I think there is a need to examine further just how reactionary and oppressive the world Berry wants would be. Helpfully he provides an example that can be analyzed to show how rotten life under Berry’s ideals would be for most of us.
On page 52, he describes the work of an Amish family he knows in their dairy:
“An Amish family long dear to me bases the commercial part of its economy mainly on a dairy herd of forty-five Jersey cows, for which the family’s small farm produces the necessary feed. From this modest enterprise the family achieves a “quality of life” that is admirable. They recently built themselves a new house. At the time of my last visit the farmwife (Ed: note the use of a coined word here) and her two daughters, then seven and ten years old, were busy at the evening milking. It was a happy scene. The mother and daughters cooperated perfectly, each doing her share according to her strength. They kept steadily at work without haste or fuss. Each of the cows was known by her looks, character, and name. The family’s living was being made within a pattern of familiar relationships. The people and the cows knew (Ed: how on Earth did Berry conclude that the cows ‘knew’ anything?) understood, and respected done another which was why the band stayed so noticeably quiet. The physical work, to which our society has cultivated an aversion, was done with skill, with care, without stress, without lasting too long or becoming in any way a hardship, and allowing for conversation with visiting friends. This twice-a-day chore was taking place where both the people and the animals were at home, and at a scale permitting a careful like to be drawn everywhere between enough and too much. The work was limited by the size of the farm, which was limited by the practice of neighborly love that prevails among the Old Order Amish.”
First, note that he never actually describes concretely the work being done or by whom. The entire paragraph is based entirely on Berry’s own observations and and assumptions. He never examines or analyzes anything. Do the little elementary school aged girls actually milk cows? A Jersey cow weights between 750 and 880 pounds. How do little girls manage animals nearly eight times their own size? (Enjoy some information about Jerseys, the best dairy cows.) It is important to note while reading this rosy picture of grueling farm labor that Every three days a child dies in a farm accident. The median age for admission to the hospital for traumatic injury among Amish farm children is 5 years old. A better person would have asked whether those two girls were in danger from the cattle.
Berry neglects to give any information about how much time it takes each day to perform this task. note that milking has to be done twice each day. Here is a description of an Amish farm. Milking machines are permitted in this ‘circle,’ which sells milk to Organic Valley as noted in Berry’s book, so it is likely that the farm he observed is part of this particular group. It takes about 5 minutes to milk a cow using a milking machine, plus time to get the cows into the barn, clean their udders, and attach and then remove the milking machine. Berry fails to tell us how many cows can be milked at a time, so it’s difficult to gauge how much time the whole chore takes, since the girls and their mom — 7 and 10 year olds are NOT women and should never be referenced that way -— would have to spend time getting one set of cows out of the barn and the next set inside. My assumption is that the mother and her daughters spend about 4 hours each day on this exhausting chore.
Why am I spending so much time trying to analyze the time spent milking cattle? Because that’s time those girls can’t spend in school, with friends, or on their own tasks. Those two kids — who would be in the 2nd and 5th grade, remember — are dragooned into hard, dangerous farm labor twice a day. Berry never pauses to consider that those little girls might do something else in life besides being a drudge for some other Amish farmer. Amish children only go to school through the 8th grade anyway. The lack of opportunity to form their own tastes, customs, and practices forecloses any opportunity to do anything else. Berry never considers the opportunity cost to those girls, and their mother, of spending 4 hours a day milking cows.
Fundamental to Berry’s entire worldview is that ‘stickers,’ people who stay where they were born, are superior to ‘boomers,’ who leave and wander around. Since the Amish stay in one place, he admires them. He advocates 'rootedness,' despite being a huge hypocrite who wandered around until he got tired of it. Having always been at the top of his local food chain, he refuses to imagine that someone might find being at the bottom of it unpleasant and want to leave. As the quoted passage here indicates, he simply refuses to acknowledge the possibility of any perspective but his own.
It is his refusal to consider that small, rural communities can oppress their members that render all of Berry’s work reactionary and, to me at least, worthless. This is deeply sad, because small towns and rural places need an advocate right now. Letting these places rot is wasteful and unhealthy. Further, even us suburbanites need community. Humans aren’t meant to be hermits. We need more groups like churches, unions, service clubs, hobby clubs, to allow us to form connections to other people. We can’t do that effectively if we only use foolishly nostalgic pictures of the past drawn by upper class twits. We need communities with guardrails protecting their members from the Harper Valley PTA problem, and we’re not going to get that from Berry’s sepia-toned posed portraits that leave out all the bad stuff.