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 Most of these people, along with most skilled employees who worked in their home county or home town, have now been replaced by a few people working in large chain stores and by a few people using large machines and other human-replacing industrial technologies.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?

The Collapse of Western Civilization (in 50 pages)

WesternCivilization“The year 2009 is viewed as ‘the last best chance’ the Western world had to save itself…”

The Collapse of Western Civilization is a disturbing 50-page work of fiction that reads with the authority of nonfiction.

In the Second People’s Republic of China in the year 2393, a scholar writes an account the Great Collapse of 2093, brought about by failure to take action on climate change.

Pair it with CCR’s Bad Moon Rising; you can read it in an hour or two.

The book came about when co-author Naomi Oreskes, a geologist and historian who teaches at Harvard, reviewed the scholarly literature on climate change to see if indeed there was a lack of consensus among scientists, as is often claimed.

After looking at 1,000 peer-reviewed articles, she concluded that in fact scientists do agree that a high concentration of greenhouse gas is causing climate change.

When Oreskes published her findings in Science, she was championed by the likes of Al Gore. At the same time, to her astonishment, she began receiving hate mail. As she said in an interview, articles published in the scholarly literature are typically ignored by the public.

She and coauthor Eric Conway hoped a work of fiction that remained true to the facts of science might change opinions. Conway is a fan of science fiction and has been especially influenced by Frank Herbert’s Dune and Kim Stanley Robinson’s trilogies about Mars and climate change.

It’s unsettling to read about ideas and ways of life that we take for granted portrayed as extreme short-sightedness, self-delusion, and magical thinking.  The Collapse of Western Civilization will give you a jolt. It’s a quick, page-turning read to put you in a receptive frame of mind when the UN/Paris Climate Change Conference begins on November 30.

Here are some excerpts:

“There is no need to rehearse the details of the human tragedy that occurred; every schoolchild knows of the terrible suffering. Suffice it to say that total losses – social, cultural, economic, and demographic – were greater than any in recorded human history. Survivors’ accounts make clear that many thought the end of the human race was near.”

“At the time, most countries still used the archaic concept of a gross domestic product, a measure of consumption, rather than the Bhutanian concept of gross domestic happiness to evaluate well-being in a state.”

“…survivors in northern inland regions of Europe, Asia, and North America, as well as inland and high-altitude regions of South America, were able to regroup and rebuild. The human populations of Australia and Africa, of course, were wiped out.”

Commonly used terms that we don’t question are cast as old-fashioned and obsolete in the Lexicon of Archaic Terms at the end of the book:

“capitalism: ….One popular notion about capitalism of the period was that it operated through a process of creative destruction. Ultimately, capitalism was paralyzed in the face of the rapid climate destabilization it drove, destroying itself.”

“invisible hand: A form of magical thinking, popularized in the eighteenth century, that economic markets in a capitalist system were “balanced” by the actions of an unseen, immaterial power, which both ensured that markets functioned efficiently and that they would address human needs. Belief in the invisible hand….formed a kind of quasi-religious foundation for capitalism.”

“Period of the Penumbra: the shadow of anti-intellectualism that fell over the once-Enlightened techno-scientific nations of the Western world during the second half of the twentieth century, preventing them from acting on the scientific knowledge available at the time and condemning their successors to the inundation and desertification of the late twenty-first and twenty-second centuries.”

Coming Back to Life book coverFor an antidote to all the doom, read Joanna Macy‘s books, Coming Back to Life and Active Hope: How to Face the Mess We’re In Without Going Crazy. See also her short film, Joanna Macy and The Great Turning, about civilization’s shift from industrial growth to sustainability.

Have you read any good books about climate change? Are you planning to follow upcoming events related to the UN Conference on Climate Change? Are there local activities planned for your area?

Nine books that can (help) save the planet

Laudato Si books

It still amazes me that there has not been more discussion of climate change in the media in the United States, nor have the presidential candidates said much. But we seem, finally, to have turned a corner; more people are paying attention.

Recently, stories have been published about Exxon’s alleged campaign of climate change disinformation and denial, while another industry leader has pledged to be carbon neutral by 2030. This week’s Hurricane Patricia was the strongest hurricane ever recorded at sea, while climate scientists expect 2015 to be the hottest year on record. I’ve a son living temporarily in southern California, and I just read that mosquitos carrying dengue, chikungunya, and yellow fever have arrived. Scientists believe they are rapidly reproducing in part because of the drought.

Countries around the world are preparing for the 2015 UN Conference on Climate Change to be held in Paris November 30 – December 11. There will be climate marches in major cities around the world on November 28 and 29 and a Mass Mobilization and Civil Disobedience Action in Paris on December 12.

When Pope Francis visited the United States in September, he spoke to Congress, the United Nations, and other groups about the need for action on climate change, framing it as the greatest moral issue of our time. His climate change encyclical, Laudato Si’: On Care for Our Common Home, calls for the world to adopt an integrated ecology that combines eco-justice, which understands the earth has limits, with social justice, which recognizes that the poor are the hardest hit by the ravages of climate change.

The Pope calls for “a revolution of tenderness, a revolution of the heart” in regards to the earth and the earth’s poor.

The Huffington Post article at this link is a brief and excellent introduction to the concept of integral ecology. The author of the article, a former NASA researcher, says: “The fates of all peoples are linked, and they are linked ultimately to the fate of the earth. What befalls the earth befalls us all.”

Here is a link to the Buddhist perspective on climate change: A Buddhist Declaration on Climate Change

If you will be following the UN Conference on Climate Change and would like to do some reading beforehand, here are eight more of my favorite fiction and nonfiction titles that are relevant:

Arcadia book coverArcadia, by Lauren Goff

Flight Behavior, by Barbara Kingsolver

The Collapse of Western Civilization, by Naomi Oreskes and Eric M. Conway (See my next blog post about this fascinating fictitious “report,” written in 2393 from the Second People’s Republic of China, chronicling reasons for the collapse of western culture.)

This Changes Everything, by Naomi Klein

The Sixth Extinction, by Elizabeth Kolbert

The Great Disruption, by Paul Gilding

The End of Nature, by Bill McKibben

The Only Kayak, by Kim Heacox

And if you are an earth and nature lover, you absolutely must acquaint yourselves with these writers if you haven’t already:

Wendell Berry (essays and poetry); Mary Oliver (poetry); Barry Lopez (See “The Case for Going Uncivilized.”)

This Changes Everything book cover

Pope Francis spoke with great passion and love about families during his visit to the US. There are many parallels between our nuclear families and the family composed of all creatures on mother earth, aren’t there?

Are you planning to participate in any climate change events before or during the UN Climate Change Conference? Do you belong to a climate change group? If you’ve read other good books about the topic, please let us know in the comments.

If you believe we need to act to prevent disastrous climate change, please share this post on your favorite social media.

 

“I wish to address every living person on this planet.”

“I urgently appeal, then, for a new dialogue about how we are shaping the future of our planet. We need a conversation that includes everyone, since the environmental challenge we are undergoing, and its human roots, concern and affect us all.”    Pope Francis, Laudato Si’: On Care for Our Common Home

Columbia River Gorge

(Columbia Gorge) “If we acknowledge the value and fragility of nature and, at the same time, our God-given abilities, we can finally leave behind the modern myth of unlimited material progress.” Pope Francis

Pope Francis will visit the United States September 22 – 27 and will no doubt speak about climate change.

His recently published encyclical on the environment and human ecology can be downloaded for free or ordered at this link: Laudato Si’: On Care for Our Common Home.

I believe Laudato Si’ will prove to be one of the most important documents of our time. It is a stirring, eloquent, and direct call to action.

I’ll be featuring it here on Books Can Save a Life during the pope’s visit. I hope you’ll read it along with me and join in our discussion. I welcome both secular and faith-based perspectives.

On Care for Our Common Home is urgent and wide-ranging; you may be surprised at the topics addressed as the pope seeks to show how our values and our actions have far-reaching implications for humanity and for the planet.

Here are some excerpts to get us started:

“…the earth herself, burdened and laid waste, is among the most abandoned and maltreated of our poor…”

“The poverty and austerity of Saint Francis were no mere veneer of asceticism, but something much more radical: a refusal to turn reality into an object simply to be used and controlled.”

“The earth, our home, is beginning to look more and more like an immense pile of filth.”

“…access to safe drinkable water is a basic and universal human right, since it is essential to human survival and, as such, is a condition for the exercise of other human rights. Our world has a grave social debt towards the poor who lack access to drinking water, because they are denied the right to a life consistent with their inalienable dignity.”

“We seem to think that we can substitute an irreplaceable and irretrievable beauty with something which we have created ourselves.”

“We were not meant to be inundated by cement, asphalt, glass and metal, and deprived of physical contact with nature.”

“…when media and the digital world become omnipresent, their influence can stop people from learning how to live wisely, to think deeply and to love generously…True wisdom, as the fruit of self-examination, dialogue and generous encounter between persons, is not acquired by a mere accumulation of data which eventually leads to overload and confusion, a sort of mental pollution….Today’s media….shield us from direct contact with the pain, the fears and the joys of others and the complexity of their personal experiences….alongside the exciting possibilities offered by these media, a deep and melancholic dissatisfaction with interpersonal relations, or a harmful sense of isolation, can also arise.”

Please share this post on social media and leave a comment. Will you be watching and listening to Pope Francis? Have you read, or read about, Laudato Si’? Do you agree that it may prove to be one of the most important documents of our time?

Laudato Si' books

Rhythm of the Wild by Kim Heacox

“Looking back, I see now that Denali did more than charm me that first summer; it saved me. The whole damn place beguiled me and believed in me when I didn’t believe in myself. Call me crazy or blessed or crazy blessed. But I swear that again and again Denali has done this–made me buckle down and find inspiration and become the free man I am today.”   Kim Heacox, Rhythm of the Wild: A Life Inspired by Alaska’s Denali National Park

Rhythm of the Wild book cover

“What you hold, dear reader, is a story of love and hope, equal parts natural history, human history, personal narrative, and conservation polemic. I make no attempt to be a neutral journalist, a rare bird in today’s corporate culture. I’m a story teller.”

At the moment, Alaska is burning, and I’d love to hear Kim Heacox’s thoughts about this. I recently finished reading his new book, Rhythm of the Wild: A Life Inspired by Alaska’s Denali National Park, and I liked it so much I bought a copy of his first memoir about Alaska, The Only Kayak, and liked that one too.

Denali Mountain

Denali. Wikipedia.

I’ve tried to persuade my husband to read the latter book, as he’s a kayaker and a Beatles lover, as Heacox is. I believe Heacox and J. are kindred spirits, but so far no luck, J. hasn’t picked up the book–he’s not a particularly avid reader. However, he has been to Alaska, while I have not, so I think that counts for more than reading two books about Alaska.

Kim Heacox is an award-winning writer (with four books for National Geographic to his credit), a photographer, a speaker, a conservationist, and a lover of Alaska and Denali. (Denali, the mountain, which is the highest in North America, and Denali National Park.)

 

Grizzly bear

Grizzly bear. NPS photo.

He and his wife, Melanie, have resided in Alaska for over thirty years; they are two remarkable people who have devoted their lives to educating others about the inestimable value of our wilderness areas. Heacox writes in a very personal way about Alaska and Denali, weaving together his own wilderness stories with coming of age in the Northwest during the 1960s and 70s. I admire him for many reasons, among them his talent for lyrical writing and his willingness to be vulnerable as he shares his love for the wilderness that is Alaska.

As I read, I began to feel sorry for the tourists Heacox describes who find their way to Denali but after a few short days must return to their Dilbert cubicle lives in cities and suburbs. Then I realized that has been much of my life, too. Heacox paints such a compelling picture of Alaska he made me feel deprived for never having experienced this wild, remote place.

Heacox recounts his fascination with the Beatles and their reinvention of music – from an early age he identified with outsiders and challengers of the status quo. Naturally, he’s been deeply influenced by “outsider” environmentalists as well, including  Edward Abbey and Adolph Murie. He writes about their legacies in Rhythm of the Wild.

Those of you who follow my blog know I’m a fan of Barry Lopez and Wendell Berry and other influential writers who care about nature and wilderness. I’ll look for more writing by Kim Heacox in the future. I consider him an important addition to my nature and conservation bookshelf. He’s the kind of writer we should be reading if we want to protect our national parks and take climate change seriously.

Here are a few enticing samples of this singular voice in Rhythm of the Wild:

“Years ago in a cowboy cafe in Moab, Utah, I met a nine-fingered guitarist who poured Tobasco on his scrambled eggs and told me matter-of-factly that Utah was nice, Montana too. And of course, Colorado. But any serious student of spirituality and the American landscape must one day address his relationship with Alaska, and once in Alaska, he must confront Denali, the heart of the state, the state of the heart….by Denali he meant both the mountain and the national park.”

Great Horned Owls

Great Horned Owls. NPS photo.

“Denali is what America was; it’s the old and new, the real and ideal, the wild earth working itself into us on days stormy and calm, brutal and beautiful, unforgiving and blessed. It’s where we came from, long before television and designer coffee, even agriculture itself. Before we lost our way and granted ourselves dominion over all living things, before our modern, paradoxical definitions of progress and prosperity, and too much stuff; it’s the lean, mean, primal place buried in our bones no matter how much we might deny it, no matter how fancy our homes, how busy our routines, how cherished our myths. Denali resides in each of us as the deep quiet, the profound moment, the essence of discovery. It offers a chance to find our proper size in this world.”

The publisher of Rhythm of the Wild kindly provided me with an Advanced Reader’s Copy (ARC).

I’ve ordered a copy of Laudato Si’, Pope Francis’ encyclical on climate change. It is available from Amazon and other booksellers, and you can download the pdf at this link: Laudato Si’ . I’ll be writing about it here in late July, primarily from a secular perspective. Why don’t you read it with me – I welcome your thoughts.

Northern Lights and trees

%d bloggers like this: