To Grandmother's House We Go

By MacKenzie Isaac

1024px farm in the traders point rural hd

Image Credit: Nyttend, via Wikimedia Commons

My grandmother has only ever seen two states in her life. She was born and raised in Kentucky – where she met my grandfather – and she raised her family in Indiana. The house in which she lives today has been her residence for over thirty years, and when asked if she would like a new house – a chance to explore the world beyond her own humble microcosm – she politely rejects the offer. She has tended to both the land and the neighbors surrounding her house, just as the land and neighbors have tended to her. This ongoing cycle of generosity has given my grandmother a sense of love and belonging that is simply irreplaceable. Her home is an integral part of her identity, and she cannot imagine living anywhere else. She has the physical and financial means to move elsewhere, but to withdraw herself from the home she has cultivated – to abandon her roots for something bigger, more convenient, more "modern" – would be to breach a relationship with her community, a relationship so deep-set and genuine that it is a rare find nowadays.

My grandma's unwavering affection for her home and the people and land who compose it exemplifies Wendell Berry's notion of an ideal world. If other people mimicked and emulated the lifestyle of my grandma – a lifestyle oriented around communal solidarity, proper use of natural resources, and affection, Berry's vision of how our society should operate would be fulfilled. Opponents, however, are quick to argue that this type of world is overly idealistic, that "'mobility': our forlorn modern progress toward something indefinitely, and often unrealizably, better" (17) is a necessity, even an inevitability. In response to this increasingly widespread way of thinking, Berry uses logic, emotion-eliciting anecdotes, and ethical appeals to assure his audience that a lifestyle founded on simplicity, imagination, and affection is not only possible, but it is imperative if our world is to be preserved.

In a tone that exudes both urgency and wisdom, Berry earnestly asks his audience to consider the roles of industrialism in the dissolution of affection in our nation. Proponents of industrialism assert that in the modern day, industrialism is necessary for society to properly function. As a counterargument, Berry provides several unsettling examples of the destructiveness of industrialism, such as the "eroded, wasted, or degraded soils" just beneath our feet, or – on a more macroscopic scale – the "pollution of the whole atmosphere and of the water cycle," resulting in the evolution of our beautiful, alluring world into a wasteland characterized by a "heartless and sickening ugliness" (22). The failing health of the land surely leads to the failing health of its inhabitants. Berry uses his evidence to conclude that "Corporate industrialism itself has exposed the falsehood that it ever was inevitable or that it has ever given precedence to the common good" (22). Not only does Berry's intense diction and imagery incite feelings of worry and disgust; it provokes the audience to consider whether the detriments of industrialism far outweigh the benefits, and whether these detriments can ever be remediated.

Berry answers the latter inquiry by logically spelling out what the general population can do. Humans must first be weaned off of our over-reliance on statistical knowledge. Berry argues throughout his lecture that statistical knowledge – emotionless, empirical knowledge that is used to build technology – cannot be appropriately applied to the human experience. To echo the sentiments of Berry, societies founded solely on statistical knowledge promote the objectification of humans. Treating humans as means to an end – as disposable, replaceable machines used for the benefit of another – is both illogical and unethical. Humans are not machines; thus, they are not to be treated as such. To insist that a purely statistical knowledge-based world is maintainable is to ignore "human limits and the necessity of human scale" (31). This type of insistence leads us to displace our affection and invest more time and attention into what is more efficient, more lucrative, more convenient. Machines often fulfill all three of these requisites, yet they are tools of destruction, and "[w]hen we give affection to things that are destructive, we are wrong" (15). Knowledge is essential to the upkeep of life, but "[k]nowledge without affection leads us astray" (35); no equation or algorithm is an adequate supplement for the emotional connection that is essential to the human experience.

As an alternative to this statistical knowledge, which Berry claims "is the stuff of unimagined life" (25), Berry proposes a new type of knowledge: the knowledge obtained through the imagination. This facet of Berry's argument urges readers to emotionally invest themselves in the problem of mobility and imagine the dire impact our continued behaviors will eventually have. Through this call to action – this call to imagine – Berry heavily employs pathos. He challenges his audience to imagine the life of a farmer, whose dignity is abased by the excesses of industrialism and who receives little profit for the fruits of his labor. The items that we mindlessly throw into shopping carts are the result of a toil largely unknown, but if we take a moment to appreciate the hearts and hands that go into what we consume each day, not only will we stop taking daily luxuries for granted, but we will develop compassion and sympathy for those who make these luxuries so easy to obtain. In an attempt to pull at the heart strings and underscore the personal societal risks he faces, Berry reveals that he is afraid that, much like his grandfather, he will be forced to "live in an economic shadow" as a modest farmer in a sea of smug businessmen. This strategy moves readers to imagine the situation from the perspective of the author himself, and the lecture evolves from a casual read into what feels like an emotional and active dialogue with someone whose livelihood is truly at stake. Then, "[a]s imagination enables sympathy, sympathy enables affection" (14), and affection is the ultimate trait to which the world should aspire. It is also important that we bear in mind that "…affection is personal. If it is not personal, it is nothing" (15). Affection applied on an individual, intimate level is the gateway to communal affection and, eventually, to societal affection. If the audience can sympathize with the trials of Berry and his family as dedicated farmers, then a ubiquitous sympathy and appreciation for farmers – for all those whose presence is blanketed by factory smoke – will come more naturally.

As readers analyze Berry's compelling argument against mobility and for affection, it is also important to understand that the strength of Berry's diction is intended to match the strength of his motives. As a scholar with agrarian roots, whose family legacy is jeopardized by the increasing presence of industrialism and the capitalist mentality, he bears witness to the pitfalls of industrialism more often than the average American citizen, and this significantly contributes to his use of ethos. The stakes he holds in successfully conveying this argument are clearly identifiable through both his family stories about life in rural Kentucky and his employment of the first person to further emphasize that "[w]e are all implicated" (23), even him, in the issue of mobility that plagues our society. Furthermore, as an extension of his argument, Berry claims that "from [his] own belief and experience…imagination thrives on contact, on tangible connection" (14). By declaring that he has personally seen and felt the benefits of imagination, Berry adds a considerable amount of legitimacy to his argument overall.

Berry's argument, while extensive and multifaceted, is centered around the importance of affection in the survival of humanity. We were created to be emotional, vulnerable, altruistic beings, yet we often abandon our very nature in the pursuit of ever-fleeting satisfaction. Berry appeals to his audience logically, emotionally, and ethically in a pursuit to address and fix this abandonment before it is too late. His intensive focus on reversing the consequences of industrialism and capitalism – including our obsession with mobility and our inappropriate application of statistical knowledge – is a tool to sway his audience more towards lives of selflessness and contentedness; lives where imagination leads to vulnerability and strong relationships; lives like that of my Grandma, the types of lives that you would politely reject the offer to change.