An agrarian vocabulary

Cover of “The Art of Loading Brush” by Wendell Berry.
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Last week, I wrote about Wendell Berry and my recent experiences reading his book “The Art of Loading Brush.” One of the things I really enjoy about reading Wendell Berry’s writing is how he redefines words and concepts. While Berry’s world is different from my own, quite a few of his ways of redefining words as he writes about agrarianism provided me with different ways of thinking about place, work, sustainability, the environment and community in the context of my own world. A few of these “definitions” from “The Art of Loading Brush” are what follows. 

Living as inhabiting a place. Berry makes a distinction between being a “citizen of a nation and an inhabitant of a home.” Berry means it in relation to owning, working and living off of a piece of land, but I think more generally the word “inhabit” implies a certain way of viewing oneself in relation to their place and community. There’s more permanence and attachment with “inhabiting” than there is with just “living.” If you inhabit a place, you are immersed and even entangled in its rhythms and responsibilities.  

Love as a way of work, and work as a vocation and not a job. Berry writes about “loving the land”, but is careful to assert that “… ‘loving’ … does not designate an idle sentiment but rather a way of work.” He also differentiates between “jobs” and “vocations”, the latter being work that is done with persistent dedication and care as if it were a calling. It isn’t difficult to think about love as a way of work and work as a vocation for a lot of professions —  but what does it mean on a daily basis? What does it mean as a student? What does it mean when I do math? What does it mean as an engineer? What does it mean in a part-time job during college? What does it mean when doing work that is solely a means of provision?  

Waste as a concession to fragmentation. As a farmer, Berry writes extensively on environmental degradation and its negative impacts on local communities. I think in the media, and in my generation, we have a tendency to focus issues of climate change on existential fears of the future and anger at the inaction of previous generations — rather than on the complex and beautiful relationship we have with our landscapes in their order and austerity that challenge but ultimately assert our humanity. Berry’s writing considers climate change as a product of philosophical delusions regarding the order, cycles, limits and provisions of nature. He writes of waste: “Insofar as the nature of a place is fragmented, the balance is thrown over in favor of death, of what we call ‘waste.’” Underlying his assertions, though, is the consistent assumption that there is order, balance, beauty and provision — and that recognizing that is essential.  

Health as interdependent wholes. Berry writes that health is “an endless, endlessly beautiful, order of interdepending wholes.” In the book this statement appeared in the context of a character’s observations of forest cycles; yet it’s also a beautiful way to think about our own responsibilities and capabilities within the interdependent systems of relationships, community and world that we are a part of.  

Order as integrity amidst variation. Berry describes order as the “formal integrity by which a kind of creature or workmanship maintains its identity and remains recognizable even as it varies through time, adapting to difference and to change.” Growth, then, in ways of seeing, expressing and responding to the world more carefully and truthfully, preserves order as a natural response to both constancy and change.  

Art provides us with ways to think about and express familiar change and constancy in new and unfamiliar ways. New, different or more precise ways of expressing familiarity opens up room for contemplation of context and purpose in relation to our own places and selves. Sometimes though, as with Berry’s writing, it isn’t just the meanings implied by the art that prompts reflection, but the vocabulary that it equips us with to find meaning, beauty and order in other contexts. 

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