Berry writes in the noble Thoreauvian tradition, with a deep reverence for the land and an intense, spiritual appreciation for nature. He understands the subtle but rich delights found in hard work, ancient cycles, and the hearty smell of wet dirt and fresh sweat on a summer morning; and he has the courage and grace to put this profound understanding into words. This combination is a rare gift. Too much "poetry" is written by high-brow intellectuals who wouldn't know a hammer from a horseshoe. Show me hands with dirt beneath the fingernails flying furiously on a typewriter and I'll show you a truly educated man. As Berry, in his landmark essay Discipline and Hope, quotes from Thoreau's Journal:
Hard and steady and engrossing labor with the hands, especially out of doors, is invaluable to the literary man and serves him directly. Here I have been for six days surveying in the woods, and yet when I get home at evening, somewhat weary at last... I find myself more susceptible than usual to the finest influences, as music and poetry.
Berry's emphasis on personal awareness and self-sufficiency is a breath of fresh air, informed by his grassroots philosophy of life and healthy distrust for technology, which is summed up neatly in this pithy sentence about modern weather forecasting: "The farmer whose weather eye has been usurped by the radio has become less observant, has lost his old judicious fatalism with respect to the elements - and he is no more certain of the weather." That's a sad trade, and a heavy toll to pay for such a rutted road, but there are few who question it. Hence our great need for men like Berry and Hanson and Krenov to remind us of what is worth remembering - and preserving.
Issues involving the economy and environment seem difficult to get to the bottom of these days. Writers like Berry occupy a sane and reasonable middle-ground between fanatical conservationists who won't go outside for fear of stepping on a rare beetle, and reckless industrialists who rape their motherland every chance they get. For Berry, it is obvious that using and honoring the land go hand in hand. It is a sad indication of our long-standing cultural obtuseness that those who espouse this view are generally relegated to quoting from the Indians.
Lastly, Berry is a man who believes passionately in the value and necessity of literacy, and not the raise-your-hand-if-you-can-read-and-write type. Berry has in mind a deeper literacy, the type that knows how much it doesn't - and cannot - know.
We are dependent, for understanding, and for consolation and hope, upon what we learn from songs and stories. This has always been so, and it will not change.
Literacy - the mastery of language and the knowledge of books - is not an ornament, but a necessity. It is impractical only by the standards of quick profit and easy power. Longer perspective will show that it alone can preserve in us the possibility of an accurate judgment of ourselves, and the possibilities of correction and renewal. Without it, we are adrift in the present, in the wreckage of yesterday, in the nightmare of tomorrow.(-In Defense of Literacy)
If you care about life beyond the rat race, beneath the veil of matter and materialism, you won't be disappointed in Berry. You might even be inspired to grab a shovel, get some blisters, and write a poem about it. Really, we might not turn back into dust so soon if we spent less time avoiding it.