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  • Writer's pictureKenneth Asher

Both Together, Never Apart

"If we keep faithful to our land and our people, both together, never apart, then we will always find the right work to do, and our long, necessary, difficult, happy effort will continue."

WB from "Local Economies to Save the Land and People" in Our Only World

Heitkamp has recently been critical of the indigenous protesters, whom she has called “violent,” even as she remains silent on the critical injuries experienced by the so-called “water protectors” facing off with authorities.... Heitkamp likewise praised the Army Corps of Engineers’ order to break up the protests this month as “a needed step to support the safety of residents, workers, protesters and law enforcement.”

Dell Cameron, writer for the Daily Dot, on President-Elect Donald Trump's prospective secretary appointment of N.D. Sen. Heidi Heitkamp (D)


In a 2013 speech transcribed as Local Economies to Save the Land and People, Wendell Berry retells a story about his involvement in the immediate aftermath of a lone Kentuckian's standoff against a strip miner's bulldozer. Apparently in 1965, one Mr. Dan Gibson, defending the land of his stepson marine who was serving in Vietnam, succeeded in forestalling the inevitable. Mr. Berry was at the courthouse on the night of the vigilantism. A half century later, he reveals the three strands of thought that "have been with me pretty much constantly from that time until now." Blessedly and unsurprisingly, his lasting impressions were not of gun-toting heroics or mountain-made individualism -- both the Hollywood and NRA versions of the story would wilt immediately in the face of a too real, three-part futility.

The first, Mr. Berry says, is the impossibility of knowing the ecological cost and human heartbreak of the permanent destruction of any part of our only world.

The second is the impossibility of permanently stopping this permanent destruction.

The third is a tiny pinhole of hope, thank god, in light of the first two. It is that we must never speak or think of the land and its people separately, but always and only together. And not, as you might immediately jump to conclude, because we breathe air and drink water. True that, but as well it's because we have to work to live - to make a living. We are economically tied to the land, he says. To repeat for emphasis: we are economically tied to the land. "If we want to save the land, we must save the people who belong to the land. If we want to save the people, we must save the land the people belong to." Really that's all you need to understand if you want to understand the whole of Wendell Berry.

In reading Mr. Berry, I find this happens a lot - every few pages. You come to a truth like this one, and you go "uh huh, that's true. That's right." And you read on. But the point of WWW is to slow down, ask questions, struggle and hopefully, push the understanding down into the marrow. What does it mean to be economically tied to the land? And if we don't understand that truth, as I think so many of us don't, why don't we?

The base question, in it's obviousness and remoteness, is bedeviling. Why are we economically tied to the land? Sure, if you're a farmer or a rancher, but what if you're a banker, teacher or government official like me? How am I economically tied to the land? My job wouldn't exist without the city I work for, which is comprised of a geophysical 12 square miles. Is that it? Or is it because the salary I earn allows me to eat? The banker's case is even harder to make. He can work anywhere. If he's a commercial banker, perhaps his loans fund businesses with physical addresses, but if he's an investment banker, he could be just trading futures or selling derivatives. How is that guy economically tied to the land? How about the software developer?

I find with Berry, it helps to think about work in the most humanistic, individualized terms. Fuck macroeconomics. That's where we lose the connections entirely. What is work, really, but the transformation of something into something else through the use of material? Rather than the transformation (the "job,") let's focus instead on "use" and "material" because I think the answer to our question isn't the type of work we do but rather the stuff we work with. Even these two bankers rely on stuff -- their computers and phones, airplanes and automobiles. Take away their tools, whether of steel, silicon, rubber or plastic, and the farmer and the banker are revealed as essentially the same dude. In a tool-less world, they would be equally screwed. I suppose they would each go and find a rock suitable for sharpening, which makes the point exactly: the common denominator for all of us, economically, is that the tools of our trades are made from and run on, natural materials. It takes some imagination, but absolutely everything we touch and use and consume in our working lives starts its way up the long value chain from the the ground beneath us.

This imagination failure is in great part why we don't understand our economic reliance on the land. Wendell is often invoking imagination as the great humanizer and mediator. The farmer sees the role of the land in his work every day. The banker never does, and in the US, we almost all have the bankers' eyesight and paltry imagination. Which must be why no one covers the story, and why we are forgetting. Seriously, it took me an hour to write the last two paragraphs and I am a person who thinks about such things. Like I said, it's obvious but remote.

Because of this ignorance, we have become compromised to the infection of a land-destroying economy. Mr. Berry categorizes the (only) two ways of connecting with the land economically: either we will have a familiar, affectionate and saving connection, or it will be distant, uncaring and destructive. Notice that these are human qualities. We need not understand soil structure, geological formations or the nesting habits of the bustard to get this, although I'm sure that stuff helps. What we need to understand is our affective selves, our economic selves, and our local places. To reprise a point from the last post, we also need to understand how our work and the economy it fits into, pushes us away from the familiar, affectionate and saving connection, and into distance and destruction. A full understanding of this is, I know, (having read Berry all these years), neither possible nor the point. Rather, it is as the Spartansburg forester told: one person can begin "and can begin better with the help of others."

In my next post, I'll write about the 12 ways that Wendell outlined in his talk how his listeners could save the land and its people. For now, I'll close with the most obvious real-time, real-world dramatization of all these ideas. As I write, thousands of people have joined the resistance to the Dakota Access Pipeline project, which is being led by more than 250 native american tribes whose members have suffered great personal risk trying to protect water resources for millions of people in the upper midwestern US. In my lifetime, I cannot recall a more black and white clash of these two economic value systems, although the Standing Rock situation differs from Mr. Gibson's one-man protest against the strip mining bulldozer only in scale and not in type. The Obama administration is expected to intervene on this standoff any day, and threats are escalating from the US Army Corps of Engineers about "clearing" the protestors. Already there have been unlawful arrests, pepper spray, sound cannons, attack dogs, water cannons, rubber bullets and a paucity of serious political discussion about both the miscarriage of justice and (as always), the ineluctability of a land-destroying economy and a people-removing one.

At the end of Wendell's one-page piece called "Contempt for Small Places," in The Way of Ignorance, a government official's pablum to justify the coal industy's mountaintop removal in eastern Kentucky runs to the inevitable "balance of competing interests." To wit, the official says that mining enables the local economy, which allows people to live in Kentucky, and that Kentuckians need a decent environment to live in as well. But it is Mr. Berry who finishes the theorem. He says what no government official has ever said, and which we shouldn't expect to hear from our leaders regarding Standing Rock: if we destroy the land so that people can't live on it, then we need a better economy.

Imagine that.


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