Wendell Berry’s Our Only World

Our Only World
“I can tell you confidently that the many owners of small farms, shops, and stores, and the self-employed craftspeople who were thriving in my county in 1945, did not think of their work as ‘a job.’ Most of these people, along with most skilled employees who worked in their home county or home town, have now been replaced by a few people working in large chain stores and by a few people using large machines and other human-replacing industrial technologies. Local economies, local communities, even local families, in which people lived and worked as members, have been broken.”     
Wendell Berry, Our Only World

Ten Essays by The Mad Farmer, an American prophet

A few days before I wrote this post, people in our government were planning to vote on a cruel, senseless health care bill that would have meant insurance companies would no longer be required to cover outpatient care, emergency services, hospitalization, pregnancy, maternity and newborn care, mental health and substance abuse treatment (mental health is a cause especially close to my heart), prescription drugs, rehabilitation, laboratory and diagnostic tests, preventive and wellness services and pediatric care.

I thought about all the working poor and those without jobs in Ohio, where I grew up. This health care bill would have wrought only further misery and suffering, and yet many of those who would have been adversely affected had voted in the current administration.

I was afraid to look at the news on Friday, and relieved and thankful when I finally did. There had been no vote on the bill. The fate of health care in the United States would be determined another day.

For some reason, it seems we are forcing ourselves to sort everything into the categories of liberal or conservative, and pro-government or anti-government, when of course the world is far more complex, and far more beautiful.

To keep myself sane and as a balm when I’m tired of all the vitriol, I’ve been reading Wendell Berry. I’ve wanted to dive into his writing for a long time. Needless to say, Berry doesn’t give much credence to strictly liberal or conservative world views.

He is a long-time Kentucky farmer and a devout Christian who writes poetry, short stories, novels, and essays, brilliantly. Affectionately known as “the mad farmer,” Wendell Berry is an American prophet, a voice of reason, humility, and humanity who has been compared to Emerson and Thoreau. If every person in America, young and old, read a few of his poems or stories, maybe we’d be in a better place.

Our Only World, a collection of ten essays, is a good choice if you want a concise introduction to Wendell Berry. (The book pictured above refers to eleven essays, but my copy had only ten, so I assume an essay was removed before publication.)

There were so many passages I wanted to quote, it was hard to choose. When I read the passages below, I thought of the economic devastation I’ve seen in my home town and in my home state of Ohio:

“….the disposability of people….is one of the versions of ‘creative destruction,’ which is to say the theme of heartlessness, heartbreak, and permanent damage to people and their communities….We now use ‘Luddite’ as a term of contempt, and this usage, often by people who consider themselves compassionate and humane, implies a sort of progressivist etiquette by which, in the interest of the future (and the more fortunate), we are to submit passively to our obsolescence, disemployment, displacement, and (likely enough) impoverishment. We smear this over with talk of social mobility, upward mobility, and retraining, but this is as false and cynical as the association of ‘safe’ with the extraction, transportation, and use of fossil and nuclear fuels.”

“The ruling ideas of our present national or international economy are competition, consumption, globalism, corporate profitability, mechanical efficiency, technological change, upward mobility – and in all of them there is the implication of acceptable violence against the land and the people. We, on the contrary, must think again of reverence, humility, affection, familiarity, neighborliness, cooperation, thrift, appropriateness, local loyalty. These terms return us to the best of our heritage. They bring us home.”

“If one accepts the 24th and 104th Psalms as scriptural norms, then surface mining and other forms of earth destruction clearly are perversions. If we take the Gospels seriously, how can we not see industrial warfare and its unavoidable massacre of innocents as a most shocking perversion? By the standard of all scriptures, neglect of the poor, of widows and orphans, of the sick, the homeless, the insane, is an abominable perversion. Jesus taught that hating your neighbor is tantamount to hating God, and yet some Christians hate their neighbors as a matter of policy and are busy hunting biblical justifications for doing so. Are they not perverts in the fullest and fairest sense of that term? And yet none of these offenses, not all of them together, has made as much political-religious noise as homosexual marriage.”

Even more than mental health and health care, I care about our earth and climate change. Here are some things Wendell Berry has to say about our relationship to the natural world:

“…. the limited competence of the human mind… will never fully comprehend the forms and functions of the natural world. With the development of industrialism, this misfitting has become increasingly a contradiction or opposition between industrial technologies and the creatures of nature, tending always toward the destruction of creatures, creaturely habitat, and creaturely life. We can respond rationally to this predicament only by honest worry, unrelenting caution, and propriety of scale. We must not put too much, let alone everything, at risk….

….all our uses of the natural world must be governed by our willingness to learn the nature of every place, and to submit to nature’s limits and requirements for the use of every place.”

A poet and writer I know writes of “the daily bread of language,” and lately I’ve enjoyed partaking of the daily bread of Wendell Berry. One of my blog readers suggested that I look at Berry’s fiction, too, so next week I’ll write about Hannah Coulter and a few other novels that take place in Port William, a fictitious Kentucky town.

The Bill Moyers interview below is a wonderful introduction to Wendell Berry. Listening to him measuring out wisdom in his musical Kentucky cadence calms the mind and soothes the soul.

*****

By the way, the march for climate, jobs and justice, sponsored by the People’s Climate Movement, will take place in Washington, D.C. on April 29, 2017, together with thousands of Sister Marches around the world. My husband and I are planning to march in Washington or New York City. Will there be a march near you?

Have you read Wendell Berry? Which of his books would you recommend? Are you a fan of other writers of a similar nature?

This Changes Everything

“…only mass social movements can save us now.”  Naomi Klein, This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. The Climate

This Changes Everything book cover

Notice the cover. No author, no subtitle. One clear message.

 “….this impossibly thin blue curve keeps everything alive beneath it.”  Reid Wiseman, #spacetweets.  

For starters, take two and a half minutes to watch astronaut Reid Wiseman’s video, “A Photo I Love,” and then come back here. You’ll see a new view of Italy (some of you know how much I love Italy). Notice in particular Reid’s photo of the earth’s atmosphere, “….so blue, so incredibly thin….” and Reid’s tweets (#spacetweets).

I wanted to begin on an upbeat note, hence Reid’s video of “watching our earth be alive” that so vividly highlights what the stakes are when it comes to the climate debate. It’s not that Canadian journalist Naomi Klein doesn’t offer hope in her latest book, This Changes Everything. Certainly, she does, but this is a read with plenty of emotional lows before you get to the highs.

This Changes Everything is proving to be enormously influential as well as controversial. If I read her correctly, Klein does not advocate a dismantling of capitalism, but her book is indeed a polemic against the extreme version of capitalism that pervades much of the world today. Her message is that the earth cannot possibly continue to sustain a world economy based on unlimited growth and the endless extraction of resources. We need to change course to keep the earth’s warming under two degrees Celsius (this is according to many climate scientists, who also maintain that a warming of four degrees Celsius would be catastrophic). We need to act now, on a massive scale.

If you care deeply about climate change, I highly recommend putting This Changes Everything at the top of your to-read list. There is so much I don’t know about this huge topic. Though I’ve been against fracking (recently outlawed here in New York), I didn’t know much about it, and I knew absolutely nothing of Canada’s tar sands project and its devastations. Klein brought me up to date on all of this, as well as the current climate change activist scene. She synthesized an enormous amount of research, which makes for slow reading at times, but it’s worth it if you want the big picture.

Here are some things I learned that surprised me:

  • We’ve come a long way with alternative energy technologies. It seems like a no-brainer – if we can meet our energy needs at very little cost using solar, wind, and other technologies, why would we continue using expensive and dirty fossil fuels?
  • Native Americans and indigenous populations around the world are winning important victories against the fossil fuel industry, more so than activists in the mainstream. In Canada and the US, for example, some of these groups, by treaty, retain rights to their land, including the right to make a living from it. The courts have, in many cases, upheld these rights, effectively blocking or delaying extraction projects. These delays have given alternative energy technologies time to develop.
  • Though it’s important for developed countries to convert to clean energy, it’s crucial that we help developing countries turn to clean energy, too–otherwise we’ll never be able to stop global warming. Klein and others maintain that, since developed countries have grown wealthy from fossil fuels, we have a responsibility to help developing countries pay for their energy infrastructures.

A New York Times review called This Changes Everything “…the most momentous and contentious book since Silent Spring,” and “…a book of such ambition and consequence it is almost unreviewable.”

This Changes Everything is absolutely a book that can save lives.

Have you read This Changes Everything? Do you recommend other important books about this topic? If so, please do in the comments. And if you care about climate change, I hope you’ll share this post.

Scopello sunset

What we don’t want to lose. View of Zingaro Nature Preserve in Sicily. (Photo by A. Hallinan)

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