Wendell Berry has what you might call a “hyphenated vocation.” He’s a farmer-activist-essayist-poet. No one role adequately describes his work in the world. Not surprisingly, Mr. Berry of Kentucky is not content with how the world describes work or workplaces these days. His reality is broader, deeper, and described with a poet’s precision and farmer’s practicality in his 1992 essay, Conservation is Good Work:
“No settled family or community has ever called its home place an ‘environment.’ None has ever called its feeling for its home place ‘biocentric’ or ‘anthropocentric.’ None has ever thought of its connection to its home place as ‘ecological,’ deep or shallow. The concepts and insights of the ecologists are of great usefulness in our predicament, and we can hardly escape the need to speak of ‘ecology’ and ‘ecosystems.’ But the terms themselves are culturally sterile. They come from the juiceless, abstract intellectuality of the universities which was invented to disconnect, displace, and disembody the mind. The real names of the environment are the names of rivers and river valleys; creeks, ridges, and mountains; towns and cities; lakes, woodlands, lanes roads, creatures, and people.
And the real name of our connection to this everywhere different and differently named earth is ‘work.’ We are connected by work even to the places where we don’t work, for all places are connected; it is clear by now that we cannot exempt one place from our ruin of another. The name of our proper connection to the earth is ‘good work,’ for good work involves much giving of honor. It honors the source of its materials; it honors the place where it is done; it honors the art by which it is done; it honors the thing that it makes and the user of the made thing. Good work is always modestly scaled, for it cannot ignore either the nature of individual places or the differences between places, and it always involves a sort of religious humility, for not everything is known. Good work can be defined only in particularity, for it must be defined a little differently for every one of the places and every one of the workers on the earth.
The name of our present society’s connection to the earth is ‘bad work’ – work that is only generally and crudely defined, that enacts a dependence that is ill understood, that enacts no affection and gives no honor. Every one of us is to some extent guilty of this bad work. This guilt does not mean that we must indulge in a lot of breast-beating and confession; it means only that there is much good work to be done by every one of us and that we must begin to do it.”
What do you think of Berry’s distinctions between good and bad work? By his definition, do you do good work? If not, how could you do it to make it better work?