We live in a time of gathering losses.
I’m thinking about job losses, the loss of national pride, and, all across this country, rampant loss of life in high schools, in opiate-riddled communities, in families unable to help war-ruined veterans. Our way seems lost. Most of us can’t find much time any more -- the kind we used to call “spare.” We’re losing arctic ice, losing the race to keep carbon out of the atmosphere, and as far as these slow-moving disasters go, losing hope. Fairness also seems utterly lost. I don’t know anyone who thinks society is becoming fairer.
So. How we are coping? How are you coping? It’s not something you’re going to be asked at the neighborhood barbeque, so I’m asking you here. I’m doing okay, but partially so because I’ve gone into a self-exiled “News Blackout,” which I justify, shakily, as a legitimate condemnation response to an unethical collusion between our current newsmakers and news media (so-called).
Mine is a very explicit avoidance strategy – a little different from denial, which must be the most common coping mechanism. Many of us choose either not to look, or to look with hardened hearts, which is to look and not see. Others of us are paying close attention to all these losses, and with real alarm, but can only shrug in response. The smallness of our individuality an undeniably depressing fact in the face of so much calamity, injustice, abuse.
Others cope by smiling – willing the distress away. Don’t fret too much; don’t over-react; for heaven’s sake don’t write/read disheartening blogs. Don’t succumb to the decline. (This response is complicated; speaking from my personal experience of the past six months, it has in it a touch of something right, and something still very wrong). Anyhow this is the roost where we pronounce that Things Could Be Worse and that we must give thanks for every good thing we still have. Indeed we do have much to be grateful for, and here I’m recalling Matt Ridley’s book The Rational Optimist wherein he convincingly argues that 99 per cent of humanity today is better fed, better sheltered, better entertained and better protected against disease than were any of our forebears.
I guess one’s point of reference matters a lot and as always, generalizing of this kind always runs headlong into inevitable counterpointing. But I still hold that if you interviewed every single person you know, each and every one would confess to a coping strategy for living in a time of loss. It’s a price of our modernity -- the witnessing of, and contending with, cascading losses. I’m not here to say there’s a right and wrong way to do this. What I do want to point out is that everyone is forced to cope. It’s a fact, albeit an unspoken one.
That there can be beauty in coping is an idea I drew from Wendell’s tribute to the poet Hayden Carruth, called My Friend Hayden from Imagination in Place. Mr. Carruth, Vermont’s one-time poet laureate, lived a long life and a sometimes unhappy one. A rural man from a rural state, he witnessed the disintegration of the local dairy industry there, and though this didn’t forge his identity as insistently as it did Berry’s, he too stayed put and wrote poetry, decade after decade, chronicling the losses visited upon him and his neighbors.
In the phylum of mankind, Wendell Berry and Hayden Carruth are essentially identical twins – highly educated, rural homesteaders possessed of literary genius. A rare species, this. Wendell often tells about how smart his neighbors are – but he usually doesn’t mean book-smart. Clever and sensible sure, but how many farmers have degrees from Stanford? (I admit that my lifelong fascination with Wendell Berry is largely accounted for by this remarkable and unusual scholar/farmer juxtaposition). Carruth was a professor as well, and an author and man of letters, and though not a farmer, he lived his entire life in the country and provided the example Wendell needed when Berry made the radical choice to leave New York City for Port Royal, Kentucky. We know that Berry enjoys his occasional hyperbole, but I was nevertheless tickled at this description of his older friend:
We have also understood from the first that Hayden is far better read and better educated than I am…And so I have freely come to Hayden for instruction and correction. And Hayden has freely given the help I have asked for. He has sometimes enjoyed rather extravagantly the authority of his seniority, but then I too have enjoyed it rather extravagantly.
I got curious about Hayden Carruth. Could it be? A more literate version of Mr. Berry, from the only state that competes with my rapture for Oregon? A Wendell of Vermont? What I found reminded me that gigantic talent and staunch values (Berry traits, I’ll call them) offer no protection from life’s brutality, and that even birds of the same feather are still inviolably themselves.
Hayden Carruth struggled with depression, phobias and alcoholism and survived two suicide attempts. He was divorced three times, and spent fifteen months in an asylum in the 1950’s, undergoing electroconvulsive therapy. He lost his only daughter to cancer when she was in her forties. This is what you learn from the newspaper account of Mr. Carruth’s life. What you get from Berry is more affecting and perspicacious. Hayden Carruth, in the eyes of Wendell Berry, was a man full of affection – bent on appreciation, and on truth-telling. His work, Berry writes, “assumes absolutely that our life begins and ends on the everyday, the real, the mortal, the 'losing' side of the ideal.” Casual readers of Carruth might find pessimism in his work; Wendell instead finds an unrelenting and unflinching willingness to face hardship, and a darkness “readily lighted by announcements of great happiness and great joy.”
If you know his work, you know can find dislike in it, and anger too. Even so, he is a poet of affection. If he dislikes, that is because he likes. If he is angry, that is because of damage to what he loves.
Part of what Wendell is appreciating in his friend Hayden in this essay, and what I appreciate about both of them, is the art of coping.
You know, the story of Berry going home to Kentucky is very familiar to me by now. I know it well enough to retell it myself, which I have done many times, always intoning the heroism of Wendell’s quixotic stand. But my version, like the newspaper account of Hayden Carruth’s life, is purely a surface reading. What it was really like for Wendell, in 1964, will never actually be known to me. But it is partially revealed, bit by bit, in these essays I read, including this one. And in this account, I was awakened to the sadness in what Wendell was choosing.
When I read (Carruth’s poem) North Winter for the first time I was on my way back to my own rural place and life. But I was also going back, as I half knew even then, as I know more completely now, to take up the fate of country people in my time. I was going back to bury a lot of good men and women who had replaced their predecessors well enough, but who themselves would not be succeeded or replaced.
Toward the end of this essay, Wendell writes that nobody’s life is easy, and though Carruth is his subject, it’s plain that Wendell Berry means to include his own life in the proclamation. Again and again he writes about the death of the small family farm. Again and again it is the ended family lineage that he asks us to properly lament, and not just the consolidation of land holdings. I think that’s a loss that’s been missed by most of us.
Is my life easy? At this moment, I am relieved to report that it is. But I began this blog by naming tragedies that I find increasingly threatening so much so that I’ve now deliberately chosen to shut my eyes and ears to them for the time being. And I am all too aware that whatever ease I have in my life is only because a dozen or so threads keep it in place. If any of my loved ones were to be cut away from me, my experience of loss would engulf me in a darkness too deep to even contemplate.
What Berry and Carruth are showing us is that there is an art to coping with loss, and the word they seem to favor in describing that art is “reverence.” The dictionary defines it as a feeling of great respect or veneration, but Wendell, in elaboration, explains how life itself can be, and how his life has been, an enactment of reverence.
Our survival, our culture, and our civilization, if they are to be even worthy of survival, depend on our ability to supply to the feeling of reverence the arts necessary for its enactment. Poetry and farming have to be counted equally as two of the necessary arts.
This then is Wendell’s response to a Hayden Carruth question, posed in the 1960s, which is the same question implied by this entire blog:
How shall our children live in a world from which first the spirit, then history, and finally nature have fled, leaving only the mindless mechanics of process and chance: Will any place exist for a humane art in a society from which the last trace of reverence – any reverence, has been rubbed out?
Wendell Berry’s life’s work is the answer to this question. He is, forty years on from first reading this question of Carruth’s, still farming, still writing poetry, still enacting reverence for our given world. I’m trying too. Walking With Wendell is my way of enacting reverence – honoring the things that I find most worthy and most beautiful, and trying hard to make something – maybe just an effort -- approximately equal to that worth and beauty.
It might surprise you that even Hayden Carruth, he of such troubled mind and tragic losses, found coping through reverence too, and was able to answer his own question in the affirmative.
“As a matter of fact,” he wrote, “I think such a place will exist, will be made.”
To which his friend Wendell replied:
“It is the right thought, the right faith, whatever happens.”