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Wendell Berry on the Grandeur of Small Places and the Perils of Our “Rugged Individualism”

“The extent of our knowledge will always be… the measure of the extent of our ignorance.”

Novelist, poet, farmer, and environmental activist Wendell Berry (b. August 5, 1934) is the closest thing our era has to Thoreau — a magnificent writer whose poems and essays remind us, over and over, what it means to be awake to the world, inner and outer. Whether he is contemplating solitude and the two great enemies of creative work or examining how poetic form illuminates the secret of marriage, Berry breaks through even our most hardened ego-shells and beams into the cracks enormous warmth and wisdom.

That’s precisely what he does in The Way of Ignorance and Other Essays (public library) — a masterwork of luminous lucidity on our civilizational shortcomings, delivered with the intelligent hope necessary for doing better.

Wendell Berry (Photograph: Guy Mendes)

In the introduction, penned years before Stuart Firestein’s manifesto for “thoroughly conscious ignorance” and a decade before astrophysicist Marcelo Gleiser’s elegant modern case for living with mystery in the age of knowledge, Berry clarifies the misunderstood value of ignorance:

There are kinds and degrees of ignorance that are remediable, of course, and we have no excuse for not learning all we can. Within limits, we can learn and think; we can read, hear, and see; we can remember. We don’t have to live in a world defined by professional and political gibberish.

But… our ignorance ultimately is irremediable… Do what we will, we are never going to be free of mortality, partiality, fallibility, and error. The extent of our knowledge will always be, at the same time, the measure of the extent of our ignorance.

Because ignorance is thus a part of our creaturely definition, we need an appropriate way: a way of ignorance, which is the way of neighborly love, kindness, caution, care, appropriate scale, thrift, good work, right livelihood…

The way of ignorance, therefore, is to be careful, to know the limits and the efficacy of our knowledge. It is to be humble and to work on an appropriate scale.

Illustration from The River by Alessandro Sanna

In a beautiful essay titled “Contempt for Small Places,” Berry — a lifelong celebrator of the grandeur of smallness, and a self-described “small writer” and “small farmer” — reflects:

The health of the oceans depends on the health of rivers; the health of rivers depends on the health of small streams; the health of small streams depends on the health of their watersheds. The health of the water is exactly the same as the health of the land; the health of small places is exactly the same as the health of large places…

We cannot immunize the continents and the oceans against our contempt for small places and small streams. Small destructions add up, and finally they are understood collectively as large destructions.

Berry points to the coal industry as a major culprit in this accretion of small destructions — and now, a decade later, one can’t help but wonder whether almonds are the new coal, with so many of the same commercial and political dynamics at play. With an eye to “the contradictions in the state’s effort ‘to balance the competing interests,’” Berry quotes Kentucky Appalachian Commission director Ewell Balltrip’s perfect articulation of the interdependencies at stake:

If you don’t have mining, you don’t have an economy, and if you don’t have an economy you don’t have a way for the people to live. But if you don’t have environmental quality, you won’t create the kind of place where people want to live.

He revisits the complexities surrounding these conflicting interests in another essay from the same collection, titled “Rugged Individualism”:

The career of rugged individualism in America has run mostly to absurdity, tragic or comic. But it also has done us a certain amount of good. There was a streak of it in Thoreau, who went alone to jail in protest against the Mexican War. And that streak has continued in his successors who have suffered penalties for civil disobedience because of their perception that the law and the government were not always or necessarily right. This is individualism of a kind rugged enough, and it has been authenticated typically by its identification with a communal good.

The tragic version of rugged individualism is in the presumptive “right” of individuals to do as they please, as if there were no God, no legitimate government, no community, no neighbors, and no posterity. This is most frequently understood as the right to do whatever one pleases with one’s property. One’s property, according to this formulation, is one’s own absolutely.

Illustration from Once Upon an Alphabet by Oliver Jeffers

To be sure, Berry’s “rugged individualism” is simply a more poetic term for our common complaint of “entitlement” — an accusation usually aimed at the young, which upon closer inspection reveals itself as a major undercurrent of capitalist society itself. Contemplating how we got there, Berry points to the aberrant evolution of property rights — something that originated as protection of the private individual and mutated into destruction of the public good:

Rugged individualism of this kind has cost us dearly in lost topsoil, in destroyed forests, in the increasing toxicity of the world, and in annihilated species.

When property rights become absolute they are invariably destructive, for then they are used to justify not only the abuse of things of permanent value for the temporary benefit of legal owners, but also the appropriation and abuse of things to which the would-be owners have no rights at all, but which can belong only to the public or to the entire community of living creatures: the atmosphere, the water cycle, wilderness, ecosystems, the possibility of life.

What has only exacerbated the situation, Berry argues, is the growing tendency toward granting brands and companies the status of “persons,” who then exercise their own “rugged individualism” by further abusing these property rights as permission to do as they please. Berry writes:

Because of the overwhelming wealth and influence of these “persons,” the elected representatives and defenders of “the people” … become instead the representatives and defenders of the corporations.

It has become ever more clear that this sort of individualism has never proposed or implied any protection of the rights of all individuals, but instead has promoted a ferocious scramble in which more and more of the rights of “the people” have been gathered into the ownership of fewer and fewer of the greediest and most powerful “persons.”

Illustration from Inside the Rainbow: Beautiful Books, Terrible Times

Once again, it’s hard not to think about the almond-farming predicament and other such modern manifestations of this corporate anthropomorphism of property rights as Berry concludes:

“Every man for himself” is a doctrine for a feeding frenzy or for a panic in a burning nightclub, appropriate for sharks or hogs or perhaps a cascade of lemmings. A society wishing to endure must speak the language of care-taking, faith-keeping, kindness, neighborliness, and peace. That language is another precious resource that cannot be “privatized.”

Under the tyranny of “rugged individualism,” this profound disconnect between our personal interests and our world’s wellbeing is a rift rooted in pitting the wilderness as an antagonist to human progress and seeing the welfare of the two as mutually exclusive — a pie fallacy which began at least as early as the Industrial Revolution and which Bertrand Russell bemoaned in his 1930 classic, observing that we’ve come to measure our progress by our “separation from the life of Earth.” How we ended up with this rift is what Berry examines in another essay from the volume, titled “Compromise, Hell!”:

Since the beginning of the conservation effort … conservationists have too often believed that we could protect the land without protecting the people… If conservationists hope to save even the wild lands and wild creatures, they are going to have to address issues of economy, which is to say issues of the health of the landscapes and the towns and cities where we do our work, and the quality of that work, and the well-being of the people who do the work.

Governments seem to be making the opposite error, believing that the people can be adequately protected without protecting the land… If we know that coal is an exhaustible resource, whereas the forests over it are with proper use inexhaustible, and that strip mining destroys the forest virtually forever, how can we permit this destruction? If we honor at all that fragile creature the topsoil, so long in the making, so miraculously made, so indispensable to all life, how can we destroy it?


The general purpose of the present economy is to exploit, not to foster or conserve.

The Way of Ignorance and Other Essays is a spectacular read in its entirety. Complement it with Berry on pride and despair and form, faith, and freedom, then revisit Jon Mooallem on rediscovering the larger value of small places.

Published April 22, 2015




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