Technology, Self & Society

August 11, 2013

I woke up this morning a little after five and decided to have some coffee and read for awhile. I wound up with an essay that Wendell Berry wrote back in 1969 called “A Native Hill.” He would have been in his mid-thirties then, and relatively recently returned to his native Kentucky farm after a stint on the faculty at New York University. Anything written by Wendell Berry is fair game for commentary in the Thornapple blog, so if you are wondering what the connection to food ethics is, just suck it up and deal with it.

There’s something profoundly right about reading Wendell Berry before sun-up on Sunday morning.  In this particular essay he is ruminating on the significance of place. He takes due note of the fact that he can call these Kentucky hills home only because of the violence his forbearers  inflicted on native peoples, on their slaves and on the land itself. But then he lavishes words on what it feels like to be in those Kentucky woods. I wouldn’t presume to summarize these passages, but I was struck by the way he concludes his description of standing on a riverbank in a particular spot and in a particular mood. “It was as though I was not necessarily myself at all. I could have been my grandfather, in his time, standing there watching, as I knew he had.”

Here is a passage near the beginning of the essay where Berry is describing his Kentucky boyhood on the farm:

Having a boy’s usual desire to play at what he sees men working at, I learned to harness and work a team. I felt distinguished by that, and took the same pride that other boys my age took in their knowledge of automobiles. I seem to have been born with an aptitude for a way of life that was doomed, although I did not understand that at the time. …

That knowledge, and the men who gave it to me, influenced me deeply. It entered my imagination, and gave its substance and tone to my mind. It fashioned in me possibilities and limits, desires and frustrations, that I do not expect to live to the end of. And it is strange to think how barely in the nick of time it came to me. If I had been born five years later I would have begun in a different world, and would no doubt have been a different man.

I have to teach a class called “Technology, Self and Society” this fall at Michigan State University. I expect I’ll read this passage to my students at some point. I wonder if it will make any sense at all to them?

Paul B. Thompson teaches philosophy and food systems at Michigan State University.

The passages from Wendell Berry were published originally in Recollected Essays 1965—1980 (New York: 1981, North Point Press)

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