“If We Want to Save the Land, We Must Save the People”: Wendell Berry and Uplifting Rural Communities

Continued from “Thoughts on Letters to a Young Farmer: Addressing Common Assumptions About Agriculture and Farming.” 

The essay by Wendell Berry had been written as a 2013 speech to the organization Kentuckians for the Commonwealth and reprinted in one of his books of essays two years later. The speech was then reprinted in the book Letters to a Young Farmer: On Food, Farming, and Our Future, where I discovered the words.

Berry is a Kentuckian whose writing can apply to rural areas across the United States. His writing is filled with advocacy for the farmer, the profession of farming, rural communities, and nature. I hadn’t read many of his essays before this, as I had trouble getting through them — not because the writing was difficult, but because I kept saying, “Yes!” to much of what he said and wanted to write it all down for future reference. I would begin scratching lines until I discovered I was about to copy an entire 20-page essay.

One reason Berry’s writing resonates so well is his frequent discussion on the connectedness of people and the land:

“…we must not speak or think of the land alone or of the people alone, but always and only of both together. If we want to save the land, we must save the people who belong to the land. If we want to save the people, we must save the land the people belong to….All of us who are living owe our lives directly to our connection to the land. I am not talking about the connection that is implied by such a term as ‘environmentalism.’ I am talking about the connection that we make economically, by work, by living, by making a living. This connection, as we see every day, is going to be either familiar, affectionate, and saving, or distant, uncaring, and destructive.” (p. 96)

Everything we do goes back to the land in some way. Even things we see as removed, such as computer chips or vacuum cleaners, are connected to the soil, to rocks, to trees, to the raw materials of which they’re composed.

Too often, we disconnect ourselves from the land. We disconnect from our need for nature. We see a field of prairie grass as a waste of space, a soccer pitch as the foundation for a new research building, or a park as an inhibitor to a new parking garage.

To truly thrive, we need to work with nature, not against it.

Agriculture and other industry is filled with examples of how this principle can work. In the 1890s in Foyers, Scotland, a small town on the southwestern shore of Loch Ness, an aluminum factory was built. During World War II, the factory was a target of bombings due to its contributions to British and other forces. To me, its location felt far from the war, quiet in a glade of trees next to the loch. But for Norwegian planes, it was a short flight over the North Sea.

When the factory was first built, there had been some protest. It was located in a naturally scenic area near Foyers Falls, a waterfall about which Robert Burns wrote a poem in 1787. The owner had replied (paraphrased), “Why wouldn’t the people want this? This is a chance to have industry near their homes so that they can stay in this beautiful place.”

Because of its location, the factory could use the loch and hydroelectric power from the waterfall. The local people gained more job options. Perhaps more people would have moved into the area (granted, not something for which everyone would be eager). Those additional people would provide more business for the stores already present.

I don’t know the scale of any environmental consequences for the area while the factory was there. Those consequences need to be considered when deciding what businesses should be present in an area. How can those businesses mesh with the natural resources already available?

The beautiful thing about technology and the era in which we live is that there are ways to create zero waste facilities. It’s possible to make businesses that both fit in with the landscape and provide vital services and jobs. Factories are not always the answer to providing jobs in an area. It takes entrepreneurship, creative thinking and innovation to see what’s there and make it an opportunity. In this particular case, a factory was needed. But there are many other ways to provide jobs.

The community has the power to do this.

“It is a small logical step from understanding that self-determination for an individual depends on ‘your own place on your own land’ to understanding that self-determination for a community depends on the same thing: its home ground, and a reasonable measure of local initiative in the use of it. This gives us a standard for evaluating the influence of an ‘outside interest” upon a region or a community. It gives us a standard for evaluating the policy of ‘bringing in industry’ and any industry that is brought in.” (p. 97-98)

But, Berry warns:

“Brought in industries are likely to overwhelm small communities and local ecosystems because both the brought-in and the bringers-in ignore the issue of scale.” (p. 99)

The area needs the appropriate infrastructure for a new business, whether that’s waterworks, roads (and not every road has to be an interstate in order for a business to be willing to locate to a new place), or more. Community members, architects, and business owners need a knowledge of the land and the people and how a business can fit in without damaging either.

To be continued.


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