Transition: Seeing Wendell Berry’s Wilderness Again…

Transition Voice

In the early ’90s I made the conscious decision to drop out of college. I distinctly remember the day I withdrew from classes and made the call to my parents. I remember thinking: “Now I’m a statistic.” College dropout.

I watched as the debt grew and my confidence in finding a suitable career faded. I made the decision to drop out based on the reality that I could avoid debt and simply work. I resolved to be satisfied with less. I broke my social contract outright.

Believe it or not, I had a plan.

No, I didn’t start up a software business. I didn’t pursue any entrepreneurial track to riches. My plan was simply to get any job I could and spend my free time exploring the Red River Gorge which is located near where I grew up in Eastern Kentucky. My plan had no long term component.

I don’t know when I first discovered Wendell Berry’s The Unforeseen Wilderness, but it was about this same time in my life. I wanted to read it, but as a poor college dropout with little cash to spend on books it remained out of my hands for a time.

One day I was out with a friend and saw it on a bargain table. I had no cash, but the friend, seeing my eagerness to read it, bought it for me. It was a fortunate encounter because the book changed the way I looked at the world, my life, and the landscape of my soul.


I’d argue that Berry’s powerful book was the first stepping stone in the path that eventually brought me to the Transition Movement.

It was powerful to me because it spoke of the places I visited almost every day, and the book itself had provided protection to those places against development.

It was powerful to me then because it spoke to my loneliness and feelings of failure in society. And it’s powerful to me now because it offers a scathing criticism of the things I’ve come to criticize myself. Did Berry send me down that path, or did we just meet along the same path at two different points in time?

At 20 years old it was passages like this that spoke to me:

You are undertaking the first experience, not of the place, but of yourself in that place. It is an experience of our essential loneliness, for nobody can discover the world for anybody else. It is only after we have discovered it for ourselves that it becomes a common ground and a common bond, and we cease to be alone.

At 20 years old I was not only discovering the Red River Gorge but society and my place in it as well. I had made hard decisions for what I believed were good reasons. I accepted conditions of less money and less opportunity in the wide world. But I also identified that my values were not rooted in the pursuit of material goods and riches. Beyond my religious upbringing, the only validation of my want for a simplistic life I found was between the covers of The Unforeseen Wilderness.

Going it alone, together

At the time I had been romanticizing my solo explorations.

I read John Muir and longed to have lived his life. I read Henry David Thoreau and wanted my own cabin in the woods.

But Berry, a fellow Kentuckian, introduced me to a more accessible experience of the woods and the wilderness. His experiences while trying to save my beloved Gorge from inundation gave me permission to live a normal life, but in a more noble manner. While Muir and Thoreau spoke to me, Berry spoke as me. He articulated the unspoken thoughts of my heart in a way that introduced them to my conscious and revealed to me what I truly believed.

Berry begins by describing the function of water on the landscape, particularly the landscape of the Red River Gorge with its hard sandstone caprock; the crown of the Cumberland Plateau where it towers over the rolling hills of the Bluegrass region to the west.

As Berry described the sins of John Swift, a local legend, and his ideological heirs I began to resolve my perspective of our society. I never truly bought into our nation’s consumerist lifestyle, but in Berry’s description I began to understand my dis-ease with the normalcy of it. I started to have a language in which to express my innate but unspoken beliefs.

Berry gave me permission to question modern farming techniques, flood control wisdom and the behaviors of tourists. I found more and more legitimacy as I questioned the norms everyone around me seemed to take for granted.

As an aspiring photographer I couldn’t ignore his descriptions of the tourist-photographer and the contrast between the artist photographer. And in his words I found I wanted to become more than just a casual observer. He inspired a better way of experiencing the outdoors.

At twenty the book reinforced my antisocial behavior as I sought solace in the lonely wilderness places of the Red River Gorge while at nearly forty the book reinforces my desire for community and resilience in the Transition movement. The irony is distinct.

A hologram

While it helps to have a passing understanding of the local issues and context of the book, it’s not necessary. Berry’s audience was wider than just those directly involved in the struggle to preserve the Red River Gorge from destruction. His primary audience was those players on both sides. But his secondary audience, it’s clear, was all of us.

Berry’s discourse was a plight to preserve a place he was intimate with, but the tone of his words offer a broader application and relevance.

While he didn’t tackle ideas like peak oil and climate change he spent considerable ink on resource depletion, land stewardship and changing perceptions. I must confess, The Unforeseen Wilderness is the only work by Berry, other than a handful of random articles, that I’ve read. But this one work is powerful and persistent in my mind.

The book’s intersection with my life and explorations actually came later for me.

As a child I rode on my father’s shoulders as my parents hiked around the area. I sat between them in a beat up aluminum canoe as they paddled down the Red River within it’s gorge. The sensory impressions I made in that valley as a child have been reinforced and expanded as I’ve grown and continued my own explorations of the Gorge. Berry’s Red River Gorge was not so overpowering to me that it obscured my own impressions of the place, but in many ways his telling of the story of place enhanced my own, and in some respects guided my subsequent explorations as I sought to discover myself and as much of the place as I could.

That college dropout I used to know looked to Berry for legitimacy in his wanderings and he found what he was looking for long enough to discover a more focused path. And at some point, when that college dropout morphed into a non-traditional student returning to finish his education—and then a father and husband—he handed off Berry’s book to me, and I have treasured it ever since.

With new eyes

I rediscovered the book very recently, as I pulled it out of a box of books that had finally caught up with me in Colorado where I now work as a land use planner. Many of the regulations and policies I’m tasked to enforce contradict the ideas I so readily identified with way back when I first cracked open that bargain table book.

As I reread the book this past autumn I added fresh highlights, underlinings and notes to those I had so studiously scrawled on those pages almost twenty years ago. Of course now I’m pulling out ideas that echo those of the Transition Movement, and my better formulated and organized thought processes. I’m more articulate myself these days, and I feel as if the issues Berry tackled are easier to understand and the book is more rich and deep to me now.

When Berry writes:

The proposed dam in the Red River Gorge is not a definitive solution to any problem, upstream or down. Like many another project that has been offered to the people as a lasting monument of human progress, it is a cheap shortcut.

I can’t help but think in terms of the more modern concept of sustainability. The tools of sustainability help us look upstream to the sources of production and process and to find the best sources for the best results and downstream across the life-cycle of what we produce. For those concerned with being sustainable and with becoming more resilient in the face of declining supplies of fossil fuels, there are no cheap shortcuts.

That passage meant so much to me at twenty, when I realized that my beloved stomping ground had been preserved only at great effort and expense, but now, after much time, I see that my deeply held beliefs grew in that medium, that when I rail against the senselessness of so many road-to-nowhere projects and new shopping center developments and the idea that building some huge thing will solve our problems as a society, I can’t help but think of those things, no matter what the scale, as cheap shortcuts and most definitely not a solution to our more complex problems.

I was drawn to the Transition Movement seeking positive solutions in the face of overwhelming problems. Berry also offered positive solutions, though somewhat counter-intuitive in light of the thinking of his day, toward a problem of smaller scale, but similar in impact to what we face today.