Great Throughts Treasury

A database of quotes

Wendell Berry

American Man of Letters, Academic, Cultural and Economic Critic, Farmer and Author of Novels, Short Stories, Poems and Essays

"Apparently, it is the nature of all human relationships to aspire to be permanent. To propose temporariness as a goal in such relationships is to bring them under the rule of aims and standards that prevent them form beginning. Neither marriage, nor kinship, nor friendship, nor neighborhood can exist with a life expectancy that is merely convenient."

"Nature is not easy to live with. It is hard to have rain on your cut hay, or floodwater over your cropland, or coyotes in your sheep; it is hard when nature does not respect your intentions, and she never does exactly respect them. Moreover, such problems belong to all of us, to the human lot. Humans who do not experience them are exempt only because they are paying (or underpaying) other humans such as farmers to deal with nature on their behalf."

"We can say without exaggeration that the present national ambition of the United States is unemployment. People live for quitting time, for weekends, for vacations, and for retirement; moreover, this ambition seems to be classless, as true in the executive suites as on the assembly lines. One works not because the work is necessary, valuable, useful to a desirable end, or because one loves to do it, but only to be able to quit - a condition that a saner time would regard as infernal, a condemnation."

"To cherish what remains of the Earth and to foster its renewal is our only legitimate hope of survival. But when nothing is valued for what it is, everything is destined to be wasted. Once the values of things refer only to their future usefulness, then an infinite withdrawal of value from the living present has begun. Nothing (and nobody) can then exist that is not theoretically replaceable by something (or somebody) more valuable. The country that we (or some of us) had thought to make our home becomes instead 'a nation rich in natural resources'; the good bounty of the land begins its mechanical metamorphosis into junk, garbage, silt, poison, and other forms of 'waste.' "The inevitable result of such an economy is that no farm or any other usable property can safely be regarded by anyone as a home, no home is ultimately worthy of our loyalty, nothing is ultimately worth doing, and no place or task or person is worth a lifetime's devotion. 'Waste,' in such an economy, must eventually include several categories of humans--the unborn, the old, 'disinvested' farmers, the unemployed, the 'unemployable.' Indeed, once our homeland, our source, is regarded as a resource, we are all sliding downward toward the ash-heap or the dump."

"A garden is the most direct way to recapture the issue of health, and to make it a private instead of a government responsibility."

"If we are serious about reducing the size of government and its burdens, then we need to return economic self-determination to the people… We must do it by fostering economic democracy. We must do everything possible to assure ordinary citizens the possibility of owning a small, usable share of the country."

"We are far more concerned about the desecration of the flag than we are about the desecration of our land."

"Soil is not usually lost in slabs or heaps of magnificent tonnage. It is lost a little at a time over millions of acres by the careless acts of millions of people. It cannot be saved by heroic feats of gigantic technology, but only by millions of small acts and restraints, conditioned by small fidelities, skills, and desires. Soil loss is ultimately a cultural problem; it will be corrected only by cultural solutions."

"Love is never abstract. It does not adhere to the universe of the planet or the nation or the institution or the profession, but to the singular sparrows of the street, the lilies of the field, “the least of these my brethren.” Love is not, but its own desire, heroic. It is heroic only when compelled to be. It exists by its willingness to be anonymous, humble and unrewarded."

"Love the quick profit, the annual raise, vacation with pay. Want more of everything ready-made. Be afraid to know your neighbors and to die. And you will have a window in your head. Not even your future will be a mystery any more. Your mind will be punched in a card and shut away in a little drawer. When they want you to buy something they will call you. When they want you to die for profit they will let you know. So, friends, every day do something that won’t compute. Love the Lord. Love the world. Work for nothing. Take all that you have and be poor. Love someone who does not deserve it. Denounce the government and embrace the flag. Hope to live in that free republic for which it stands. Give your approval to all you cannot understand. Praise ignorance, for what man has not encountered he has not destroyed. Ask the questions that have no answers. Invest in the millenium. Plant sequoias. Say that your main crop is the forest that you did not plant, that you will not live to harvest. Say that the leaves are harvested when they have rotted into the mold. Call that profit. Prophesy such returns. Put your faith in the two inches of humus that will build under the trees every thousand years. Listen to carrion — put your ear close, and hear the faint chattering of the songs that are to come. Expect the end of the world. Laugh. Laughter is immeasurable. Be joyful though you have considered all the facts. So long as women do not go cheap for power, please women more than men. Ask yourself: Will this satisfy a woman satisfied to bear a child? Will this disturb the sleep of a woman near to giving birth? Go with your love to the fields. Lie down in the shade. Rest your head in her lap. Swear allegiance to what is nighest your thoughts. As soon as the generals and the politicos can predict the motions of your mind, lose it. Leave it as a sign to mark the false trail, the way you didn’t go. Be like the fox who makes more tracks than necessary, some in the wrong direction. Practice resurrection."

"The Futility of Global Thinking 1. Beware the justice of Nature. 2. Understand that there can be no successful human economy apart from Nature or in defiance of Nature. 3. Understand that no amount of education can overcome the innate limits of human intelligence and responsibility. We are not smart enough or conscious enough or alert enough to work responsibly on a gigantic scale. 4. In making things always bigger and more centralized, we make them both more vulnerable in themselves and more dangerous to everything else. Learn, therefore, to prefer small-scale elegance and generosity to large-scale greed, crudity, and glamour. 5. Make a home. Help to make a community. Be loyal to what you have made. 6. Put the interest of the community first. 7. Love your neighbors--not the neighbors you pick out, but the ones you have. 8. Love this miraculous world that we did not make, that is a gift to us. 9. As far as you are able make your lives dependent upon your local place, neighborhood, and household--which thrive by care and generosity--and independent of the industrial economy, which thrives by damage. 10. Find work, if you can, that does no damage. Enjoy your work. Work well."

"Objectivity’ has come to be simply the academic uniform of moral cowardice: one who is ‘objective’ never takes a stand."

"A community is the mental and spiritual condition of knowing that the place is shared, and that the people who share the place define and limit the possibilities of each other’s lives. It is the knowledge that people have of each other, their concern for each other, their trust in each other, the freedom with which they come and go among themselves."

"A crowd whose discontent has risen no higher than the level of slogans is only a crowd. But a crowd that understands the reasons for its discontent and knows the remedies is a vital community, and it will have to be reckoned with. I would rather go before the government with two people who have a competent understanding of an issue, and who therefore deserve a hearing, than with two thousand who are vaguely dissatisfied. But even the most articulate public protest is not enough. We don't live in the government or in institutions or in our public utterances and acts, and the environmental crisis has its roots in our lives. By the same token, environmental health will also be rooted in our lives. That is, I take it, simply a fact, and in the light of it we can see how superficial and foolish we would be to think that we could correct what is wrong merely by tinkering with the institutional machinery. The changes that are required are fundamental changes in the way we are living."

"A corporation, essentially, is a pile of money to which a number of persons have sold their moral allegiance. Unlike a person, a corporation does not age. It does not arrive, as most persons finally do, at a realization of the shortness and smallness of human lives; it does not come to see the future as the lifetime of the children and grandchildren of anybody in particular."

"A man with a machine and inadequate culture is a pestilence."

"A farmer, as one of his farmer correspondents once wrote to Liberty Hyde Bailey, is a dispenser of the 'Mysteries of God.' The husband, unlike the manager or the would-be objective scientist, belongs inherently to the complexity and the mystery that is to be husbanded, and so the husbanding mind is both careful and humble."

"A farmer's market is worth more than everything I've written."

"A man's life is always dealing with permanence, that is the most dangerous kind of irresponsibility is to think of your doings as temporary."

"A mind that has confronted ruin for years is half or more a ruined mind."

"A proper community, we should remember also, is a commonwealth: a place, a resource, an economy. It answers the needs, practical as well as social and spiritual, of its members - among them the need to need one another. The answer to the present alignment of political power with wealth is the restoration of the identity of community and economy."

"A proper education enables young people to put their lives in order, which means knowing what things are more important than other things; it means putting first things first."

"A person who undertakes to grow a garden at home, by practices that will preserve rather than exploit the economy of the soil, has his mind precisely against what is wrong with us... What I am saying is that if we apply our minds directly and competently to the needs of the earth, then we will have begun to make fundamental and necessary changes in our minds. We will begin to understand and to mistrust and to change our wasteful economy, which markets not just the produce of earth, but also the earth's ability to produce."

"A tree forms itself in answer to its place and the light. Explain it how you will, the only thing explainable will be your explanation."

"A significant part of the pleasure of eating is in one's accurate consciousness of the lives and the world from which the food comes."

"A teacher’s major contribution may pop out anonymously in the life of some ex-student’s grandchild. A teacher, finally, has nothing to go on but faith, a student nothing to offer in return but testimony."

"A purposeless virtue is a contradiction in terms. Virtue, like harmony, cannot exist alone; a virtue must lead to harmony between one creature and another. To be good for nothing is just that. If a virtue has been thought a virtue long enough, it must be assumed to have practical justification - though the very longevity that proves its practicality may obscure it. That seems to be what happened with the idea of fidelity."

"After World War II, we hoped the world might be united for the sake of peacemaking. Now the world is being “globalized” for the sake of trade and the so-called free market—for the sake, that is, of plundering the world for cheap labor, cheap energy, and cheap materials. How nations, let alone regions and communities, are to shape and protect themselves within this “global economy” is far from clear."

"After a while, though the grief did not go away from us, it grew quiet. What had seemed a storm wailing through the entire darkness seemed to come in at last and lie down."

"Again I resume the long lesson: how small a thing can be pleasing, how little in this hard world it takes to satisfy the mind and bring it to its rest."

"Agriculture must mediate between nature and the human community, with ties and obligations in both directions. To farm well requires an elaborate courtesy toward all creatures, animate and inanimate. It is sympathy that most appropriately enlarges the context of human work. Contexts become wrong by being too small - too small, that is, to contain the scientist or the farmer or the farm family or the local ecosystem or the local community - and this is crucial."

"All good human work remembers its history."

"All right, every day ain't going to be the best day of your life, don't worry about that. If you stick to it you hold the possibility open that you will have better days."

"All the world, as a matter of fact, is a mosaic of little places invisible to the powers that be. And in the eyes of the powers that be all these invisible places do not add up to a visible place. They add up to words and numbers."

"Akin to the idea that time is money is the concept, less spoken but as commonly assumed, that we may be adequately represented by money. The giving of money has thus become our characteristic virtue. But to give is not to do. The money is given in lieu of action, thought, care, time."

"All the ancient wisdom tells us that work is necessary to us, as much a part of our condition as mortality; that good work is our salvation and our joy; that shoddy or dishonest or self-serving work is our curse and our doom. We have tried to escape the sweat and sorrow promised in Genesis - only to find that, in order to do so, we must forswear love and excellence, health and joy."

"Always in the big woods when you leave familiar ground and step off alone into a new place there will be, along with the feelings of curiosity and excitement, a little nagging of dread. It is the ancient fear of the Unknown, and it is your first bond with the wilderness you are going into."

"An art that heals and protects its subject is a geography of scars."

"And I declare myself free from ignorant love. You easy lovers and forgivers of mankind, stand back! I will love you at a distance, and not because you deserve it. My love must be discriminate or fail to bear its weight."

"An economy genuinely local and neighborly offers to localities a measure of security that they cannot derive from a national or a global economy controlled by people who, by principle, have no local commitment."

"And in some of the people of the town and community surrounding it, one of the characteristic diseases of the twentieth century was making its way: the suspicion that they would be greatly improved if they were somewhere else."

"And I knew that the Spirit that had gone forth to shape the world and make it live was still alive in it. I just had no doubt. I could see that I lived in the created world, and it was still being created. I would be part of it forever. There was no escape. The Spirit that made it was in it, shaping it and reshaping it, sometimes lying at rest, sometimes standing up and shaking itself, like a muddy horse, and letting the pieces fly."

"And the world cannot be discovered by a journey of miles, no matter how long, but only by a spiritual journey, a journey of one inch, very arduous and humbling and joyful, by which we arrive at the ground at our feet, and learn to be at home."

"And we pray, not for new earth or heaven, but to be quiet in heart, and in eye clear. What we need is here."

"And so there would always be more to remember that could no longer be seen...our history is always returning to a little patch of weeds and saplings with an old chimney sticking up by itself...and here I look ahead to the resting of my case: I love the house that belonged to the chimney, holding it bright in memory, and love the saplings and the weeds."

"As Gill says, every man is called to give love to the work of his hands. Every man is called to be an artist. The small family farm is one of the last places - they are getting rarer every day - where men and women (and girls and boys, too) can answer that call to be an artist, to learn to give love to the work of their hands. It is one of the last places where the maker - and some farmers still do talk about making the crops - is responsible, from start to finish, for the thing made. This certainly is a spiritual value, but it is not for that reason an impractical or uneconomic one. In fact, from the exercise of this responsibility, this giving of love to the work of the hands, the farmer, the farm, the consumer, and the nation all stand to gain in the most practical ways: They gain the means of life, the goodness of food, and the longevity and dependability of the sources of food, both natural and cultural. The proper answer to the spiritual calling becomes, in turn, the proper fulfillment of physical need."

"And you will have a window in your head. Not even your future will be a mystery any more. Your mind will be punched in a card and shut away in a little drawer."

"As I age in the world it will rise and spread, and be for this place horizon and orison, the voice of its winds. I have made myself a dream to dream of its rising, that has gentled my nights. Let me desire and wish well the life these trees may live when I no longer rise in the mornings to be pleased with the green of them shining, and their shadows on the ground, and the sound of the wind in them."

"Anybody interested in solving, rather than profiting from, the problems of food production and distribution will see that in the long run the safest food supply is a local food supply, not a supply that is dependent on a global economy. Nations and regions within nations must be left free — and should be encouraged — to develop the local food economies that best suit local needs and local conditions."

"As I have read the Gospels over the years, the belief has grown in me that Christ did not come to found an organized religion but came instead to found an unorganized one. He seems to have come to carry religion out of the temples into the fields and sheep pastures, onto the roadsides and the banks of the rivers, into the houses of sinners and publicans, into the town and the wilderness, toward the membership of all that is here. Well, you can read and see what you think."