories). Berry often reflects upon the human struggle with limits and satisfactions, and there are many failures and tragedies that he has outlined over the century of history, patchwork and interwoven, that he offers. The limits of the rural life and the small farm chafe on each rising generation, and many of Berry's literary figures can never rest in the confines of the 'too-ordered' life offered them.

Perhaps the most endearing character in the stories is a figure who lives, loves, and dies within limits that he has chosen, and that leave him room to affect many people with his grace. Hence, in the short story “A Consent,” we read of Ptolemy Proudfoot, who “was not an ambitious farmer—he did not propose to own a large acreage or to become rich—but merely a good and gifted one. By the time he was twenty-five, he had managed, in spite of the hard times of the 1890s, to make a down payment on the little farm that he husbanded and improved all his life. It was a farm of ninety-eight acres, and Tol never longed even for the two more that would have made it a hundred.” Here is a life well-lived, one we can learn from as we each navigate in a world of prodigious choice and little contentment.