Have you ever seen your dog or cat suddenly turn its head, tense up, and stare intently into an unoccupied space? It’s quite unnerving. They obviously see something we can’t, and if the more instinctual part of our brain trusts their superior senses enough, we tense up as well. It’s an interesting cross-species bit of performance art that happens, and we, of course, have learned to harness those senses for our benefit and protection.

There are certain people throughout history that fill those roles in our own species. Martin Luther, and his namesake, Martin Luther King Jr., are obvious examples of the kind of “Spidey-senses” I am thinking of among humanity. They warned us when we were going the wrong way, pointing to a better path. The interesting thing is, we tend to try to silence those people. We actually work actively against our own flourishing. I don’t think those senses are absent in the rest of us but are often underutilized or, mostly, just unexamined. When a project at work fits together and goes smoothly, or a piece of wooden furniture we made sits squarely on the floor without wobbling; we know the sensation, the sense of completeness, rightness. We also know it when things aren’t right; a funny sound or even the absence of an expected sound. These instincts are physical, biochemical, psychological, even inexplicable at times, but all are gifts from the Originator of gifts, to my way of thinking.

People like Sir Thomas Howard, Aldo Leopold, and J.I. Rodale were among those sounding the alarm that things weren’t quite right with the increasingly chemically dependent agriculture of their times. Their alarms have continued into today through people like Wendell Berry. After 60 years of writing about such things, his recent collection of essays, The Art of Loading Brush, subtitled, New Agrarian Writings, released in 2017, is proof Mr. Berry has much more to say. The book is an argument for agrarianism as a model for restoring not only nature’s health by caring for it, but in turn, through that same process, restoring the health of rural communities. Care of land requires co-operation, not only with nature, but with each other. In the essay, The Thought of Limits in a Prodigal Age, he makes that argument like this:

As long as the diverse economy of our small farms lasted, our communities were filled with people who needed one another and knew that they did. They needed one another’s help in their work, and from that they needed one another’s companionship. Most essentially, the grownups and elders needed the help of the children, who thus learned the family’s and the community’s work and the entailed duties, pleasures, and loyalties. When that work disappears, when the parents leave farm and household for town jobs, when the upbringing of the young is left largely to the schools, then the children, like their parents, live as individuals, particles, loved perhaps, but not needed for any usefulness they may have or any help they might give. As the local influences weaken, outside influences grow stronger.

Outside influences like big commercial agriculture, encouraged by a government agencies with admonitions like, “Get big or get out,” sealed the fate of many smallholders. That local influence of people connected to care of the land (which returned care in kind) not only supported keeping body and soul together, but that community of body and souls have attenuated to the point where we are feeling the absence in the larger society. Land became a medium for seemingly endless profit rather than living off it by careful stewardship. These are oft repeated themes with Berry, Rodale, Leopold, Howard — parts of Leviticus. Anyone engaged in pre-industrial farming practices knew these things as well, though maybe not in a way that they would have been able to articulate. As Maurice Telleen (in absentia) says in the preface:

A funny thing about cultures is that they produce people who understand more than they know. Sort of like osmosis. So the old agrarians, to get back to our subject, knew a lot about local soil, local weather, local crops, animal behavior, and each other. They depended on each other. It almost defines that much abused word, provincial. It was very provincial and no doubt carried a load of both inertia and foolishness, along with wisdom.

All hasn’t been lost, though, and Berry devotes much of his creative energies, filtered through one of his fictional characters, to pointing out real people who are paying attention to provincial — in its best sense –wisdom. I’ve noticed this encouraging trend, among the Millennials in particular, becoming more widespread in recent years — maybe as a resurgence or reinvention of the previous generation’s back-to-the-land period. His fictional character Andy’s journey to that awareness is described as a maxim I am sure many of us have experienced:

He has talked to a good many people, friends and others, who have confirmed his experience of the arrival in one’s life of friends and books that were most needed when they were most needed.

A bit of wisdom that is catechized among the elders extant in the movement is learning to love limits, and to be satisfied with little, as the parable goes according to Berry, otherwise, “To be satisfied with much is impossible.” These limits are imposed simultaneously by nature and by the limits needed for the structures to form relationships, both communal and familial. Limits are good, like the Law is good, but like the Law, those limits do not provide the means to accomplish it.

What kept occurring to me over and over again as I read Berry’s current line of thinking is how much it is a plea for grace in our treatment of each other and the land where we find ourselves. It also serves as an example of why grace is impossible to prescribe. The Dust Bowl forced us to change some agriculture practices but didn’t ultimately prevent us from the ravages of industrial chemical farming we are experiencing decades later. More profits has come hand-in-hand with more problems. Our motivation, incarnated in current practice, has only “sustained a decline,” to paraphrase Jason Rutledge, a forester in Virginia. Berry’s solutions stem from practice and careful observation, wisdom both provincial and found farther afield, have at their core something well beyond prescription. They can only be described. Berry points to a particular group of Christians as a way to describe what he wishes to see: “The Law of Neighborliness has its proof in the agrarian economy of the Amish, who hold, ‘Love thy neighbor as thy self,’ to be the paramount law of this world, and so they have neighbors, and so they give help, and so they have help, and so they prosper.” The Amish aren’t a perfect community, but as part of the Body of Christ, they reflect, in a shadow darkly, something in which we, like Berry, can glimpse a certain rightness.

Fleming Rutledge said something in The Crucifixion that has stuck in my memory and I think serves as a good summation of what we have seen Wendell Berry do for over half a century. He sounds a very particular alarm — one we have been gifted to listen to.

Something is wrong and must be put right. When we feel that in our bones, when we admit that something is wrong not only with the whole human situation in general but also with one’s own self in particular, then God is at work bringing us closer to the cross of Christ.

If you haven’t watched the new documentary on Wendell Berry, please do.