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  • Writer's pictureKenneth Asher

The Long Conversation, With Affection

"You might as well send a bird dog to judge the competence of a neurologist."

WB in The Presence of Nature in the Natural World: A Long Conversation (2016), from A Small Porch


Donald Trump has proven so utterly contemptible that his presence, even in blog-space, now feels perverse alongside the ever elegant Wendell Berry. To be anywhere near Trump is to be molested, either bodily or characterologically. "Make sure I'm never alone with him," confessed former FBI chief James Comey about his ex-boss. How many nameless women have said the same? "I need loyalty, I expect loyalty" said the ex-boss to Comey. To walk with Donald apparently means to walk in front of him, as a human shield, or behind him, with a pooper-scooper.

To walk with Wendell is to try to keep up with him, stepping thoughtfully through history, the arts and of course, nature. To make this walk is to accept the seriousness of this "being alive" business. It is to wonder about living cooperatively with nature and with neighbors. It is to make of one's life an inquiry. In so doing, it is to make peace with one's limitations, and with limits in general. In the end, it is to appreciate the mystery of the world and our ineffable place in it.

The hell would Donald Trump know about any of that? Seriously -- if we were to place every American adult in a single file line in order of similarity to the president, Wendell Berry might be the very last guy. They are the unlikeliest of blog-mates.

Because we are living through a historical moment, it makes sense to spill a little ink over Trump in these posts, if only because it will make for a more interesting archive some day. Beyond that, there's absolutely no place for him here. He is, sadly, the president we deserve. We (and the Russians) elected him, after all. If non-supporters feel exonerated by that, remember that he rose to power and remains there for one reason only: the complicity of the Republican Party. That's a party of more than 55 million voters and the vast majority of statehouses. It's hardly a fringe movement. The president is cuckoo, yes, but he's no black swan. He's the American president because of -- I hate to say it -- American support.

Wendell, I'm certain, would prefer a better president, but more fervently does he want us to be worthy of a better president.

Berry opens A Long Conversation by saying how he has needed help understanding how people can willingly destroy the earth, of which we are made, and our home places, on which we depend. The modern citadels of science, technology, industry are of little use to him in this search because they are incapable of judging their effects. And to an extent, they have had a corrupting influence on his ability to see clearly, since he is a product of a western, christian culture that he refuses to disavow. "I am too completely involved in western culture by the history of my mind, my people, my place to be capable of a new start in another tradition." (Footnote: I'm an example of trying the "new start" approach, taking up Zen Buddhism in my early 20's having been raised in a secular Jewish family).

"My need to make as much sense as I could of my history and experience...clearly depended on my willingness to do so, not only as a native of a small patch of country in Henry County, Kentucky, but also as an heir and inevitably a legator of western culture." So even the original locavore acknowledges an indebtedness to, abetment of, and partial responsibility for, the abuses of the western world. The presidency, the country, the mess -- we are all responsible, are we not?

I've heard Mr. Berry referred to as a "prophet of responsibility." If pressed to find one idea that encircles everything he's said and done and taught, "responsibility" is a fine choice I suppose. To be a good farmer, a good husband, a good friend -- each summons the same basic imperative: the alignment of thoughts and actions with the needs of others. This implies that you can know such needs in the first place, which is hard to do with friends, harder still with a life partner, and damn near impossible with Nature. (A Long Conversation is in part about how even conservationists and some nature poets have missed the mark on this). Responsibility is hard, is what I'm saying. And it's necessary, is what he's saying.

However my one-word choice for all-things-Wendell wouldn't be "responsibility," actually. I would instead opt for "affection." Wendell Berry is not the King of Responsibility because of a freakishly innate religious genius, nor some heroic "overcoming-the-odds" biography. Many are more pious. Many have been more deprived.

No, I think the circumference of a man's responsibility correlates to the size his caring, or, to be more Hallmark about it, to the size of his heart. It's not stricture that explains Wendell Berry's prodigious up-righteousness. It's love. To Wes Jackson and Henry Besuden -- two fellow agrarians whom he holds in the very highest regard, Wendell attributes the observation that "soil conservation involves the heart of the man managing the land. If he loves his soil he will save it." This theme appears again and again in Berry - so much so that one of his books -- perhaps the one I'll blog about next -- is called "It All Turns on Affection," stealing from EM Forster's Howard's End.

Through the lens of "responsibility," Berry's work, and my effort to recount it, slip all too easily into moralizing. I am at pains to avoid that. It is his affection that captivates me, and it can only be that which has driven him all these years. After finishing 40 minutes inside a Berry essay like A Long Conversation, I feel less like I've been in the sanctuary and more like after a rugged hike, with brain and lungs equally oxygenated. Or like the feeling after a day on the river. Or like that thing you feel when you are caught up short by some natural wonder -- an endless green valley, wildflowers, sequoia trees, mountains, or fireflies floating on the dusk. It feels blessed, somehow. Comforting. Correct. The Prophet of Responsibility is such, I surmise, because he's a man deeply in love with creation.

Of course we who inhabit this earth must use it, and so are caught in its inevitable alteration, manipulation, and abuse. This has always been true: people, nature, and God have been mixed up in recombinant relationships forever. Recognizing the failure of Science, Industry and Technology to say anything of use about our modern predicament, Mr. Berry casts his gaze way back, to a time before the Big 3 crowded out all other strains of understanding, and around forgotten corners -- seeking uncelebrated teachers and teachings about "mind, people and place." He begins with the Bible and English poets who lived and worked under the Bible's influence, then moves to contemporary poets, and finally to agrarians whose line of thought has been remarkably consistent through the past century -- and remarkably irrelevant.

I've been dipping in and out of this essay for a month now. There's no tidy way of summing it up. What I can say is how radical it feels to sweep away terms of our scientific orthodoxy like ecosystem, biosphere, and even Gaia, in a return to the older name we used to use for the thing we live in, and are part of: "Nature." She used to be understood as something like God's vice-regent -- not the maker of the world, but the enforcer of its good keeping. Nature imposes the rules of life, death, decay and renewal, and she provisions the means for all creatures to participate in this cycle. Tragically perhaps, she is unable to insure her own integrity and survival. For that, she relies on humans, or, more exactly, mankind's adherence to his own human nature -- to the virtues of temperance, generosity, humility, etc. that keep us in our rightful place in the order of things. "The integrity of the natural world depends on the maintenance by humans of their integrity by the practice of the virtues. The two integrities are interdependent." Berry says this is the golden thread -- from Alan de Lille of the 12th century to today. This is a truth worth knowing, not for the sake of morality or Heaven as in de Lille's time, perhaps, says Mr. Berry, but because of the practical terms of what it means to be a human being alive in the natural world. It is worth knowing in our irreligious times because it is an economic truth.

One doesn't come to this knowledge scientifically so much as poetically. Questions of responsibility, of how to live, are well beyond any reductive specialization or academic discipline. So are the hardest aspects of Nature's script for life, like her indifference and her impermanence. Apparently it was the 16th century poet Edmund Spencer who understood that Nature's standing was well above humanity's, given her equitable motherhood over all creatures. Maybe Heaven has an order that makes the going easier for humans; here on earth we are always going to be just a part of the chorus.

Chaucer, John Milton, Alexander Pope, CS Lewis wrote poetry that, in one way or another, describe humans as contained within Nature. Sound obvious? Well consider what happens around the time of Wordsworth and the Romantic poets. A divorce has occurred; Nature is outside us now, requiring nothing of us, "lacking the intelligence and moral energy as she appeared to the older poets." "Of Wordsworth she seems to have required nothing at all in particular, except perhaps his admiration." Nature has become scenery, and has remained only as much to this day. Nature as view, or destination, or "reserve" is more than an irritation to Berry; it is a mistake and a costly one at that.

Ezra Pound, Hayden Carruth and Gary Snyder are brilliant poets and modern inheritors of the older tradition, each elaborating an intelligent engagement between people and land that's morally prescribed by Nature. But Berry also devotes several pages to unknown farm people who taught him this same way of thought, and who sometimes inspired the poems that inspired him. He likens a good farmer's mind to artists of the fine arts, possessing a breadth of knowledge that's practical, sublime and well beyond the appraisal of professionals and academics who have, for centuries apparently, disparaged the farmer's intelligence. Wendell's lived observation is that the unremitting practical circumstances of a farmer's life forge a certain strength of mind -- knowledgeable of more things than he can even be conscious of -- alert, observant, interested, interesting and conversant in the experience of others. We've come to call this kind of intelligence "folk wisdom," or common sense. We probably should find a new name for it. It's no longer common at all.

FH King, Sir Albert Howard, Russell Smith, Aldo Leopold and Wes Jackson round out the Wendell Berry Teachers' Hall of Fame. These are the men who have thought and written about farming in the same vein as the old poets -- as a practice that will not improve Nature, nor even imitate her (which is impossible), but which must protect her and preserve her health. Moreover, they wrote about HOW to do this, through knowledge gained from travel to Asia and elsewhere, where ravaged and eroded landscapes could be observed alongside carefully cultivated rice patties on tiny acreages. These are the men who devoted their lives to soil study, and to the most profound appreciation for the religious, practical and (eventually) scientific "truth" of the fertility cycle.

From all these teachers, Wendell Berry came to understand how a coherent, sound and proven alternative to industrial agriculture and economy has been possible, which "had it prevailed, would have preserved the economic landscapes and its people." Of course it didn't prevail, and this is the didactic spot where Berry critics rush in to point out that the industrial agriculture and economy have lifted billions of people out of poverty and fed a global population more nutritiously than at any other time in history. Some day I will happen again upon Wendell's retort to this critique and I will share it with relish. I'm guessing he will likely point out that the principle of "creative destruction," whereby costs are accepted because of concomitant benefits, only works when the creation part exceeds the destruction part. Our industrial economy fails that test. A full accounting looks forward, not just back, and Nature hasn't yet called in our debts.

That the world selected industrial standards (efficiency, productivity, profitability) over agricultural and ecological ones is undisputed, even as the criticisms and recommendations of the agrarians have never been addressed or answered, let alone disproved. One might imagine Wendell Berry holed up in his writing room somewhere, face pinched, scribbling away madly against a world gone wrong, wrong, wrong! It ain't like that. A Long Conversation is indeed a treatise on the Presence of Nature in the Natural World. But it is also a story about friendships - real and imagined, and the pleasures Wendell Berry has enjoyed in finding "the Others." It is a reflection on how his fellow travelers have enlightened him, consoled him, kept him company, amused him, inspired him, burnished his mind, enlarged his soul.

To have a long conversation, there must reason to stay with it. Helping the world and might be one. But affection and kinship are the better, and it's these that I've taken from this essay, and that I hope you'll take from this retelling.


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