Wendell Berry Studies I: Mother Nature’s Son
Wendell Berry’s recent Jefferson Lecture was not, as both his supporters and detractors have acknowledged, his finest piece of writing. His use of the lectern to present a theory of Kentuckian animosity for all things Duke that began well before 1992 has, however, obscured the more interesting and important aspect of the address—which, to one well-read, though by no means an expert, in Berry’s writing, at the very least felt new: his explicit and concise argument for affection. In this post and several following, I want to try to understand Berry’s particular brand of affection and its implications. This post is meant to be an introduction that lays out my intuitive, possibly too parochial, critique of a writer for whom I have much sympathy — even affection.
Among the more interesting feuds in the political blogosphere is the one that picks up every so often between the Porchers and the Pomocons. For the former, Berry is the central contemporary writer; the latter want, in essence, to hear him out but hold him at arm’s length. I’ve found myself sympathetic to both sides and their critiques (and, at times, defenses) of contemporary culture and politics. A central component to the Pomocon critique of Front Porch agrarianism/localism is the charge that Berry slouches toward pantheism. Initially, I dismissed this as a misreading—but it is a charge which I find increasingly plausible and would, I fear, undermine portions of Berry’s thought from within.
This is not to say, however, that Berry is a pantheist. Rod Dreher recently fired back at such a charge,
Berry, who is some sort of Protestant, is talking about the sacramental quality of the created world — which is not the same thing as pantheism. His book against scientism, “Life Is a Miracle,” is a profoundly Christian statement of intellectual humility and the sacramental worldview. “Pantheism”? Good grief. That’s on the same level as saying that Catholics worship statues.
Setting aside anatomical correctness, this brings me to the third camp in which I have a foot: a particular brand of Jewish thinking that is, by necessity, cosmopolitan and pluralistic and that, with Cynthia Ozick and Emmanuel Levinas at its head, takes as its central polemic that the world needs its Pharisees to disenchant it.  From this perspective (and without intending to imply that Catholics are idolators), there is something that makes one look askance at saints and icons—and in precisely the same way as Berry’s relationship to a capitalized, personified Nature. It veers toward something that makes the good Pharisee stop short.
Berry, in writing about nature specifically, does precisely what Dreher argues. Nature is not divinity itself, but a kind of icon that spans the breadth of the planet. The danger comes when his theory of affection requires that he harness the concept of “Nature” to act as an objective mediator between affections that are good and affections that are bad. Berry is aware that the language of affection lends itself to the language of relativism, and pushes back against this possibility. Not all affections, he asserts, are equal:
We should, as our culture has warned us over and over again, give our affection to things that are true, just, and beautiful. When we give affection to things that are destructive, we are wrong. A large machine in a large, toxic, eroded cornfield is not, properly speaking, an object or a sign of affection.
Nature is both an object and an arbiter of our affections: a simultaneous yet distinct Is and Ought. The Is of Nature is clearly, in Berry’s view, not the ideal toward which we strive; it is unclear (doubtful, in fact) whether the Was has ever been, either.  But Nature is nonetheless capable of correcting our deviations from the Ought and, if we listen carefully, perhaps even guiding us toward it before we err. This is the role that personifies Nature:
As many hunters, farmers, ecologists, and poets have understood, Nature (and here we capitalize her name) is the impartial mother of all creatures, unpredictable, never entirely revealed, not my mother or your mother, but nonetheless our mother. If we are observant and respectful of her, she gives good instruction. As Albert Howard, Wes Jackson, and others have carefully understood, she can give us the right patterns and standards for agriculture. If we ignore or offend her, she enforces her will with punishment. She is always trying to tell us that we are not so superior or independent or alone or autonomous as we may think.
Nature is a source of inspiration (Berry’s word) but is importantly a universal source of inspiration. It may, indeed, be the only universal—that is, the universal arbiter of Ought. Nature, alone, is an objective source of inspired affection. But inspiration, as an event that can come to the individual from outside the bounds of his perception, is a religious event, the deed of a deity, a breathing into, as God does to Adam in Genesis. I don’t mean to say that Berry thinks this capitalized Nature is, in fact, God. He is not even taken there unknowingly by the logic of his argument. But by presenting nature as the only non-subjective means of inspiration and knowledge of human limits, it becomes the only means of accessing objective truth. To the religious-minded, that is, Nature, while not God, becomes the only means of accessing God. (Even being generous and granting Nature status equal to, rather than above, the Bible leaves us in a troubling place.)
What Nature inspires, of course, is affection: it is the lost key to life and culture on which, as the title of the lecture has it, all turns. But affection is by necessity not for universal Nature but particular places, people, and communities. To claim that I have affection for nature is near-meaningless: what I really mean is that I have affection for this woods, this stream, or this hill that I have repeatedly, unintentionally damaged and then striven to lovingly repair. I have and can only have affection for a part of nature: for a place.
Herein, broadly construed, is the danger: that my place inspires. That the particular, not the universal, becomes the arbiter of proper affection—that, indeed, affection itself becomes the arbiter of affection. Even Berry concedes that we cannot truly know or grasp Nature—that, he writes, is for God alone. But if this is the case, how can I be inspired by anything but my place?
Affection for place that is not governed by something outside of affection for place verges on the idolatrous. When Levinas calls for a Pharisaical dis-enchanting of the world and delivers polemics against enthusiasm, and when Ozick, with a nearly paranoiac loathing of anything that might be idolatrous, condemns the Western Civilization she loves as pagan and cultic, they make arguments that may be Judaic but which are not exclusively Jewish. It was the Church, after all, which gave us the concept of the demonic—and there is, perhaps, a reason that the Greek daimones, inhabiting places and speaking to particular individuals, were eventually transformed into the demons that rebelled against God—and who then became the false, cultish gods of particular places.
NEXT: Why Berry is wrong to pit affection against and prefer it to morality.
 Ozick’s short story “The Pagan Rabbi” and essays “Toward A New Yiddish,” “Literature as Idol: Harold Bloom,” and “The Riddle of the Ordinary” (in Art and Ardor) are her exempla; for Levinas, see “Desacralization and Disenchantment” in Nine Talmudic Readings or the blessedly short “The Pharisee is Absent” in Difficult Freedom, though the full first section of the collection is relevant. (Any passage in which he criticizes Simone Weil for misunderstanding Judaism will also do, more or less.)
 If you’ve got your Art of the Commonplace handy, I believe I’m thinking of “A Native Hill” in particular. But the concept that humanity has been changing nature from time immemorial is a recurrent theme in Berry’s writing; what is less clear is the possibility or meaning of changes to nature that have nothing to do with human intervention.