Caught by the River

The World-Ending Fire

Andy Childs | 24th June 2017

The World-Ending Fire: The Essential Wendell Berry, selected and introduced by Paul Kingsnorth (Allen Lane, 354 pages. Out now.)

Review by Andy Childs

I am not a regular listener to Radio 4’s ‘Start The Week’, but an edition broadcast a couple of months ago caught my ear. It featured the author Paul Kingsnorth, who is of course no stranger to this domain, Kate Raworth, who has written what sounds like an eminently sane and important book called Doughnut Economics, and Wendell Berry – farmer, writer, poet, environmentalist and all-round exemplary human being. As is often the case with radio chat shows, all three had books just published. Kate Raworth explained the radical theory behind her vision of how economics should work in a way that made perfect sense to someone fiscally semi-literate like me, and Paul Kingsnorth talked about his own new book Confessions of a Recovering Environmentalist and about this volume of essays by Wendell Berry – The World-Ending Fire – that he has compiled and written the introduction for. Berry himself, now in his eighties, spoke to us from his farm in Kentucky and sounded as wise, thoughtful and deliberate as his writing suggests he would be.

There are thirty-one essays collected in this quietly powerful book, dating from 1968 to 2011, and the most striking of them are primarily concerned with Berry’s life-long campaign to alert and educate the world to the enormous damage that is being done – to the land on which we depend for our food, and to the environment and our well-being in general – by industrial food production methods fuelled by the demands of negligent, avaricious, short-sighted food companies in pursuit of cheaper and more abundant produce. The idea of farming as a noble pursuit requiring careful, local land husbandry, deep knowledge of place and a symbiotic connection to the soil has all but vanished. The global, free-market industrial economy – so damaging to the environment and, Berry argues, to the human spirit – is now so entrenched in political and business strategy that, despite the interventions of new technology, we are inexorably on a path to environmental disaster, the consequences of which we can only guess at. Alarming stuff. Not particularly revelatory and obviously skewed to a U.S. experience, but no less vital and illuminating for all that, especially in the hands of a writer like Berry – relatively unknown over here, but the sort of voice that employs wit, ernestness, experience, knowledge, and sublime logic and should, for the sake of our planet’s future, be heard more widely.

‘A Native Hill’, the very first essay here, is an impassioned and poetic eulogy for the patch of land in The Bluegrass area of Kentucky that Berry calls his own and that he has grown to know and love so well. He so clearly loves the craft of traditional, responsible farming, the life-affirming connection to the land, and the deep satisfaction that it provides him. As a small-holder who needs to manage the sustainability of his land he is understandably preoccupied with the state of the top soil. To build five feet of soil, he says, takes fifty or sixty thousand years, and with half of the world’s topsoil washed away in the last century it desperately needs to be conserved and valued and handled carefully. Industrial farming methods blatantly fail to do this. In several other essays he elaborates on the ‘quality’ of farming, responsible eating (being more aware of where our food comes from and the processes involved), the disappearance of rural communities, the many forms of environmental ignorance and the obvious long-term value of nurturing the land as opposed to exploiting it.

In ‘Faustian Economics’ (2006) he talks about the “world-ending fire of industrial fundamentalism” that operates on the premise that fuel supplies are limitless, and concludes that we have reached a point where we can no longer cure the ills of industrialism with technology and scientific innovation. The climate-change deniers, environmental vandals and the industrial food business have always relied on the increasingly sceptical premise that man’s innovative ability to constantly provide a technological solution to the problems he creates in the natural world will see us through. Not any more, says Berry.

So what’s to be done? Or is it all too late? Berry doesn’t pretend to have a magic consensual solution. He exhorts us to do everything we can as individuals to help save the land and, in larger, organised groups, to continue to put pressure on government and big business; but there seems to me to be a largely undiscussed dilemma at the heart of the problem. In ‘The Unsettling of America’, first published in 1977, Berry states that “we must be prepared to say that enough food, year after year is possible only for a limited number of people”, which hints at, but doesn’t really fully address, the question of how we can feed an ever-growing world population – one that is growing exponentially and that we have accepted we can’t control – without resorting to the kind of farming methods that Berry so reviles. And I can understand why he reviles them and he is extremely persuasive in his reasoning; what he says is sane, humane and eminently responsible. I just can’t help thinking though that, for most people, the human race is on a path that precludes the kind of local husbandry that he advocates. We can’t all produce our own food and most people want/need it to be cheap and easy to access. One could argue that there are already too many people on the planet to accommodate Berry’s philosophy on a scale that could make a significant difference to the overall quality of the land. And, more pertinently, there doesn’t seem to be any inclination on the part of the industrial-economic complex to even try and address this issue now or at any time in the immediate future.

Inherent in Berry’s belief in community-based and environmentally sensitive farming practices is his conviction – again compellingly argued – that technological innovation very rarely produces tools that get the job done more efficiently or provide a more satisfying work experience. He uses horses to pull the ploughs on his farm, eschews all but the most essential power tools and gadgets and explains his rationale in the essay ‘Why I Am Not Going To Buy A Computer’, first published in 1987 and doubtless still the blueprint for his life today. If it wasn’t for the obvious common sense and irrefutable logic of his reasoning, he could well be branded a luddite and a relatively harmless eccentric, but there is an extremely attractive and romantic core to Berry’s vision of self-sufficiency that should make us all constantly consider if there is as much added value that technology brings to our lives as we’re coerced into believing. As he says in a more recent piece from 2004, ‘Quantity versus Form’, “the more superficial and unsatisfying our lives become, the faster we need to progress’. And progress is something that Berry is clearly sceptical of. Unfettered consumerism, mass production, unsafe science – these are all anathema to Berry’s utopian vision.

This book is not all a relentless environmental polemic though. There is an essay called ‘The Rise’ from 1969 – about the Kentucky River. Part travelogue, part memoir, and part philosophy, it should resonate with all of us habitually drawn to the riverbank. There’s also a very thoughtful and provocative piece on Huckleberry Finn and a typically robust ‘In Defense of Literacy’. His concerns and interests are those of a man committed to a life of maximum self-sufficiency, a practical, common-sense approach to innovation, and a meaningful relationship with his local environment and community based on knowledge and respect.

Ultimately, this is both an inspiring and deeply sober book. I wish I could extract as much hope for our ecological future as there is wisdom contained in its pages; wisdom that is self-evident and which we continue to ignore at our peril.


Andy Childs on Caught by the River/on Twitter