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  • Writer's pictureKenneth Asher

Book of Lamentations

There is both miracle and tragedy in the life and works of Wendell Berry. It is a miracle that such a person could exist at all -- an American who sailed past all his countrys' siren songs: wealth obsession, "Next-Tech" addiction, white-collar comfort, classism, wanderlust, power. He is our Odysseus: living proof that the good life, and home, lies beyond these entrapments.

The tragedy though, is that his life arrangement is nearly extinct, and not salvagable by anyone's individual effort. All of us who would emulate this version of The Good Life can do so only in bits and pieces. We grow gardens; we buy local; we probably don't farm but we support small farmers; we read and write poetry; we go to nature; we take things slow.

Until institutional change arrives in a massive way, however, this is the best we can do. Like Wendell, we live under the hegemony of corporate power, unrestrained capital, fossil fuel profiteering, debt-based growth, carbon-free accounting, money-enslaved politicians and rural abandonment. But unlike Wendell, we are not endowed with a home place preserved by generations of caretakers, nor with the twinned education of elite universities and local pragmaticism, nor (let's admit it) with the god-given gifts of near-perfect language and perspicacity.

To yearn for this version of The Good Life though -- rooted in family, neighbors, animals, memories and landscape in place, is natural and melancholic. Even Wendell, I suspect, would say has had this life just barely. His entire output can be read as a modern Book of Lamentations -- a 60-year account of how fibers unravel, and how the wholeness falls apart.


Often, on these walks, I am challenging my assumptions. Take this notion of The Good Life, which Wendell conjures so effectively in his fiction and defends so eloquently in the essays. In my last post I tried to be real about one of the less comfy aspects of agrarian life -- hard, physical work. I wanted to acknowledge that a steady diet of bodily discomfort is inseperable from this way of living, and that that fact alone might be enough to wipe the stars from anyone's eyes.

As sometimes happens, Wendell anticipated my reality-check and repudiated it in my next reading. (Yes, I do write this blog after reading a single WB essay two or three times.). He says drudgery is a term of the industrial economy -- applicable to all hard physical work and understood as something to be avoided. But this is one of those sweeping categorical ideas Wendell despises, because it doesn't fit every particular circumstance, including his own.

The annual tobacco harvest on and around his farm, he says, was the hardest work he ever did. Under the blazing August sun and jammed into a few short weeks, the crop was entirely cut by hand in the field and hung in the barn to dry. It would be drudgery, he explains, if done for too long or if "one could not reconcile oneself to the misery involved in it."

But he and his crew could, and did. It was painstaking but social, and that made all the difference. There was laughter and humor because it was hard. Children would play nearby; the memory of those who once helped, but were now departed, was rekindled. Stories were told and retold. "Such talk in barns and at row ends," he says "must go back without interruption to the first farmers." And so there was pleasure in this very hard work, not owing to the work, but to the worker's mindset and his setting.

It is possible, I have learned again and again, to be in one's place, in such company, wild or domestic, and with such pleasure, that one cannot think of another place that one would prefer to be -- or of another place at all. One does not miss or regret the past, or fear or long for the future. Being there is simply all, and is enough.

Just imagine. Arriving at this state of tranquility through the most difficult work you ever had to do. I have no reason to doubt him. I've had flashes of this same experience -- an overpowering sense of belonging through teamwork requiring huge effort and relieving laughter. The sweetness of this feeling lingers like fruit on the tongue. And I'm sure this kind of reporting is what got Wendell into my bloodstream as a young idealist: work, job and physical strain fused with peace, purpose and quiet joy. Who wouldn't want that? I still do.

It should gall us then that the conditions necessary for holism in our work/life are now so completely asunder. In "Economy and Pleasure," Wendell says that the schism between work and pleasure isn't just an internalized suffering -- it's written into the landscape itself.

Our economy is divorced from pleasure and pleasure is gone from our workplaces and dwelling places. Our workplaces are more and more given over to production and our dwelling places to consumption. And this accounts for the accelerating division in our country into defeated landscapes and victorious (but threatened) landscapes...More and more we take for granted that work must be destitute of pleasure. More and more, we assume that if we want to pleased we must wait until evening, or the weekend, or vacation, or retirement. More and more, our farms and factories resemble our factories and offices, which in turn more and more resemble prisons...

There's an insanity in all of this -- an incongruity with the very world we toil in, which includes us and all our labors. We who have a little Wendell Berry in us (or a lot) -- the poets, deep thinkers, planters, growers, knitters, storytellers, bird-watchers, caretakers, walkers -- we can all powerfully relate to his plaintive questioning of a work-life that's devoid of pleasure.

Where is our comfort but in the free, uninvolved, finally mysterious beauty and grace of this world that we did not make, that has no price? Where is our sanity but there? Where is our pleasure but in working and resting kindly in the presence of this world?

This is the agrarian case -- that there is no higher harmony, and no greater pleasure, than "working and resting kindly" within Gaia herself.

But as we know, the agrarian case lost its footing in the West. The Enlightenment happened. The industrial revolution happened. The digital revolution happened. Economics took the throne, and there hasn't yet appeared a higher judge to challenge that discipline as the ultimate justifier and explainer of all the affairs of our daily life.


So let's close with winners and losers, and a little prayer for The Good Life that it may some day come again

I figured out as a young man that the strongest gravitational pull in our society belonged to the field of Economics. If there was an Operating Manual for America, the chapter on money and profit would be the longest by far, and maybe the only one worth reading to understand how the whole thing works. Nothing in the last 30 years has convinced me otherwise.

But Wendell Berry has written vigorously on economics. He is as much an economics critic as nature writer, which is one reason city folks like me value his writing so much, especially the essays. One of his great gifts is an uncanny ability to demolish the supports that hold up the edifice of our Golem-like Economy-God.

The pillar that Wendell destroys in "Economy and Pleasure" is competition, and honest-to-goodness I don't get why more people don't do the same, because competition is what's killing us. He calls competition the "sovereign principle" of the Economic ideal. We know this to be true. We Americans are taught early to fend for ourselves, make our own way, earn our daily bread. Never to put out our hand. We look askance at suffering, trained to believe that an element of a person's misfortune, small or large, is their own doing. We harden our hearts because, well, there must be winners and losers.

But our Economic Totalitarianism is uniquely cruel to the losers. Unlike other social divisions (richer/poorer, more able/less able), which have always existed and sometimes have been amelioriated by religious or social customs, the so-called losers in our economy are treated as worthless. We're taught to accept this hard truth as one more externality, no different from desiccated fields and exhausted fisheries.

Always in the name of the greater good, like "feeding the world" or "eradicating hunger," our competitive economy destroys as it creates. Schumpeter taught us to believe this is exactly how it's supposed to work -- no winners without losers. But the result he overlooked, or didn't bother to consider, is the dispossession of more and more people, and the ruination of more and more places -- the slow death of community.

Competition violates community, plain and simple. Community seeks not victory but stability, which comes by way of altruism, mutual aid, affection and help. Competition is the antithesis of all that. Berry writes:

The strangest of all the doctrines of the cult of competition, in which admittedly there must be losers as well as winners, is that the result of competition is inevitably good for everybody, that altruistic ends may be met by a system without altruistic motives or altruistic means.

We've been snookered to think that competition is a universal good, when in fact it's an engine that can both move us forward and incinerate us. It does more of the latter now, notably, in this the hottest month in recorded human history. It's the force that's burned up so many small places, along with a certain kind of life that those places enabled.

Wendell's words are always the best:

Rats and roaches live by competition under the law of supply and demand. It is the privilege of human beings to live under the laws of justice and mercy.

May we remember what we are.


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