A Visible Mark Upon the Earth: Why Wendell Berry

May 18, 2020  • Tony Klemmer

I have never been versed in reading or writing poetry. Like chess, it is something on my list to get better at, but in each attempt, I feel I am missing what others see. I have never been a farmer, nor lived on the land, from the land, or with the land. I am a product of the coastal suburbs and cities and I use my allergies as an excuse for strict avoidance of weeding and gardening. Those pursuits are all left to my bride, who in another life was perhaps a farmer or a planter or a shepherd, given her oneness with the natural world. She understands plants and trees and soil and vegetables and communes with them for the benefit of our nutrition and our place of living. In The Man Who Planted Trees, Jean Giono describes a solitary shepherd who transforms the countryside through the simple act of planting one hundred trees every day for decades. Giono writes this, as the measure of a life:

For a human character to reveal truly exceptional qualities, one must have the good fortune to be able to observe [his/her] performance over many years. If this performance is devoid of all egoism, if its guiding motive is unparalleled generosity, if it is absolutely certain that there is no thought of recompense and that, in addition, it has left its visible mark upon the earth, then there can be no mistake.

For me, Wendell Berry, like the simple shepherd in Jean Giono’s story, has persistently planted “over many years” his message about humankind and sustenance and nature and how we are inextricably bound to the health and rhythms of our natural world. As a poet, essayist, environmentalist, small town farmer, family man and scholar, Wendell Berry has humbly stood his ground and repeated his message for all to hear: we must take care of the earth; small scale farmers take care of the earth; small scale farming represent the glue that binds together communities; and we are running out of time. Berry has insisted that our market economy and monoculture farming are not only killing our natural world but devouring our communities and communal ties one-by-one.

Wendell Berry, along with Rachel Carson and Aldo Leopold, sits near the top of the pantheon of environmental movement leaders since the publication of his “manifesto,” The Unsettling of America, in the 1970’s. And much of this will be the centerpiece of his legacy, his “visible mark upon the earth.” And none of this explains my attraction to Wendell Berry, especially since I am a self-confessed beginner in poetry and farm-o-phobe.

I am drawn to Wendell Berry’s writing, including his essays, his fiction, and yes even his poetry, by their patterns and cadence. One can almost feel the pace of his thinking and doing in the structure of his writing and in his words. They are measured, even slow by today’s standards. His simple language, his genteel methods of communicating forceful views, his use of pencil and paper. Anachronistic? Perhaps not. It seems perfectly consistent with his message and manner.

“What Are People For?” asks Berry in his essay in a book of the same name. He believes in human dignity and the dignity of work, particularly physical work, and sees labor as a more fitting approach to and for human life than the desolation and unemployment caused by mechanization and automation.

Mostly I am drawn to Wendell Berry’s story and the way he leads his life. Berry is from Kentucky, and was educated first at the University of Kentucky and then at Stanford. Once married, he returned to the land of his youth and a small farm in his home state. He has stayed on that farm and grown crops and lived as a part of the local farming community while writing his manifestos, essays and poems along the way. His message has been the same for fifty years, planted daily like Giono’s shepherd’s trees: small scale farms and farm communities take care of the land, take care of people, pay appropriate reverence to our natural world, and create a community coherence otherwise difficult to attain in a life. And he asks the same question today as he did fifty years ago: Why are we listening to the industrialists, while watching our natural and human resources atrophy?

While his admonitions and remedies are persuasive, I still have allergies and am too old to farm. It is the coherence of his life and consistency of his message “observed over many years,” that attract my awe and admiration. I have bounced from one idea and sector to another over the course of my career like a hopping hen. In contrast, Berry has personified the monastic vow of stability. One place, one calling, one voice, one message, one wife, one family, one community, one home. Berry’s coherence, both moral and social, his vocation and his voice–these are the elements that glue me to his world. We should all read and listen to Wendell Berry.

The views and opinions of the author are his own and do not necessarily reflect the view of The Aspen Institute or the Aspen Executive Leadership Seminars Department.

Tony Klemmer is the Founder and President of the National Academy of Advanced Teacher Education (NAATE)