• Kenneth Asher

Fresh Start

Updated: Jan 4

Okay, it's been eleven months. Eleven months of no blogging. Of Covid-19. Of the election of Joe Biden and the attempted theft of that election by criminals in the Republican party. George Floyd was murdered in May. Oregon spontaneously combusted a couple months later. 2020 showed us just how fragile the whole thing really is. But thank god for the courts; I daresay that the judicial system, and Covid, ironically enough, saved our democracy. For the moment at least.

I'm not one for New Year's resolutions. I despise them, actually. It's always seemed to me that if you want to change something in your life, you should just get after it. Making a resolution because of a calendar turn is like deciding to quit drinking after just one more drink.

But when it comes to WWW, I'm resolving to change my ways.

What I want, in this 2.0 phase, is to write more quickly -- more freely. I want to posts to be shorter, easier. "Less fibrous," to use Katie's descriptor. (She's really good at hitting the mark. The truth hurts, you know). I want to write more personally, with less self-editing, and less self consciousnesss. I don't want to abandon the original conceit -- channelling and bestriding Wendell Berrys' ideas and mind though these posts. My admiration persists. But I don't want to write essays about his essays. I don't need him to support me through America's benightedness, though that is how this all began. I don't need to present him to a new readership, since what could be more ridiculous than that? (I don't have one and his is perfectly enormous already).

What I hope to do, first of all, is get back to reading Wendell and writing about it. My process in producing the 48 posts so far has been rough. I'm typically slow to start, bereft of a good anchor idea, plodding as writer, impossibly fussy as an editor, and generally exhausted by the end. But after publishing -- the peacocks have nothing on me! "Ma -- look what I made!!" I'm genuinely proud of having produced something -- something carefully done, something deeply personal, something that piles up over time. It's been a schizoid ride so far.

Second of all, I'd like to be able to make this whole thing more dippable, for me and for my precious few readers. In WWW 1.0, I would read a full WB essay, whether short or long, and then spin a post out of it. That was my made-up rule because it helped to eliminate any decision-making about what to read or when to write. But the cadence that arose was posting monthly, and the pieces themselves went on and on, chasing Wendell's essay and grabbing his best lines. This time around, I want to just read a few pages and dash off a few paragraphs. 1000 words? 1500? i aspire to less. I'm going to try to be more "bloggy." Dip in. Dip out.

Next is authenticity. No matter how hard I tried to tame it, my pedanticsm got the best of me. I mean, I love words, so the sesquidpedalia is here to stay (ha). But the whole professor persona -- the lecturing and hectoring -- let's just say I haven't yet found my best voice yet. it's not quite me on the page, or the most real version of me, which is pretty dispiriting given that I'm entering my fourth year of blogging. So there's that.

Finally, there's the Wendell Problem. He has already said it. He's said it better than I ever could. His language is as refined as his thought, and both are somewhat beyond my ken. When writing on his writing I always feel like I'm attempting to recreate a sonata with a bongo drum. And the Wendell Problem Part 2 is the agrarianism. What the hell am I to do with it? All these years (decades!) later and I still don't see how we get there from here, or if we even should. I hate so much of what we've done here on earth. But if farming holds the key to our future, I can't see it. And I can't keep coming up with formulations to make room for the "maybe he's right" argument. Or the "let's give it a chance" argument. Or the "he means it metaphorically" argument.

So let me break it down: Wendell Berry is someone we (or I, rather) MUST try to understand and emulate because his life is the embodiment of art, virtue, intellect, service, industry, peacableness and love. But understanding and emulating him is difficult. He is deep and his writing is deep. I've tried to do it justice and of course I can't, not without running myself down every time. I'm going to keep at it, but I'm going to try to do it with appetizers instead of entrees. And in a voice, if I can find it, that is both honest and humble.

So here, let's try.

The book for this year is going to be What Are People For?, published in 1990 -- the year I graduated from college and discovered Wendell Berry. It was one of the first of his books that I bought, and I haven't read it again in all these years. I've always loved the title, a namesake of one of the essays, because it strikes a match to a very contemporary question, what with all the fear (well-placed) nowadays of machines taking jobs, and governments failing to take care of people.

The first piece in the book is a little thing called "Damage," about how Wendell, as a young farmer, had a pond built on a narrow bench on a steep slope so he could could begin pasturing some stock there. At first -- success. The bulldozer did its work and the water seeped in. But with a wet fall and winter, freezing and thawing, the pond and pasture project failed. A slice of the forest floor slumped into the pond and that was that.

The moral of the story? "Too much power and too little knowledge." He covers all of what I've just described on the first page.

There are three more pages. I'm going to try to recapitulate what he says, but fair warning: there's a lot of William Blake in there and I don't know shit about William Blake.

Wendell says that though the fault of this damage to his land was relatively minor, especially in the context of his overall care, it was damage nonetheless, and not just to his land, but to his peace. Until the wound is healed, he says, there will be something impaired in his mind. And there's no escape. Not into art, as he once believed, nor into work, which is indivisible from his place/mind. Art and place and work and mind are one, for him. Damage any one and they are all harmed.

The process of healing, then, on the landscape or on the body, can be seen as a scar. Scars are notations of limits -- limits violated, overshot, ignored. It is the job of culture to record these scars because that's how we come to know our limits. This became necessary when the first man picked up the first stone axe. From then on, humans became capable of imparting lasting damage on the world and on ourselves. "Man with a machine and inadequate culture -- such as I was when I made my pond -- is a pestilence."

I don't think the big takeaway here is the "man with a machine" part. I think it's the "Inadequate culture" part. We've always used tools and always will. We'll always do damage. We'll never have enough knowledge to avoid it. But we can avoid more than less with an adequate culture. An adequate culture would "show us the scars." It would remind us what not to do.

Since we, unlike Wendell, are not able to unify our place, work and art, maybe the best we can do is to contribute to an adequate culture. Damn the resolutions, but let's agree to own our damage. Let's not look away from our racism, our selfishness, our apathy. Let's admit our fault, when we err, like Wendell did with his pond project. Let's examine the scars so we can see where we went too far.