I finally sat myself down last week with Wendell Berry’s latest book of short stories, How It Went. I’m glad I finally did.
Berry challenges everyone. He is a fierce opponent of Big Government and of Big Corporate both. He is more concerned with the environment than anyone I know, but sharply criticizes the reduction of respect for creation into one more political abstraction. He speaks his mind forthrightly and he is worth attending, even if you disagree with him on various points, because of his clarity, his straightforwardness, and his respect for the good work of good people.
How It Went carries on his tales of the Port William Membership, the fictional Kentucky farm town he has been writing about since 1960. All the stories here revolve around Andy Catlett, whose fictional life is contemporaneous with Berry’s own. Like Berry, Catlett is college educated. Like Berry, he made a deliberate choice to embrace the life he loved on the land he loved, as a farmer working in the old way, in communion with what the land permits and blesses, and devoted to the traditions of good work that he had learned from the community around him.
This book is elegiac, mourning what has passed — communities of people who worked hard, helped each other, and lived freely and peacefully without a thoroughgoing dependence on machines. Catlett and Berry see postwar Kentucky irrevocably changed by its reliance on machines that won the war but then laid waste to the old way of life.
Reliance on machines bred a machine mentality. People became estranged from each other, their work no longer requiring cooperation nor devotion to excellence. With love of neighbor no longer an active factor in the everyday life and seemingly irrelevant to the economy, neighborhoods dissolved. People became strangers to each other, both in the anonymous life of the cities to which so many moved, and in the gutted lives of the rump that were left. The intimate knowledge communities had of how to live freely and harmoniously with each other and the land they lived on had now to be preserved in whatever way it could. For both Catlett and Berry, that involved writing it down as well as preserving some surviving example of the old ways.
Had Berry left it at elegy, this book would not be all it is. But he did not. He is as urgent as ever in insisting that we again grasp the truths of the lives and communities whose passing he mourns. He doubts we can survive without them. True, we bandy around the word “community” in every sort of context, knowing it has signified something important we would like to have, or have others imagine we actually do have. But community as written of in this book and remembered by Berry is an all-encompassing reality that shapes our every action with consideration of those around us and the land upon which we depend.
Berry warns us: we cannot survive the absence of living and working as a community.
It so happened that during the days I was making my slow and careful way through this book, I was following a long-form interview with Temple Grandin that had just come out on podcast. Grandin has had stunning success in raising the standard for humane treatment of the animals we still depend on for our food, finding ways to get such companies as Burger King and McDonald’s among many others to pay far more attention to the welfare and the comfort of their animals.
Grandin is autistic and has an intensely visual intelligence. That has been crucial in her work, which has been practical and concrete, rather than just an abstract campaign for better treatment in general.
Her concentration on the practical and her profound awareness of it that comes from her visual-centered mind, has led her to realize two very large things — so much of America is falling apart; and American education has been getting rid of education that develops concrete intelligence and its skills and has taken on a dangerously unbalanced tilt towards abstractions. She bemoans the fact that classes in wood and metal shop and home economics, once commonplace, are almost as hard to find in American schools as mule teams are on American farms.
“About twenty years ago,” Grandin said, “they started taking shop classes out of school. Well, you can get away with that for a while, but the people I’ve worked with … are retiring., They are retiring out and they are not getting replaced. That’s happening with elevator and escalator mechanics, that’s happening with airplane mechanics.”
She noted the similar trend that affected in-house shops in large companies. In the abstract, it seemed easier and cheaper to farm the work out. Eventually, we sent it out of the country. She notes how almost all of the new equipment of any complexity that she meets in her work is coming from places where education values this concrete intelligence, with the Netherlands being particularly outstanding here.
But here, the turn away from practical intelligence has translated itself into ignorance on a large and dangerous scale. She has been looking at the power the easy vulnerability of our power generation and transmission systems to disruption by malevolent actors. It seems as if, exclusively occupied with abstractions, we are blissfully ignorant of any danger. She is therefore trying to bring our actual state of vulnerability to the attention of those who are in charge of these systems and bring about some concrete remedies.
Grandin is not proposing that concrete thinking should displace abstract thinking. Her point, rather, was that the two modes of thought are incomplete in themselves and must complement each other, both in our individual lives, in education, and in the social value we assign to them.
Berry, too, in the end, is proposing a rebalancing. He has written in his rich body of essays, for the need of our industry to follow the model of good work and accountability that his farmers lived by. His criticisms are based on his firm assertion that the love we say we want is based not on abstractions but on the way we harness ourselves to relate to the very concrete things we love. Love is of the particular, lifting it out of particularity into universal meaningfulness, but with the devotion, passion, and focus that mere abstractions cannot by nature provide.
Back in Berry’s story, it is 2015, and old Andy Catlett hasn’t the physical strength to do a fencing job. He hires some workers, whose work is slipshod and who leave the wreckage of the old fence carelessly scattered, leaving behind as well enough other damage to the field. Berry writes of Andy’s growing anger:
He was cursing them in his thoughts for their ignorance, idiocy, laziness, violence, and haste. He saw that wherever there had been a choice, they had preferred the easiest way to the right way.… He reminded himself that there had been a time when he had known hired hand, black and white, who had never possessed a square foot of their own land, who out of the common sense of their culture and upbringing would have recognized the badness of this work for what it was, and would have resented it.
This strikes a chord for anyone who has been fortunate enough to have some sense that there are right ways of doing things and that we are accountable for acting accordingly. It speaks to the depths of our loss in the fact that such the idea of any “right way” is considered contemptible or even dangerous by many of the loudest and most forceful voices in our country today, voices with large representation in our schools, our corporate management, and the halls of government officials, both elected and unelected.
Berry does not leave us without hope. He has Andy Catlett hire a young local college student, a talented musician but who is taken with the land, to help him fix the mess. Catlett works with him and sees him able and willing to be instructed.
Catlett and the young man are loading up the brush that the other workers had scattered about, and Andy corrects the young man when he took little care in how he loaded the brush onto the wagon that would take it away.
“Now,” he said, “we are practicing the art of loading brush. It is a fundamental art. An indispensable art. Now I know all about your ‘fine arts,’ your music and literature and all that — I’ve been to school too — and I’m telling you they’re optional. The art of loading brush is not optional…
“If the art of loading brush dies out, the art of making music will finally die out too. You tell your professors, when you go back, that you met an old provincial man, a leftover, who told you: No high culture without low culture, and when low culture is scarcest it is the highest. Tell ’em that. And then tell me what they say.”
There is here a workable match of abstraction and concretion, the varied intelligences that only together make an adequate humanity. There is no way not to feel the loss of the sense of a right way, which is both immensely complex and stunningly simple. Complex, since it relates to things as they are and not as we think convenient, things in their full individuality, living just as they do in the smallest detail. Simple, since in the end, we either choose the good work, or, God forbid, add to the ruin of whatever good work remains.
Berry ends this one story with Catlett looking appreciatively at the good work he and the young man wound up doing.
About as far as could be done in Andy’s lifetime, they had undone the bad work of the fencers. Maybe they had helped a little the healing of the hurt world. And he was proud of the boy.
Each of us in our different labors owes our families, our country, and our world no less. There is more than enough bad work to undo. But it can be done. Good work can be taught. And we can leave behind people who know the difference, of whom we can be proud.
We should do no less.