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Wendell Berry’s fateful decision

When reading books or watching documentaries about sustainable, regenerative practices, it is a matter of when, not if, a person will quote Wendell Berry. The impact he has had on the world is amazing. He has had obvious impact on the environmental movement and “back to the land” organic small farms. He was also highly influential on Michael Pollan and Alice Waters—who in turn have become enormously influential.

Yet the Wendell Berry we admire might not have been. As a young man, he had a luminous path opening before him: studying at Stanford under the direction of Wallace Stegner with other soon-to-be-famous writers like Larry McMurtry and Ken Kesey; awarded a Guggenheim fellowship that took him to Europe; teaching at NYU. But he decided to go home:

The last thing I learned in New York was that I was ruining myself by leaving. I was under thirty, still. People I respected were saying, “Here you are, in the literary capital of the universe, and you’ve got a good job and you’re meeting other writers.” And so I came back here with some fear and trembling, but also a sense of doing the right thing. People give us credit for knowing what we were doing. We didn’t. We came back here because we wanted to. The justification has come in the form of a kind of happiness, but we didn’t anticipate that.

I do remember getting on the Jersey Turnpike when we were coming home. We had everything we owned in a Volkswagen Beetle. I don’t want you to make me sound like some kind of mystic, but, you know, I felt a great, deep relief—as if I was following, at last, my true path.

He had published Nathan Coulter by this time, so I don’t intend to imply that he would have been a wholly different sort of writer than he became. But he would not have been the farmer poet who writes about the care of the earth with Kentucky soil under his fingernails. That difference, I believe and—more importantly—he believes, made him what he is.

The lesson here is not that a decision to leave behind an extractive lifestyle in order to know and care for a particular place will make you famous and influential. I promise you it almost certainly will not. It will, however, bear fruit—literally and metaphorically. This is because the practice of care is a practice of reciprocity.

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