The Art of the Commonplace: The Agrarian Essays

By Wendell Berry, Norman Wirzba

1,693 ratings - 4.37* vote

"Here is a human being speaking with calm and sanity out of the wilderness. We would do well to hear him."—The Washington Post Book WorldArt of the Commonplace gathers twenty essays by Wendell Berry that offer an agrarian alternative to our dominant urban culture. Grouped around five themes—an agrarian critique of culture, agrarian fundamentals, agrarian economics, agraria "Here is a human being speaking with calm and sanity out of the wilderness. We would do well to hear

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Book details

Paperback, 352 pages
August 5th 2003 by Counterpoint

(first published January 1st 2002)

Original Title
The Art of the Commonplace: The Agrarian Essays of Wendell Berry
ISBN
1593760078 (ISBN13: 9781593760076)
Edition Language
English

Community Reviews

Michael

It's taken me a long time to read this book. I had to keep taking breaks, like grabbing a breath before diving back down into deep water to explore the bottom of the ocean. Wendell Berry writes beautiful, lyrical prose. He is insightful, troubling, wise, and--I use this word deliberately--holy. Mr. Berry's work as a poet informs his nonfiction; he carefully choses his words, and writes with both clarity and artistry. The Art of the Commonplace is a book of essays written over the past three or four decades. I did not read every essay; I could tell rather quickly which ones appealed to me and which ones didn't. Some of the more political essays--ones speaking specifically to issues at the time of their writing--were much less powerful than Berry's broad observations about the world he lives in, and how that world is reflected back to him by the world at large.

Generally speaking, Wendell Berry writes about the necessity of recognizing the connections between the land, the holistic health of the people on that land, and creation and maintenance of community. Place, for Mr. Berry, is everything. As an agrarian, he write with great passion about man's relationship to nature, and how mechanization and industrialization have fractured the bonds of people and place. I am not doing justice to the depth of Berry's observations about the failings and faults of our world today. Suffice it to say that, after reading some of his essays, I was ready to sell all my possessions, move to an isolated rural farm, homeschool my children, and walk bare-foot through the dew tipped fields for the rest of my life. He is convincing, in other words. He's telling the truth.

As I read, I kept being reminded of Bill McKibben's bookDeep Economy which also talked in great depth about what makes people happy, the need for community, and the counter-cultural reality that small and local is, in fact, better than large and national or global. The two men would find much to agree on, I suspect.

I could, literally, write two dozens quotes from this book. I will return to it, again and again, to find inspiration, insight, wisdom, and courage. Berry is remarkable. I am going to read much more of his work. This short passage will have to suffice for now:


“We have lived by the assumption that what was good for us would be good for the world. And this has been based on the even flimsier assumption that we could know with any certainty what was good even for us. We have fulfilled the danger of this by making our personal pride and greed the standard of our behavior toward the world - to the incalculable disadvantage of the world and every living thing in it. And now, perhaps very close to too late, our great error has become clear. It is not only our own creativity - our own capacity for life - that is stifled by our arrogant assumption; the creation itself is stifled.
We have been wrong. We must change our lives, so that it will be possible to live by the contrary assumption that what is good for the world will be good for us. And that requires that we make the effort to know the world and to learn what is good for it. We must learn to cooperate in its processes, and to yield to its limits. But even more important, we must learn to acknowledge that the creation is full of mystery; we will never entirely understand it. We must abandon arrogance and stand in awe. We must recover the sense of the majesty of creation, and the ability to be worshipful in its presence. For I do not doubt that it is only on the condition of humility and reverence before the world that our species will be able to remain in it.
(pg. 20, "A Native Hill")”

Tara

Oh man, I am passionately devoted to Wendell Berry. I say too many things sarcastically, but I am dead serious. I can pinpoint the moment when I looked up and said "Oh, I am in love with this author's mind.I am becoming a fucking farmer and moving to Asheville and growing my own vegetables and reading Wendell everyday." That is what happened to me, people. He is right about everything. It sounds weird, but I am so serious. Wendell Berry is excellent and fantastic and phenomenal and makes me want to play tag in the hayfield and then pluck tomatoes from the vines and homeschool my children. Weird, but true.

Kathryn Bashaar

I love Wendell Berry, but maybe a whole book of his essays wasn't the right choice. He is very verbose, and this book got repetitive for me. Nevertheless, it was worth reading. Berry manages to be both extremely conservative and extremely radical at the same time. His cause is "agrarianism." He reminds us that we are part of an ecosystem and, as creatures who eat food, part of an agricultural system whether we know it or not. To say the least, he disapproves of our modern industrial agricultural system and is skeptical of the benefits of global trade. It is bad for our soil, air and water, bad for animals and bad for human beings. Berry advocates a return to small farms, for a couple of reasons. First, he contends that people who can't produce their own food aren't free. Second, small farmers tend to be better stewards of their land. Would standards of living fall under Berry's preferred system? Yes, definitely, and he has no problem with that. He thinks that people in developed nations radically over-consume, to the detriment of the planet and to the detriment of our own souls. We have lost sight, Berry contends, of the sources of true happiness: oneness with creation, membership in a community. Like the builders of the Tower of Babel, we have lost sight of our humanity and the limits that it imposes. Although a Christian himself who knows his Bible, Berry also takes Christianity to task for its notion of the duality of body and soul, earth and heaven, matter and spirit. He argues - and backs up his argument with quotes from the Bible - that matter and spirit are one, that the breath of God is in all things, and to desecrate Creation is to desecrate the Creator we claim to worship. Very thought-provoking.
Like my reviews? Check out my blog at http://www.kathrynbashaar.com/blog/
Author of The Saint's Mistress: http://www.synergebooks.com/ebook_sai...

Jeff Shelnutt

I'm sitting here with a stack of note cards in front of me, the fruit of having read this book. It represents more notes than I typically take for one book, while simultaneously testifying to the value I placed on the insights that Berry offers on the agrarian lifestyle, local economies, the family unit, respect for the Creator demonstrated by respect for His creation, the value and dignity of work, global "harmony" destroying cultural diversity, and a sensible understanding of individual freedom being proportionally related to self-sufficiency.

I found myself continually amazed at Berry's almost prophetic insight. Most of these essays were written in the seventies, eighties and nineties, yet he saw on the distant horizon the destructive environmental and social consequences of industrialized farming and agribusiness that we are experiencing today. He was espousing "organic" foods long before it was a buzzword, and endorsing traditional homesteading methods at a time when the American farmer was increasingly being viewed as backward and behind the times. Plus Berry isn't merely an armchair agriculturist. His wisdom is borne from long years of trial and error on his own small farm (that he farms with horses).

I love this quote in particular as representative of the book's flavor: "The agrarian mind begins with the love of fields and ramifies in good farming, good cooking, good eating, and gratitude to God."

I recently reread Voltaire's Candide, and though Berry's writing doesn't necessarily remind me of Voltaire's (apart from both of them frequently espousing liberty of conscious and choice), I can't but help think of Candide's final words after a lifetime of absurd suffering: "All that is very well, but let us cultivate our garden."

So, if you're a fan of Berry's fiction or interested in agrarian issues, I highly recommend this compilation of essays.

Sherry Elmer

I highly recommend this thoughtful book of essays to fans of Wendell Berry and to everyone who is interested in ideas of community, environment, or agriculture. Read it with a pen nearby; there will be a lot you want to copy.

Simon Robs

I have loved (beginning with my reading of "The Unsettling of America" back in the early '80's) WB's ethos, his many books describing such and his unwavering comittment to cause fulfillment. You will not only be informed, beguiled and bewildered, but you might also find that workable ideal not utopian to make sense of the world dominated by technology and those who control it. These are essays as current in asking some of the right questions for our times. What is appropriate human scale!

Michael

People should read this book like they read the Bible. Not necessarily the way believers read the Bible (though it's not the worst replacement), but at least the way anyone who wants to be culturally literate reads Genesis and Exodus and Job and John and a few others to have an idea of what's going on around them. This is the compelling oppositional political and social philosophy of my generation, my peer social class at least. So often as I get to know someone I come to see that they hold this belief system as close as any religion or moral code. Often they haven't read Berry, but have picked up the values through cultural osmosis or simply by coming to their own independent conclusions. Berry is less prophet than gospel writer. His prose is simple, evocative, worthy of comparison with Emerson (his obvious precedent.) The arguments are compelling, too.

I like this particular book because it front-loads some of the best essays. It's hard not to get hooked.

Donovan Richards

Urban Jungles

Living in a city, I sometimes find nature a nuisance. Snow might display beautiful characteristics as it coats a meadow, but it certainly exhibits headache-inducing qualities when it materializes during the commute. Vibrant evergreens coating a mountain convey the finest forms of art, yet no tree stands in the way of a property owner desiring a better view. Urban life is ultimately divorced from the land. A simple block-to-block walk downtown provides little to no evidence of ecology. The Art of the Commonplace decries these realities as it presents a case for an agrarian-minded society.

Berry’s collection of essays is divided into five parts: a geobiography, understanding our cultural crisis, the agrarian basis for an authentic culture, agrarian economics, and agrarian religion. In these sections, Berry makes the case for a counter-cultural understanding of society, a way of life rooted in and sustained by the land.

Critiquing the System

Central to Berry’s thesis is a scathing critique of consumerist culture and industrial business practice. Where our ancestors lived in unity with the land, we exist in tension with the land. The Art of the Commonplace contains prophetic passages where Berry takes the form of a minor prophet beating the drum of repentance in the face of giant institutions.

Along these lines, Berry writes,

“It is possible to make a little economy, such as our present one, that is so shortsighted and in which accounting is of so short a term as to give the impression that vices are necessary and practically justifiable. When we make our economy a little wheel turning in opposition to what we call ‘nature,’ then we set up competitiveness as the ruling principle in our explanation of reality and in our understanding of economy; we make of it, willy-nilly, a virtue. But competitiveness, as a ruling principle and a virtue, imposes a logic that is extremely difficult, perhaps impossible, to control. That logic explains why our cars and our clothes are shoddily made, why our ‘wastes’ are toxic, and why our ‘defensive’ weapons are suicidal; it explains why it is so difficult for us to draw a line between ‘free enterprise’ and crime. If our economic ideal is maximum profit with minimum responsibility, why should we be surprised to find our corporations so frequently in court and robbery on the increase? Why should we be surprised to find that medicine has become an exploitive industry, profitable in direct proportion to its hurry and its mechanical indifference? People who pay for shoddy products or careless services and people who are robbed outright are equally victims of theft, the only difference being that robbers outright are not guilty of fraud” (233).


In Berry’s mind, the contemporary industrial economy shoulders much of the blame regarding what is wrong with the world. Not only does capitalism create a system where efficiency requires low quality and high profits, but also it compels business leaders to act right up against the barriers of what is legal. In such instances, it is no surprise to see broken laws and broken people.

Eating Strawberries on a Cold, January Day

Moreover, the industrial economy creates a civilization incapable of sustaining itself. Berry laments,

“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” (85).


Forget growing a potato, I could not tell you when they are in season. As a child, I vaguely remember my mother buying blueberries in mass quantities because they were in season. Today, I am a grocery store away from an infinite resource of blueberries year-round. While I have not taken a poll of my generation, it seems that most people my age are in a similar position. The seasonal connection to the land by way of fruits and vegetables has slowly gone the way of the buffalo. If I do not understand the seasons, how can I expect to establish a green thumb?

Ultimately, Berry argues that our industrialized economy has created a consequentialist culture focused on efficiency. Berry asserts,

“Logically, in plenitude some things ought to be expendable. Industrial economics has always believed this: abundance justifies waste. This is one of the dominant superstitions of American history – and of the history of colonialism everywhere. Expendability is also an assumption of the world of efficiency which is why that world deals so compulsively in percentages of efficacy and safety. But this sort of logic is absolutely alien to the world of love. To the claim that a certain drug or procedure would save 99 percent of all cancer patients of that a certain pollutant would be safe for 99 percent of a population, love, unembarrassed, would respond, ‘What about the one percent?’ There is nothing rational or perhaps even defensible about this, but it is nonetheless one of the strongest strands of our religious tradition – it is probably the most essential strand – according to which a shepherd, owning a hundred sheep and having lost one, does not say, ‘I have saved 99 percent of my sheep,’ but rather, ‘I have lost one,’ and he goes and searches for the one” (154-155).


In short, reconnecting ourselves to the land both through a local economy and an agrarian-based religion reminds us of the power of pursuing the one as opposed to neglecting it by rationalizing that the 99 are enough.

Let’s Pack Our Bags, We’re Going to Eden!

While I appreciate and typically side with the critiques posed by the Art of the Commonplace, I find the conclusions to be slightly utopian in nature. In other words, Berry’s urge to reconnect with nature seems slightly akin to arguing that humanity ought to go back to a place and time before the fall, living a reconciled life in God’s Creation.

The fall, in my estimation, significantly alters humanity’s relationship with nature. Granted, industry possesses a poor track record of domination over the natural world. Nevertheless, biblically mandated stewardship does not negate the possibility of development. As with most things, the extremes on both sides of the economic argument fall into untenable positions. Business provides valuable opportunities to assist those in need; local economies connected to nature remind humanity that it is a creature and not a creator.

Even though I do not find anything inherently evil about urban life, Berry’s writing presents a counterpoint to the dominant views. As a society, we ought to remember and enjoy the natural world and humanity’s connection to it. Berry’s economic, cultural, and religious positions found in the Art of the Commonplace are wholeheartedly worthy of study. He poetically renders his positions unashamedly; his critiques remind us that business as usual will never solve all of the world’s problems. For this reason, I recommend this book.

Originally published at http://wherepenmeetspaper.blogspot.com/

Russ

I sometimes judge a book by the number of quotes that I write in my journal from that book. By that measure, this book rates among the best. Deeply thoughtful, somewhat prophetic, and full of wisdom, this book is worth the read.

Following are two excerpts that make me feel this way:

...it is impossible, ultimately, to preserve ourselves apart from our willingness to preserve other creatures, or to respect and care for ourselves except as we respect and care for other creatures; and, most to the point of this book, it is impossible to care for each other more or differently than we care for the earth.
This last statement becomes obvious enough when it is considered that the earth is what we all have in common, that it is what we are made of and what we live from, and that we therefore cannot damage it without damaging those with whom we share it.

Wendell Berry in The Body and the Earth


“This curious world we inhabit is more wonderful than convenient; more beautiful than it is useful; more to be admired and enjoyed than used.” Henry David Thoreau said that to his graduating class at Harvard in 1837. We may assume that to most of them it sounded odd...
But perhaps we will be encouraged to take him seriously, if we recognize that this idea is not something that Thoreau made up out of thin air. When he uttered it, he may very well have been remembering Revelation 4:11: “Thou art worthy, O Lord, to receive glory and honour and power: for thou hast created all things, and for thy pleasure they are and were created.”

Wendell Berry in his essay Economy and Pleasure

Sharon

I am currently self-exiled in the countryside, and I picked up this book thinking, who better to foster in me a love of rural life than Wendell Berry? Instead of being filled with warm fuzzy feelings for all things agricultural, however, I finished the book with an expanded sense of community, a wider understanding of internesting economies, and what it means to live with the rest of the world in mind.

I appreciated the fact that this collection provides the date of original publication for each of the essays - it's easier to forgive sexist language in the essays from the 1970s, for example, and it's all the more impressive that Berry was preaching the virtues of eating locally way back in 1989.

This is the first collection of Wendell Berry's works I've read, and I found that it provide a thorough overview of major themes that seem to re-emerge throughout his writing career. I plan to keep this book on my shelf for future perusing.

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