Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Wendell Berry. Finding our Souls before we Lose the World

Mountaintop Removal, Kentucky
The muses are presently poised between a Requiem for the Species and a Symphony for the Great Turning. The song that our children hear will be determined by decisions made and decisions avoided during the remaining years of the present decade. There is much that has already occurred that portends a completely altered planetary and human reality. We know enough to know that neither governments nor mining and corporate behemoths are about to willingly alter the pattern of their present activities sufficiently to avoid the bang or the whimper towards which we inexorably move. The gestures of collective aspiration and goodwill that found expression in Copenhagen in 2009, at the Rio Summit in June 2012, and in the Occupy Movement since its inception have been met with the immensity, the intractability and the brutality of the forces arraigned against meaningful change.

Olympic Dam Mine, South Australia
In the meantime, the continuing meltdown of three reactors at the Fukushima nuclear facility and the slow leaching of radioactive elements into groundwaters and ocean waters has done nothing to soften the determination of the nuclear industry in the pursuit of its ultimately destructive agenda even though both the Japanese and German governments halted their own nuclear programs in consequence and are now re-examining more sustainable and less damaging modes of energy production.

Oblivious to these realities, and anticipating a much-vaunted "renaissance" of activity in the nuclear marketplace, Australian politicians have endorsed a voracious expansion of the Olympic Dam mine in South Australia into the world's largest open cut mining operation that will result in an increase of Australian uranium exports from their present level of 10,000 tons annually to an estimated 19,000 tons by 2020.

While activists such as Chris Hedges in the US continue to warn all who would care to listen of the increasingly violent confrontations that are likely to occur as the heat builds up, many are coming to accept that, like the Titanic, industrial civilisation is steaming blindly towards inevitable tragedy.  Many are now choosing to direct their energies to both creating and recovering ways of living that are more attuned to the sensitivities and limits of a seriously damaged planet.

Among them is the American writer, poet, farmer and political activist Wendell Berry.


Heaven's Treasure, Earth's Friend


Wendell Berry was born in 1934 into a family that had been farming land in Kentucky for several generations. As a boy, his love of such activities as hunting and fishing was tempered by an equally great love of poetry and literature. At the age of 14, his father sent him to a military school to try and rein in his exuberant nature. On completion of his studies there in 1952, he immediately enrolled at the University of Kentucky, determined to become a writer. Within eight years, Wendell Berry had published his first novel, Nathan Coulter, which continues to be widely read.

He took up a position as professor of English at New York University in 1962. Berry drew little satisfaction from New York's intellectual and academic circles and in 1964, accepted a teaching position at the University of Kentucky. He describes his departure from New York in the following terms: "The reason I came back [to Kentucky] was because I wanted to. . .  When we started down the New Jersey turnpike with the New York skyline behind us, it was exhilarating." Berry, together with his wife and young daughter, was returning to the place where he had generational roots. Within a year, they had purchased Lane's Landing, which remains the family farm that he continues to manage to the present day.

In the time since acquiring the farm, Wendell Berry has taught classes at the University of Kentucky, written over twenty books of poetry, sixteen volumes of essays, and ten novels. He has also been prominent in political actions against the Vietnam War, nuclear energy, US Department of Agriculture policy, George W. Bush's post 9/11 National Security policy and more recently, the mining of coal by the methods of Mountaintop Removal in Kentucky. All the while, he has continuously worked his 125 acre farm using the organic methods described by the English botanist and agriculturalist, Sir Albert Howard. Berry has eschewed the use of heavy machinery, preferring rather to plough his land behind heavy horses. This is fully in keeping with his expressed view that mechanisation has contributed not only to alienation in the workplace, but alienation from the forces that sustain life and community, a view shared by such different individuals as E.F. Schumacher and Simone Weil. Berry observes:
"What I am against - and without a minute's hesitation or apology - is our slovenly willingness to allow machines and the idea of machines to prescribe the terms and conditions of the lives of creatures, which we have allowed increasingly over the last two centuries, and are still allowing, at an incalculable cost to other creatures and to ourselves."
Apart from the dehumanising aspects of mechanisation, the unspoken context of Berry's position is an understanding that the power and freedom gained by the use of machines will not be infinitely available as cheap and accessible reserves of petroleum begin to dry up.

Over the course of his life, Wendell Berry has come to embody a peculiar synthesis of land husbandry and literary creativity. Through it all, he has maintained a moral position firmly grounded in his own Baptist faith. This has not prevented him from fiercely denouncing the long-standing and contradictory collusion of the established churches with corporate and political institutions that have over the past half century systematically despoiled the earth in the name of economic growth and industrial development. Berry writes:
"If Christianity is going to survive as more than a respecter and comforter of profitable iniquities, then Christians, regardless of their organisations, are going to have to interest themselves in economy - which is to say, in nature and in work. They are going to have to give workable answers to those who say we cannot live without this economy that is destroying us and destroying our world, who see the murder of Creation as the only way of life."
Yet such workable answers are unlikely to emerge from the institutional forms of religion that are, like economics and industrial civilisation itself, riven by a deep alienation from the natural world. He continues:
"This separation of the soul from the body and from the world is no disease of the fringe, no aberration, but a fracture that runs through the mentality of institutional religion like a geological fault."
Berry's interests lie more in economy than in economics. He consistently uses the term in its etymological sense of housekeeping, of managing a household. The fact that both economy and ecology have common roots is central to his thinking. He is fully conscious of the immense disconnect between the principles that we nominally live by as "Christian" nations and the policies and values that determine our actions in the world:
"Christ's life from the manger to the cross was an affront to the established powers of his time, as it is to the established powers of our time. Much is made in churches of the "good news" of the gospels. Less is said of the gospel's bad news, which is that Jesus would have been horrified by just about every "Christian" government the world has ever seen."

The Peculiar Myth of Progress


Wendell Berry takes a contrarian view regarding the near-universal acceptance of industrial development and technological innovation as forces for good in the world. The promotion of such notions by governments and their corporate sponsors effectively creates malleable populations that happily disregard the damage caused to peoples and planet in the name of "progress" in exchange for the promise of endless novelty and economic growth.

Berry describes the more insidious aspects of the myth of progress that is everywhere used to underwrite and justify contemporary political, technological and economic depredation:
"It [the myth of progress] substitutes this infinite advance towards better and better life in the material sense for the old pilgrimage which you make by effort and grace to become a better person. . . . It takes people's minds off the important things. It becomes, at its worst, a kind of determinism. All we have to do is just passively go along and things will get better and better, and we'll be happier and happier."
Wendell Berry herein identifies a major cause of the widespread alienation and social narcissism that assails the present times. The Socratic focus on an examined life grounded in reflective consciousness has been displaced by the boundless positivism preached by scientific and technocratic elites who forever push the boundaries of what is known in pursuit of "the new." We are constantly reassured that such "cutting edge" developments will replace existing technologies with newer, faster and more efficient versions, entertain our restless minds, restore our deteriorating health, and eventually correct dangerously altered climatic patterns. All the while, our collective pockets are steadily emptied into the already bloated coffers of transnational corporations and their shareholders. In his characteristic manner, Berry queries the nature of the "progress" that has been so relentlessly pursued:
"What is the measure of progress? It is possible to measure the progress of the last two or three hundred years in soil erosion. We can measure it in the rate of species extinction. We can measure it in pollution, in the toxicity of the world. Those things, like power and speed, are perfectly measurable. But we need also to raise the questions that are not quantitative. How happy are people? What do we make of all this complaining? How healthy are people? How are love and beauty faring? What do we make of all this doctoring and medication that is going on all the time at such a great expense?"
The benefits of industrial civilisation have been gained at a cost which is only now beginning to be more widely understood. The systemic nature of the damage already caused is affecting virtually every dimension of human and planetary life, from the health of ecosystems to the stability of climatic patterns. Together with E.F. Schumacher, Wendell Berry finds such destructive consequences to be inherent in the very nature of the methods of industrial civilisation. He reflects:
"Industrialism, which is the name of our economy, and which is now virtually the only economy of the world, has been from its beginnings in a state of riot. It is based squarely on the principle of violence towards everything on which it depends. . . . The violence towards nature, towards human communities, traditional agricultures and local economies has been constant."
This violence is most obvious in the mining and energy industries from which industrial civilisation gains much of its momentum. But it is also present in more subtle ways in the sweat-shop and assembly-line methods of production that create the surfeit of poorly-made and often-useless "goods" that fill the shelves of retailers everywhere. Wendell Berry has long lamented the loss of community-based traditional skills that supported the work of shoemakers, bread-makers, soap and candle-makers and tailors. Unlike the sweat-shop, such activities provide a measure of independence and human dignity to the worker and cultivate the small satisfactions that come through personal attention to the fruits of one's labours.

Wendell Berry is untiring in his call for restraint in the political and economic forces that drive the now-ruinous industrial project. He continues:
"The captains of industry have always counselled the rest of us to be 'realistic'. Let us therefore be realistic. Is it realistic to assume that the present economy would be just fine if only it would stop poisoning the air, or if only it would stop soil erosion, or if only it would stop degrading watersheds and forest ecosystems, or if only it would stop seducing children, or if only it would quit buying politicians, or if only it would give women and favoured minorities an equitable share of the loot? Realism, I think, is a very limited programme, but it informs us at least that we should not look for bird eggs in a cuckoo clock."
The Thrasymachean principle of "might is right" now operates in such areas as energy policy, economic development, resource extraction, and - as we have come to observe more recently in Occupy Movement protests - in methods of social control. Wendell Berry urges us to become more conscious of the background forces and the hidden agendas that conspire to keep power in the hands of corporate elites and their armies of political lobbyists. Central to Berry's mission is a call for the re-empowerment of local communities:
"If it is unreasonable to expect a bad economy to try to become a good one, then we must go to work to build a good economy. It is appropriate that this duty should fall to us, for good economic behaviour is more possible for us than it is for the great corporations with their miseducated managers and their greedy and oblivious stockholders. . . . We must learn to spend our money with our friends and not with our enemies. But to do this, it is necessary to renew local economies and revive the domestic arts."

Reclaiming Community


Throughout his life, Wendell Berry has sought to artfully uncover the deceptive rhetoric that represents our time as one of utopian possibilities and universal fulfilment. While acknowledging the transformations wrought by industrial and technological civilisation, he calls our attention to the perennial values and unchanging realities that condition our being. We are born into the world and remain part of it regardless of our ability to construct space stations and cruise the ocean floor in nuclear-powered submarines.

Part of Berry's mission has been to awaken us to how far we have drifted from the sources that connect us to each other and to the earth. As one who has astutely observed the separation of our collective psyches from such basic considerations even as the source and nature of the foods that sustain us, he offers clear vision:
"No matter how urban our life, our bodies live by farming; we come from the earth and return to it, and so we live in agriculture as we live in flesh. While we live our bodies are moving particles of the earth, joined inextricably both to the soil and to the bodies of other living creatures. It is hardly surprising, then, that there should be some profound resemblances between our treatment of our bodies and our treatment of the earth." ("The Body and the Earth", The Art of the Common-Place, 2002)
Berry's pursuit of the perennial has also brought him to a clear understanding of the role of healthy communities in the life of humanity. He reflects:
"What I'm talking about in my work is the hope that it may be possible to produce stable, locally adapted communities. . . .  The idea of a healthy community is an indispensable measure, just as the idea of a healthy child, if you're a parent, is an indispensable measure. You can't operate without it."
Wendell Berry has never sought a following. But he has ever sought to awaken us to the sacred dimension of earthly life. Wendell Berry simply asks to be heard.
                    I will wait here in the fields
                    to see how well the rain
                    brings on the grass.
                    In the labour of the fields
                    longer than a man's life
                    I am at home. Don't come with me.
                    You stay home too.
                                         (Stay Home, 1980)
Vincent Di Stefano D.O., M.H.Sc.
July 2012