Anyone who lives in a small town should read at least one Wendell Berry essay. He’s got something to say about the “health” (a word he uses a lot) of small-town and rural existence. What is its future? Will it continue to exist? What is lost when both urban spaces and small towns become suburbs?
However, it seems to me that practically nobody in the small towns or the suburbs (in my experience) know who Wendell Berry is. I once had a conversation with my friend Alli, who lives in Washington, DC, who once told me that most of her friends read Wendell Berry. How is it that Alli and her DC friends are reading Berry, but they live in the middle of one of the biggest cities on the east coast? Berry’s writing is mostly about rural life. I think the interest in Berry is partially because he attempts to make sense of how the wilderness, the urban, the rural and the suburbs are all connected. And also----how all of these places are very disconnected from one another.
I'm attracted most to Berry's nonfiction. In his nonfiction, the reader’s feelings do not seem to matter to Berry. He is more concerned about warning readers about possible environmental, cultural, spiritual and communal tragedies that could happen. His blunt warnings, in my opinion, are true and need a bigger audience. More Americans need to get a dose of Wendell Berry has said over the last 30-40 years. That’s why I’ve gathered these quotes.
The quotes I’ve gathered below are long quotes because they require the full quote in order to understand what he’s saying.
On how stereotypes work:
“Many people now feel more at home, and more at ease socially, at a professional convention than in the streets of their own neighborhood. But as the “successful” abandon the communities they once shared with the unsuccessful, they forget the unsuccessful and leave them without examples or defenders. The children of the unsuccessful then have no models, or they have models only of the worst kind.
There are reasons for this economic segregation or disintegration, of course, and chief among them are economic and industrial centralization----and the automobile and TV, which are the technology of centralization. People don’t work or shop or amuse themselves or go to church or school in their own neighborhoods anymore, and are therefore free to separate themselves from their workplaces and economic sources, and to sort themselves into economic categories in which, having no need for each other, they remain strangers. I assume that this is bad because I assume that it is good for people to know each other. I assume, especially that it is good for people to know each other across the lines of economy and vocation. Professional people should now their clients outside of their offices. Teachers should know the families of their students. University professors and intellectuals should know the communities and the households that will be affected by their ideas. Rich and poor people should know each other. If this familiar knowledge does not exist, then these various groups will think of each other and deal with each other on the basis of stereotypes as vicious and ultimately as dangerous as the stereotypes of race.” (“Racism and the Economy”)
On what happens when local cultures disappear:
"The modern industrial urban centers are "pluralistic" because they are full of refugees from destroyed communities, destroyed community economies, disintegrated local cultures, and ruined local ecosystems. The pluralists who see this state of affairs as some sort of improvement or as the beginning of "global culture" are being historically perverse, as well as politically naive"
(“Sex, Economy, Freedom and Community”)
On finding enjoyment in your job and the entertainment industry:
“More and more, we take for granted that work must be destitute of pleasure. More and more, we assume that if we want to be pleased we must wait until evening, or the weekend, or vacation or retirement. More and more, our farms and forests resemble our factories and offices, which in turn more and more resemble prisons---why else should we be so eager to escape them? We recognize defeated landscapes by the absences of pleasure from them. We are defeated at work because our work gives us no pleasure. We are defeated at home because we have not pleasant work there. We turn to the pleasure industries for relief from our defeat, and are again defeated, for the pleasure industries can thrive and grow only upon our dissatisfaction with them.” ("Economy and Pleasure")
On how money and wealth cannot fix most of America’s most urgent problems:
"If we are the most wealthy and powerful country in the world, we are also the most wasteful, both of nature and of humanity. This society is making life extremely difficult for the unwealthy and the unpowerful: children, old people, women (especially wives and mothers), country people, the poor, the unemployed, the homeless. We are failing in marriage and failing our family responsibilities. The number of single-parent households is increasing. Our children are ill raised and ill taught. We are trying—and predictably failing—to replace parenthood and home life with "day care" and with school. Our highways, shopping malls, nursing homes, and day-care centers are full; the homeless are everywhere in our streets; our homes are empty. We are suffering many kinds of damage from sexual promiscuity. We are addicted to drugs, to TV, and to gasoline. Violence is literally everywhere. While we waged war abroad, an undeclared civil war was being fought every day in our streets, our homes, our workplaces, and our classrooms. And none of these problems can be corrected merely by wealth, power, and technology. The world's most powerful military force cannot help at all." ("Peaceableness towards Enemies")
Berry's view on how change works:
"The real work of planet-saving will be small, humble, and humbling, and (insofar as it involves love) pleasing and rewarding. Its jobs will be too many to count, too many to report, too many to be publicly noticed or rewarded, too small to make anyone rich or famous.
The great obstacle may be not greed but the modern hankering after glamour. A lot of our smartest, most concerned people want to come up with a big solution to a big problem. I don't think that planet-saving, if we take it seriously, can furnish employment to many such people.
When I think of a the kind of worker the job requires, I think Dorthy Day, a person willing to go down and down into the daunting, humbling, almost hopeless local presence of the problem---to face the great problem one small life at a time." ("Out of your Car, Off of Your Horse")
“A man who is willing to undertake the discipline and difficulty of mending his own ways is worth more to the conservation movement than a hundred who are insisting merely that the government mend their ways.” ("Think Little")
On shopping a locally owned businesses:
"It is better to buy from a small, privately owned local store than from a chain store. It is better to buy a good product than a bad one. Do not buy anything you don’t need. Do as much as you can for yourself. If you cannot do something for yourself, see if you have a neighbor who can do it for you. Do everything you can to see that your money stays as long as possible in the local community. . . Begin to ask yourself how your money could be put at minimal interest into the hands of a young person who wants to start a farm, a store, a shop, or a small business that the community needs."
("Conservation is Good Work")
“Treat your worst enemies as if they could become your best friends.”
“We can either befriend our enemies or we can die with them.”
“The conservation effort has at least brought under the suspicion the general relativism of our age. Anybody who has studied with care the issues of conservation know that our acts are being measured by a real and unyielding standard that was invented by no human. Our acts that are not in harmony with nature are inevitable and sometimes irremediably destructive. The standard exists. But having no opposing economic idea, conservationists have had great difficulty in applying the standard.” ("The Whole Horse)