The Unsettling of America: Culture & Agriculture

by Wendell Berry
Sierra Club, $9.95
Farmer and novelist Wendell Berry stands astride his land and surveys the world beyond. It is not good. Malaise, pollution and waste, disintegrating families, hypocritical behavior, twisted values; a bleak and bitter view of America. Yet beneath him and near him, in the soil, in his family, and in his work, is salvation —a return to the purest exercise of the ancient pursuit knowm as agriculture.
The Unsettling of America ostensibly is a book about the ways in which this country has abused its land, the evils of agribusiness and petrochemical combines, specialization and technology, the perversion of our foods and the poisoning of our bodies. It is, in fact, a philosophical treatise, sullen and sweet at the same time. For Berry, our soil and our lives are forever connected, and the soil and how society uses it are the true marks of culture.
Berry’s enemies are familiar —from the unlamented former Secretary of Agriculture Earl Butz, who saw? “food as a weapon,” to the highly primed and well-endowed colleges of agriculture whose vision of the future leaves little room for the small farmer and his community. There is an arrogance in Berry’s idealization of the farmer and his homestead. But he makes connections between agriculture and health, family love, marriage, fidelity, and emotional liberation with the fervor of a faith healer and the finesse of a surgeon. The result is a gentle harangue. —Steven Reiner