|Photo from the New Yorker|
(born 1934), the American writer and agrarian, has spent much of his life siding with the land against the industrial exploiters of the land, and of farmers, and of the American rural way of life. He has written essays and books, notably The Unsettling of America
(1977), as well as poetry and novels, notably Nathan Coulter
(1960). For some, he follows in the steps of Henry David Thoreau
. In another way, he also follows in the steps of the English Traditionalist and environmentalist Lord Northbourne
(1896-1982), who combined Traditionalist perspectives with the biodynamic theories of the founder of Anthroposophy, Rudolf Steiner
In 2008, the Maryami-affiliated publisher World Wisdom Books published a collection of Lord Northbourne’s writings, and Berry wrote a foreword to it. In this he noted that Northbourne had aligned himself with René Guénon, Frithjof Schuon, Marco Pallis, Ananda Coomaraswamy, Titus Burckhardt, and Martin Lings, and added “I have read the four last-named at length and have been strongly affected and influenced by them.”
That Berry did not describe himself as affected and influenced by Guénon and Schuon makes sense: he generally keeps away from religion in his writings, as “religion is a far more difficult subject than agriculture,” as he wrote. Yet “those who take agriculture seriously enough and study it long enough will come to issues that will have to be recognized as religious.”
What, then, was the influence of the Traditionalists on Berry? It is hard to say, as he does not often name them in his writings. He is certainly a “soft” Traditionalist, drawing on the body of Traditionalist thought without dedicating himself to it. He values quality and form over quantity, and is as critical of modernity as any Traditionalist, following Coomaraswamy (and before him Ruskin) in associating it with industrial civilization. In opposition to modern industrial civilization he places not tradition but the rural, but with reservations.
In one essay he quotes at length a late-eighteenth-century Methodist minister describing the behavior of a group of men from Kentucky (where Berry was born and lives) who passed the time after dinner by fighting each other. “The significance of this bit of history is in its utter violence,” notes Berry. And not just the violence of the men fighting each other, but of the way they also fought the “Indians,” and also the way that they treated the land they were occupying—far more brutally than the Indians, or “the peasants of certain old agricultural societies, particularly in the Orient.” The difference was that the Indian and the peasant “belonged deeply and intricately to their places,” while Americans of European origin, did not belong in any place, and on the whole still do not. And from this results the environmental crisis, the loss of topsoil that Berry often laments, and the loss of the life properly lived.
My thanks to Travis Kitchens for drawing my attention to Berry.