KR Reviews

On The World-Ending Fire by Wendell Berry

Introduced by Paul Kingsnorth. Berkley, CA: Counterpoint Press, 2018. $25.00.

“Over the last twenty-five or thirty years, I have been making and remaking different versions of the same argument,” writes Wendell Berry, and it is this one argument—an argument made in various forms across his forty-some books of fiction, nonfiction, and poetry—which has established him as the voice of agrarian America. He sums the argument up this way: “[W]e humans can escape neither our dependence on nature nor our responsibility to nature, and . . . because of this condition of dependence and responsibility, we are also dependent on and responsible for human culture.” Though on the surface this argument seems quaint, pastoral, almost archaic, for Berry it could hardly be more relevant today. In his writings, especially his nonfiction, he urges readers to eschew the esoteric, the abstract, and automatic thoughts and assumptions of modern society in favor of slowing down, paying attention, and returning to the most tangible thing any of us have known: the earth and the people who walk it.

Enter The World-Ending Fire,a new collection of old essays by Berry. The essays in this anthology are collected and introduced by Paul Kingsnorth. Kingsnorth is a writer and self-described environmentalist from Western Ireland, and in the introduction he alludes that at least part of his goal is to assist in spreading Berry’s writing beyond America. I wasn’t familiar with Kingsnorth or his writing before this collection, but in reading the introduction I felt a kinship for his reverent notes on the impact of Berry’s work. Like myself, and probably any diligent reader of Berry, he describes the influence of the writings, ultimately admitting that he fails to find the right words. Yet his introduction succeeds because he keeps his own words short, allowing the arrangement of the essays to speak for themselves.

I’d read most of these essays before, but I believe that to be the point of this collection. By distilling the “essential” Wendell Berry, longtime readers are invited back into classic writings, forcing a reexamination of ideas that are so worth reexamining. Among these ideas are the value of the land; admonitions to learn about farming and food origins; criticisms of culture (including technology and progress for its own sake); and suggestions to slow down, observe our own mistakes, and try to live in better harmony with each other and the world. The essays weave in and out of these ideas, connecting them where applicable, and challenging any reader, regardless of location or vocation or political persuasion, to think about how to live better. The essays are cast into slightly different light by the arrangement, which is not chronological or really even thematic but rather based on Kingsnorth’s gestalt. I found the order to be excellent, but almost inconsequential, as they cover such a close collection of topics that the book almost reads as a single essay in many chapters.

Which is back to the point, then, about Berry reincarnating the same ideas over and over, across time, though not really space. The point of many of these essays is locality, of which Berry has made a pointin his fiction writing—the imagined but representative town of Port William—and also his life, which features more in these essays. In a world screaming at us to want more, want bigger, want better, want faster, want cheaper, Berry asks us a simple question: why? And then he reminds us that there’s a different way. When others would never dream of the possibility, Berry continues to farm with a team of horses, on a small plot of land, in a rural countryside of Kentucky.

I think two essays in particular merit mention beyond the rest. The first is “The Work of Local Culture.” The essay begins with a remarkable description of an old galvanized bucket, which has been hanging on the same post on Berry’s farm for “something like fifty years.” The bucket serves as a de facto compost bin, gathering rain and debris and waste and in turn, creating soil. Though literally amazing, this is metaphorically the crux of the essay, in which Berry talks about the erosion of human culture along with human agriculture. “As local community decays along with local economy, a vast amnesia settles over the countryside. As the exposed and disregarded soil departs with the rains, so local knowledge and local memory move away to the cities or are forgotten under the influence of homogenized sales talk, entertainment, and education.” If we lose sight of the past, if we fail to recognize the value of diverse experiences (particularly geographically diverse, what Berry would call local), then we will lose that miraculous ability to make culture, which is to say, earth.

“The Pleasures of Eating” is another essay I want to highlight, because it is one I return to often. It is among the more “practical” of Berry’s essays, with clear, take-home principles for the reader to apply. Yet it doesn’t read as an authoritarian prescription, but rather a look at the essential principles on which so many of his other writings are founded. He addresses the questions of “city people” who read his books or hear his lectures and want to know how to do better, how to apply his words to their lives. He offers several thoughts on knowing and participating in the food industry, as well as a brief list of practices that can be applied simply, though not easily, by any of us, even those who live far from Henry County, Kentucky.

Any collection such as this one raises the question: what defines essential? As good as these and the other essays are, the primary limitation of this collection is that it contains only essays. While these probably represent the most poignant of Berry’s arguments for conservation and farming, they only represent one genre in which Berry consistently publishes. Much of his fiction and poetry would be considered, I think, among his essential work. So perhaps this collection can be viewed as one-third of the essential; the nonfiction here is as good as anything he’s written, but we need a volume of essential poetry and a volume of essential fiction. Or perhaps, we just need to slow down and take the time to read all of it.

The common adage about content and form, how their integration should create a harmony that makes the work more than the sum of its parts, is often said of poetry, but it applies to the essays in The World-Ending Fire, too. How fitting that the story of the land, in all its glory and beauty and divinity, is given to us here in the language of a poet. There’s really no other way to get the point across. If you’ve never read Wendell Berry, then let me be clear: you should, and this collection would be a suitable place to read some of his very best essays. They’re worth rereading, too, because they spread a message that we need to hear again and again, to somehow resist its fading. And once you’ve finished this book, read some of his poems and short stories, too; they are every bit as essential, which is to say, very much so.

Brent Schnipke
Brent Schnipke is a reader, writer, doctor, and psychiatrist in training in Dayton, OH. He writes books reviews, essays, articles, and the occasional poem for a variety of publications, including Doximity, the Kenyon Review, the Cresset, Intima, and Student Doctor Network. His interests include medical humanities, medical education and mental health.