Berry’s Land Ethic

I have read Wendell Berry in three classes now, and for some reason, I often find his message a little off-putting. There are a few reasons for this, one being that at my core, I am an urbanite. I value the diversity, culture, and history of cities. Despite the pervasive environmental and social problems, I believe Berry glosses over the great potential of urban communities and spaces. Having grown up in a rural area, Berry sees immense value in the culture and rich history of traditional agriculture. I strongly agree with some of his arguments and believe that he strikes an interesting balance between progressivism and conservatism. However, the judgment he exhibits towards non-farmers, especially those who live in cities, borders on ignorant. In “The Pleasures of Eating,” he argues people are incredibly disconnected from their food—eating is an “agricultural act” but people today view food as an “agricultural product.” In order to get pleasure from eating, people need to reconnect with the life in their food. The point is valid, but the way he goes about it is to call people (city people, specifically) “industrialized eaters.” Of his steps for reconnecting with food, some are relatively accessible for all (like garden boxes), but still ignore the absence of resources and environmental education in many urban neighborhoods.

In his essay “Renewing Husbandry,” Berry advocates for a return to traditional farming practices. He believes that technology and industrialization have disconnected farmers from their land, resulting in environmental and societal degradation. To become reconnected, he argues, we must return to husbandry. “To husband is to use with care, to keep, to save, to make last, to conserve,” he writes. Though “husbandry” is problematic from an eco-feminist perspective, Berry’s call for farmers to respect and care for the land and soil echoes the environmental ethics of many of the writers we’ve read this semester. Leopold’s land ethic, in particular, is called to mind. In a Sand County Almanac, Leopold writes, “Obligations have no meaning without conscience, and the problem we face is the extension of the social conscience from people to land” (282). According to Berry, the way to achieve this is returning to husbandry. In “The Making of a Marginal Farm” Berry discusses the ways in which he was able to employ these principles on his own farm. He focuses on promoting “respect, restraint, and care”—essentially the definition of husbandry used in “Renewing Husbandry” (515).

One thing I will say I truly enjoy about Berry is how he weaves love into every argument he makes. This is the concept behind husbandry—a loving husband cares for his wife, a loving farmer cares for his land. In his essay, “Preserving Wilderness,” Berry advocates for love in an unlikely place: the economy. He writes, “If we do not have an economy capable of valuing in particular terms the durable good of localities and communities, then we are not going to be able to preserve anything” (Berry 522). Money as motive inhibits the preservation of wilderness. Without love, consideration is based solely on profit, and exploitation abounds. Berry’s approach demands a cultural shift towards loving and respecting the world around us. This is the essence of Leopold’s land ethic, too, which “changes the role of Homo sapiens from conqueror of the land-community to plain member and citizen of it” (Leopold 278).

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