observations and opinion
There is no science to unearthing great writing; like panning for gold in a cold black stream, it is the product of patience, attention and a good deal of luck.
Before the internet, the prospector shuffled along his own courses, standing for hours in creaky floored bookshops, flipping idly through a copy of the New Yorker on a Sunday morning or staring at the “staff favourites” shelf in the local library. Nowadays the hunt has us staggering through a sticky web of a trillion streams of photons, firing at us from all directions, criss-crossing and sometimes blinding us. We wander through a blizzard of hashtags, catching one and watching it melt, chasing another.
When you have a past, nostalgia is an easy substitute for thinking. Whether the world was better or even simpler “before” is not a very rewarding enquiry. What it was for sure, was different, especially for those who write and for those who read a good deal.
Back in olden times, and I don’t remember how or precisely when, I struck it rich in discovering three great American essayists. They were very different men, each with his own distinct voice and vision: a prophet, a comic anarchist and a gentle observer. One long dead now, the others in their eighties. What they saw, had to say and how they said it makes them eternal.
Berry, Abbey and McPhee. Given the millions of words that streamed out of them during their careers, it is impossible to do justice to them in only a few. They are, for this reader, a kind of trinity (not holy, that’s not necessary) of the late 20th Century American essayists. Each observed the arc of American culture as it took shape after World War II. Each described it in his own terms, for his own purposes.
Wendell Berry lives on, he’s eighty now, and to me is the most significant and insightful writer living in the United States. He may be the only agrarian economist whose work was ever read aloud at an Anglican wedding (my own) and he consistently delivers a message which, depressingly, seems more true yet more ignored than any other observer of man alive. Berry believes that the individual human being is precious, that his dignity is a reflection and a part of the Almighty, that she lives best among others who share a common commitment to the land they live on.
It would be fair to say that Wendell Berry sees modern economics and particularly, modern agriculture, as a kind of clear-cutting or strip-mining: ripping up the roots of living things, erasing the rich topsoil of life, reducing the complexity of creation to packaged goods, killing the possibility of another crop. Mr. Berry is a frustrating man for the 21st century pigeon-holer, because he believes in life (he has a “deep discomfort” with abortion and capital punishment), opposes war, reveres a set of local and rural values that are inherently conservative, in the true and honorable sense of that word and as a result of those beliefs, now voices what can only be called a radical message.
Mr. Berry is quoted recently on the hot topic of gay marriage. He does so with simple brilliance, going right to the source:
“The Bible, as I pointed out to the writers of National Review, has a lot more to say against fornication and adultery than against homosexuality,” he said. “If one accepts the 24th and 104th Psalms as scriptural norms, then surface mining and other forms of earth destruction are perversions. If we take the Gospels seriously, how can we not see industrial warfare — with its inevitable 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 talked of hating your neighbor as tantamount to hating God, and yet some Christians hate their neighbors by policy and are busy hunting biblical justifications for doing so,” he said. “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.”
If you want to know how Wendell Berry thinks, you need only read his most famous essay, where he explains that he will not buy a computer because (a) his typewriter is a perfectly good tool (b) not having “spell check” means he has to rely on the help of Mrs. Berry to proofread the work, which they both enjoy and (c) it appalls him to think that every word he writes might put money in the pocket of the local electrical utility. I love him.
Edward Abbey was different. He was at once a rootless iconoclast, yet married to a corner of the universe – the American Southwest – more passionately than his own life could contain. A hiker, traveller, “agrarian anarchist” and smoker, Abbey was a funny man, not always kindly: he loathed tourists and mocked the idea of pathways where scooters might cruise about national parks; his hiker puritanism blinding him somewhat to the needs of the less physically robust.
Abbey also loathed the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, the Army Corps of Engineers and their relentless efforts to dam up every river and stream in the western United States. This was as pure an “environmentalist” sensibility as one could contain, really, and Abbey’s writing about the Glen Canyon Dam and its effects on the Colorado River nearly ache with love for the land and anger at its deformation by man.
He took a deep pleasure in uttering pungent, Mark Twain-esque thoughts with a pointy end:
It may be true that my desk here is really “nothing but” a transient eddy of electrons in the flux of universal process. Nevertheless, I find that it continues to support my feet, my revolver, and my cigars all day long. What happens when my back is turned I don’t know. Or much care. That’s no concern of mine.
He liked guns, animals and women. He disliked, fervently, organized religion:
Fantastic doctrines (like Christianity or Islam or Marxism) require unanimity of belief. One dissenter casts doubt on the creed of millions. Thus the fear and the hate; thus the torture chamber, the iron stake, the gallows, the labor camp, the psychiatric ward.
Abbey was a strange kind of whiskey priest, furious at the selfishness and short-sightedness of men, lashing out verbally (and non-verbally: I still believe that he really did like to drive down the highway, with a chainsaw in the back of his truck, stopping to chop down billboards). This was a chaotic, disorganized and undisciplined man – married five times, divorced four, who was pleased to know he’d be buried somewhere in his beloved southwest, and whose famous last words were “no comment.”
In the farthest corner of America from Abbey’s grave, John McPhee lives on. Temperamentally and stylistically modest, McPhee has travelled the country and the world in search of interesting things and people to write about. Without an agenda more evident than an appetite to know and to share, McPhee has produced a stream of essays and books examining life as we lived it in the later decades of the 20th Century.
My favourite of his works (that I have read, because I haven’t read them all) are an essay about bears and a book about fruit. The essay, “A Textbook Place for Bears” studied how land conservation rules in New Jersey accidentally converted that state into the absolute ideal haven for black bears. The bears were not well received by the human dwellers of the Garden State, but they enthralled scientists.
The book is called “Oranges” and it studies the history of the orange, a relatively unimpressive citrus fruit which from humble, greenish beginnings burst into the markets of America in the early 20th Century. This includes a memorable passage describing the use of gas to change the colour of oranges from green to, um, orange and the unintended consequences of railcars full of gassy balls rubbing together until they would explode.
While Berry tilts towards prophecy and ideas, and Abbey liked irreverent sabotage, McPhee illuminates through quiet and neutral description. Yet he touches on topics the other two burned passionately about, such as the grotesque efforts of the U.S. government to bend nature into something “useful” for man. “The Control of Nature” chronicles attempts to control the rivers of Louisiana, so that New Orleans “wouldn’t end up in the Yucatan.” McPhee writes of big things with small examples of what is real:
In New Orleans, income and elevation can be correlated on a literally sliding scale: the Garden District on the highest level, Stanley Kowalski in the swamp. The Garden District and its environs are locally known as uptown.
Torrential rains fall on New Orleans—enough to cause flash floods inside the municipal walls. The water has nowhere to go. Left on its own, it would form a lake, rising inexorably from one level of the economy to the next. So it has to be pumped out. Every drop of rain that falls on New Orleans evaporates or is pumped out. Its removal lowers the water table and accelerates the city’s subsidence. Where marshes have been drained to create tracts for new housing, ground will shrink, too. People buy landfill to keep up with the Joneses. In the words of Bob Fairless, of the New Orleans District engineers, “It’s almost an annual spring ritual to get a load of dirt and fill in the low spots on your lawn.” A child jumping up and down on such a lawn can cause the earth to move under another child, on the far side of the lawn.
McPhee wrote about the Mississippi and the threats of water to New Orleans thirty years before Katrina finally demonstrated that the U.S. government efforts to master nature down there were either inadequate, or hopeless to begin with.
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Stitching these three writers together, we learn much about how the United States in the later part of the 20th Century poured tax dollars, manpower and concrete into the task of mastering nature for the utility of the industrial-agricultural complex. There is absolutely nothing about the original form of the world, or its contents, that is not grist for the mill of making some people rich; the three all chronicle this, with varying degrees of passion and dispassion.
All three write with romantic feeling for the small, human and local way of life (even McPhee, journalistic observer that he is, can’t resist the nostalgic urge to eulogize small town and rural living, as in his “The Heirs of General Practice” about young family doctors in the early 1980s). Berry grieves the passing of the family farm; Abbey rails at the industrialization of the grandest swaths of nature.
There is a shared sensibility here – gentleness, a tender regard for the land, a sense of wonder at the majestic beauty of the things man has not made and has not mastered – which seems to be fading in our louder, brighter, coarser age. To read Wendell Berry, in particular, is to be reminded that our obsession with “yield” – squeezing the most money out of the resources in our fist, with total disregard for the attendant costs – is a kind of species suicide or, at the very least, a debasement of both the natural world and human civilization. It is this way of thinking, this fatigue at the reduction of all things to “resources” and “products” that gave birth to one of the best books – and book titles – of recent decades: “What Are Humans For?”
Good question. Mr. Berry would have us believe, that humans are not “for” anything – they do not exist to enrich other humans or to be raw material in some industrial machine. Humans have an innate, individual worth that springs from their relation to God and a way of life that preserves dignity and the natural world. How a human being lives, in relation to the soil under her feet, is perhaps the best measure of her evolution, or devolution. What is divine in us Professor Berry seems to say, is what is rooted.
It is unclear who else thinks or speaks of humanity in such fashion, here in the shadowy gloom of the new century. Hence the magic in returning to an old way of thinking, and the value of restoring it to a higher plane of reverence. Berry, Abbey and McPhee: we don’t have to agree with every particular opinion or cherish every prolonged essay, to be reminded in their work of what true “good works” can be.