Review: The World-Ending Fire

The World-Ending Fire: The Essential Wendell Berry, Wendell Berry, Selected and with an Introduction by Paul Kingsnorth. Berkeley: Counterpoint Press, 2019.

Summary: A collection of the essays, mostly focused on local culture, the care of places, and the hubris of technological solutions.

The works of Wendell Berry span the gamut from poetry to novels and short stories to essays, in addition to many articles contributed to various magazines and journals. I have a number of volumes just with his essays. This recently published work draws from them, and I think, does capture the “essential” Wendell Berry as an essayist.

The collection opens with “A Native Hill” and “The Making of a Marginal Farm.” They capture one essential of Wendell Berry–the loving knowledge of and care for a place, as Berry tramps the ground once farmed by his family, and describes his own farm, its features and how it must be cared for to continue to be useful beyond his life. He describes the slow work of rebuilding topsoil, describing a bucket which has collected leaves, twigs, feathers, droppings, and other debris, which have slowly decayed over decades into a few inches of soil. He comes back again and again to the idea that we should give up looking for big solutions, or solutions for someone else to implement. The question is what does our place require to preserve its soil, its life, and thus to sustain us? What must we do to protect the air, the water, the soil, and feed ourselves.

He decries the global food economy in “The Total Economy” in which production and consumption are separated, where farm work becomes servitude done by unseen workers rather than the hard but noble work of feeding both oneself and others through the care for plants and animals living on the soil. He reminds us in “The Pleasures of Eating” of both the joy and act of self-defense of growing, preparing, and being mindful of the sources of our food.

He writes of his own choices to use simpler but sufficient technologies: a good team of horses and various plows, mowers, and other attachments. He gives his reasons for not buying a computer. Hand-written text, edited and typed up by his wife to be sent to his publisher is enough, and he questions how a computer can make it better. He offers standards for technological innovation that should give pause, including that it should be cheaper, as small in scale, do better work, use less energy, and be repairable by a person of ordinary intelligence with the requisite tools.

The essay following “Why I Am Not Going to Buy a Computer” addresses the firestorm that resulted when people found out about the work his wife did for him and made all kinds of invidious assumptions. He uses it as an occasion, one of several, to talk about domestic economies–of the home being the center of work for husband, wife, and children. In “Economy and Pleasure” he talks about how we have separated our work and our pleasure, recounting the storytelling among a crew during tobacco harvest time, or time with a grand-daughter, who drove a team for the first time, hauling a load of dirt to spread on a barn floor, and her response at the end, “Wendell, isn’t it fun?”

One of his repeated themes is that big tech and big government are not going to solve the problems they’ve created, because all of our challenges reduce to local challenges–this stream, this strip mine, this local community, this school system. He not only advocates for local culture but names the prejudice against country people and questions, what is the best way to farm in all of earth’s “fragile localities”

His penultimate essay, “The Future of Agriculture,” is the most recent in the collection, and in a pithy way sums up his essay-writing career. He offers seven things we must do that are straightforward common sense and concludes:

“This is a agenda that may be undertaken by ordinary citizens at any time, on their own initiative. In fact, it describes an effort already undertaken all over the world by many people. It defines also the expectation that citizens who by their gifts are exceptional will not shirk the most humble services” (p.333).

Berry’s words seem prophetic to me. The disruptions of the pandemic to global supply chains has awakened us to things like computer chip shortages. But a recent problem with infant formula brought to our attention how fraught is our system of producing and transporting food essentials. Climate-change induced droughts in food-producing areas as far flung as California and southern France and Spain should be alarm bells. A threatened rail strike as I write could be catastrophic.

So where do I begin? Perhaps it is to look at converting some of the lawn I mow to gardens. I recall a 15 by 15 garden at our former home and how much food we got out of it, how good it was, and how much fun we had ordering seeds and starting plants under lights. How did I get away from that? We’re coming up on the time to replace a roof as well as some electrical upgrades. Perhaps it is time for solar. Not sure it will pay back in our lives or change things in a big way. But that’s Mr. Berry’s point. It’s the small, local acts of care that extend even beyond our lives that are our “humble service.” Now, if only I can get off this computer…

Review: A Field Guide to Your Own Back Yard

a field guide to your own backyard

A Field Guide to Your Own Back YardJohn Hanson Mitchell. Woodstock, VT: Countryman Press, 2014.

Summary: An exploration, season by season of the animals, plants, insects, bird, amphibians and reptiles, and weather conditions we might encounter in our own back yard, even as city dwellers.

Many ecological books seem to be concerned either about really big problems like air pollution or climate change, or really big spaces away from cities–from polar ice to wilderness to forests. It has long seemed to me that if we don’t care and notice the spaces where we live and most immediately have care for, the rest of it tends to be an abstraction. I became aware that at least our own climate was changing when I discovered that I could now safely plant frost tender things after May 1 when I used to wait at least a week longer. Our local nursery confirmed it several years ago noting that we were now in a warmer growth zone with a longer growing season, reflected in their having annuals in the greenhouse earlier.

Still, I suspect there is much in my backyard to which I’m oblivious until it stares me in the face. I considered skunks denizens of the woods until one stared me in the face recently on several visits to my back yard. It occurred to me when I saw some growing in a ditch, that it had been several years since I’ve seen Queen Anne’s Lace, considered a weed, in my backyard. Aside from cardinals, sparrows (what kind?), blue jays, robins, and the occasional crow, and the ubiquitous Canada geese in nearby retention ponds, I don’t pay attention to the bird life. I mostly notice insects and arachnids if they get inside my house, or nibble my roses. So when I saw A Field Guide to Your Own Back Yard, it struck me that it might be helpful in being a bit more observant of my own patch of the creation.

That’s John Hanson Mitchell’s aim as well. He writes, “…the talent for observation is a learned art, and with very little effort it is possible within a single year to become intimate with the natural environment of your immediate neighborhood. The best place to begin, of course, is your own backyard.” This, in a nutshell, describes the contents of the book, as Mitchell walks us through the seasons from early spring of one year to late winter of the next. He notices and tells stories season by season about his observations of weather conditions, migratory birds, trees, wildflowers and weeds, butterflies, morels and mushrooms, shrubs, insects, amphibians and reptiles, backyard mammals, pests and their natural enemies. He writes about the things we’ll come across if we look closely: nests, holes in trees and what we might find living there, hornets nests, galls on plants, wetland life, life under the bark and running sap. He writes about the life we might find around our woodpile, and our birdfeeder. A number of hand drawn illustrations complement the text at key points.

I discovered that the skunk in my yard was probably eating grubs and that this is its redeeming virtue. I looked where it had its nose in our turf and suspect the author was right. There were little holes where it was probably feeding after a rainfall. Still, this is a mammal not to be encouraged and so I made sure there were no sheltered spots around our foundation where it could make a home, because sooner or later it would spray. I suspect, the skunks (we later saw it trailing four or five babies) is living under a neighbor’s deck.

I also realized beyond the basics, I don’t know the identity of our trees. I could do far better at learning and observing the different avian visitors who consume many of our pesky mosquitoes. I might learn when the bird migrations are in our area and watch for them. I learned this about the fireflies I delight to watch on a summer evening: “Electric lights are only about 10 percent energy-efficient, whereas firefly lighting approaches 100 percent and is, in comparison to firelight, gaslight, or electric light, entirely pollution free.” I learned at that the toad I found in my downstairs office last summer is my friend, eating up to 200 insects a night, mostly pests. I’m glad I released him into our back yard! I decided that some of the weeds at our property margins might be worth leaving rather than cutting down with the weed eater. I learned that if you are good, you can distinguish calls of the different kinds of crickets and frogs at night. And the author confirmed something else I’ve observed over the year–nothing deters a hungry and very clever squirrel!

This might be the year I begin a back yard journal. Mitchell’s stories remind me of things I’ve seen, but perhaps not sufficiently paid attention to. He also helped open the eyes to the reality that the quarter acre on which we live is bustling with life that happens to share the space with us and the wonders awaiting me outside my front and back door. We might find different things in our back yard that Mitchell does in Massachusetts. But he gives us some good clues of what we might look for.