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Farmer, activist, economist, seer: why Wendell Berry is the modern-day Thoreau

In the age of Donald Trump, we should all be reading this radical American nature writer.

Without topsoil, the thin layer between the Earth’s scores-of-miles-deep crust, and the atmosphere we breathe, we could not exist. The historian J R McNeill describes topsoil thus: “It consists of mineral particles, organic matter, gases and a swarm of tiny living things. It is a thin skin, rarely more than a hip deep, and usually much less. Soil takes centuries or millennia to form. Eventually it all ends up in the sea through erosion. In the interval between formation and erosion, it is basic to human survival.”

The subject of topsoil is only for cranks. A serious political and literary journal such as this one knows it’s the kind of thing that balding, warty old chaps in tweed jackets like to bore on about; a Duke of Cornwall kind of thing. But turn to Ali Smith’s new novel, Autumn – which I take to be about our human autumn and not simply the seasonal one – and you find this epigraph, taken from a Guardian article published last July: “At current rates of soil erosion, Britain has just 100 harvests left.”

This is the essential starting point for the introduction of Wendell Berry to a British audience. A Kentucky tobacco farmer, environmental activist, novelist, poet, essayist and economist, he is unlike anybody else writing today. He annoys the left because he is a socially quite conservative Christian and he infuriates the right with his lifelong opposition to the economic and political system of modern America.

His best work is contained in his frequent salvos of essays, which I have been collecting during trips to America for much of my adult life. I first came across his work in a bookshop in Devon, where I was struck by a slim volume with the brutal title What Are People For?. It’s impossible not to wonder about the answer, so I read on and slowly accumulated a small library of books with names such as Standing by Words, The Long-Legged House and Another Turn of the Crank (Berry is drily aware of his reputation).

He writes at least as well as George Orwell and has an urgent message for modern industrial capitalism, which he considers to be a machine based on greed and short-termism that produces grotesque unfairness and waste – and will lead us, before long, to disaster. It is an apocalyptic message but conveyed with a gentle humour and defiant belief in the possibility of social reform that keep you turning the pages. Yet he can be a difficult sod, fiercely independent and, as the Americans would say, ornery. Back in the 1990s, I wrote to Berry asking him to allow me to edit a selection of his writing to be published for a British audience, preferably by Penguin. He said no. For one thing, he did not want to be published by any of the big houses – he had a strong loyalty to the small, independent San Francisco publisher North Point Press. And there was no question of him coming here to do interviews or publicity or anything like that: he won’t travel by aircraft.

The project died. And now, with Berry in his vigorous eighties, the writer and environmentalist Paul Kingsnorth has finally teamed up with a Penguin imprint to produce an excellent selection of his essays, The World-Ending Fire.

So here, from that book, is Berry on topsoil, first from an essay titled “The Work of Local Culture”. He has come across an old bucket hanging from a fence, and inside it there are leaves.

Rain and snow have fallen into it, and the fallen leaves have held the moisture and so have rotted. Nuts have fallen into it, or been carried into it by squirrels; mice and squirrels have eaten the meat of the nuts and left the shells; they and other animals have left their droppings; insects have flown into the bucket and died and decayed; birds have scratched it and left their droppings or perhaps a feather or two. This slow work of growth and death, gravity and decay, which is the chief work of the world, has by now produced in the bottom of the bucket several inches of black humus. I look into that bucket with fascination because I am a farmer of sorts and an artist of sorts, and I recognise there an artistry and a farming far superior to mine, or to that of any human.

Berry is an attentive, close-watching writer whose rhythms are slow, seasonal and patient. In an essay about his native land, he walks and meditates on his death – and yes, talks about topsoil as well, this time calling it “Christlike” in its beneficence and the penetrating energy that issues out of it: “It increases by experience, by the passage of seasons over it, growth rising out of it and returning to it, not by ambition or aggressiveness. It is enriched by all things that die and enter into it. It keeps the past, not as history or as memory, but as richness, new possibility. Its fertility is always building up out of death into promise. Death is the bridge or the tunnel by which its past enters its future.”

As a farmer, he observes the terrifying speed at which soil across America – as across Europe and Asia – is being washed into the ocean and lost. The crucial thing about Berry is that he didn’t move. As a young man, he had the opportunity to relocate to New York or one of the other big cities and become an academic writer. That would have been the “sensible” thing to do, as moving away is the “sensible” thing for all country people to do. (Remember that the biggest migration in human history is going on now and it is the migration from rural parts of the planet to the cities.) Instead, he returned to north-eastern Kentucky, where his family had lived for generations, reading and writing and farming.

The conclusion of his life, as well as of his essays, is that we must return to cherish and look after the soil we depend on. The scale of the devastation all around us is such that his cause must seem impossible. To which he replies: “Our destructiveness has not been, and it is not, inevitable. People who use that excuse are morally incompetent, they are cowardly, and they are lazy. Humans don’t have to live by destroying the sources of their life. People can change; they can learn to do better. All of us, regardless of party, can be moved by love of our land to rise above the greed and contempt of our land’s exploiters.”

Berry is a radical, even an extremist. In one notorious essay, he wrote that he would never buy a computer (notorious because his wife, it turned out, did the typing for him); he is a militant critic of US wars; and he farms using horses, not tractors. In some ways, he is like a modern Thoreau and although he mistrusts movements and any violent threat to systems, he vigorously defends civil disobedience. Like John Berger, he has championed the cause of migrant workers, and he is one of the most compelling writers on racism in America.

Yet he is the least joyless of writers, a great celebrator of poetry in general and Shakespeare and T S Eliot in particular; a luminous lover of nature and a man of robust appetites. His essay on the pleasures of eating is a rare example of political writing that makes you salivate.

After Donald Trump’s election, we urgently need to rediscover the best of radical America – that of Mark Twain, Gary Snyder and Edward Abbey. An essential part of that story is Wendell Berry. It is axiomatic that such a bold and questioning writer should be an uncomfortable writer and difficult to swallow whole. Few of us can live, or even aspire to, his kind of life. But nobody can risk ignoring him.

The World-Ending Fire by Wendell Berry, selected and introduced by Paul Kingsnorth, is published by Allen Lane (368pp, £20)

Andrew Marr is a broadcaster and journalist. Formerly the BBC’s Political Editor, he presents the Andrew Marr Show on BBC1 on Sundays and Start the Week on Monday mornings on Radio 4.

This article first appeared in the 26 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The eclipse of the West

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Every single line spoken by actor Harry Styles in the movie Dunkirk, evaluated

Judging the actual speaking and acting the from teen icon.

When it was announced that Harry Styles had been cast in Dunkirk, most people assumed it was a Drew Barrymore in Scream sort of deal. A big name, who would be plastered over the posters, front and centre at promotional interviews, but given a barely-speaking part and probably killed off in the first five minutes. Not so! Not only does he not die early on, Harry has a very significant amount of time on screen in Dunkirk, and even more surprisingly, a lot of that time involves actual speaking and acting from the teen icon. In this action-heavy, dialogue-sparse film, he has more lines than most.

Of course, the most normal human response to this revelation is to list every single time he speaks in the film and evaluate every moment on a line-by-line basis. So here it is. Every single line spoken by actor Harry Styles in the movie Dunkirk, evaluated by a very impartial Harry Styles fan. Let’s go.

Obviously, this contains spoilers for Dunkirk.

“What’s wrong with your friend?”

It’s the first line, but it’s a goody. So nonchalant; so effortless; breezily accompanied by a mouthful of toast and jam. Curious, friendly – but with dangerous edge. A lurking threat. A shiver of accusation. This sets up Alex as a normal, if self-assured, bloke who also wants to be sure you’re not about to get him killed. A very strong debut – the kind of line that, if you didn’t know better, would make you think, “Hm, who’s this charismatic young guy”?

A cheer.

Solid 8/10 cheer, believe this guy has cheered before.

“You can’t leave us! Make some room!”

It’s only been ten minutes, but things have really kicked up a notch. Raspy, panicked, desperate, this line left my heart jumping for my poor sodden son. A triumph, and certainly one of Harry’s best lines.

“Hey!”

Here, Alex yells “Hey!” to get the attention of other soldiers, which turns into louder, repeated cries for their attention. I can find little wrong with this “Hey”, and indeed later “Hey”s, but I would not nominate it for an Oscar. This “Hey” is just fine.

“What’s that way?”

I believe that Alex does not, in fact, know what is that way. (It’s a boat.) 7/10.

“S’grounded!”

Alex has delivered the last three shouts with exactly the same intonation. This is good because normal people do not opt for variance in tone when desperately yelling at each other across the beach. I also appreciate the lack of enunciation here. Great work, Harry.

“’ow long’s that?”

I believe that Alex does not, in fact, know how long it will take for the tide to come in. (It’s about three hours.) 7/10.

“Poke yer head out, see if the water’s come in”

Alex is ramping things up a notch – this is authoritative, even challenging. Excellent pronunciation of “aht”, more great slurring.

“Talkative sod, aren’t ya?”

A big line, important for the growing hints that Alex is mistrustful of the silent soldier in their group. And yet not Harry’s absolute best. A little too much forced vowel for me.

“For fuck’s sake!”

Oh my God, we’re here now boys. It’s begun. The water’s not come in. Forget the high-explosive, Alex has only gone and dropped a bloody F-bomb, and Harry’s performance is actually stressful. What an about-turn. Delivered with spitting fury; the “for”, if there at all, almost inaudible; a dropped box clanging to the ground for extra impact. We know that Harry ad-libbed this (and a later) F-word, and this spontaneous approach is working. A truly superb go at doing some swearing. 10/10.

“Yeah but ’ow long?”

I would describe this delivery as “pained”. A little groan of fear hangs in the back. This is, as they say, the good shit.

“Why’d you leave your boat?”

This whispered anger suits Harry.

Some extreme shushing.

Definitely would shush.

“We have to plug it!”

Alex’s heart doesn’t seem really in plugging the bullet holes in the boat, despite the surface-level urgency of this delivery, probably because he doesn’t want to get shot. Nuance. I like it.

“Somebody needs to get off.”

A mic drop of a line, delivered with determined focus.

“I don’t need a volunteer. I know someone who ough’a get off.”

The way his cadence falls and his voice falters when as he reaches the word volunteer. It’s a sad, resigned, type of fear, the type of fear we expect from Rupert Grint’s Ron Weasley. Harry’s dropping clues that Alex doesn’t really want to be shoving anyone off a boat to their deaths. But then Alex steels himself, really packing a punch over that “ough’a”.

“This one. He’s a German spy.”

The momentum is building, Alex’s voice is getting breathier and breathier, panic is fluttering in his voice now. I’m living for each and every second of this, like a proud mother with a camcorder. You’re doing amazing, sweetie.

“He’s a focking Jerry!”

Go on my son! Harry’s voice is so high only dogs can hear him now. The mix of fear and aggression is genuinely convincing here, and more than ever it feels clear that you’re practically watching a group of schoolboys with guns scared out of their minds, desperate to go home, who might shoot each other dead at any second. This is undoubtedly the pinnacle of Harry’s performance.

“Have you noticed he hasn’t said a word? ’Cause I ’ave. Won’t speak English: if he does it’s in an accent’s thicker than sauerkraut sauce.”

This is, objectively, the silliest line in this film and maybe any film, ever, and I love it. Never before have the words “sauerkraut sauce” been uttered as a simile, or as a threat, and here, they are both. Inexplicably, it sort of works through Harry’s high-pitched voice and gritted teeth. My personal highlight of the entire movie.

“Tell me.”

Alex is going full antagonist. Whispered, aggressive, threatening. It is safe to say I am dead and deceased.

“Tell me, ‘Gibson’”.

Ugh, now with an added layer of mockery. I am dead, but also please kill me.

“A frog! A bloody frog! A cowardly, little queue-jumping frog. Who’s Gibson, eh? Some naked, dead Englishman lying out in that sand?”

Brexit Harry Styles is furious, and his accent is going a bit all over the place as a result.

“Maybe he killed him.”

Just-about-believably paranoid.

“How do we know?”

This is too close to the delivery Harry uses in this vine for me to take seriously, I’m deeply sorry about that.

“Well, we know who’s getting off.”

I believe that Alex does, in fact, know who is getting off. (It’s the French guy.) 7/10.

“Better ’im than me.”

I agree!!!!!

“Somebody’s gotta get off, so the rest of us can live.”

Empassioned, persuasive, fervent. When glimpsed in trailers, this moment made me think Alex would be sacrificing himself to save others. Not so! He just really, really wants to live. A stellar line, executed very well.

“Do you wanna volunteer?”

Good emoting. I believe the emotion used here is “disbelief”.

“Then this is the price!”

I believe the emotion used here is “desperation”.

“He’s dead, mate.”

So blunt, delivered with an awkward pity. A stand-out moment thanks to my high quality son Harold.

“We let you all down, didn’t we.”

Dahhn. Harry lets us know this is not even a question in Alex’s mind, its a fact. Poor depressed little Alex.

“That old bloke wouldn’t even look us in the eye.”

The weird thing (irony? joke?) here is that the old bloke is actually blind, not refusing to look them in the eye. Slightly bizarre, but Harry rolls with it with this relaxed approach to the word “bloke”.

“Hey! Where are we!”

Good God I love this rousing line. The bell chiming in the background, the violins stirring. There is something curiously British about this line. Something so, “‘What’s to-day?’ cried Scrooge”. Here, Harry is doing what he did best in the early one direction days - being a normal lad from a normal town whose life was made extraordinary even though he’s just, like, so totally normal.

“What station!”

I take it back, THIS is probably my favourite line of the whole movie. Purely because it sounds exactly like Harry Edward Styles on an average day, going about his business, asking what station he’s at. Alex who?

“Grab me one o’ them papers! Go on!”

Now, this, I love. Newcastle brown in hand, f’s dropped, a “go on” barely lacking a “my son”. Put a flat cap on the lad and hand him a chimney sweeping broom - we are in deliciously caricatured Brit territory.

“I can’t bear it. They’ll be spitting at us in the streets, if they’re not locked up waiting for the invasion.”

How rapidly joy turns to ashes in our mouths. One second so elated, with the nostalgic scent of home quivering in his nostrils, Alex is now feeling extremely sorry for himself (fair enough, to be honest). A fine “sad voice” here.

“I can’t look.”

The “sad voice” continues.

“Wha’??”

Hahahahahaha. Yes.

And with this very confused noise Harry Styles closes his debut film performance, which I would describe as extremely solid. Even if I am fuming that he didn’t get to die, beautifully, and at length. Well done Harold.

Anna Leszkiewicz is a pop culture writer at the New Statesman.