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 Most of these people, along with most skilled employees who worked in their home county or home town, have now been replaced by a few people working in large chain stores and by a few people using large machines and other human-replacing industrial technologies.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

My Last Continent

my-last-cont“Sometimes I wonder whether some other force is at hand–something equally obscured, warning us that none of us should be in Antarctica at all.

I tell them I was here when the massive cruise ship found herself trapped and sinking in a windswept cove of pack ice. I tell them that the ship was too big and too fragile to be so far south, and that my ship, the Cormorant, was the closest one and still a full day’s travel away. I tell them that, below the Antarctic Circle, the phrase search and rescue has little practical meaning. There is simply no one around to rescue you.

I tell them that 715 passengers and crew died that day. I don’t tell them that 2 of those who died were rescuers, whose fates tragically intertwined. Most want to hear about the victims, not the rescuers. I don’t tell them that we are one and the same.”   My Last Continent, by Midge Raymond

My husband is going to Antarctica in January. It’s been a lifelong dream but, as he points out, even though he’s traveled more than I have, I’ve been to more continents. So I think he may be partly motivated because he’s trying to catch up with me. We get competitive about traveling in our family but, given their extensive travel for work, our sons are leaving us far behind when it comes to the number of countries visited.

Anyway, now that the time is drawing near, I thought I’d better pay more attention to my husband’s upcoming trip. When I learned about the recently published novel, My Last Continent, I had to pick it up, though it doesn’t exactly inspire confidence in the safety of Antarctic cruises, because it’s about a disastrous one.

On the other hand, I comfort myself that my husband will be traveling with a vastly experienced crew, on a polar research vessel expressly made for the perils of Antarctic waters. The Akademik Sergey Vavilov is one of only two polar expedition cruise vessels that conduct active scientific research in the months between the Antarctic and high Arctic seasons.

The trip is sponsored by a local travel/adventure group, Pack, Paddle & Ski.  Rochester is lucky to have this amazing organization, which leads trips around the world and has raised thousands of dollars for charity.

I don’t tend to like fiction with a message, but My Last Continent by Midge Raymond is a beautifully written love story and a what-would-happen-if novel.

As if we don’t have enough to worry about given climate change, My Last Continent highlights an issue I wasn’t aware of. In addition to polar research vessels that take tourists to Antarctica, there are now oversized luxury cruise ships that travel to both northern and southern extremes. Because the polar ice is melting, such ships can go where they have never gone before.

The problem is, these large ships are too fragile for treacherous polar waters, and they carry way too many passengers. Should the ship get into trouble, it’s not likely all the passengers could be rescued. For one thing, there is no one around – polar waters are isolated and too far away from other ships.

This is what happens in My Last Continent. I learned this on the first page, though not the details of who survives and who doesn’t, and I was of course compelled to read on to see how it all played out.

Another problem is that these cruise ships are highly disruptive to fragile wildlife populations.

There is beautiful writing here; it is not simply a disaster tale. Midge Raymond takes us deep into the heart of Antarctica: its weather and terrain and, most of all, it’s wildlife. At the same time, it is a portrait of two complex characters–explorers and naturalists who are in love with this forbidding land as much as they are with each other.

If you like books about adventure and travel to the wildest reaches of nature, and if you are concerned about planet Earth, I think you’ll love My Last Continent. This is Midge Raymond’s first full-length work of fiction. I look forward to reading more. Midge Raymond is also the founder of Ashland Creek Press.

Here is a Daily Beast essay she wrote about cruise ships in the polar regions: “Cruise Ships in the Arctic Take Titanic Risks.” It is truly frightening.

And one more quote from My Last Continent:

“It is not uncommon in Antarctica to see what does not exist–to see the mountains levitate in the distance, to see the rising tower of a city on the horizon. When the sea is colder than the air, a layer forms that creates a polar mirage. The more layers, the more refracted the light: Mountains are born from the sea; cliffs turn into castles. Such mirages usually last only moments, until the air layers mix, and then they disappear…..Such visions have a name–fata morgana…..”

penguins-429136_1280

Any books about Antarctica to recommend? Which wild and faraway places would you like to visit someday? Let us know in the comments.

 

 

Wild Arts!

Five books

Books purchased at the Wild Arts Festival in Portland, signed in person by the authors.

 

Litmosphere: 1. the vast domain of the world’s readers and writers 2. a lively literary mood permeating the air ~ sign in Powell’s Books, Portland

Wild Arts FestivalI love the literary scene in Portland. Our Thanksgiving visit there coincided with the annual Wild Arts Festival, a celebration of nature in art and books hosted by the Audubon Society of Portland in the old Montgomery Ward building, now known as Montgomery Park.

Walking into the festival, where hundreds of artists and authors were on hand, was like getting a gigantic embrace from the creative community.

I couldn’t decide among Ursula Le Guin’s many, many science fiction and fantasy books. In the end I chose her translation of Lao Tzu: Tao Te Ching: A Book About the Way and the Power of the Way, and she graciously signed a copy for me.

Next, we met Robert Michael Pyle, a jolly teddy bear of a man who spent no less than 15 minutes entertaining us with stories about how, in his Honda Civic with 345,000 miles on the odometer, he spent a year searching for as many of the 800 species of American butterflies as he could find. I could have spent hours listening to this man; instead I bought his memoir and travelogue, Mariposa Road, which he signed with, “May these far rambles on bright wings incite your own wild road trips!”

A dedicated ecologist and naturalist, Robert Michael Pyle has written nearly 20 books and is the co-editor of Nabokov’s Butterflies: Unpublished and Uncollected Writings. (The literary genius Vladimir Nabokov was a butterfly expert and had an extensive collection.)

I purchased another of Robert’s memoirs, Wintergreen: Rambles in a Ravaged Land, about Washington’s Willapa Hills, whose forests have been plundered by lumber companies. Robert lives on a farm in Grays River once owned by a Swedish immigrant. I’m descended from Swedes, who were attracted to the deep forests of the Pacific Northwest because it reminded them of home; I’d love to see Willapa country one day. Of course, Robert signed Wintergreen, too, with these words, together with a sketch of a snail: “May these moss murmurs and fern-words honor your own hills of home – and maybe urge you Northwesterly!”

I can’t say enough about Floyd Skloot and Kim Stafford. They are both poets, and they’ve both written memoirs. (Actually, they’ve both written more than one, and I look forward to reading all of them.)

Since I’m writing a memoir myself, I decided to go for the memoirs: In the Shadow of MemoryFloyd Skloot’s first memoir (part neuroscience and part autobiography about a virus that left Skloot disabled and bereft of memories) and 100 Tricks Every Boy Can Do: My Brother’s Disappearance by Kim Stafford (his brother committed suicide.)

Both of these generous writers spoke with me about their work and asked at great length about mine. Kim wanted to know the working title of my memoir and, when I told him, he gave me a writing assignment to try. As I did the exercise Kim recommended, I discovered that one particular word in the title is especially important to my memoir’s theme. It got me thinking about how I could bring out the theme more vividly as I revise.

The authors I spoke with at the Wild Arts Festival were incredibly kind and gracious. I had instant connections with these generous writers, who are among the best in America today. Don’t be shy at these kinds of events. Writers and artists are the most giving and engaged people you’ll ever meet.

Portland is a book-loving town, and as I walked around the neighborhoods with family, I noticed several Little Free Libraries. It’s also a poetry-loving town, and a couple of the homes I passed by had poems on display – including one by Kim Stafford’s father, the great poet William Stafford.

Slipped inside the Kim Stafford memoir I bought was the gift of a poem that begins, “The only heroic thing is to not be a hero.” I believe Kim borrowed this phrase from a poem by his father, William: “At the Un-National Monument Along the Canadian Border.”

Kim’s poem is called “A Few Words, Each Day,” and it includes this line: “The only heroic thing is to be a child of four…of fifteen…of forty…of eighty – trying with the heart and mind to listen to the self, each other, and the earth….”

Litmosphere definition sign in Powell's Books

We stopped by Powell’s Books for good measure, where I learned a new word.

 

Books: Braiding Sweetgrass; Notes from No Man's Land

At Powell’s I bought Eula Biss’s collection of essays and the latest book by Robin Wall Kimmerer, who is a botanist and member of the Citizen Potawatoni Nation.

 

Northern spotted owl at the Wild Arts Festival

Northern spotted owl at the Wild Arts Festival

 

Kim Stafford: “That is my story.”

 

 

“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

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