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The Unsettling of America: Culture and Agriculture

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Since its publication by Sierra Club Books in 1977, The Unsettling of America has been recognized as a classic of American letters. In it, Wendell Berry argues that good farming is a cultural development and spiritual discipline. Today’s agribusiness, however, takes farming out of its cultural context and away from families. As a result, we as a nation are more estranged from the land—from the intimate knowledge, love, and care of it.
Sadly, as Berry notes in his Afterword to this third edition, his arguments and observations are more relevant than ever. We continue to suffer loss of community, the devaluation of human work, and the destruction of nature under an economic system dedicated to the mechanistic pursuit of products and profits. Although “this book has not had the happy fate of being proved wrong,” Berry writes, there are good people working “to make something comely and enduring of our life on this earth.” Wendell Berry is one of those people, writing and working, as ever, with passion, eloquence, and conviction.

246 pages, Paperback

First published January 1, 1977

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About the author

Wendell Berry

295 books3,734 followers
Wendell Berry is a conservationist, farmer, essayist, novelist, professor of English and poet. He was born August 5, 1934 in Henry County, Kentucky where he now lives on a farm. The New York Times has called Berry the "prophet of rural America."

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 530 reviews
Profile Image for David.
78 reviews16 followers
October 16, 2007
maybe you'll find this at a garage sale in a beat up box for twenty-five cents. you'll pull it from the box. rub two dimes and five pennies together. you'll read it and research rain barrels. you'll sell that book to some used bookstore. you might. and a thin bookstore employee will set it on a shelf where some manicured hand might find it and bring it back to her loft. maybe she'll turn the pages and sigh at her consumption. maybe. or maybe she wont. maybe she'll walk more. and ride her bicycle to the local market. slowly. in gradual steps. she will find herself in her landscape. here is the revolution she might think as shuts her door for the last time. gone to a place. a plot of land that she cares for and which in turn cares for her. the nurturing of her landscape becomes almost spiritual in her recognition of the land and its affect on her.

or maybe she is just standing in a shopping mall and feeling the emptiness. with the people walking by. talking into cell phones. bags on their arms. maybe she will stop there in the center of the mall feeling the emptiness.

or maybe she will be driving city streets. just all green lights and fluorescent gas station lights and the radio playing some seventies song. and she will feel the emptiness. maybe she will pull into a grocery store parking lot at dusk and listen to the grackles as they call and shout on architect planned trees. in the calling of those birds the emptiness might turn into something else. a step. a decision. to bridge the gap of the estrangement of herself from her landscape. maybe her heart moves an inch closer to the right place.
Profile Image for Heather Shaw.
111 reviews10 followers
November 28, 2007
Every once in a while, a book comes along at the right place and at the right time, and that book has the power to change your life. This was that book for me. It moved me out of the city and into the country, and inspired me to grow food for people. It changed the way I view my relationship to the earth, and my responsibility to it. Don't read this book if you want to live comfortably with your current worldview.
Profile Image for Arleen Jenson.
6 reviews15 followers
February 21, 2012
Having spent five years at a land grant institution, I can safely say that everything Mr. Berry accuses agricultural education programs of is true, even today. All of my ag professors, save one, laughed at the idea of "organic" and "sustainable" and would only allow the non-regulated trend of "all-natural" a measure of respect, because... frankly... they make a ton of money off of false advertising.

I moved to the city after graduating, and took work on a small organic farm half an hour outside of town. While they are a callow operation still, their success is great. I've struggled with the idea of writing my mid-west ag college and insisting on a refund for my bogus, biased, non-sustainable and recently declared "most worthless in the nation" education.

While I don't follow Mr. Berry's religious leanings (You could often replace "Christian" with any other religion.. as most agree on terms of goodness and responsibility, which he seems to forget.) reading the book felt like sitting in the pews of a call-and-response sermon. Sometimes I had to mark my place, put the book down, and feel a surge of adrenaline pass before continuing. The relief and joy of finding so much truth in one book was more exciting than any fiction I've picked up in years.

There are few books that I would pay someone to read. This one would make the list.
Profile Image for Cindy Rollins.
Author 22 books2,017 followers
January 8, 2023
This book pairs well with Alan Noble’s You are not your Own.

I read this years ago and recently reread it. All is not well with the “community.”
Berry is opinionated which is also what makes him interesting and helpful.

This time around I listened to Ron Swanson read it. I had to speed it up to 1.6. But the voice of Nick Offerman was perfect.
Profile Image for Greg.
24 reviews4 followers
May 13, 2007
This book is the classic that all Wendell Berry readers should read first. It goes through his ecological ethic and his belief that morality and ecology are inseparable; that our disconnection from the earth and our disconnection from each other are part of the same problem. This quote from his essay Think Little is a perfect introduction to his philosophies. See [http://www.msu.edu/~kikbradl/little.html]

Most of us, for example, not only do not know how to produce the best food in the best way - we don't know how to produce any kind in any way. Our model citizen is a sophisticate who before puberty understands how to produce a baby, but who at the age of thirty will not know how to produce a potato. And for this condition we have elaborate rationalizations, instructing us that dependence for everything on somebody else is efficient and economical and a scientific miracle. I say, instead, that it is madness, mass produced. A man who understands the weather only in terms of golf is participating in a chronic public insanity that either he or his descendants will be bound to realize as suffering. I believe that the death of the world is breeding in such minds much more certainly and much faster than in any political capital or atomic arsenal.

Wendell Berry has long been an inspiration to me, the kind of person I think about when facing highly symbolic questions that are of little import. What would Wendell Berry think about my job/clothes/car/haircut, I wonder? Alas, in almost all cases I end up feeling like I've let the poor chap down.

He is my hero and I love him.
Profile Image for Paul Cloutier.
36 reviews1 follower
July 7, 2017
A funny thing happened with this book, I read it last year before the election and felt it was beautifully written but sort of idealistic and naive. Then after the election, I reread it, and my mind was much more prepared for it. It is truly a masterpiece of American literature and letters. I think if you want to understand how things have gotten to how they are, politically, culturally and economically, or even if you want to understand one of the possible causes of ennui in America today, then this book is a lovely place to start. Not always perfect, but definitely always thought provoking.
Profile Image for Rachel.
81 reviews
March 2, 2018
Over the past 5-6 years, Berry's writings have changed me, shaping my worldview more than perhaps any other single author's ever have. This book continues in that vein, both frustrating and inspiring me. I give it 4.5 stars. It is a flawed book. Full of polemic, often lacking in nuance and charity. But it speaks so much truth to power. And it speaks so much to me personally, to my family and personal history -- growing up on a modern, industrial, somewhat-large-but-relatively-small family farm that was squeezed out because we couldn't get even larger. And then leaving to university on the East Coast to "make something of myself," now becoming an academic, a specialized "expert," disconnected from my original community and from the land. Like Berry's fiction and poetry, these essays are an indictment of my life, my career, my "mobility." His words bring me to an awareness of my sinfulness, of my complicity in the sins of my generation; they call me to repentance.

At the same time, I feel that with this book, I am finally ready to put Berry to rest for a season. Ready to instead pick up where he leaves off, exploring how to implement the vision of community and membership and connection to the land that he espouses within the life that I now have. I am ready to "connect [my]self responsibly to practical circumstances... [to] learn to stay put in the body to which [I] belong and in the place to which preference or history or accident has brought [me]... in short, to find [my]self in finding [my] work" (p. 111).

A collection of my favorite passages from The Unsettling of America:

On our personal responsibility to take action:

"Once our personal connection to what is wrong becomes clear, then we have to choose: we can go on as before, recognizing our dishonesty and living with it the best we can, or we can begin the effort to change the way we think and live." P. 19

"The only real, practical, hope-giving way to remedy the fragmentation that is the disease of the modern spirit is a small and humble way--a way that a governmental agency or organization or institution will never think of, though a person may think of it: one must begin in one's own life the private solutions that can only in turn become public solutions." P. 23

"A responsible consumer would be a critical consumer, would refuse to purchase the less good. And he would be a moderate consumer; he would know his needs and would not purchase what he did not need; he would sort among his needs and study to reduce them." P. 24

"The lost identity would find itself by recognizing physical landmarks, by connecting itself responsibly to practical circumstances; it would learn to stay put in the body to which it belongs and in the place to which preference or history or accident has brought it; it would, in short, find itself in finding its work." P. 111

"If change is to come, then, it will have to come from the outside. It will have to come from the margins." P. 174

On ecology, healthy agriculture, and our connections to our bodies and communities and the land:

"Though we have no choice but to live at the expense of other life, it is necessary to recognize the limits and dangers involved: past a certain point in a unified system, 'other life' is our own." P. 47

"There is, in practice, no such thing as autonomy. Practically, there is only a distinction between responsible and irresponsible dependence." P. 111

"we are members of the human community and are therefore bound to help or harm it by our behavior." P. 172

"It is typical of the mentality of our age that we cannot conceive of infinity except as an enormous quantity. We cannot conceive of it as orderly process, as pattern or cycle, as shapeliness. We conceive of it as inconceivable quantity--that is, as the immeasurable." P. 84

"But [farming] is also a practical religion, a practice of religion, a rite. By farming we enact our fundamental connection with energy and matter, light and darkness. In the cycles of farming, which carry the elemental energy again and again through the seasons and the bodies of living things, we recognize the only infinitude within reach of the imagination." P. 87

"The energy crisis reduces to a single question: Can we forbear to do anything that we are able to do? Or to put the question in the words of Ivan Illich: can we, believing in 'the effectiveness of power,' see the disproportionately greater effectiveness of abstaining from its use'?" P. 95

"Odysseus found his father in solitude
spading the earth around a young fruit tree.

He wore a tunic, patched and soiled, and leggings--
oxhide patches, bound below his knees
against the brambles.

"Although Odysseus jokes about his father's appearance, the appropriateness of what he is doing is never questioned. In a time of disorder he has returned to the care of the earth, the foundation of life and hope. And Odysseus finds him in an act emblematic of the best and most responsible kind of agriculture: an old man caring for a young tree." P. 128-29

"For the true measure of agriculture is not the sophistication of its equipment, the size of its income, or even the statistics of its productivity, but the good health of the land." P. 188

(writing of the Amish) "It is possible, I think, to say that this is a Christian agriculture, formed upon the understanding that it is sinful for people to misuse or destroy what they did not make. The Creation is a unique, irreplaceable gift, therefore to be used with humility, respect, and skill." P. 213

"For the orthodox obsession with production, profit, and expansion, this healthier agriculture would substitute a more complex consciousness, the terms of which would be ecological integrity, nutrition, technological appropriateness, social stability, skill, quality, thrift, diversity, decentralization, independence, usufruct. Or, put more simply, it would replace the concern for production with a concern for reproduction." P. 217

"We must learn again to think of human energy, our energy, not as something to be saved, but as something to be used and to be enjoyed in use." P. 219

On the household and marriage:

"Degenerate housewifery is indivisible from degenerate husbandry. There is no escape. This is the justice that we are learning from the ecologists: you cannot damage what you are dependent upon without damaging yourself. The suffering of women is noticed now, is noticeable now, because it is not given any considerable status or compensation. If we removed the status and compensation from the destructive exploits we classify as 'manly,' men would be found to be suffering as much as women. They would be found to be suffering for the same reason: they are in exile from the communion of men and women, which is their deepest connection with the communion of all creatures." P. 116

"Fidelity can best be seen as the necessary discipline of sexuality, the practical definition of sexual responsibility, or the definition of the moral limits within which such responsibility can be conceived and enacted. The forsaking of all others is a keeping of faith, not just with the chosen one, but with the ones forsaken. The marriage vow unites not just a woman and a man with each other; it unites each of them with the community in a vow of sexual responsibility toward all others. The whole community is married, realizes its essential unity, in each of its marriages." P. 122

"No matter how much one may love the world as a whole, one can live fully in it only by living responsibly in some small part of it. Where we live and who we live there with define the terms of our relationship to the world and to humanity. We thus come again to the paradox that one can become whole only by the responsible acceptance of one's partiality." P. 123

On religion and ecology and orthodoxy:

"This separation of the soul from the body and from the world is no disease of the fringe, no aberration, but a fracture that runs through the mentality of institutional religion like a geologic fault. And this rift in the mentality of religion continues to characterize the modern mind, no matter how secular or worldly it becomes.

"But I have not stated my point exactly enough. This rift is not like it's your logic fault; it is a geologic fault. It is a flaw in the mind that runs inevitably into the earth. ...

"And yet what is the burden of the Bible if not a sense of the mutuality of influence, rising out of an essential unity, among soul and body and community and world? These are all the works of God, and it is there for the work of virtue to make or restore harmony among them." P. 109

"Invariably the failure of organized religions, by which they cut themselves off from mystery and therefore from sanctity, lies in the attempt to impose an absolute division between faith and doubt, to make belief perform as knowledge; when they forbid their prophets to go into the wilderness, they lose the possibility of renewal." P. 130

"the very nature of orthodoxy: one who presumes to know the truth does not look for it." P. 173-74

"The pattern of orthodoxy in religion, because it is well known, gives us a useful paradigm. The encrusted religious structure is not changed by the institutional dependents--they are part of the crust. It is changed by one who goes alone to the wilderness, where he fasts and prays, and returns with cleansed vision. And going alone, he goes independent of institutions, forswearing orthodoxy ('right opinion'). I'm going to the wilderness he goes to the margin, where he is surrounded by the possibilities--by no means all good--that orthodoxy has excluded. By fasting he disengages his thoughts from the immediate issues of livelihood; his willing hunger takes his mind off the payroll, so to speak. And by praying he acknowledges ignorance; the orthodox presume to know, whereas the marginal person is trying to find out. He returns to the community, not necessarily with new truth, but with a new vision of the truth; he sees it more whole than before." P. 174

On academia, careerism, and "mobility":

"The professor lives in his career, in a ghetto of career-oriented fellow professors. Where he may be geographically is of little interest to him. One's career is a vehicle, not a dwelling; one is concerned less for where it is than for where it will go.

"The careerist professor is by definition a specialist professor. Utterly dependent upon his institution, he blunts his critical intelligence and blurs his language so as to exist 'harmoniously' within it--and so serves his school with an emasculated and fragmentary intelligence, deferring 'realistically' to the redundant procedures and meaningless demands of an inflated administrative bureaucracy whose educational purpose is written on its paychecks.

"... They begin to need, and so to promote, the mobility, careerism, and moral confusion that are victimizing the local population and destroying the local communities. The stock in trade of the 'man of learning' comes to be ignorance." P. 147-48

"The typical American 'success story' moves from a modest rural beginning to urban affluence, from manual labor to office work.

"We must ask, then, what must be the educational effect, the influence, of a farmer's son who believes, with the absolute authorization of his society, that he has mightily improved himself by becoming a professor of agriculture. Has he not improved himself by an 'upward' motivation which by its nature avoids the issue of quality--which I assume is simply that an agriculture specialist is better than a farmer? And does he not exemplify to his students the proposition that 'the way up' leads away from home? How could he, who has 'succeeded' by earning a Ph.D. and a nice place in town, advise his best students to go home and farm, or even assume that they might find good reasons for doing so?" P. 160

On what modern agriculture has wrought:

"I remember, during the fifties, the outrage with which our political leaders spoke of the forced removal of the populations of villages in communist countries. I also remember that at the same time, in Washington, the word on farming was 'Get big or get out'--a policy which is still in effect and which has taken an enormous toll. The only difference is that of method: the force used by the communists was military; with us, it has been economic--a 'free market' in which the freest were the richest. ...

"And so those who could not get big have got out--not just in my community, but in farm communities all over the country. But as a social or economic goal, bigness is totalitarian; it establishes an inevitable tendency toward the one that will be the biggest of all. Many who got big to stay in are now being driven out by those who got bigger. The aim of bigness implies not one aim that is not socially and culturally destructive." P. 41

"By this 'most logical' of developments, then, we have passed from a farm-based, family-based, independent agriculture to an agriculture abjectly dependent upon many kinds of industrial 'inputs' and firmly based upon several kinds of disaster. We are producing, at an incalculable waste of topsoil and of human life and energy, and at the cost of destroying communities and poisoning the land and the streams, food to be used against the hungry as a weapon." P. 167

"It would be possible to calculate the probable monetary cost of the unemployment, community and family breakdown, crime, vandalism, pollution, and soil loss that are the results of overwhelming 'inputs' of technology--but apparently an agricultural economist is not expected to look either so widely around or so far ahead." P. 168
Profile Image for Ginny.
328 reviews
December 18, 2013
I initially read this book very slowly because I wanted to be sure I was understanding and absorbing its messages. Then I was distracted by my husband's hospitalization and serious complications following surgery and needed lighter reading material for several weeks. Now I've finally finished and am more convinced than ever that Wendell Berry really is a prophet. He makes me feel very grateful to be living in Sonoma County, CA, where many local farmers subscribe to the same approach to small-scale traditional agriculture that Berry advocates. We are lucky to have easy access to many varieties of "heirloom" fruits & vegetables, organic dairy products from a farm whose energy comes almost exclusively (99%, I believe) from the manure produced by the cows, and numerous cheesemakers and bakers who make use of local ingredients from small farms. This book, written in 1977, helped tie it all together for me in 2013!!!
Profile Image for Stacy.
460 reviews25 followers
October 3, 2011
Have you ever read an obscure book that no one you know has heard of, and felt that it was so good that it should be required reading for every human being? That's how I felt about this book.

Wendell Berry is a hero for many, including Barbara Kingsolver, who references many of Berry's ideas in her novel "Animal Vegetable Miracle". I've been meaning to get into his stuff for quite some time, and when I read this book it resonated with so many things I have believed or thought of, but never articulated or laid out in so orderly a fashion.

A bit of a Michael Pollen from 20 years ago, Berry wrote this essay on the disintegration of the diversified American farm back in the 1970's. Things only seem to have gotten worse in many ways since then. Berry outlines the roots of many problems in agriculture and how they came from government policies. He talks about how the concept of "getting big or getting out" was intended to prevent starvation (supposedly) but has killed off the diversified small farm and created an unhealthy monoculture system of farming. He compares this with the healthy, sustainable, organic Amish traditions, which totally made me want to go hang out with the Amish and learn how to wield a scythe.

The one good thing I see that has occurred in our country since the publication of this book is the trend towards farmers markets and CSAs. They are the one ray of hope I see in our current situation, when most of us haven't a clue where or how the food we put in our bodies was grown. The land won't be able to produce forever if large farms continue to misuse it.

Bottom line: Grow your own food. If you can't do that, join a CSA or patronize a farmer's market. That is the only way small farms stand a chance, and perhaps the only chance we ourselves have to make a stand for the health of the land, the soil, and our own bodies.
Profile Image for Jared.
300 reviews1 follower
June 23, 2020
I proudly did not finish this book. I will recommend Berry to no one and will in fact be throwing my copy away.
Why you ask? (all the trigger warnings)

Berry, on pg.102-104, claims that suicides only occur in industrialized settings, as cities cause "despair" and "a wound that cannot be healed." The cause of this is not mental health, genetics, family situation, etc. Rather, to Berry, suicides are caused by not living in an agricultural space. This mindset, with no statistical or research back up, is vile, a rural superiority complex.

Secondly, in this agricultural setting where only farmers are healthy, who gets to farm?? "The best farming requires a farmer-a husband-man" (45).

Thirdly, in the opening section, Berry chooses to keep the language of "Indian" and adopts the attitude of manifest destiny. This book was published in 1977.

Fourthly, in the 100 pages I read, Berry loves to quote, but only quotes STRAIGHT WHITE MEN. IN 1977. Oh, and in the preface, he identifies himself as "a member of a threatened minority." White Fragility anyone?

I truly hope you did not make it to the end of my review, any time spent discussing Berry's thoughts is utterly meaningless. I am ardently pro-city, to be true, but I did grow up in the country and do understand and appreciate why some people choose to live there. Berry, however, is elitist, sexist, racist, and woefully disregardful of human life. I have better uses for my time.
Profile Image for Paula.
439 reviews15 followers
July 6, 2022
Agribusiness has been destroying our soil fertility, killing beneficial insects (like bees), decimating our waterways (through eutrophication that kills fish and all aqueous life), and striping the nutritional content from our food (you can grow crops on industrial chemicals, but you can't make them nutritious) for roughly eighty years. As a consequence Americans are unhealthier than any other population in the world (along with European nations with the same practices), and life on the planet is at serious risk. Yet, our government continues to subsidize the industry and fund agricultural colleges that are perpetuating this destruction.

Berry wrote the book over forty years ago, in hopes that he might forestall further damage. Unfortunately, the powers that be have ignored his book. If we want to see a change, and turn around our agricultural practices before it's too late, we need more young farmers dedicated to a scientific approach to organic methods, and we need informed consumers who refuse to support Big Ag. Reading this book would be a good place to start.
Profile Image for Lawrence FitzGerald.
318 reviews27 followers
October 14, 2019
I thought that I might like Wendell Berry. The romance of rural America. I live on 50 acres in rural East Texas. I hunt (mostly wild hogs - tasty) and fish. I grow things: tomatoes, watermelons, cantaloupes. Not for sale, just to enjoy. I worked in cities; I made enough money to move to the country. I'm Wendell Berry's best audience. I thought.

He may be a very nice man. If I met him in person I might instantly like him. But in this book he comes across as a blowhard and a hypocrite. A blowhard? Well, there is this:
The household that prepares its own meals in its own kitchen with some intelligent regard for nutritional value, and thus depends on the grocer only for selected raw materials, exercises an influence on the food industry that reaches from the store all the way back to the seedsman. The household that produces some or all of its own food will have a proportionately greater influence.
No Wendell, it's not so. The more you meet your own needs, the less you engage with the larger economy and thus you will have proportionately less influence.

And all the BS about specialization. Wendell, I assume you live in a house. Did you mill the lumber? Did you make the nails? How about your farm equipment. Plow? disk? harrow? On and on.

Wendell Barry regrets the passing of the small farm. I don't. It's a hard life. Both my parents were raised on working farms. My grandparents and great-great grandparents. My father went to college on the GI Bill and never looked back. I went to graduate school on the GI Bill and gained knowledge valuable enough that I could retire after twenty years.

Yes, first the weavers then the blacksmiths, wheelwrights, millwrights, on and on and eventually obsolescence found the small farmer. Why not a paean to the rest?

Regrettably, rural poverty has always been with us. It is still with us and it is hard. Reviving the small farm will not change that, it will only reduce another generation to serfdom. After all, if it was so rewarding everyone would be doing it.
Profile Image for Andrew.
576 reviews122 followers
December 24, 2020
A great, although uneven, criticism of the reigning agricultural and cultural mentality in the U.S. It's impressive that Berry wrote this more than 30 years ago since the argument seems just as timely today. The first two and last two chapters were the strongest. In between, he gets into an abstract discussion on the relationship between our connection to the land, ourselves, and other human beings. The vagueness of some of his terminology and expressions in these chapters resulted in my losing interest. The argument itself was subtle, but it wasn't as well elucidated as I would have liked. It seems that Berry was relying on his readers to have a poetic sensibility that I myself lack. I fully admire the lyricism of his writing in these chapters; it just didn't quite scratch my particular itch this time around. Some day I'll come back to this when I'm older and wiser and give it the five stars it probably deserves. Either that, or I'll feel the same way I do now and move it down to three.

4 reviews
January 21, 2014
I had to read this book for class or else I never would have made it past the introduction. While Berry makes some fair points about classism, he does it by comparing the plight of white land owning farmers having to sell their land to that of native americans being violently forced off of their land. he also makes comparison to african americans, but lets just say his choice of words less than savory.

Berry is an extremely priviledged white man who feels the need to use racial slurs just to convey the idea of oppression. Not only is this patently offensive, it stinks of bad writing and poor creativity. If you can't explain the oppression of a group you identify with without camparing it to the oppression of another then you are unlikely to bring any real substance to your writing.

Others have explored the issues he explores in this book better and without using genocide and slavery as props to make a point. Don't waste your time with this book.
Profile Image for Haley Baumeister.
86 reviews52 followers
January 24, 2023
What can be said that hasn't already been said? It's his most-read nonfiction book for good reason.

I was inspired to finally listen to it after meeting a new friend who said she had listened to it recently (her first foray into Berry's writing which she loved, as a seriously industrious gardener.)

This is primarily a discussion of the history and downfalls of Big Agriculture — but that, of course, has social & philosophical implications which are also discussed (the thread in all his work).

As someone very interested in (and always learning more about) fertility awareness and women's health, I especially loved his comparisons of the new version of cheapening, mechanized, and destructive forms of chemical-laden agriculture... to our society's experiment in mechanized, cheapening, and destructive hormonal contraception (among others). The chapter on fertility and health was probably my favorite for this reason. Our knowledge & care for the health of the land and its fertility should go hand in hand with our knowledge & care for our own bodies and its fertility.

Other books to read with tangential themes:

Uprooted — Grace Olmstead
The Shepherd's Life / Pastoral Song — James Rebanks
The Omnivore's Dilemma — Michael Pollen
Take Back Your Family — Jefferson Bethke
The Life We're Looking For — Andy Crouch
Profile Image for Jackson Ford.
77 reviews1 follower
October 11, 2021
If this book is not on your radar, it must be. Wendell Berry’s analysis of humanity inside the ecology of creation is second to none. This book will give you a deeper appreciation for the world as well as what it means to be human. I’d situate among the most profound texts I’ve read on the relationship between humanity and the earth, along side of Calvin Luther Martin’s ‘In the Spirit of the Earth’, Jurgen Moltmann’s ‘God in Creation’ lectures, Leslie Marmon Silko’s ‘Ceremony’, or Robin Wall Kimmerer’s ‘Braiding Sweetgrass’. Berry keenly recognizes the failure of a worldview that conceives of humanity as autonomous from the soil of the earth. I’m left convinced that our contemporary crisis of identity is inextricably connected to the ever increasing abstraction modern societies have with the land. Creation (and intimacy with it) grounds us in the reality of natural order, and the divine life.
Profile Image for Holly.
402 reviews5 followers
March 28, 2023
I only knocked off a star because there were a few parts I decided to skim through. But in the whole, this is a fascinating and important look at American culture and agricultural practices that feel even more relevant today than they would have been in the 1970’s. I’m sure Mr. Berry would be dismayed to know how much farther we have gone down the road to destruction of our soil and farmlands since he brought these issues to light. I was impressed at his ability to connect the neglect of the land with the neglect and erasure of our homes and family life. It’s a moral condemnation in every sense of the word. You can’t neglect the world without also neglecting the body, our communities, our children, and the moral fiber that makes up our ethics and virtues. Not sure I know enough about any of this stuff to say to what extent he is right, but it is sure an convincing argument to me.
Profile Image for kayla.
41 reviews
December 26, 2021
it should be said before reading my review that i am a white, urban, farmworker, and i am *not* a fan of wendell berry. i have written up quite a harsh review. the harshness of this review, i believe, is deserved. he is a man with a cult following and fair amount of influence (power) that goes unrecognized in the manor of his writing. he truly says what he likes and it is so (for the communities who follow him). he needs to be checked, and the fantasy that he has created for white farmworkers (the white cishetero rural nuclear family homestead) needs to be dismantled. it should be the blueprint for nothing and it is unsustainable and far from regenerative. overall this book is weird, gross, and ultimately uncreative/uncurious/limited. i do not have room in my life for the perspective of people like this, who write and philosophize beyond their means.

i would not recommend this book to a single person. i suffered through most of this book over my christmas break. i had to skip large chunks where he rambled as a self-righteous genius yet offering no interesting or refreshing perspective. you know suburban white people who problematically romanticize the post war era? he is like that but for rural white homesteaders. i will just provide bullet list of my dislikes and then tw bullet list below.

- his perspective is so limited and it's felt on almost every sentence of every page.you can just tell the life he has lived has been entirely homogenous. while he understands the role of capitalism to the land, it pretty much ends there. his race, gender, religious, etc. analyses are nonexistent or weak. the book breathes rural white man who should really only readdressing himself and other men seeing that:
- he almost exclusively cites and quotes other white men throughout the book. and he does this a LOT. this just cakes on the crust of his entire vibe and perspective.
- he makes several dangerous claims throughout the books about agrarians lifestyles vs industrial/technological/modern lifestyles.
- weird outdated critiques of sexism being the fault of the industrial world??? as if sexism/divided labor did not exist before industrialism lmfao. (pg. 117).
-his perspective of what he calls "modern cities" and "urban civilization" is entiry f*cked up. once again speaking beyond his means. it's clear he has spent little to know time in urban settings or the people who habitats them. he is entirely uninformed about how cities function. he dangerously plays into the urban vs. rural mindset which is a false dichotomy and detrimental to all. (pg 142).
- he writes from a dangerously heteronormative perspective. constantly referring to the role of husband/wife dynamic. honestly at times it feels blatantly homophobic the way he reveres cishetero unions in the role of farming....anyways, gross.
- i lived in a predominantly amish county for 2.5 years and i find his writing on amish people weird and out of touch. "i adore and respect them deeply, with few reservations." he says of the amish on page 215. do not get wrong, i am averse to the topic critique of amish people that is often crudely reductive--they are uncivilized/outdated/silly/etc. but i also am wary of outsiders who romanticize amish people and their way of life because it too is crudely reductive. there is no understanding of the great diversity within amish people, different value sets, different approaches to the land, the systems of abuse that exist, the tendency toward exploitation. wendell berry would probably be alarmed to learn that many amish folks are slum lords and highly exploitative business people. not only that many are actively destroying the land they farm. the same issues he discusses for mainstream american culture also exist within the communities he weirdly romanticizes.

tw critiques:

- he just sprinkles the n-word in as he pleases and as soon as page 14. its fucking deplorable. i'd love to find this man in his kentucky mountainside or whatever and kick him in the arse .
- berry uses offensive language in how he speaks of Native Americans. even used a slur as soon as page 6 (it was in quotes but it was *entirely unnecessary*. this book was written well after this language was appropriate. and as someone *writing* from *expert* position should display a bit more understanding for the communities he is writing about. that would also include paid interviews with native peoples and researchers and farmers. he literally just says whatever he wants and much of it is dangerous.
- there are probably more but i can't think of them at this time
17 reviews
August 23, 2021
While I can find myself agreeing with Berry over some of the evils of modern agriculture that he so vividly describes, I fundamentally disagree with the basic premise of the book. From the beginning, Berry makes the claim that agribusiness is exploitative, and therefore immoral; smallhold farming is nurturing, and therefore moral. From this premise expands the entire book, and indeed at times the experience is quite lovely, with Berry waxing poetic over the communion between man and soil.

Yet Berry does not empirically back up his underlying assumption. To claim that smallhold farming does not exploit and deplete land is much more contentious than Berry believes it is, and it's a shame that he does not take the time to properly develop a defence for this idea.

It seems like Berry is informed heavily by Christian understandings of the communion between man and nature, and this Christian tone is carried out throughout the book, seeming particularly out of place when Berry employs racial and sexual rhetoric that diminishes very real concerns about the insular society that he desires (although this is more understandable in the context of when the book was written.)

I think Berry is a great writer, but I also think that to treat what he writes as gospel is to ignore serious flaws in his arguments, as well as to ignore the very real gains we have accomplished solely because agri-business has enabled so many humans to leave the farm and work and create. The books we rate on this website, the computers we run it on, and even our ability to communicate and discuss novels with one another are dependent on a surplus of free labour that just would not exist in an Unsettled (North) America and world.
Profile Image for E.
814 reviews34 followers
October 24, 2020
I don't know how to review this book. I basically vascillated between feeling deep in my soul that I was reading Pure Truth, and being completely disengaged and skimming.

I don't think I've ever highlighted so much in s book that wasn't read for part of my schooling. And yet, the book spends so much time on picking apart specific people's positions, articles, speeches, etc. I think I should have found that dull even if I wasn't reading the book 43 years later. I would have hoped that in later editions (I read #3) or a spin-off title that greater care could have been taken to make the content more timeless because I do think there was a lot of unexpected and important ground covered in this book.
Profile Image for Cameron M.
59 reviews9 followers
November 4, 2016
Wendell Berry is a prophetic genius and a fantastic writer. This is his second book that I have read, following his "Bringing it to the Table."
I was expecting this book to be more focused on strictly agricultural and agrarian principles, but in reality, everything that he wrote about worked together and is cycle- he got that. It all ties in together and runs off of one another.
I absolutely recommend this book to anyone beginning to question the status quo of "agribusiness" and our food economy here in the US. I recommend it to anyone who is also beginning to learn about homesteading or farming (as farming was intended to be, instituted by God).
Profile Image for Jeremy.
751 reviews16 followers
January 5, 2019
This book was very inspiring and insightful in helping me see the reality of how historic methods of farming are equally, if not more, productive as modern methods dependent on expensive equipment and fossil fuels. Similar (and certainly not unconnected) to the explosion of processed food, we seem to have bought into the myth of whatever is newer and shinier and more modern being superior. It left me excited about attempting things I had previously thought romantic fantasies (such as using a draft horse rather than a tractor).

Berry’s writing is simultaneously beautiful, compelling, precise, and practical.
Profile Image for Kenny.
236 reviews3 followers
April 6, 2013
This was the first book I ever read by him. The ch "The Body and the Earth" is worth the price of the book.
Profile Image for Ryan.
301 reviews37 followers
December 17, 2021
The most remarkable thing about this book is that it was published in 1977. Many of Berry's observations are especially true today; but one wonders how he was able to see so presciently 42 years ago? He was definitely a man ahead of his time.

In this book Berry argues that specialization in all fields has led to a form of profit extraction that externalizes costs. He argues the standard of the goodness of any economic activity should be measured by how it contributes to the health of the person and the other systems supporting the person. Health should be the ultimate measure rather than profit.

To be clear, health and wholeness are qualitative measures whereas profit is a quantative measure that says nothing of the damage that might have been caused to achieve that profit.

After discussing some high-level philosophical issues, Berry gets into the specifics of how agribusiness has, like an invader, conquered the U.S. and made Americans subservient to it. He also discusses the social ills caused by big agribusiness and how farming can be done holistically, on a small scale, while contributing to the health of individuals, families, and communities.

Overall, this is an excellent book and very much worth reading for perspective on what's happened to farming in America over the last 70-90 years. The only point where I was less interested was in the final chapter when Berry discusses crop rotation and some of the specifics of small-scale farming. Otherwise, a great read.
Profile Image for Aaron Clark.
94 reviews3 followers
June 16, 2020
Highly recommend. Essentially a polemic. Stirring. Insightful into the effects of the industrial revolution, not on small-landowners and agriculture, but upon the broader American culture and mindset.

Berry's main convincing argument for me centers on questions like these, "How can people be moral when they are not expected to be moral in matters of production and consumption? How can they be moral when they are encouraged in everything else to take the role of exploiter? How can you care for and cultivate people when you don't care for or cultivate your land and your animals? How can you care for land and animals when our policies are engineered to prevent you from owning and keeping land and animals? How can you think of yourself as a human when your only metaphor is the machine?"

Personal Applications
As a pastor (essentially a shepherd and cultivator of souls - the word "pastor" itself literally meaning shepherd), these questions brought me to consider pastoral applications in relation to the Church. For example, it's helpful to draw parallels between "agribusiness" and "mega-church" style ministry. It's helpful to recognize how the exploitative, efficiency-focused and numbers-driven mindset has infiltrated the Church, to seek repentance toward "knowing" and "caring for" "the sheep."
Profile Image for Jon Larson.
213 reviews
April 29, 2022
Forty-five years later, the things mentioned in this book are still applicable today. The continued erosion of the family farm, which now seems dead, has caused irrefutable harm. Harm to our values, our health, and a meaningful way of life.

In all of our wisdom, we have become fools.
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