Sunday, December 25, 2016

The Resettling of America

Wendell Berry is a national treasure. He's a productive writer, and is also known for his environmental activism based on a strong moral sense and unique ability to state deeper truths. He is by far known for his poetry and fiction, but his nonfiction essays are what are most compelling to me. (Though I do need to read more of his fiction)

Wendell Berry's book "The Unsettling of America: Culture and Agriculture" was written in 1977, the year I was a junior in college. I read the book three years ago, at age 58, after having just bought 44 acres and returned to the land after decades of urban/suburban life.

In this book, he critiqued the long term trend here in America of urbanization. As more people moved from the land, farming changed into a fossil fueled industrial model.  People's connection to the land was no longer central, and a sense of stewardship was replaced by profit at all cost. He argued that the very fabric of our society became torn. He pointed out several governmental and institutional enablers for the trend. The great urbanization, and decline of family farms and rural America is still where we are today.

The wikipedia article on Wendell gives more info on his views and impact on our culture, so go there for more of that. My point here is to follow up on his observations in the Unsettling book.  He felt that the land grant colleges had become beholden to industrial ag, and no longer helped innovate and research ways for small farms to succeed. He also felt that the government itself was captured by corporate interests, and had abandoned the family farm.

I was part of the urbanization trend, and not so much by choice. Small family farms were going bankrupt in the late seventies, early eighties, and it looked like a dead end trap to many of us farm kids. None of my brothers or I stayed on the farm.  

But now, in 2016, I think we are beginning to see a reversal of the urbanization trend, and I do not mean white flight to the suburbs. While the rural/urban split is still the norm, I have begun to notice that young folks are recognizing the suburban lifestyle feels like something is missing.

As our economic empire slowly declines, there are less opportunities for them in the "knowledge economy", and the service sector is a rigged game and a poverty trap. Living where I do, I have met many young folks who have moved to the area with no more to their names than a car, some clothes, and a glimmer of an idea. They are determined to figure out how to make an intentional living by growing food, and reconnect with the land.

Of course, long term ( two to four hundred years, give or take? ) , resettling the land as a more agrarian culture and economy will be inescapable as fossil fuel enabled mechanization will become more expensive, and eventually very minimal. Human and animal labor will replace hydrocarbons to an uncertain extent over time. We should recall that at one time, well over 50% of the population worked at farming, and they fed the rest of the population. It's not like human scale farming is an unknown thing. It will be fascinating to see what blend of traditional ways and more recent knowledge our future farming will become.

In the coming years, we will once again learn the true cost of food. 

Now is the time to get back through the learning curve of farming without diesel fuel or synthetic fertilizers. Much of the knowledge is still out there, ( I live near Amish, who farm with horses, as well as some homesteaders who are off grid and making a go of it) with a few practitioners already leading the way, but it needs to be spread and shared, and above all, practiced. I find that leafing through the books gives me a good start, but real hands on experience is irreplaceable. I personally am only early in my journey, but know where I am headed.

We are at the very early start of another great transition, and in some ways, it is exciting, but no mistake, weaning off of fossil fuels will be painful and a hardship. The earlier we start, ( with the training wheels on, so to speak) the easier it will be. While inescapable, the reestablishment of community and local connections will be I think a positive result.

( As a post script, I am aware that this reflection is only about the European experience, and does not address the fact that the continent was already fully settled and in equilibrium with the land before we arrived. I may post thoughts on that sad genocide some other time)


  1. Hi Steve,
    It is exciting isn't it? Yup, early days is a good description for this journey, so I hear you. I've been wondering how younger people can get access to land as it seems to be very tightly held here and very expensive - far beyond its economic merits. Do you have any thoughts about that as people keep asking me this question?

  2. Yes, the average age of famers here in the U.S. is around 59. Some kind of transition has to happen. And land is very expensive, farming is no way to get rich, so getting a loan and paying it off are not good options. Access for relocalizing and the next generation that want to do so is a real dilemma.

    There are some inklings of how this may play out, but right now, the momentum is still moving toward larger, corporate, high tech, high input farming. My post was about small countertrends that I am hopeful will be the start of something larger.

    I know a nearby permaculturist that offers young folk to come "intern" on his farm, where they take over one of the several operations, ( apples, cydery, pastured beef, or pork, or alley cropped veggies, or something new of their own initiative) and they have the chance to at least learn some things, if not actually obtaining land. Mixed results, but at least they get a cheap way to get some experience without the burden of loan payments.

    I don't expect you to follow all these links, but here are some small, tentative attempts to make the shift. Different models out there, but I don't know which will be the most effective.

  3. I see this very thing happening around us as well. Being your little sister, I have lamented the fact that one of us didn't find a way to keep the 100 acres that we grew up on. While my hubby and I are a few years behind you in establishing a family homestead to leave to our children, I am thrilled that our son, Isaac, especially is ALL IN on this. It is so exciting to be starting our first season of chicks and bees, but we realize that we will have some failures and small disasters. It is helpful to be able to get your feedback on plants, animals, composting, etc. So, thanks for that!
    While I agree that it is imperative to develop alternatives to coal-based energy sources, I'm disturbed by the aggressive wind-harnessing companies tactics to get their paws on federal tax dollars. One part of this situation that many don't consider is the gobbling up of farm land for the wind "farms". In our county alone there are 20,000 acres under contract agreements as of now. Many generational farmers have signed leases all over the Midwest, only to deeply regret it later for many reasons. I would like to see better alternatives that don't affect the environment negatively.
    That said, we will continue our progress towards a self-sufficient mini-farm and teaching the next generation as we learn ourselves "best practices".

    1. Thanks for stopping by. My blog has some info on homesteading, some thoughts on the wider world, but please call or email if you have specific questions. Yes, it is a relearning process, and we've made our share of "experiments with negative outcomes" ( one can actually learn more form these sometimes).

      wind power- I know you have been very active in this area, and I can see why. While I think they are a better choice than coal, developers have had a mixed performance in their behavior, and unfortunately, in the industrial model, someone has to suffer for the energy we all need. Turbines only use around 10% of the farmland, so the land can still be used for farming, but in the long run, wind turbines are only extending the fossil fuel era a bit, and are not a long term solution. We'd all like to see better alternatives, but they don't exist. The real solution and challenge is for our society to learn how to power down, which is one of the key reasons to learn how to homestead.

      Good luck with your new adventure.

  4. Hello Steve. I was happy to come across your blog and read this post. I have read almost all of Wendell Berry’s non-fiction, as well as Sir Albert Howard’s The Soil and Health and put a lot of stock into what they have to say. I’m interested in contacting like-minded people and having discussions on how to advance the project of treating the earth and the creatures on it with care. I would like to talk with people who don’t think looking for alternatives to mechanization and industrialization is absurd. I live in a big city and I don’t ever see myself moving to a farm, but I think it is important for those living in cities to be thinking along these lines. So I wanted to say hello. While I am not trying to solve the same problems as a person trying to live on a farm without using diesel fuel or synthetic fertilizers, I see that you and those who comment here are facing the same overall problem that I think about: how do we live in the industrialized world while working to change it? That question will have many answers, but what stood out to me about this post is the notion of being at the beginning of a great project. That is exciting. Yes, it will involve pain and hardship as well as excitement, but the current system offers plenty of pain and hardship without the hope.

    Robert F

    1. Robert: The world wide web is, as area many human inventions, an amazing tool for both good and bad. Our inventions merely leverage and multiply our normal human abilities, again for good or bad. One thing it does is connect people to their tribe(s), be they across the street or across the world.

      My particular world view is shared by many, but of course their are myriads who do not share it. I'm glad you are searching and trying to make connections, and that is how tipping points are eventually reached.

      Yes, we who see a different future at odds with current trends still have to deal with facts on the ground, so have a foot in both worlds. Simply being conscious and intentional in our actions is a good start, but in the end, changing our actions, be it slow and incremental, or more quickly, is our only hope. While you live in the city, how you spend your money and personal energy will have ripple effects, so are every bit a part of the solution as my planting perennials.

      Transitioning back from the hydrocarbon era to a culture and economy of living within the biosphere limits is a huge project, and yes, we have a lot to do.

      Prophetic voices like Wendell's are good for me to stay on guard that I don't forget what has been lost, and what is timeless.