This year I’ve joined a reading group at my church; last Sunday the book was an old collection of Wendell Berry’s influential agrarian essays. My eleven-year-old nephew sat in on our discussion (he’d read a couple of the essays in preparation), and asked a question that gets to the well-worn stumbling block when it comes to Berry’s bracing jeremiads: “But what if I want to be a computer programmer and not a farmer?” There are ways of answering that within the text, but not always satisfyingly. For me, the passage I loved most from the book was this one, the grace-note ending to Berry’s essay on wilderness.

Looking at the monocultures of industrial civilization, we yearn with a kind of homesickness for the humanness and the naturalness of a highly diversified, multipurpose landscape, democratically divided, with many margins. The margins are of the utmost importance. They are the divisions between holdings, as well as between kinds of work and kinds of land. These margins—lanes, streamsides, wooded fencerows, and the like—are always freeholds of wildness, where limits are set on human intention. Such places are hospitable to the wild lives of plants and animals and the wild play of human children. They enact, within the bounds of human domesticity itself, a human courtesy towards the world that is one of the best safeguards of designated tracts of true wilderness.

from “Preserving Wildness” (1985), by Wendell Berry, collected in Home Economics: Fourteen Essays, 1987

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