Many of the ideas we prize are dangerous and self-destructive; many of the values we profess to cherish we do not practice.
Prolific septuagenarian poet, novelist and essayist Berry (Citizenship Papers, 2003, etc.) returns with another collection of essays, most published (or delivered as speeches) in 2004. The astonishing thing about these pieces is not their lucidity and grace, not their plain profundity, but the variety of his subjects, the dimensions of his knowledge, experience, interest, passion. This is not to say that there are no common denominators. Respect for the land, for one another, for God—these appear on virtually every page in some form—as well as essays that focus on politics. Berry does not like what the Republicans are doing, but he chides Democrats for arrogance (behaving as if religious folks are ignorant and stupid), for allowing “values” issues like gay marriage to dominate the discussion, for caring more about winning than about crafting and promulgating a sensible agenda. There are other essays that focus on agriculture and its enemies: arrogance and ignorance and agribusiness. We believe, says Berry, that we can defeat Nature, that there are no deleterious consequences when we lift the lid of a mountain to extract what’s inside, that the social consequences of agribusiness (lost farms, decimated towns) are inconsequential. There are essays that focus on spirituality, perhaps none better than “The Burden of the Gospels.” Berry asks there: Would we have followed Jesus had we heard him during his lifetime? Are we strong enough to follow his most difficult teachings? There are times when Berry comes across as a bit sanguine, even romantic, about our ancestors’ husbandry of their resources (consult, for comparison, Jared Diamond’s Collapse), but he is fiercely loyal to his region, to his agrarian roots. “We need to quit thinking of rural America as a colony,” he declares. Berry appends two forgettable pieces by others.
Provocative, pellucid prose from a master.