Wendell Berry is one of my favorite writers. He’s a prolific author of stories, poetry, and essays, many on the subject of his other vocation, farming. I also think he is one of the United States’ most important public intellectuals. Time after time I have found that insights articulated by scholars and speakers I respect (about everything from food systems to literature to education to scientific paradigms) were articulated much earlier by Berry. Time after time I have found that various institutions, cultural values, and even personal issues that frustrate me have been critiqued by Berry both more incisively and graciously. Time after time I have been deeply moved by his vision of humanity’s place in relationship to other creatures and to God. I believe his Sabbath poems are the great work of mystical literature of our time.
Earlier this month, a lovely interview with Wendell Berry by Bill Moyers aired on PBS. I highly recommend it to anyone as an introduction to Berry or as a reminder of his wisdom and good humor.
The interview particularly reminded me of three important themes that pervade Berry’s oeuvre: the destructive logic of capitalism that replaces humans with machines and concentrates wealth in the hands of a few; the centrality of humanity’s embeddedness in various communities, particularly land (and consequently the ways that severed and deformed relationships with land and places lie at the root of many modern social ills and injustices); and all the reasons to have hope when a clear view of the world and a working conscience leave little room for optimism.
These themes also surfaced in Berry’s Jefferson lecture, given last year. (The Jefferson lecture is essentially the federal government’s highest honor in the humanities.) I also highly recommend it, either as audio-visual or text.
Berry is too deep and clear a critic to be seriously engaged with by most media sources, but his lecture did generate some interesting controversy. This controversy centered around Berry’s characterization, drawn from his teacher Wallace Stegner, of two typical American relationships to land: boomer and sticker. Boomers are upwardly and geographically mobile, ultimately motivated by greed—the world is to be used to support their ambitions; stickers are ultimately motivated by affection, the desire to do what is right, and the needs of others, including the land. Boomers climb ladders; stickers dig deeper. For Berry, James B. Duke of the American Tobacco Company is the archetypal boomer, and his grandfather, a poor tobacco farmer, is his exemplary sticker.
Another important Christian public intellectual whose work I greatly admire, Alan Jacobs, has criticized Berry’s characterization, and I wish to respond to Jacobs’ critique. He accuses Berry, whom he also admires, of making a “useless, simplistic and uncharitable” distinction. He points out that two types is too few—many people move, for example, for reasons unmotivated by greed; many “stick” for reasons unmotivated by love. He particularly faults Berry’s thinking regarding place as “insufficiently aware of the real choices that many real people face” as well as “simplistic” and “Manichean,” making too black-and-white a distinction.
However, Stegner’s original boomer/sticker dichotomy is more nuanced than a simple duality. For example, scholar Michael Williams reads at least five different relationships to place characterized by Stegner: boomer, nester, belonger, booster, and centered. The nester indeed “sticks,” but unreflectively, knowing a place but not necessarily motivated by love. The belonger goes further to seek flourishing in a place and the flourishing of the place itself as well. The booster takes a further step to integrate a place into life stories, which serve to mediate between abstract theories and material practices. The centered approach allows a person to have one foot planted in a place and another elsewhere, allowing the stories to those two plantings to be in productive tension. Each of these categories has analogues in Berry’s work.
I believe that Berry is very “aware of the real choices that many real people face” when moving. He made the very difficult choice to return to Kentucky, where he’s from, after writing and teaching in New York. Not everyone makes or can make that choice. Jacobs himself, a professor, recently switched institutions (from Wheaton to Baylor). No doubt this was a difficult choice. Does this mean that Jacobs is a boomer? Perhaps it does, at least regarding relationship to place. That doesn’t mean it wasn’t the right thing to do for other reasons. Nor does it mean that it was right for all reasons.
I myself, being from Indiana, feel significant tension about going to grad school in Oregon. Withdrawing from my home place has often felt like an exile. It is hard to reconcile being an aspiring professor with being an aspiring sticker. (My father lives and farms in the same Indiana county where he was born—the same place where his grandmother and grandfather, poor Dutch immigrants, began farming well over 100 years ago. I fear because of choices I’ve made, even good choices, I will not be so blessed, even as this heritage centers me.) Berry has been very critical of those who inhabit their careers more than actual places, especially those in academia. It’s important to remember that even those of us with significant privilege in an unjust, boomer society are subject to vulnerability and injustice, often self-inflicted. What we take to be moments of empowerment are often at once moments of victimization. Even good decisions carry harmful consequences.
Finally, Berry also reminds us that there are no holy versus unholy places. Since all creation breathes God’s breath and participates in God’s Spirit, there are only sacred places and places that have been desecrated. Whatever our career, we are called to recognize and respect this sacredness. No matter how damaged or desecrated a place is, it deserves our attention and affection. No matter where we are or are from, we must always consider how place contributes to every aspect of life, something which Wendell Berry has profoundly helped me to do.
Originally from a vegetable farm in rural northwest Indiana, Rob now lives with his wife Hope in Eugene, Oregon, as he pursues a PhD in English at the University of Oregon. He teaches undergraduate writing courses and studies religion, secularization, and environment in nineteenth-century American literature. He graduated from Calvin in 2007 with a major in history of religion but returned the next year to complete the English major. “Glory be to God for dappled things—”
This is such a lovely piece, Robert. I also love Berry, and I also feel some conflict between my chosen place (Grand Rapids) and my place of origin (the Pacific Northwest). I’m using your post today in my ENGL 101 classes as we talk about the narratives we tell ourselves about personal identity.
Thanks for the good words.