Monday, October 21, 2013

Only One Opinion Matters

Wendell Berry. What Are People For? Berkley: Counterpoint, 2010.
The title of this collection of early essays of Wendell Berry is taken from one small essay bemoaning the migration of country people to the cities; the very places where unemployment is higher and the concomitant social ills are compounded.  In the course of these essays Berry provides his answer to the question, “what are people for?”  The question is a deep well.  It could be the metanarrative of all literary traditions from time immemorial.  Recently, as I was getting service at the local car wash I had this book with me to read as I waited.  While paying the attendant she noticed the title and offered some comment about the profundity of the question.  “Yes,” I replied, “it is a question that everyone has an opinion about.”

As I drove away in my nice clean 1992 Toyota Camry I thought more deeply about the question.  Everyone does surely have an opinion on it, even though most rarely address it in explicit terms.  A few pontificate on the question; probably more than we need or want, especially during major political elections.  Most of us, however, give considered opinion on this most central of questions sooner or later.  When we choose a life partner or decide that a partner is not really for life.  Our time at the bedside of a dying family member or friend may be hallowed or haunted by the question.  When attending the arrival of our first born child we might be making our clearest statement on the question even without speaking a word.  Could it be that we even make our position on this question known throughout life in the ordinary routine activities of daily living?  Do I speak to it in the clothes I wear or the car I drive?  Will the pattern of my daily work habits give commentary?  How do my choices in food and drink belie my opinion?  In what ways are my daily interactions with colleagues, neighbors, and family speaking to the question?  In all my thoughts about various opinions on this question I am left with one other question.  Whose opinion matters most?
The twin lyric essays that open this collection suggest Berry’s opinion on the question.  He speaks of his own craft as poet and how the conveyance of culture functions as an archive of humanity.  A few selected sentences from the first entitled, Damage, illustrate.

An art that heals and protects its subject is a geography of scars.

When the road of excess has reached the place of wisdom it is a healed wound, a long scar.

Culture preserves the map and the records of past journeys so that no generation will permanently destroy the route.

But a man with a machine and inadequate culture….is a pestilence.[1]
These lines hint of what Berry sees as the proper task of the artist, whether poet or farmer.  They alike are cataloging the “scars” of human technological progress.  One gets the impression from these essays that for Berry only in the wisdom gained from protracted involvement with the community of a local place can there be healing; a healing that comes through the exercise of “good work.”

To be creative is only to have health: to keep oneself fully alive in the Creation, to keep the Creation fully alive in oneself, to see the Creation anew, to welcome one’s part in it anew.[2]
Throughout the remaining essays Berry illustrates these ideas.  He names the chief perpetrators of the “scars” upon our good earth: power companies, industrial agriculture, and human consumption.  Some individuals who speak prophetically in the face of those who would do damage to the environment are also named: Wallace Stegner, Edward Abbey, Harry Caudill, and “Nate Shaw.”  Most of all, the essays provide Berry’s observations on how to “live fully.”

A significant aspect of Berry's answer is what he defines properly as "beloved community....common experience and common effort on a common ground to which one willingly belongs."[3]  His essay entitled, “The Work of Local Culture,” may stand as a prĂ©cis of much of his work as a writer.  Using the image of an old bucket hanging for many years on a fence post where it collects fallen leaves, animal droppings, periodic rain, and other of nature’s offerings which time turns to soil.  It is for Berry a picture of the community. 

A human community, too, must collect leaves and stories, and turn them to account.  It must build soil, and build that memory of itself—in lore and story and song—that will be its culture.[4]
That is as close to Berry’s answer as any I know.  An answer rooted in the theological understanding that “God created all things for His pleasure….God’s pleasure in all things must be respected by us in our use of things.”[5]

Steve Baker, Dean of Warren Library

Palm Beach Atlantic University

October 21, 2013

[1] Wendell Berry, What Are People For? (Berkeley: Counterpoint, 2010), 7-8.
[2] What Are People For?, 9.
[3] What Are People For?, 85.
[4] What Are People For?, 154.
[5] What Are People For?, 138-139.