Essays From West of 98: People and Place
Wendell Berry has little use for politics and even less use for politicians. This is not to say that he does not participate in politics, because whether he likes it or not, his advocacy for rural people, rural community, and agriculture ultimately gets entangled with politics. But politics are not his end game. As a result, over the last 60+ years, Berry has alternately appealed to and infuriated politicians and activists from every point on the political spectrum.
In 2012, Berry told an interviewer, “my own inclination is not to start with a political idea or theory and think downward to the land and the people, but instead to start with the land and the people, the necessity for harmony between local ecosystems and local economies, and think upward to [policies].” People and place are Berry’s endgame and ultimately, he cannot abide any sort of movement that views people and place as dispensable cogs. I agree. Rural people and rural communities are my endgame.
Over the last several months, I have discussed the nature of rural economies in the aftermath of America’s post-World War II industrialization. That shift changed the face of America in many ways (some good, some bad) but it had many deleterious effects on rural communities. Berry touched on this in a 2013 speech titled “Local Economies to Save the Land and the People.” It’s a powerful speech and I encourage you to look it up online. He includes this sobering picture of rural Kentucky in the opening paragraph:
In my county, for example, as recently as the middle of the last century, every town was a thriving economic and social center. Now all of them are either dying or dead. If there is any concern about this in any of the state’s institutions, I have yet to hear about it. The people in these towns and their tributary landscapes once were supported by their usefulness to one another. Now that mutual usefulness has been removed and the people relate to one another increasingly as random particles.
Berry paints a sobering picture, but an accurate one. Berry is much older than me. He lived through this post-war shift, as many of my readers did. I was born in 1984, so I can only view the preceding decades through the lens of history, but it does not take a rocket scientist to look at population trends, school enrollment, old business directories, and historical pictures to know that what Berry describes about rural Kentucky applies to Stamford and to a whole host of rural communities across America.
Lest you think Wendell Berry is merely an elderly crank lamenting the “good old days,” I point you to his words I shared a few weeks ago, ruminating about the power of a resurrected rural community and its impact on the world at large. Berry sees the problem and he also sees the solution: reconnecting people to place, starting with local communities and local economies.
In recent years, the idea of reconnection has taken root across America. Farmer’s markets have sprung up in communities large and small, including right here in Stamford. “Farm-to-table” and “local food” are marketing buzz terms in the restaurant business, but they hit at something larger and more powerful. It is not *just* the element of feeling connected to your food. People are growing tired of relating to one another as “random particles,” as Berry aptly put it. People are searching for connection to place and to one another. Earlier in 2021, I wrote an essay about rural American’s post-pandemic opportunities. As I have studied this issue, I have gotten more and more clarity on what lies ahead. The solutions do not lie with politicians or politics. The solutions lie with people and place.
Rural America declined as the local connections frayed. People are searching to rebuild connections—we’ve seen it in many pre-pandemic trends in food, real estate development, and elsewhere within the economy. The pandemic has only accelerated those trends, as evidenced by the rural housing boom. If we are to rebuild rural America, it starts by rebuilding local connections. It starts by leaning deeper into the concepts of localism. Stay tuned. I’ve got some ideas to share in the weeks to come.
James Decker is the Mayor of Stamford, Texas and the creator of the West of 98 website and podcast. Contact James and subscribe to these essays at westof98.substack.com and subscribe to West of 98 wherever podcasts are found.