Review: The Art of the Commonplace

The Art of the Commonplace, Wendell Berry, edited and introduced by Norman Wirzba. Berkeley: Counterpoint, 2002.

Summary: Twenty essays articulating an agrarian vision for society that offers health to land, food, and the wider society.

If you have followed Wendell Berry over the years, you probably have encountered most of the essays in this collection in other works. In this collection, edited by professor of theology and environmental writer, Norman Wirzba, we are given twenty essays that articulate Berry’s vision for the reform of agricultural practice and what that can mean for food, for the land, for local communities, and the health of the wider society. Wirzba’s fine introductory essay underscores key themes of Berry’s writing: that an agrarian vision focused on wholeness with the earth, each other, and God simply reflects a proper understanding of our place in the world and that is significant for all of society, both rural and urban.

The essays are grouped into five sections with a brief introduction to each. The first is “A Geobiography” and consists of a single essay, Berry’s early “A Native Hill.” and is Berry’s description of the history, topography of the upland on which his farm and community is situated. the evidence in pastures and old walls of those who farmed there before him, his many walks over it, through forests, hollows, the soil, and his own place in all of this.

Part Two, “Understanding Our Cultural Crisis” connects our cultural crisis to agricultural practices. He speaks of the harm to land when we make food a “weapon” and pursue endless growth. He challenges “Big Thinking” suggesting we need to “Think Little,” planting our own gardens, and focusing our production within our communities rather than importing energy and exporting produce and waste. He observes the seemingly intractable problem of racism, aggravated when agricultural was industrialized and the “competent poor” able to subsist on the land were forced into our cities for which they were not prepared. In “Feminism, the Body, and the Machine” he explores how separating work from the household has changed marital relationships. Where once couples worked together, indeed families, in the work of a household, what is shared now in marriage is little more than the marriage bed. In this he also defends the way he and his wife work together as she edits his handwritten work, not as an act of subordination, but shared work in the body, believing they are better without computers.

Part Three offers the positive counter to the preceding negative critique in “The Agrarian Basis for American Culture.” This begins with a long essay on “The Body and the Earth.” Berry challenges the ways we divide up the body medically and the dualism of soul and body that downplays the vital importance of our embodied, material existence. He returns to how this plays out in sexual relations, households, and our changing ideals of fidelity which includes our fidelity to the place of our shared life. These ideas recur in “Men and Women in Search of Common Ground” considering how place, shared work, and community sustained the fabric of fidelity between couples. He asks questions about our health care system including why rest, food, and ecological health are not basic to our approaches to staying healthy and to healing. He maintains that key to restoring community is restoring local community and the respect of the differences of different communities. “People, Land, and Community” uses the example (again) of the hillside farm, and how the skillful, multi-generational work of a community is required to preserve that land.

Part Four focuses on “Agrarian Economics.” He writes of the problems of relentless competition for agriculture, and the destruction of pleasure in work, leading to our vapid pleasure industries. The first essay, “Economy and Pleasure” closes with Berry spending a day doing farm chores with his grand-daughter, letting her drive the team, unloading dirt on a barn floor, at the end of which she said, “Wendell, isn’t it fun.” In “The Two Economies” he contrast our industrial economy where we create value with the Great Economy, which recognizes the inherent value in things and what is lost when they are used–soil for example. “The Idea of a Local Economy” is perhaps Berry’s clearest articulation of how the Global Economy has been destructive of the local, and how his vision of what a local economy built on neighborhood and subsistence would look like. “Solving for Pattern” includes a list of farming and land use practices that preserve farm economies..

The book closes with “Agrarian Religion,” in which Berry makes more explicit the theological convictions that undergird his agrarian vision. Interestingly, the section begins with “The Use of Energy,” citing our sewage systems and the internal combustion engine as two prime examples of wastefulness. Good energy use recycles into the environment in a cycle of production, consumption, and return. He reads Genesis 1 as “The Gift of Good Land” to be stewarded with the care with which we’d handle the sacrament, not desecrating it. He affirms that the charges by conservationist against Christianity are, by and large, warranted. He criticizes the focus on the holiness of churches but not on the holiness of all of life and the dualism that denigrates the body rather than understanding our souls as dust plus the breath of life from God. This leads us to deny the goodness of physical work and to be indifferent to the physical creation. Like the economy we are concerned with relentless growth. He also articulates the political captivity of the church that has risen to extremes in our own day. It is a trenchant critique from a churchman.

In one sense, the final essay brings together all he has been saying as he discusses “The Pleasure of Eating.” He urges urban audiences to “eat responsibly.” This simple act, followed to its logical conclusions addresses all the concerns discussed here. As we can we grow our own food, prepare our own food, learn the origins of what we buy and buy food grown as close as possible, dealing with local growers where possible. We become aware and wary of what is added to food, learn about the best farming and keep learning by observation. Eating responsibly, we become reluctant to eat food, animal or vegetable, that has been grown under poor conditions.

These essays challenge us to think of agriculture not as a reality separate from the daily existence of most of us but rather the bedrock on which that existence rests. They challenge us to see that the health of our bodies and our culture cannot be separated from our agriculture, and our highly industrialized agriculture has put the fabric of our communities and our health at risk. Berry focuses so much on local community, but I wonder if these have been so decimated that it will take several generations to restore them. I wonder if a beginning is to think about seeing states or regions become as self-sufficient as possible in agriculture, reducing long distance logistics and diversifying local production and in the process, improving land use and crop rotation. In my own part of the country, studying how the Amish do (and prosper) might be helpful. But what will ultimately drive this is the idea of eating responsibly. That will require a different agricultural economy. And if Berry is right, it will change our culture.

One thought on “Review: The Art of the Commonplace

  1. Pingback: The Month in Reviews: April 2023 | Bob on Books

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.