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  • Writer's pictureKenneth Asher


I suspect that they don’t want to be the objects of such people’s charity. They want their dignity back. They want to be what they once were: workers, an independent source of economic value, ambivalently regarded by and even somewhat menacing to the upper class. As I wrote on my personal blog in May, they’d rather, if there’s no other choice, be “bad.”

Caleb Crain, On Choosing Trump and Being Bad (November 12, 2016) in the New Yorker

Under his management, the reduction of timber has not reduced the productivity of the forest. On the contrary, his management has increased productivity – it can, he says, almost double the production of poorly managed woodlands – at the same time that it increases the number of human workers. It would be hard to overestimate the importance of this, as an accomplishment and as an example: several human livelihoods taken from the forest, to the forest’s benefit, which becomes in turn and complexly, a further human benefit.

WB, from A Forest Conversation (2012) in Our Only World


It’s interesting how the really hard problems require time and space, and in today’s world no one has either anymore. Of course it’s true and yet it isn’t.

True: I am working in this new (new?) medium now and my consultant son is already reminding me that I need to write blog posts and not blog essays. My time to write and your time to read are limited, just like the space on the phone screen is limited. And yet false. My time to write and your time to read aren’t really limited, and neither is the space to contain the words. It’s more accurate to say that we decide what we're willing to do, or put up with, and nowadays we don't spend much time on "hard" stuff. The en vogue term is "grit," and we are struggling to maintain it in a world of smartphone distraction. I suspect, however, that people have always felt intensely pressed and only up to so much.

Nevertheless, the hard problems that Mr. Berry has been writing about, and that I expect to struggle with here at WWW, offend the modern limbic system. An important preliminary step would be to admit this much -- that we aren't really conditioned to wrestle with our big problems, and that the denial of our own ignorance is adamantine. We like conclusions and, if we can't quite settle the score, we settle for scoring points. Anything so as to not appear old-fashioned, unlearned or daft. Heaven forbid we moderns not keep up.

But I'm starting this Walk by admitting that our societal problems are really, really hard and I feel completely stupid writing about them. There it is. We have to admit that we don’t know what to do. Serious Wendell fans are probably recalling, as I am, that one of his volumes is entitled “The Way of Ignorance,” borrowing from T.S. Elliot.

Why the long opening?

I finished reading A Forest Conversation a couple of days ago. It is about a way of life that I don’t know and can’t imagine ever knowing – creating a sustainable forest economy. You might think that, as an Oregonian, I'd have a little familiarity with the subject, but no. In the essay, Wendell reminds us yet again of the ecological shortsightedness and business idiocy of clear-cutting or even selling off the best trees in a forest, showing us instead an exemplary sustainable forestry industry as practiced by a few enlightened people on 740 acres near Spartansburg, Pennsylvania. The essay is familiar ground, dealing as it does first with the fact that what grows on the earth is not ours to rip off, and second, with the possibility that we humans might actually live better were we to work within limits instead of obliterating them.

Did you glaze over at that last point? I would forgive you. Acknowledging limits is prima facie "environmentalism," which is the term my generation used to use for the movement. Unfortunately, to use another Berry construct, this information hasn't exactly become knowledge. We read about it, we understand, we accede -- but no, the vast majority of us do not conscientiously contour our lives to respect natural limits. Why not? I think it's pretty simple: it's because of work. Our work conspires against us, and against our world. Through work, we are diminished to Producer-Consumer -- little machine parts. And that's the best of it. Count yourself among the lucky if you get to be part of the machinery.

Once the idealism of youth fades, political beliefs rest on a bed of raw matter that is mostly constructed from work experience. It's problematical that work -- our livelihoods -- gets compacted into this thing called the Economy. The Economy is endlessly fascinating to me, but I don't really understand it, and the more I study it, the more I see that no one does. But l think I get work. It's that thing that we must do, or hope to do, to earn a living, contribute to society. Hopefully both. Given the percentage of waking hours across a lifetime that are devoted to training for work, looking for work and doing work, it's amazing to me how little attention is paid to the lived experience of work as a soul-shaper and society-driver. Even in these fraught times, we seem to be unable to get past what should be the discussion starter - not the last word: job creation. Or, in government-speak - unemployment rates. It's as if the only important thing about work is how many people (lately voters) have it.

There is a budding discourse happening about work in the way I'm referring to it (i.e. work as a personal and therefore societal shaping-machine). Just yesterday I heard a podcast on Douglas Rushkoff's Team Human with Natalie Foster, who has been doing some serious thinking about the future of work and especially its relationship to the social contract. There is a raging discussion happening, I'm pretty sure, in artificial intelligence circles about the future of work in an ever-accelerated machine-learning world. But as usual, the impetus for these discussions is technological advance. As usual, it's the coastal, whiz-bang whiz-kids out there on the edge reporting back to us troops what the future portends. It sure ain't about better forestry practices.

The point of this somewhat rambling post is captured in the two quotes that I pasted at the top. I am sure that people, men especially, cast votes for the President-elect because they are embittered by the reality of their work experience. Much of the post-election punditry flocks to this explanation. People have either lost work, or are poorly compensated for what they do, or cannot find any reward in their livelihood beyond the paycheck it affords, and job insecurity hovers above so many, not just the disgruntled. Wages are stagnant and have been for a long time.

But these guys in the forest - the few men who are making their woodlands more productive while employing local people who, based on longevity in the enterprise, enjoy both decent pay and the sense of decency that arises when helping with the worthwhile - well yes Mr. Berry, the importance of their example is hard to overestimate. It is this: there are jobs to be had, in rural places, that actually improve the ecosphere while making life better for local people, by employing them, healing their landscapes, and providing them with value that is additional to their income. Like in this case, fantastic maple syrup. How can something so promising be so completely overlooked?

What matters most to people, politically, is work, because more than anything else, our work slots us into our community both socially and financially. And while we despair over lost jobs, outsourcing, automation and welfare programs, there is real work and lots of it, in rural places, that is both remunerative and kind toward natural systems and our fellow creatures. Mr. Berry notes in the essay that small Amish furniture factories did more than $100 million in business in 2011 and from this tiny slice of the American economy, he finds hope.

This is happening in Spartansburg, Pa., the kind of flyover place that has seen plenty of journalists before and after the election. Unfortunately, those visitors are on the wrong story.

Who but Wendell Berry has gone there to learn what's going perfectly right in this country?



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