An Old School Influencer

A long, long time ago, when the current century had yet to be born and we were all wearing plaid flannel shirts tied around our waists and urging one another to think globally and act locally, a co-worker handed me a copy of Wendell Berry’s essay, “Out of Your Car, Off Your Horse,” which had just been published in the Atlantic Monthly.

“You’ll like this,” he said.

It was my first encounter with Berry, this essay containing twenty-seven propositions about global thinking, culture and community. It was contrarian and pointed and a little bit snarky. And it was written by a farmer.

“Properly speaking,” it began, “global thinking is not possible” in any way that would warrant calling it “thought.” Nor is it beneficial to actual communities of living creatures.

Look at one of those photographs of half the earth taken from outer space, and see if you recognize your neighborhood. If you want to see where you are, you will have to get out of your space vehicle, out of your car, off your horse, and walk over the ground.

What followed was an indictment of abstraction, industrial production, the fossil fuel industry, unsustainable cities, and the creation of a forced dependence within rural communities on the money economy. Global thinking, Berry argued, drives the extractive economics that have decimated so much of eastern Kentucky, West Virginia, and the whole of Appalachia, not to mention the rest of the planet. As a guiding ethos it is inherently destructive precisely because it “can’t distinguish one place or person or creature from another.”

I was working in corporate communications at the time. The firm’s biggest clients were in the fossil fuel industry. Oil companies, utility companies. And I knew he was right. I was seeing it daily. I was living it.

Those 27 propositions took root in my soul. I scoured libraries and bookstores to find more of Berry’s work — no Amazon then, it was all traipsing and browsing. I found poetry and essay collections and his pivotal work, The Unsettling of America. And I found myself caring about farming. About how food was grown, and by whom.

Wendell Berry kicked my ass into another way of living. Out of my car, off my horse.

Nearly three decades later, I live within 100 miles of the Berry homestead in Kentucky, and that first essay I read continues to shape my thinking on the subject of work and place and local affection. You can find it in its entirety here.