a native hill

Author Quotes: Wendell Berry On Paths And Roads


“The difference between a path and a road is not only the obvious one. A path is little more than a habit that comes with knowledge of a place. It is a sort of ritual of familiarity. As a form, it is a form of contact with a known landscape. It is not destructive. It is the perfect adaptation, through experience and familiarity, of movement to place; it obeys the natural contours; such obstacles as it meets it goes around. A road, on the other hand, even the most primitive road, embodies a resistance against the landscape. Its reason is not simply the necessity for movement, but haste. Its wish is to avoid contact with the landscape; it seeks so far as possible to go over the country, rather than through it; its aspiration, as we see clearly in the example of our modern freeways, is to be a bridge; its tendency is to translate place into space in order to traverse it with the least effort. It is destructive, seeking to remove or destroy all obstacles in its way. The primitive road advanced by the destruction of the forest; modern roads advance by the destruction of topography.

That first road from the site of New Castle to the mouth of the Kentucky River–lost now by obsolescence or metamorphosis–is now being crossed and to some extent replaced by its modern decendant known as I-71, and I have no wish to disturb the question of whether or not this road was needed. I only want to observe that it bears no relation whatever to the country it passes through. It is a pure abstraction, built to serve the two abstractions that are the poles of our national life: commerce and expensive pleasure. It was built, not according to the lay of the land, but according to a blueprint. Such homes and farmland and woodlands as happened to be in its way are now buried under it. A part of a hill near here that would have caused it to turn aside was simply cut down and disposed of as thoughtlessly as the pioneer road builders would have disposed of a tree. It’s form is the form of speed, dissatisfaction, and anxiety. It represents the ultimate in engineering sophistication, but the crudest possible valuation of life in this world. It is as adequate a symbol of our relation to our country now as that first road was of our relation to it in 1797.”

– Wendell Berry, excerpt from A Native Hill
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Berry’s words are potent, but they carry an extra weight for those have grown up on I-71 and can visualize its toll on the land. It’s true that the principle remains the same anywhere, but part of his point lies in relating to the land itself, and I can picture the very landscapes he has in mind.

A Native Hill is a wonderful and expansive essay covering Berry’s own flight from and eventual enlightened return to the Kentucky hillside his forefathers had long farmed.

Author Quotes: Wendell Berry and Our Violent Heritage


“When I lived in other places I looked on their evils with the curious eye of a traveler; I was not responsible for them; it cost me nothing to be a critic, for I had not been there long, and I did not feel that I would stay. But here, now that I am both native and citizen, there is no immunity to what is wrong. It is impossible to escape the sense that I am involved in history. What I am has been to a considerable extent determined by what my forebears were, by how they chose to treat this place while they lived in it; the lives of most of them diminished it, and limited its possibilities, and narrowed its future. And every day I am confronted by the question of what inheritance I will leave. What do I have that I am using up? For it has been our history that each generation in this place has been less welcomed to it than the last. There has been less here for them. At each arrival there has been less fertility in the soil, and a larger inheritance of destructive precedent and shameful history.

I am forever being crept up on and newly startled by the revelation that my people established themselves here by killing or driving out the original possessors, by the awareness that people were once bought and sold here by my people, by the sense of violence they have done to their own kind and to each other and to the earth, by their persistent failure to serve either the place or their own community in it. I am forced, against all my hopes and inclinations, to regard the history of my people here as the progress of the doom of what I value most in the world: the life and health of the earth, the peacefulness of human communities and households.

And so here, in the place I love more than any other and where I have chosen among all other places to live my life, I am more painfully divided within myself than I could be in any other place.”

– Wendell Berry, Excerpt from the essay “A Native Hill”
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I rediscovered this essay a few days ago and it was a welcome comfort to read the same sentiments I have been wrestling with spoken of with the characteristically gentle articulation that Wendell Berry brings to all his writings.

I am a great lover of nature and physical spaces. While I have long been considering the tragedies we commit against nature agriculturally and ecologically, I have been realizing in a shocking new way that every physical place is stained with the blood of the innocent. Perhaps “realizing” isn’t the correct word. I’ve known it long, but it is beginning to violently discourage me.

My heart has been heavy with the immensity of human suffering in every corner of this beautiful planet. Not just human suffering, but oppression at the hands of other men. Human history is a series of violent oppressions, revolutions, exterminations, and slaveries. Men fight each other as tribes until they are stolen away to become generations of slaves in a foreign land, a land itself obtained by the routing and eradication of the native children by those who arrived there themselves under force of oppression. It’s almost too much to bear, and at this point the gravity of it makes me despair regardless of the beauty of the greatest landscapes.

Berry goes on to sight further historic references and propose that it is our disconnection from identifying with a multi-generational history and a detachment to our physical land that leads us to consume without question and thus builds over generations a willingness toward violence.

I can see the correlation.

Read A Native Hill here.