Earth Day prompted me to pull some of Wendell Berry's essays off the shelf, something I don't do nearly as often as I should. Each time I revisit Berry, I am struck anew by his gift for cloaking radical thought in supple prose, making beauty out of vehemence. It has been almost twenty years since I first stumbled across his writings. I was barely out of my teens, and I desperately wanted some day to be able to think and write as well as Berry. So it was with a bit of a shock that I realized that the essays I was perusing this morning, from the early 1970s, were written when Berry was roughly my age now. Another youthful ambition dashed.
Though most people would associate him with the environmental movement, it is an oversimplification to call Berry an environmentalist. The scope of his writings is far broader than mere environmentalism, and he has always harbored the kind of old-fashioned rural independence that made my grandfathers deeply skeptical of any fad or movement, regardless of how much it might otherwise comport with their own personal views.
Here is a sampling of Berry, from his essay "Discipline and Hope":
The most destructive of ideas is that extraordinary times justify extraordinary measures. This is the ultimate relativism, and we are hearing it from all sides. The young, the poor, the colored races, the Constitution, the nation, traditional values, sexual morality, religious faith, Western civilization, the economy, the environment, the world are all now threatened with destruction--so the arguments run--therefore let us deal with our enemies by whatever means are handiest and most direct; in view of our high aims history will justify and forgive. Thus the violent have always rationalized their violence.
But as wiser men have always known, all times are extraordinary in precisely this sense. In the condition of mortality all things are always threatened with destruction.
Berry is timeless. But for the antiquated phrasing "colored races," this could have been written today, instead of 35 years ago.