Discovering the Ore
If it's possible to take a long walk on a small porch, then I think I've just done so.
Having worked my way through every essay in Our Only World, It was with great gusto that I dove into a new Wendell Berry book -- this one a 2016 publication called A Small Porch, which includes Wendell's sabbath poems from 2014 and 2015, and a long essay called "The Presence of Nature in the Natural World: A Long Conversation." From the dust jacket I learned that Wendell spends his sabbaths outdoors and often, recently at least, seated at a small porch in the woods, writing poetry. Fans of Mr. Berry's poetry will undoubtedly be familiar with his collection called This Sabbath Day, a compilation resulting from five decades of these walks and their attendant writings. I enjoy Wendell's poetry but take more readily to his essays and fiction. Because these recent sabbath poems stood between me and the start of the The Presence of Nature on page 77, however, I was compelled by my overdeveloped impulse for propriety and order to take them in, one or two at a time, paging my way toward the Long Conversation that lay in wait in the back half of the book.
Reading the poems makes me wish I knew more about poetry. I am intimidated by them, just a bit, though I must confess that nearly all poetry has that effect on me. What I mostly feel in reading Wendell's poetry -- what I keenly observe -- is there behind the poem. It is the poet - the writer, hard at work in his watching and listening, in his constant working out and writing down. I think about Berry walking those woods for 35 years and composing words to describe the light, the sounds, and the felt noticings that flit and filter there among the trees. And what strikes me most is the labor. He is a man at work, I suspect, always. His is a mind at work -- always. By this I don't mean the kind of work that beleaguers or taxes. Perhaps it's more accurate to say that Wendell Berrys' pleasure and his productivity must be one and the same. He walks, he thinks, he imagines, he wonders, he hears, he sees, and, I'm sure, every day he writes. I am able to imagine this way of living, though my existence is more like "sitting, eating, clicking, chatting, occasionally writing, and eagerly sleeping." We are both alive, of course. But is it fair to say that his mind is more alive than mine? That he is more vitally engaged and animated by his surroundings than I am? That his eyes see farther and more perceptively than mine? I think it is fair, yes. And rather than feeling his inferior, this is precisely why I take such pleasure in reading him, and why I've come now to these regular, enjoyable, metaphorical walks with him.
The Presence of Nature in the Natural World: A Long Conversation is revealed, in a concluding paragraph, as a journey through the writing and thinking that has informed Mr. Berry's own, over his lifetime. For someone like me - a nascent Berry scholar I suppose -- this is an exciting find. All artists -- all people really -- have their influences, but it's the artists that fascinate the most. There's great pleasure in learning that were there no Elvis, there'd be no Dylan; no Dylan, no Bobby Darin; no Darin, no Ben E. King; no King, no Otis Redding. If we want to understand why Otis Redding sounds the way he does, we must understand something of King, Darin, Dylan and Elvis. And of course even such a discourse would be necessarily partial and insufficient, since the sum of our influences does not equal our soul.
Nonetheless, Wendell Berry's life is a study of such anachronistic thinking and decision-making that I've always wondered who helped put those ideas in his head? Of the millions of farmers, millions of professors, millions of writers and millions of concerned citizens, how is it that only one person constructed a life of the highest quality farming, teaching, writing and engaged citizenship? In his writing and speaking Mr. Berry has repeatedly credited his parents, family, neighbors and friends for sculpting his character and his mind. Well, so have I; there's no secret sauce in that. But his "mind is more alive....his eyes see farther... " So what is it? Was his mind always this fertile? Is it the result of long years of intellectual composting? Was he endowed with natural gifts? Exceptional nurturance? Yes to all, of course.
I've written before on the danger of romanticizing a rural upbringing, not having had one and knowing all too well the hardship, dysfunction and disintegration that is often visited on small, land-dependent places (Mental Powers). This admonition does not dispel, however, my hunch that nourishment of one's mind and nourishment of one's character are drawn from a single stream of experience made of people, work and community. The mind and soul of a boy raised in a small Kentucky farming community in the 1940's are going to differ from those of a boy raised in a 1980's Los Angeles suburb. Without speculating too much on the metaphysics of the soul, I'll make just a single claim: far more than our city boy, our country boy -- especially prior to the screen-obsessed era that began in the last quarter of the 20th century -- is going to know more about, and care more about, Mother Nature. He may not necessarily love it. He may despise her demands, her stubbornness, her indifference. But he is going to know it, know about it, and understand it as something to be reckoned with -- a reality to be controlled, escaped, or somehow husbanded.
The first of these three options represents the tens of thousands who've stayed in farming, contorting their ways and means to the industrial, finding a place somewhere on the chain-gang of the extractive ag economy. The second option represents tens of millions more who've fled the country, where nature suffuses, for city life and city work. These combined millions comprise another "99 percent," since nearly everyone has left, or is leaving, the farm. In the larger population, they are part of the 99 percent made visible by the Occupy movement -- economic non-elites, struggling to get by, or getting by barely with lousy jobs, low wages or insufficient benefits. But there is another one percent out there in the country still -- not elite in wealth, but in knowledge. These are the Wendell Berry's, who have chosen the third way. I know only one of them by name, but like Mr. Berry, they are the few whose lives demonstrate that we are, as individuals and as a species, in relationship with nature. They understand we are no more capable of controlling or escaping nature than controlling or escaping the bacteria within us.
Recognizing this relationship to Nature as relationship wherein both entities are capable of responding to the other, is where Wendell begins this long essay on The Presence of Nature. "The great trouble of our age, involving the whole human economy, from agriculture to warfare, is in our relationship to the natural world.'" The relationship, he opens, is in tatters due to two hopeless assumptions in the age of Industrialism: that the natural world is either subject to unlimited pillage as "natural resource," or partial and selective protection as "the environment." Yes, yes. This is how it is. I haven't nearly the eloquence, but this idea is one that I myself could have authored. It's not an stunningly original observation.
It's in a following paragraph where Mr. Berry, of the far-seeing eyes, separates himself from me the millions of others and from me. He says "I have of course felt a need to understand, and to oppose, so far as I have been able, the downslope of all creation." Of course? To understand and oppose the downslope of all creation? The longer you think about this statement, the more audacious it seems.
And so he embarks on a journey to recollect, synthesize and pay homage to the friends and teachers (many of whom were both), that he has turned to for help in his understanding, and companionship in his opposition, over his long course of study. The content of this fine essay is worth absorbing even if, like the poetry, it's the biographical breadcrumbs that better slake my curiosity about the making of Wendell Berry. Thus will I share, over the next few posts, how authors and poets like Alan of Lille, Chaucer, Spencer, Milton, Pope, Wordsworth, Pound, Gary Snyder, Hayden Carruth, Albert Howard, Aldo Leopold and Wes Jackson all connect, thought to thought, idea to idea, in the "little town of Wendell Berry's mind." Like I said, it's a long walk, given that it's been more than a couple of decades since I've spent time with the likes of Chaucer and Milton.
Perhaps that's because I haven't felt the need to "understand and oppose the downslope of all creation." Why haven't I? Why haven't more of us? If Wendell Berry's mind is a furnace, and I do feel the blast whenever I encounter it, then it's questions like these that are the ore. Later in the essay he shares a couple more doozies: "How must this land, this place, be properly cared for? What is the right thing to do, and how can it be done?" These have been Wendell Berry's concerns his entire adult life. It's worth pausing to consider what our concerns have been -- our defining concerns. What are the questions that have set your mind to work? What are the layers of understanding and opposition that have built up your character? What are mine? Have they sustained inquiry over decades?
A man concerned with big, hard questions like these, if he is serious, is going to end up spending a lot of time at work and in nature -- walking and writing, carefully reading and farming or at least gardening. Or, to put it a little differently: the hard-earned answers about how to live well, in community, prosperously and with care, are not going to make themselves known by way of a tweet or blog post. These truths are hard because they're hidden. They're out there, partially revealed the woods, in an Alexander Pope poem, in the folk wisdom of a forgotten farmer, in the philosophy of a medieval theologian, and in the minds of men like Wendell Berry.
We've come to accept that there's a "One Percent" economic class whose existence explains everything that's wrong with late stage capitalism. But let's not despair. There's another tiny minority out there who've seen through our false economy and can teach us how to live in relationship with the natural world, helping us recognize our part in an economy bent on control and a culture based on escape. For nearly all of us, especially nowadays, it's impossible to study what these elites have studied. But it's not impossible to study them. We can take up next to them on a small porch, pay attention to their words, and engage the world of nature that they've considered so patiently, and with such affection.