Miguel Escobar Torres
Wendell Berry Photo by Guy Mendes
Wendell Berry is an author who has started to appear more and more frequently in certain areas of the Church with regard to the theology of creation. However, it should be noted that Berry is not a conventional author. He is not a great theologian or philosopher – at least not in the academic sense in which the term is often used. He is not even a Catholic, and he does not actively participate in the liturgy, preferring to wander through the forest while his wife goes to church. But then, what kind of person is this old man in whom so many people have begun to find inspiration, even in Spain? The answer is that he is a farmer, a poet, and a writer. Behold the man.
Wendell Berry is a lover of creation, but the title “lover of creation” should be clarified as it can be used in many ways. In what sense is he not a “lover of creation”? He is not, in the sense of the affluent man who uses his vehicle to leave his comfortable urban apartment, taking to the highway with a backpack full of provisions and supplies – in addition to his watch, which tracks his steps and his pulse – to set out into the mountains with the goal of disconnecting for the weekend from the worldly noise of the cities, only to return a short time later to his polished apartment and his life of business. No, Wendell Berry is not a mountaineer occasionally going off on a mountain adventure, bungee jumping, hiking or climbing with great deal of equipment that he previously acquired in a convenient shopping mall.
So in what sense is he a “lover of creation”? In the sense of the man who has escaped from civilization – semantically bound to the idea of the “city” – in order to become a true peasant. This is a man who does not go to the countryside only in passing; instead, he settles down on a farm to put down roots and to live within the cycles of the seasons and the harvests, even if he does not possess – at least at first – that modern invention that separates civilization from barbarism: the flush toilet. Wendell Berry doesn’t go to the country to “work remotely,” but to work. He does not attempt to bring the frenetic commercial life of the city to the country, but to break that frenzied rhythm and sink his hands and feet into the fertile soil of the dark, moist earth. He goes not only to reconnect with nature but also with humanity itself, which they try in vain to shackle to a virtual anticosmos.
That “life is a miracle,” as one of his most well-known titles states, means that the miraculous is contained within life, not that life, now devoid of the supernatural and reduced to mere biology, should be admired as if it were a miracle. The return to nature implies abandoning this modern comfort zone, oblivious to the miracle within life, which has separated man from his natural cycles of time. Berry rediscovers nature by living and working in it, and in doing so he rediscovers humanity, life, time, and God.
This implies a revolutionary – and very necessary – change in our way of thinking. It might seem that it suffers from a certain type of idealism that proposes notions more poetic than possible: we are not all going to leave the cities and move to the countryside. Okay. But Wendell Berry is fully conscious of this. In The Art of the Commonplace, another of his titles, he explains that he is not proposing that everyone become rural farmers – a thing just as impossible as if all modern people were to dedicate themselves to manufacturing. Nevertheless, although not all modern persons dedicate themselves to manufacturing, we all share that same industrial mentality.
The real reason why Wendell Berry is a revolutionary author is not because he goes to the mountains and exclaims to himself, “How pretty nature is!” Rather, it is because he calls us today – me and you, dear reader – to substitute the modern industrial (or, as I would say, virtual) mentality for the agrarian one, even if we are not farmers, so that we come to discover not only that nature is “pretty” but that it truly constitutes an immense cosmic liturgy.
Miguel Escobar Torres is a Spanish philosopher, professor of Metaphysics, Theory of Knowledge, and Ethics at the King Juan Carlos University. He lives in Madrid with his wife, Fernanda, and their Siamese cat, Tom.