Yesterday marked the two-year anniversary of this blog. For the first anniversary, I appreciated the artist, that denizen of thresholds, dweller of the in-between realms. In this political season, I’m drawn to reflect on the circus that is our Presidential campaign season. After last night’s debate once again elicited waves of despair over the future of our country, veteran newsman Bob Schieffer asked, “How have we come to this?” How, indeed.
At times like this, I can think of only one American capable of approaching, let alone answering, a question like that: Kentucky farmer and writer, Wendell Berry. I pull a few of his books off the shelf, feeling better just holding them in my hand. My husband has NPR on in the kitchen downstairs. I hear the cadence of male and female voices hashing over last night’s events, interviewing undecided voters. I cannot hear the substance, only the vibrations of voice. Wendell Berry is all I need now.
But which book? One of many marvelous essays in Home Economics is “Two Economies,” in which Berry suggests that we think of our “little” human economy as an analogue (or subset) of the “Great Economy” (the Tao, or Creation). This is instead of how we do think of it, which is in opposition or competition to Creation, or—worse—seeking to conquer, control, subjugate, own, and dominate it.
Or shall I consult, What Are People For?,” which I love as much for the title as for the cover art, the great mural in the Missouri State Capitol of “Politics, Farming, and Law in Missouri,” painted by Thomas Hart Benton in 1936. Berry brings his lifetime of farming to the brilliant essay, “Nature as Measure,” to advocate for humility and the recognition of our interdependence with the living world.
“The use of nature as measure proposes an atonement between ourselves and our world, between economy and ecology, between the domestic and the wild.”
The fact is (to use a favorite phrase of politicians), any essay, any passage, any sentence of Berry’s is a fine entry point. Today, I choose a third book, guided by my visceral reactions watching last night’s debate. I open The Unsettling of America at random and find exactly what I’m looking for.
“The concept of country, homeland, dwelling place becomes simplified as “the environment”—that is, what surrounds us. Once we see our place, our part of the world, as surrounding us, we have already made a profound division between it and ourselves. We have given up the understanding—dropped it out of our language and so out of our thought—that we and our country create one another, depend on one another, are literally part of one another; that our land passes in and out of our bodies just as our bodies pass in and out of our land; that as we and our land are part of one another, so all who are living as neighbors here, human and plant and animal, are part of one another, and so cannot possibly flourish alone; that, therefore, our culture must be our response to our place, our culture and our place are images of each other and inseparable from each other, and so neither can be better than the other.”
This passage is from, “The Ecological Crisis is a Crisis of Character,” which Berry wrote in the 1970s. Forty years ago! How often, lately, have we heard that phrase, crisis of character? Berry’s brilliant words shed light on my frustration with the whole election process that is cast as a battle of two rivals, a winner-loser spectacle at every stage. It is a contest that takes place in a world of slogans, memes, and abstraction.
“We and our country create one another. . . .” is not the least bit abstract. The wrangling about policy proposals and economics, about world events and safety and security is divorced from Berry’s beautifully observed reality of our interconnectedness—with fellow human beings and with the living earth.
This goes so far beyond, and also explains, the travesty that not a single question about the environment gets asked at these debates, other than a token one about energy that elicits phrases like, “the Democrats’ war on coal.”
We think the tax code, health care, veterans affairs, terrorism, misogyny, racism, and homophobia are the problems that need fixing, the diseases that need cures, when they are really the symptoms of a largely mysterious and unimagined illness: our isolation from each other and our separation from nature. Until more people wake up and see this, the broken “operating system” will continue on unchallenged.
We are fixated on, and continue to argue about, the cast shadows, when we should be turning around to see what, exactly, is casting those shadows.
When I started this blog, I had an image of being between stories. Many of us no longer subscribe to the story of human separation from and superiority to nature. And yet we remain trapped within the very culture that operationalizes the story at every level and in every way. I, and others, have had glimpses of the infinite possibilities of living another story of connection and belonging. I have also experienced, with some frequency, the dissonance, difficulties, and depression that arise from doing so in a culture so dedicated to maintaining the status quo.
In the last two years, I have come to terms with the fact that my lifetime will be spent living in this simultaneity of stories. It’s less a time of midwifing the birth of the new stories and more of making peace and space on this messy threshold of both/and. While refusing to accept the horrors and failures of the old stories of domination and subjugation, I will continue to hold up examples of the new stories that turn away from abstraction and towards deep embedment in the physical reality of the body and senses and the glorious human imagination.
My hearing reminds me that the hawks have been calling and crying to each other all week. My vision shows that today, the sky is a piercing autumnal blue, the light crystalline on the early reds and deep greens of leaves shimmering in the remnants of yesterday’s big blow. My imagination whispers that noticing these things matters deeply.
When I first embarked years ago on this adventure into the unknown, I relied on wise mentors, both in person and in books. Reading saved me. (Pause here to marvel at how anyone aspiring to the highest public office in the land can be such a hardcore non-reader.) Words rewired my brain and heart. They woke me from the slumber of erroneous and damaging cultural stories.
I have never farmed, so I trust what Wendell Berry has to say to me. His words have nudged me further awake, and they never fail to provoke and comfort me. I continue to believe that words—reading and writing and stories—are critical companions here on the threshold. The voices or wise elders and young prophets, of agitators and activists, of lovers and haters and mediators, of green men and wild women and indigo children, of hawk and moss, river and poplar, all these voices—and all the Others—are here in this in-between with me.
And, lest I forget and falter in my heightened emotional state, a cherished mentor stands behind me, saying, “Breathe.”
I am grateful for the wisdom here from both Wendell and Julie, wisdom gained through lived experience with careful reflection on the journey. Particularly, I resonate with the understanding of what “stands under” the perceived problems of our time. Behind it all is our isolation from one another and the rest of the natural world. Isolation not so much just in physical ways, but in deeply spiritual or soul ways.
Some of our Elders say we are living in a time of soul loss — as individuals to an extent, but even more as a collective. In many indigenous cultures healing at the physical level does not occur apart from healing in the realm of spirit and soul.
Without neglecting what we can do about the problems we face, our attending to soul and source, our attending to reconstituting the underlying “operating system,” is the great work we are blessed to be given in our time.
Thank you, Jim, for being one of those wise Elders! And for all that you do to attend to soul and source.