Book Review: The Art of Loading Brush

Wendell Berry comes up now and again, mentioned casually by people I share tastes and values with as someone in common, with GK Chesterton, Dostoyevsky, or George MacDonald. I had meant to read him but hadn’t gotten around to it until now.

Since I couldn’t remember hearing any particular work mentioned, and am in more of a non-fiction mood, I went with his newest collection of essays, The Art of Loading Brush (2017). Unlike Berry’s previous books (I had meant at first to read Sex, Economy, Freedom, and Community, but didn’t want to own it or go to the downtown library for it), The Art of Loading Brush is available on Kindle, so that’s the one I went with.

The book consists of seven chapters (between a substantial introduction and conclusion), mostly essays with a bit of fiction woven in.

At the center of this book lies a void. That void represents a chapter Mr Berry didn’t write, and not having written much impoverished the remainder, often to the point of uselessness. The chapter he did not write is a specific, detailed account of the farming practices he dislikes, where they came from, the damage they have caused and are causing, and why they’re still in use.

Berry writes relentlessly about particularity and locality in the broadest, least informative way possible. The best sections are about specific farmers and ecologists he has known and admires, who have worked particular plots of land or investigated specific practices, such as farming with trees or replacing standard wheat fields with perennial grains. This book needs more on that and less on the wicked, greedy, mean industrialists who want nothing but to rape and pillage the countryside, filling the streams with toxins and the air with poison.

The Road to Wigan Pier (George Orwell, 1937) does a fantastic job of showing the reality of how tough and sometimes horrifying life can be for people doing needful work, and reviewing thoughts that have been put forward for their relief, without useless scolding. Sir Gibbie (Goerge MacDonald, 1879) paints a beautiful portrait of poor but godly farmers herding sheep on a wild Scottish mountain, and convincingly shows what it is to be poor, rural, and good in a world that’s rapidly changing, as their children become maids and tutors down the mountainside. The Art of Loading Brush does a rather poor and clumsy job handling similar material — how the working class and land can be important and beautiful, but have been harmed by industrialization, calling for a thoughtful rebuilding of lives and land. While the slag heaps looming over the damp, cold, louse infested houses of Manchester take on vivid life, and Orwell is fantastically thoughtful and honest about class, coal, and socialism, the depleted land and depressed farmers of rural America fade into the background, in favor of tired cliches about “toxins,” “pollution,” “agribusiness,” and “drug and screen addiction.” 

Tell me more about the toxic runoff of the agribusiness. What chemicals are they using? What are the benefits? What are the consequences? Everything’s a trade off, of course. I had heard that the “agribusinesses” Berry despises eradicated malaria in North America, but found out the harmful side effects afterwards and warned the rest of the world. So malaria is still the most prevalent disease in the world, but we don’t have it here. Tell me about the damage pesticides do to the ecosystem. 

I had heard in the 1970s ecologists were predicting worldwide famine within a few years, but then someone figured out how to manufacture ammonia cheaply and easily, and a “green revolution” ensued. So now there aren’t wide-spread famines, but there are a lot of nitrates near large farms, and the streams often smell odd and have too much algae growing in them. Tell me more about chemical fertilizers, and how small farmers prevent damage from them. Is it simply through more labor intensive practices? Tell me about what that involves.

Berry mentions that The Man gives farmers a bad deal on their produce, which drives them out of business. He does this because he is greedy and irresponsible. The farmers are vulnerable to his manipulations because they “overproduce,” and Berry wants them to band together to agree on a set limit to production. Who is The Man who’s too greedy to provide “parity” for farmers? Is he the owner or stockholder of a cigarette company, slaughterhouse, textile mill, or grain mill that converts the plant material to sellable products? Is he a retail store owner? Is he an ordinary person, eating, wearing, and smoking the products?

There was a Tobacco Program in the American South  that ran from 1940 to 2004 that raised prices by limiting production, and which Berry liked and wants to see more of. The history of the past hundred years suggests that governments that claim to protect the interests of the proletariate through things like price controls or planned production quotas tend to go horribly wrong. At least admit that you’ve noticed that this has been suggested before, and that it has gone horribly wrong. Just so that I know that you know. Things that might work well on the scale of, say, a monastery, can work extremely badly at the scale of 300 million people.

What happened during the Dust Bowel of the 1930s? Was the damage ever repaired? What’s happening now with the monocultures?

Why is Berry so disparaging of physicists? Sure, some of them are strict materialists. But that’s not really what they’re about. They’re much more about being the great sleuths of the patterns of nature, hunting for evidence of neutrinos, gravitational waves, exoplanets, black holes or whatever else using the scantest of clues, magnified by the amazing regularity of lightwaves or radioactive decay to piece together a theory of the world from a few atoms decaying to other atoms in a vat of chlorine in a cistern under a mountain, or 4 km long lasers being half a wave out sync. Berry sneers, especially, at the expense of physics experiments. Which… I suppose it’s reasonable enough for a farmer who openly dislikes even tractors to be annoyed that his taxes help pay for a larger hadron collider, or that the coal his neighbors mined so laboriously goes to power an enormous array of lasers that produce nothing but a few nanoseconds of nuclear fusion and perhaps an atom of Berkelium or some such thing. But, still, if he’s going to write about them for 20 pages he should at least talk about what they investigate, not only what a poor philosopher Stephen Hawking is.

Also, just to be petty: for someone who’s always talking about taking great care and artistry with the plant or cabinet in front of him, it seems strangely lazy that Berry couldn’t even be bothered to have someone format the table of contents in his book properly. Show the same thought and care for your reader that your virtuous neighbors do for their cows. 

Rating: 2/5


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