The Art of Loading Brush: New Agrarian Writings

The Art of Loading Brush: New Agrarian Writings

by Wendell Berry


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"In Berry’s new book, The Art of Loading Brush , he is a frustrated advocate, speaking out against local wastefulness and distant idealism; he is a gentle friend, asserting, as he always has, the hope possible in caring for the world, and your specific place in it . . . The Art of Loading Brush is singular in Berry’s corpus."
The Paris Review

"Berry's essays, continuing arguments begun in The Unsettling of America 40 years ago, will be familiar to longtime readers, blending his farm work with his interests in literature old and new . . . Vintage Berry sure to please and instruct his many admirers."
Kirkus Reviews (starred review)

"[Berry] has never written better."
Booklist (starred review)

Wendell Berry’s profound critique of American culture has entered its sixth decade, and in this gathering he reaches with deep devotion toward a long view of Agrarian philosophy. Mr. Berry believes that American cultural problems are nearly always aligned with their agricultural problems, and recent events have shone a terrible spotlight on the divides between our urban and rural citizens. Our communities are as endangered as our landscapes. There is, as Berry outlines, still much work to do, and our daily lives—in hope and affection—must triumph over despair.

Mr. Berry moves deftly between the real and the imagined. The Art of Loading Brush is an energetic mix of essays and stories, including “The Thought of Limits in a Prodigal Age,” which explores Agrarian ideals as they present themselves historically and as they might apply to our work today. “The Presence of Nature in the Natural World” is added here as the bookend of this developing New Agrarianism. Four stories extend the Port William story as it follows Andy Catlett throughout his life to this present moment. Andy works alongside his grandson in “The Art of Loading Brush,” one of the most moving and tender stories of the entire Port William cycle. Filled with insights and new revelations from a mind thorough in its considerations and careful in its presentations, The Art of Loading Brush is a necessary and timely collection.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781640091580
Publisher: Counterpoint Press
Publication date: 01/22/2019
Pages: 288
Sales rank: 200,103
Product dimensions: 5.40(w) x 8.20(h) x 0.80(d)

About the Author

WENDELL BERRY, an essayist, novelist, and poet, has been honored with the T.S. Eliot Prize, the Aiken Taylor Award for poetry, the John Hay Award of the Orion Society, and the Richard C. Holbrooke Distinguished Achievement Award of the Dayton Literary Peace Prize, among others. In 2010, he was awarded the National Humanities Medal by Barack Obama, and in 2016, he was the recipient of the Ivan Sandrof Lifetime Achievement Award from the National Book Critics Circle. He is also a fellow of the Academy of Arts and Sciences. Wendell lives with his wife, Tanya Berry, on their farm in Henry County, Kentucky.

Read an Excerpt


"Is there, at bottom, any real distinction between esthetics and economics?"
— Aldo Leopold, A Sand County Almanac & Other Writings On Ecology and Conservation , Curt Meine, editor, The Library of America, page 420

I want to say something about the decline, the virtual ruin, of rural life, and about the influence and effect of agricultural surpluses which I believe are accountable for more destruction of land and people than any other economic "factor." This is a task that ought to be taken up by an economist, which I am not. But economists, even agricultural economists, farm-raised as many of them have been, do not live in rural communities, as I do, and they appear not to care, as I do, that rural communities like mine all over the country are either dying or dead. And so, only partly qualified as I am, I will undertake this writing in the hope that I am contributing to a conversation that will attract others better qualified.

I have at hand an article from the Wall Street Journal of February 22, 2016, entitled "The U.S. Economy Is In Good Shape." The article is by Martin Feldstein, "chairman of the Council of Economic Advisors under President Ronald Reagan...a professor at Harvard and a member of the Journal's board of contributors." Among economists Prof. Feldstein appears to be somewhere near the top of the pile. And yet his economic optimism is founded entirely upon current measures of "incomes" "unemployment," and "industrial production," all abstractions narrowly focused. Nowhere in his analysis does he mention the natural world, or the economies of land use by which the wealth of nature is made available to the "American economy." Mr. Feldstein believes that "the big uncertainties that now hang over our economy are political."

But from what I see here at home in the watershed of the Kentucky River, and from what I have seen and learned of other places, I know that industrial agriculture is in serious failure, which is to say that it is not sustainable. Projecting from the damages of the comparatively brief "American" histories of states such as Kentucky and Iowa, one must conclude that the present use of the farmland cannot be sustained for another hundred years: The rates of soil erosion are too high, the runoff is too toxic, the ecological impoverishment is too great, the surviving farmers are too few and too old. To anybody who knows these things, by witness of sight or by numerical measures, they would appear to qualify significantly the "good shape" of the economy. I conclude that Prof. Feldstein does not know these things, but is conventionally ignorant of them. Like other people of privilege for thousands of years, but far more numerous now than ever before, he appears to take for granted the bounty of nature and the work that provides it to the human economy.

In remarkable contrast to the optimism of Prof. Feldstein, The New York Times of March 10, 2016, printed an article, "Who's Killing Global Growth?" by Steven Rattner, "a Wall Street executive and a contributing opinion writer." Mr. Rattiner's downhearted assessment, like Prof. Feldstein's upbeat one, is based upon measures that are entirely economic or monetary, quantitative, and abstract: "financial markets," "projections for future growth," "wages," "consumer spending," "rising supply," "disappointing demand," etc. The "global growth" Mr. Rattner has in mind is purely financial and is without reference to the effect of such "growth" upon the health and the welfare of the globe's actual people and other creatures. Like Prof. Feldstein, Mr. Rattner appears to suppose, consciously or not, that the natural world and human workers will continue to supply their necessary goods without limit and to the allure simply of money.


I have at hand also a sentence from The New York Review of Books , September 24, 2015, by James Surowieki, another highly-credentialed economist. Mr. Surowieki is reviewing among others a book by Joseph E. Stiglitz and Bruce C. Greenwald, Creating a Learning Society: A New Approach to Growth, Development, and Social Progress. This book, the reviewer says, "is dedicated to showing how developing countries can use government policy to become high-growth, knowledge-intensive economies, rather than remaining low-cost producers of commodities." I have kept this sentence in mind because of the problems it raises, all relating to my concern about the damages imposed by national and global "economies" upon land and people. Mr. Surowieki's sentence seems to be highly condensed and allusive, a sort of formula for increasing economic growth— or, as it actually says, for turning countries into economies. The sentence no doubt is clear to economists, but it has put me to some trouble. My interest is not in the principles, analyses, and theories of these economists, since they seem mainly to ignore the natural world and the human communities that are my concern. I am interested here in their public language, by which they reveal what they accept, and expect most others to accept, as axioms— what one might call their lore or more accurately their faith.

I assume, then, that by "low-cost producers of commodities" Mr. Surowieki means "poorly paid producers of cheap commodities," that these commodities are material goods or raw materials produced from the land, that "knowledge-intensive economies" are based upon the abilities to exploit, trade, add value to, and market the cheaply-produced commodities. Apparently it is taken for granted that this improving formula applies to all developing countries, their people, their land, and their natural resources, without regard to differences or distinctions among them. This disregard of local and personal differences is a major article of this faith. It takes for granted furthermore that a knowledge-intensive economy, by causing growth, development, and social progress, will change a developing country into a developed country, and that this will be an all-around improvement. From the standpoint of industrial economists and their clients, this apparently is self-evident and unquestionable. It becomes immediately and urgently questionable from the standpoint of a dweller in a rural countryside who is bound to it by ties of history, family, and affection.

Here we arrive at a fundamental division of interest and allegiance, as probably also at the difference between two kinds of mind. The attention of these economists, and of others professionally related to them in the world of development, is directed as a matter of course to the economy and to what, according to their abstract measurements, is good or bad for it. The attention of settled dwellers, at home in their chosen or hereditary places, is directed partially, of course, and often in fear or sufferance, to the economy, but their attention is directed also, out of natural affection and solicitude, to their places, to the particular, unique, and irreplaceable patches of ground under their feet. Another difference involved here, if the settled dwellers are farmers, is that between people whose livelihoods are primarily dependent upon salaries and people whose livelihoods are primarily dependent upon the weather — a difference immeasurable in extent and implication.


The settled dwellers, then, in their natural desire to remain settled, and facing the "promises" of development, certainly are going to have questions for the developers, and the first would be this: What is the net good that industrial economists, their employers, and their clients appear customarily to credit to growth, development, and social progress? In the United States, since at least the Civil War, and ever more rapidly since World War II, we have achieved industrial versions of all of those goals. But almost nobody is asking what is the worth of that achievement after we deduct its ecological and human costs. We have, in fact, been turning our country into an economy as fast as possible, and we have been, and are, doing so by an unaccounted squandering of its actual, its natural and its cultural, wealth.

As a second question, we should ask why commodities, the material goods that support our life, and the work of producing them, should be "low cost" or significantly cheaper than the goods and services of a "knowledge-intensive economy." There is no reason to believe that the present market values of technological (developmental) knowledge and of commodities are absolute or in any way permanent. Nor is there reason to believe that such issues of value are, or can be, reliably settled by the supposedly fair and infallible "free market" of our present economy, or by any market. The good health of the land economies is a value that a market as such cannot consider and cannot protect. Moreover, agribusiness in all of its aspects is a knowledge-intensive system, which uses knowledge ruthlessly to control and exploit land and people.

Apparently it is assumed that a country's economy of commodity-production, which would or could be as diverse as the country's climate and soils permit, can safely be replaced or further depreciated by an economy of knowledge only. And so, as a third question, we must ask how secure and how beneficent is a one-product economy. Is the market for knowledge infinite in its demand, or can it be over-supplied and depressed, as the one-product economy of coal in the Appalachian coal fields has often been? And it hardly needs to be said that in the Appalachian coal fields the benefits of the coal economy to a rich and distant few has never adequately been measured against its impoverishment of the local people and their land.
Perhaps no outsider— no visiting expert, no dispassionate observer, certainly no outside investor — will notice the inherent weakness and cruelty of a one-product economy in a region or a country. But the adverse effects will certainly be visible, acutely feelable also, to the resident insiders. Those who live, and must make their lives, within the boundary of such an economy experience daily the readiness of their political leaders to endorse and excuse the destructiveness of "the economy," also the public unwillingness to remedy or compensate the damages to the land and the people. The Appalachian coal economy has not only inflicted immeasurable, immeasurably lasting, ecological and social damage to its region, but has also distracted attention and care from the region's other assets: its forests, soils, streams, and the (too often exported) talents of its people.

And so a fourth question: How, even in a knowledge-intensive economy, even unendingly "growing" and wealthy, are the people's needs for food, clothing, and shelter to be met? Does the development of a highly lucrative knowledge economy entirely eliminate the need for the fundamental economies of subsistence? Do people eat and wear knowledge? Do they sleep warm in it? I know very well what the far-seeing economists will answer: People earning large salaries from "high-growth, knowledge-intensive economies" will buy their material subsistence from "low-cost producers of commodities" at home or, if not at home, then elsewhere. It is assumed that where there is a demand, and enough money, there will be unfailingly a supply, and this is another article of the industrial economic faith: The land and its "resources" will be always with us, and so will the poor who will dig, hack, and whittle an everlasting supply of low-cost commodities until they can be replaced by knowledge-intensive machines that will dig, hack, and whittle, no doubt on solar energy, faster and at a lower cost.


Table of Contents


New Agrarian Writings

1. The Presence of Nature in the Natural World

2. The Thoughts of Limits in a Prodigal Age

3. The Future (Probably) Is Coming: A Letter to Charlie Sing

4. A Long Ancestry

5. The Branch Way of Doing

6. The Order of Loving care [How His Mind Was Made III]

7. The Art of Loading Brush

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