Thoughts on Wendell Berry’s ‘The World-Ending Fire’

My first thought is about Berry’s language. Every sentence weighs heavily in the mind, as gold weighs heavy in the hand. How does he combine ordinary words into such weighty thoughts? It is a gift of his. Reading him invites me to slow down and ponder each sentence carefully, weighing it up, letting it sink in. His observations are raw and relentlessly honest. He attributes his capacity for what I call his “clear vision” to the fact that he chose permanently to settle in and embrace his Native Hill.

Turning his back on the opportunities of New York City, his resolute return to his ancestral Kentucky farm county forced him to confront the full reality of the place, all the patterns etched in the history of its settlement: the violent expulsion of its native peoples, generations of wasteful farming, and a land and culture that yielded less with each successive year. These truths were not generalities to Berry. Choosing to live in and love his home, he familiarized himself with every rock, meadow, field, and flower, and this enabled him to grow his love and his thoughts in a mind rooted to the land. He determined to feel and understand the tragedy of the past as the land itself bore witness.

The first essay in the collection, A Native Hill, written in 1968, is a meditation on the meaning of place—what it is to be from somewhere and to belong somewhere. He writes of how the natives of North America and the peasants of the Old World belonged deeply, intimately, and intricately to their place. Whereas the European settlers of North America most often belonged nowhere, and thus treated new places and new people casually, even violently. In a sense, they never arrived in America, “not yet having devoted themselves to any part of it that would produce the intricate knowledge of it necessary to live in it without destroying it.” To live in without destroying: an art the world as a whole is dangerously close to forgetting entirely.

Place: Devotion: (Intricate) Knowledge: Life. This is the flow of consequences—a necessary and primal order—that Berry alerts us to.

Without place, we are rootless and must survive or fail to survive by mere happenstance. Without a devotion to that place and to future generations, we quickly exhaust available resources and can only travel on. But with care and devotion, never taking too much, or at the wrong time, we can continue in the same place—and this results in true knowledge. This is the knowledge of how to survive, or even thrive.

To survive is to live. To thrive is to live well. But since we have not done this and do not know these things, we send our machines to scour the face of the planet and vacuum up its resources for the benefit of our consumption. This is how we now survive—not by intricate knowledge of place, but by technology.

To make his thought clear, Berry relates an example: a late 18th century account of a band of wild buckskin pioneers assembled in the Kentucky wilderness to cut a new road into virgin territory. Following the original walking path used by the native inhabitants, these original Kentuckians chop their way through the old forest. Stopping work for the night, they make a giant bonfire of deadwood and green hickory, and as dark falls, they proceed to fight each other with burning brands for their evening’s entertainment. Berry discerns a parallel between the violence of their wanton forest hewing, and the violence of their dangerous entertainment.

These men are described in the original account as men who “know little”. Berry hints that their technology has allowed them to survive in this country without having to know much. They knew how to clear land and grow corn, and hunt game. Axe, plough, rifle. They have brute knowledge, and a minimum of technical know-how, but not a deep and intricate knowledge of place. The most significant technology these men possess is the road itself. For those with the deep and intricate knowledge of the land and forest, the delicate and winding footpath was path enough. The task of the pioneers, in contrast, was to subdue and conquer, to lay waste, and move on. The road symbolises and enacts the insignificance of place to this process.

Today, we make our home in a place by first bulldozing it. Then we pour gravel, and around the new building we add either topsoil and grass-seed or asphalt. We use asphalt to connect one house with another and every house with Walmart, which will soon be one of a very few businesses left standing in a community of any size. Likely, in the near future, giants such as Walmart, Home Depot, and Amazon will buy up the scattered remnants of small businesses, and we will have our choice of Walmart Burgers, Home Depot Pizza, or an Amazon Sandwich when we want our food fast. The rhythms of our lives will be dominated entirely by the neon undulations of work computers, Netflix, and Walmart. This is the path laid for us by that Kentucky band.

We have had fair warning, for a prophet arose in our midst. This prophet told us nothing hidden behind the misty conjunctions of stars and planets, but only what we could have learned for ourselves by looking at the ground under our feet. Many of us are aware of great danger to ourselves as our resources—fossil fuels, yes, but more importantly, soil, seeds, clean water—begin to fail. Many are aware that these times have the salt-tang of peril in the air. But what can we do?

If there is a remedy for this deadly pattern, it must lie in a reversal of course. As Berry says:

“We have been wrong. We must change our lives, so that it will be possible to live by the contrary assumption that what is good for the world will be good for us. And that requires that we make the effort to know the world and learn what is good for it. We must learn to cooperate in its processes, and to yield to its limits. But even more important, we must learn to acknowledge that the creation is full of mystery; we will never entirely understand it. We must abandon arrogance and stand in awe. We must recover the sense of the majesty of creation, and the ability to be worshipful in its presence. For I do not doubt that it is only on the condition of humility and reverence before the world that our species will be able to remain in it.”

I will only reiterate that Wendell Berry wrote the above lines in 1968.  Some will say that this just goes to prove that such “prophets of doom” are wrong, for nothing terrible has since come to pass. The problem with Berry’s prophecy is not that it is too soon, I only hope it was not too late.

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