Wendell Berry Essay Solving For Pattern

In addition to his significant writings in nonfiction, largely essays such as “The Making of a Marginal Farm” about his own experience living on and restoring the land, or the more recent “Renewing Husbandry,” Wendell Berry is known as well for his poetry and fiction. This is omething you might be interested in pursuing for further reading with your final project in mind.

But it is Berry, the essayist, we give most of our attention to in this course. And so, with the genre and tradition of the essay in mind, I suggest that we can approach Berry’s agrarian–one might even call it, pastoral–vision from three perspectives that also comprise an essay. In the terms of classical rhetoric, a writer or speaker can appeal to an audience in one of three ways, ideally engaging in all three: ethos (credibility, character of the speaker), pathos (empathy, engaging the feeling of the reader), and logos (evidence).

In “The Making of a Marginal Farm,” a well-known essay that is first published in The Orion magazine, we see Berry focus on loss and restoration, on land and love, on responsibility and reclamation–in both the cultural and agricultural senses of those words. [Indeed, the subtitle of one of his many collections of essays is: Essays Cultural and Agricultural] The idea of loving the land seems crucial to Berry’s vision. So, too, being responsible to the land on which we live, the place from which we are from. We heard this initially from Leopold. As Berry puts it memorably, he is not talking about a pastoral vision, about “living an idyll.” What he has in mind is something more…basic, if not boring:

One’s relation to one’s subject ceases to be merely emotional or esthetical, or even merely critical, and becomes problematical, practical, and responsible as well. Because it must. It is like marrying your sweetheart.

What do you make of Berry’s notion of love as a model for environmental ethics? How might we locate this in the terrain of environmental writers (Thoreau…Burroughs/Muir…Leopold…Dillard) we have explored thus far?

Seems to me that in both cases, the case of mourning a loss and the case of marrying a sweetheart, there is a relation to the natural world (not the world made by machines) that Berry seeks that locates responsibility in some sort of heartache or love. What could that mean? One answer could take us back to “Solving for Pattern.” Berry has in mind a responsiveness that he names pattern–and defines, in some specific senses of the term, organic. Another answer could take us back to Thoreau: “I love a broad margin to my life”-though for Thoreau, that also means not farming all the time.

In “The Making of a Marginal Farm,” Berry calls the farm–and I would say as well, the essay–a “reclamation project.” Berry’s philosophical-rhetorical-poetic project, I would argue, can be characterized with the various words of return, words with the prefix “re,” that he often uses quite deliberately: reclamation, restoration, renewal, remedy, responsibility–and ultimately, the keyword relation.” These words mark places where Berry’s ethos emerges with his logos and pathos. For good reasons these essays sound like a jeremiad, essays or narratives denouncing and decrying the current state of society; but like the prophet speaking from the margins of the society, Berry understands that we can learn from the margins–ironically–about how to restore to the  center the complexity it lacks.

The margin reappears in Berry’s essay “Preserving Wildness.” This is an essay to return to and think more about and use, perhaps, as a mentor for a final project. For now, I would highlight for our initial discussion of Berry two places where he elaborates further his understanding of love and of margins. In both cases, in redefining and repurposing some words we otherwise and more commonly (Thoreau might say, too cheaply) use, I think we also find an example of his underlying premise, that the natural and the cultural, the human and the non-human natural world, for better and for worse, are inextricably linked.

523: I would call this a loving economy, for it would strive to place a proper value on all the materials of the world, in all their metamorphoses from soil and water, air and light to the finished goods of our town and households, and I think the only effective motive for this would be a particularizing love for local things, rising out of local knowledge and local allegiance.

529: Looking at the monocultures of industrial civilization, we yearn with a kind of homesickness for the humanness and the naturalness of a highly diversified, multipurpose landscape, democratically divided, with many margins. The margins are of the utmost importance. They are the divisions between holdings, as well as between kinds of work and kinds of land. These margins–lanes, streamsides, wooded fencerows, and the like–are always freeholds of wildness, where limits are set on human intention.

Living in these margins, marrying one’s sweetheart may not be as boring as I had presumed. Berry’s invocation of love–as in marriage, as in “loving economy”–weaves together his ecological philosophy, poetics, and rhetoric. Love, he argues, is what moves us. In the preface to Home Economics, the collection in which “Preserving Wildness” is published, Berry writes of his essays in the root sense of the genre: “my essays as trials, not because I think that they render verdicts, but because they make attempts, trying out both their subjects and my understanding. Often, too, the try my patience.”

Berry was recently awarded the Jefferson medal from the National Endowment for the Humanities. You can read the lecture he gave in Washington, “It All Turns on Affection.” In it, he explores and attempts a case for the ways imagination (call it poetics) leads to sympathy (call it rhetoric) and ultimately to his key value (philosophy), love and affection for one’s place: “As imagination enables sympathy, sympathy enables affection. And it is in affection that we find the possibility of a neighborly, kind, and conserving economy.” You can watch a video of the lecture here.

For a sense of Berry’s voice and vision–listen to this reading, introduced by Bill McKibben.

For a reference point on Wendell Berry’s philosophical, poetic, and rhetorical influence in current environmental writing and thinking, consider Michael Pollan’s panegyric that positions Berry (in contrast to Thoreau and wildness) as the important voice in the current environmental focus on the food system, “Wendell Berry’s Wisdom”:

It was Wendell Berry who helped me solve my Thoreau problem, providing a sturdy bridge over the deep American divide between nature and culture. Using the farm rather than the wilderness as his text, Berry taught me I had a legitimate quarrel with nature–a lover’s quarrel–and showed me how to conduct it without reaching for the heavy artillery. He relocated wildness from the woods “out there” (beyond the fence) to a handful of garden soil or the green shoot of a germinating pea, a necessary quality that could be not just conserved but cultivated. He marked out a path that led us back into nature, no longer as spectators but as full-fledged participants.

Obviously much more is at stake here than a garden fence. My Thoreau problem is another name for the problem of American environmentalism, which historically has had much more to say about leaving nature alone than about how we might use it well. To the extent that we’re finally beginning to hear a new, more neighborly conversation between American environmentalists and American farmers, not to mention between urban eaters and rural food producers, Berry deserves much of the credit for getting it started with sentences like these:

Why should conservationists have a positive interest in…farming? There are lots of reasons, but the plainest is: Conservationists eat. To be interested in food but not in food production is clearly absurd. Urban conservationists may feel entitled to be unconcerned about food production because they are not farmers. But they can’t be let off so easily, for they are all farming by proxy. They can eat only if land is farmed on their behalf by somebody somewhere in some fashion. If conservationists will attempt to resume responsibility for their need to eat, they will be led back fairly directly to all their previous concerns for the welfare of nature. –”Conservationist and Agrarian,” 2002

That we are all implicated in farming–that, in Berry’s now-famous formulation, “eating is an agricultural act”–is perhaps his signal contribution to the rethinking of food and farming under way today.

Knowing Berry’s critical views of food and animal science, one can only imagine what he would say of this short video from the Food Science trade group. Pollan links to this, asking: How did we ever eat before food science?

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When I read the book Ecological Literacy several years back, I did not anticipate that Wendell Berry's essay on Solving for Pattern (free pdf download) would stick with me endlessly. It remains one of the most profound essays I have ever read. I took notes when I reread it the first time which I'll share with you here. This will serve as a preliminary to a praxis I'm evolving to facilitate solving for pattern using some of the insights from actor-network theory.

Wendell Berry tells us there are three kinds of solutions:

  1. Bad Solutions that cause a ramifying set of new problems (like warming a wilderness clearing at night with a small campfire that starts a raging forest fire)
  2. Bad Solutions that immediately worsen the immediate problem (like compounding the difficulty of moving forward by removing the wheels to lighten the load)
  3. Good Solutions that function in harmony with larger patterns (like composting to generate nutrients enriched soil and reduce the mass of disposed waste)

He then details attributes of this third kind of "good solutions":

  • The solution accepts given limits of the situation, rather than becoming far fetched or expansive
  • The solution accepts the discipline involved rather than imposing foreign disciplines
  • The solution improves balance and symmetries rather than pursuing singular improvements at the expense of other facets
  • The solution solves more than one problem rather than tackling a complex situation in piecemeal fashion
  • The solution satisfies a whole range of criteria rather than optimizing, idealizing or specializing what gets satisfied
  • The solution makes a clear distinction between biological and mechanical order rather than perceiving natural dynamics as machines to fix
  • The solution incorporates wide margins so the whole is not jeopardized by failure of one component, rather than setting up a cascading system failure
  • The solution realizes a right proportion, rather than going for a maximum gain, overkill and heavy handed solutions
  • The solution is affordable rather than making individuals rich and forcing others to overspend
  • The solution occurs in place and at work within the organism rather than remotely, abstractly or ideally
  • The solution understands the minds, bodies and environment as one organism rather than separate entities
  • The solution is good for each part as well as for the whole, rather than exploiting weaknesses and vulnerabilities
  • The solution is in harmony with good character rather than pursuing novelty, fashion, greed or pride

More than two year ago, I wrote a persistently popular post titled Solving for pattern which explores the cognitive obstacles to this praxis. Last week I realized that we make solving for pattern difficult for ourselves when we picture situations comprised of objects, people and other things. We effectively "black box" all those interactive interests which spawn invisible connections to the other "things". However, when we picture the assemblages of interests in flux, we've set ourselves up to solve for pattern easily. I explore this insight further in my next post.

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