Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Rediscovering Home: The Long-Legged House

by Wendell Berry

This is a book of essays written between 1965 and 1969. The first two sections are rather depressing commentaries on strip mining, the degradation of natural habitats through misuse and ignorance, war, poverty, and the startling greed of corporations that choose profit over neighbors and communities. It is unpleasant to consider how little has changed in the decades since they were published.

Berry sees most government efforts to address poverty as demeaning and counter-productive.
Unable to live by his work, the furniture maker is dependent on the government's welfare program, the benefits of which are somewhat questionable, since if he sells any of his work his welfare payments are diminished accordingly, and so he stands little or no chance of improving his situation by his own effort. 
Many of Berry's essays describe the tourists he encounters in Kentucky, those who escape from the city to the lakes and rivers. He senses and uneasiness in them. They continue to rush, filling the lakes with gears and motors on their swift boats.
What I hope--and it is not an easy hope--is that people will begin to come into the countryside with a clearer awareness of why they come, of what they need from it and of what they owe it. I assume--and it is not an easy assumption--that the world must live in men's minds if men are to continue to live in the world.
One of the chapters is the text of a speech Berry gave, a statement against the war in Vietnam. I intend to assign this essay to First Son in 8th grade as part of his Twentieth Century History course, found in Level 4 of Mater Amabilis.
Does the hope of peace lie in waiting for peace, or in being peaceable? If I see what is right, should I wait for the world to see it, or should I make myself right immediately, and thus be an example to the world?
I don't necessarily agree with everything he says in the speech, but I hope it will lead First Son to consider multiple sides of the issue of war.

To a country where we have so much and suffer relatively little, Berry offers "Some Thoughts on Citizenship and Conscience:"
Because so many are hungry, should we weep as we eat? No child will grow fat on our tears. But to eat, taking whatever satisfaction it gives us, and then to turn again to the problem of how to make it possible for another to eat, to undertake to cleanse ourselves of the great wastefulness of our society, to seek alternatives in our own lives to our people's thoughtless squandering of the world's goods--that promises a solution. That many are cold and the world is full of hate does not mean that one should stand in the snow for shame or refrain from making love. To refuse to admit decent and harmless pleasures freely into one's own life is as wrong as to deny them to someone else. It impoverishes and darkens the world.
The third section focused more on autobiographical essays describing the relationship of Berry with his native land. These were much more hopeful and pleasant, a demonstration of what life can be if we allow ourselves to be rooted to a place. After their wedding, he and his wife lived at his camp in the woods without electricity or running water for the summer.
Marriage is a perilous and fearful effort, it seems to me. There can't be enough knowledge at the beginning. It must endure the blundering of ignorance. It is both the cause and the effect of what happens to it. It creates pain that it is the only cure for. It is the only comfort for its hardships.
The last essay, "Native Hill," Mr. Berry shares his response to the reactions of his literary circle when he decided to leave New York City to live and teach in Kentucky. In a word, they were horrified, convinced his writing would suffer and that he would be miserable. Though certain of his decision, he still held himself uneasily for a while, questioning regularly whether his writing suffered.
I have come finally to see a very regrettable irony in what happened. At a time when originality is more emphasized in the arts, maybe, than ever before, I undertook something truly original--I returned to my origins--and it was generally thought by my literary friends that I had worked my ruin. As far as I can tell, this was simply because my originality, my faith in my own origins, had not been anticipated or allowed for by the fashion of originality.
Instead of being thwarted, Berry rediscovered his home, gaining more depth in his knowledge of a country he already knew intimately.
We must change our lives, so that it will be possible to live by the contrary assumption that what is good for the world will be good for us. And that requires that we make the effort to know the world and to learn what is good for it.
Berry often expresses a distrust of religion. He argues that faith in a Creator and the goodness of Creation should have cultivated a people who protected the world, the environment. Instead, their focus on an eternal future caused them to treat the created world as a means to an end.
It has encouraged people to believe that the world is of no importance, and that their only obligation in it is to submit to certain churchly formulas in order to get to heaven. And so the people who might have been expected to care most selflessly for the world have had their minds turned elsewhere--to a pursuit of "salvation" that was really only another form of gluttony and self-love, the desire to perpetuate their own small lives beyond the life of the world. The heaven-bent have abused the earth thoughtlessly, by inattention, and their negligence has permitted and encouraged others to abuse it deliberately.
The kind of attitude he describes is the one that causes consternation amongst the faithful when presented with words of stewardship from Pope Francis in Laudato Si' - On the Care of our Common Home.
On suddenly coming upon a glade of bluebells:
For me, in the thought of them will always be the sense of the joyful surprise with which I found them--the sense that came suddenly to me then that the world is blessed beyond my understanding, more abundantly that I will ever know....If I were given all the learning and all the methods of my race I could not make one of them, or even imagine one.

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