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Wendell Berry and the Prophetic Voice

Rebecca Spears

26 Farmer

I am done with apologies. If contrariness is my inheritance and destiny, so be it. If it is my mission to go in at exits and come out at entrances, so be it.  “The Contrariness of the Mad Farmer

 One thing I am passionate about is reducing my carbon footprint in the world, and I want not only other individuals to reduce their footprints, but I also want our society to change its course before we irreparably harm the earth. Many voices are urging us to do so. One voice in particular belongs to Wendell Berry, whom Bill McKibben and others have called a prophet. In a 2013 interview, Bill Moyers named Berry a visionary, who is “calling for immediate action to end industrial farming and return to the sustainable farming methods of years past.” But more than this, Berry audaciously tells us we need to return to an agrarian society, not only for environmental reasons, but also for social, moral, and spiritual reasons. I am with him on this.

Historically, we don’t treat our prophets well, especially the ones we don’t want to hear. Yet sometimes with all the bickering that goes on in the public sphere, it’s a monumental task to figure out whom we should trust in the first place. Even among the ancients, prophets’ words often went unheeded and the people suffered for it. It’s a bad habit we have.

When we hear prophet, the first thing most of us imagine is someone divinely inspired, who reveals God’s intentions to the people. We’re stuck on that definition, and we’re afraid to call anyone else a prophet because the bar appears too high. Often we don’t designate a person “prophetic” until after a great calamity—then we realize we should have listened to the prophet, and we should have taken action. Remember the individuals who tried to show us that we were headed toward the 9/11 tragedy or toward the recent collapse of our financial institutions? We didn’t recognize these voices until after the fact. Could we think of prophet in another way, as a person with extraordinary insight, an inspired person? Would we be more apt to listen to a prophet then, or more willing to act?

Early prophets of environmental stewardship, including Aldo Leopold and Rachel Carson, tried to tell us about the cost of industrial, quick-fix solutions to our problems. Wendell Berry, I think, speaks with the clearest voice today of one who understands not only the physical, but the spiritual cost of earth’s demise. He has said that it is important for people like him, “who have no power,” to speak about the madness of our industrial lifestyles because most politicians and highly positioned officials cannot and will not speak so plainly. He calls his way “leadership from the bottom,” and he is passionate that all of us start doing what is right for our earth: “We don’t have a right to ask whether we’re going to succeed or not. The only question we have a right to ask is what’s the right thing to do? What does earth require of us if we want to continue to live on it?” Quite simply, if we see a problem, we need to start doing something about it. That is all Berry asks of us, in the same way that other prophets have asked us to change our ways.