The Milkweed Diaries

Sunday, November 13, 2011

On the economy of plants and hard virtues

I am at home. Don't come with me.
You stay home too.

From "Stay Home" by Wendell Berry

On Wednesday night, I went next door to Warren Wilson College to see Wendell Berry with Christopher and my parents. The crowd at the college chapel where Mr. Berry spoke was so huge that we ended up watching and listening with a couple of hundred other people on a live feed from another building on campus. In his deeply humble and entirely unpretentious way, Mr. Berry read one of his short stories, At Home, and then answered a few questions from students.

At Home is a story of small details, a beautiful embodiment of Wendell Berry's ethic and way of life. His reading was slow, deliberate, and quiet. For me, listening to the story required a disciplined effort to slow my mind down and be still and patient. The pace of the story, and of Wendell Berry's whole way of being, was so radically slow compared to the pace of computers, cars, and smartphones in the world in which I usually live. Berry's words were so evocative and his pace so meditative that I almost felt like I was dreaming.

"He could not distinguish between himself and the land," Berry writes of the central character in "At Home." I emerged from "At Home" with a deep calling to my own home and land, to which I have been gradually becoming more and more inextricably connected over the past five years. Will there come a time when I can no longer distinguish myself from the land? I hope so.

After the reading was finished, Mr. Berry responded to questions from students - I first wrote "answered questions" and then realized that he was reluctant to provide "answers" in most cases, but instead gave subtle, thoughtful responses, often lightened with wry humor.

I was jotting notes as he spoke, still moving somewhat slowly after being immersed in the world of Berry's short story, but here are a few of my favorite moments:

In response to questions from students about how we can find our way out of the ecological predicament we have created: "Problem solving is not applying the maximum force as relentlessly as possible. It requires patience, resignation, and other hard virtues." And later, "No one knows the answer. Don't trust anyone who says they do. The answer will have to be lived out." And finally, "We are working from the inside, necessity is working from the outside. The world is not going to continue to yield what we have come to expect of it."

In response to a question about how "people of faith" might be involved in the environmental movement: "It's hard to think of a person who doesn't have faith in something. The human mind is by nature faithful."

He encouraged students to "Get your language right. Call things by their right names." He talked about health in communities, referencing Aldo Leopold's concept of "land community" (a concept he fleshes out in more detail in his essay "Conservation and Local Economy").

When asked about Occupy Wall Street, he reminded us that "great public movements must be accompanied by local, small, private acts." He also noted that when we are told, "inform yourself," we should remember that "to inform is to shape inwardly."

He talked about making local food economies "that will be the kindest to the home landscapes of the world."

At the end of the evening, Mr. Berry repeated twice what he called one of his "articles of faith": "Things aren't going to get so bad that someone who is willing can't make it a little better."

That is the kind of hope, small and persistent, that I can feel resonating in my heart and bones. Thank you, Wendell Berry.

More from Wendell Berry:

"We must see that it is foolish, sinful and suicidal to destroy the health of nature for the sake of an economy that is really not an economy at all but merely a financial system, one that is unnatural, undemocratic, sacrilegious, and ephemeral. We must see the error of our effort to live by fire, by burning the world in order to live in it. There is no plainer symptom of our insanity than our avowed intention to maintain by fire an unlimited economic growth. Fire destroys what nourishes it and so in fact imposes severe limits on any growth associated with it. The true source and analogue of our economic life is the economy of plants, which never exceeds natural limits, never grows beyond the power of its place to support it, produces no waste, and enriches and preserves itself by death and decay. We must learn to grow like a tree, not like a fire."

1 comment:

Everything Changes said...

Ooh, I must dig my Berry book out again!