Our children call us home

Photo by Rick Chamberlin

“The past is our definition. We may strive, with good reason, to escape it, or to escape what is bad in it, but we will escape it only by adding something better to it.”

-Wendell Berry

While browsing the stacks at one of my favorite used bookstores recently, I found an almost pristine copy of The Long-Legged House, a collection of essays by Wendell Berry first published in 1969. To make such a find is bittersweet: sweet because I’m always thrilled to add a well-preserved classic by one of my favorite authors to my personal library at a fraction of the cost of buying new, bitter because it means the book probably wasn’t read or was read but little.

Like many of my used book discoveries, this one was also serendipitous. Berry’s sixth essay in The Long-Legged House, “The Loss of the Future,” dovetails perfectly with something I came across on The New York Times Dot Earth blog and have been wanting to write about.

Andrew Revkin’s post, “Do Humans Need a Golden Rule 2.0” highlights Norwegian novelist Jostein Gaarder’s recent speech at the 2010 PEN World Voices Festival. Gaarder, best known in the U.S. for his novel Sophie’s World, talked about how the Golden Rule, most commonly understood as “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” has a vertical as well as a horizontal dimension. Gaarder told his audience that implicit in the biblical principle — present in some form in all major faith traditions and cultures — is an obligation to behave toward our unborn descendants as we would want them to behave toward us.

It was as if Gaarder was channeling the still-very-much-alive Berry. A novelist (as well as poet, polemicist and farmer) himself, Berry concluded his essay 45 years ago with these words (bear in mind that he was writing before gender-balanced language had come into wide use):

“…the ideal community would include not just the living; it would include the unborn. It would be aware, with a clarity and concern which the best of us have hardly imagined, that the living cannot think or speak or act without changing the lives of those who will live after them. There would be a language, not yet spoken in any of our public places, to manifest and convey that awareness—a language that would live upon the realization that no person can act purely on his own behalf, not only because it is not desirable that he should do so, but because it is in reality not possible.”

Both Gaarder and Berry’s words reflect an understanding that a moral crisis lies at the heart of the ecological crisis we find ourselves in. And at the heart of that moral crisis lies the fact that capitalism as it is currently practiced mixes with the Golden Rule about as well as the oil gushing from the blown out Deepwater Horizon well mixes with the marine and coastal ecosystems in and around the Gulf of Mexico.

I had the privilege to hear Wendell Berry’s speak last October when he came to Madison to give the closing reading at the Wisconsin Book Festival. I was surprised, delightedly so, when he read one of his short stories instead of one of his insightful and incisive essays. The story he read, “Making It Home,” happens to be my favorite short story by any author. Set in 1945, it follows a young G.I. named Art Rowanberry as he makes his way back to his rural Kentucky home after participating in, and bearing witness to, the horrors of World War II in Europe.

The story’s title carries more than one meaning, because “Making It Home” is  far more than the story of one man’s physical journey through time and space to the farm and family of his youth. It is also about what it is, exactly, that makes a particular place home to us, and about what we must do to make the places we live home. It is about how easy it is to take our home for granted, to stray from home and betray our home. But it is also about a community and a way of life that works with the land and its inhabitants and not against it. It’s about a community and a way of life that preserves the natural resources upon which the social, spiritual and economic health of a people depend. Art Rowanberry’s Kentucky community is the antithesis of the war-ravaged land he’s returning from. It does not destroy capital, it preserves and builds capital — natural as well as human. It does not take from future generations, it gives to them. It is a community that treats those generations as it would want to be treated.

I have no doubt that dissertations have been written about how “Making It Home” evokes the biblical story of the prodigal son, and perhaps some primordial proto-story which, like the Golden Rule, exists in one form or another in the written and oral traditions of all religions. And what is the story of the prodigal son if not a family story, a generational story? Just as the story of the prodigal son is an allegory of God’s love for his children (and vice versa), “Making It Home” is an allegory of a community’s love for one of it’s own (and vice versa).  It, too, is the story of generations — past, present and future. It is about what past generations have given us and what we owe future generations. In some sense, every story, poem and essay Wendell Berry has ever published could be said to be about these things.

In the same way that 9/11 dispelled the notion that our nation was immune from terrorism, the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico dispells, I hope, the notion that the Golden Rule does not apply to our unborn descendants. By decapitating mountains to reach the coal underneath, by defying the laws of physics and nature to pump oil from miles below the surface of the ocean, and by continuing to burn those greenhouse gas-producing compounds, we are doing unto our unborn brothers and sisters what we surely would not want done to us, because our actions are all but guaranteeing them a hellish world full of far more suffering and deprivation than we ourselves have known.

If we truly believe in living by the Golden Rule, conscience demands that we do what we can to slash our use of energy derived from oil and coal, and work to ensure that policies and practices are put in place at the local, state and national level to build cleaner, more resilient, distributed and sustainable energy systems. For me this means continuing to cut the amount of gasoline I buy and burn, and the amount of electricity I use. More importantly, it means making myself a nuisance to my local, state and federal leaders until they dramatically ramp up their efforts to put us on the path to true energy independence and sustainability.

Like Art Rowanberry, we have been at war. We have been at war with all of creation. Like every war, the war we are waging is ultimately a war against ourselves. Even more than previous wars, this war is a war waged against our children and grandchildren, for they will bear the worst consequences of our actions. Not only is our own demand for oil as responsible for what’s happening in the Gulf of Mexico today as British Petroleum is, the gas we burn in our automobiles and lawnmowers in Sauk Prairie and countless other communities around the world is doing just as much damage to the planet as the oil in the Gulf of Mexico is doing to marine ecosystems there, maybe more. And that damage is making itself manifest more and more right here in rural Wisconsin.

Isn’t it time we turned our hearts and our attention back to the values, like the Golden Rule, that we say we hold most dear? Isn’t it time that we, like Art Rowanberry, started making it home?

4 Comments

4 Comments

  1. Well said. That our actions affect the future should be obvious, and should inform our deeds and priorities. Yet it seems as though so many grandparents think they are being good to their grandchildren by driving great distances to give them heaps of cheap toys and candy. Have we lost the ability to think rationally? Have we been corporately brainwashed to that extent? Have we become Jello-brand puddingheads?

  2. By “corporately brainwashed” do you mean being brainwashed en masse, John, or do you mean brainwashed by corporations (maybe you mean both)? I think the messages we receive from and via the media do play a part. More important, I think, are the messages we get from our parents (including grandparents, as you point out), peers and neighbors. I wonder sometimes if trying to get people to think rationally is a very useful strategy. We are emotional beings more than we are rational beings. Scientist are discovering that even many seemingly “rational” decisions turn out to be based on emotion. Values like the Golden Rule appeal to both the rational and emotional parts of us, which is why I think they resonate and have endured so long (even if they aren’t often employed). We see the utility in them, but they make sense to our hearts, too.

  3. Rick, I meant “brainwashed by corporations,” although I throw around the “c” word loosely. I would include corporations and businesses and institutions of all sizes, including government-to-consumer “educational” communications. Ever since people started selling things to other people, be it products, services or ideas, there has been the impulse to not only fill a need, but to create a demand for whatever the seller happened to have.

    We Americans have apparently always been ripe for this. When Alexis de Tocqueville visited our country in 1831, he observed, again and again, that we seemed to be “a nation of merchants,” with the single goal of “making our fortune.” Our culture is one of acquisition and consumption. We define our place in society and our degree of success and our personal happiness by what we own.

    We are also very suggestible and conformist (I refrain from employing the word “sheep”) and so are ripe for marketers who tell us that we must own such-and-such because our neighbors do. Marketing (paid for by corporations, etc.) has either invented or co-opted all of our holidays to create new “purchase opportunities.” We have been taught that the most desirable foods are those which agribusiness has been able to grow and make most inexpensively, for the greatest profit. And so on.

    Since this “brainwashing” has been going on for generations, the messages we get from our peers and grandparents frequently reinforces the messages we get from corporations, because our grandparents have been brainwashed as well.

    And so we have believed (because we have been repeatedly told) that America is always right, has God on its side, provides its citizens with a quality of “freedom” that is the envy of the rest of the world, simply wants to spread democracy to less fortunate peoples, etc.

    We are so suggestible we have learned to fear terrorists on airplanes, and “pointy-headed liberals,” but not the imminent catastrophic ruination of our planet’s climate. We love our grandchildren by buying them frivolous, expensive toys while refusing to recognize that we are seriously endangering their future. This is wildly irrational behavior, and it is why I say we have been brainwashed.

    Rick, I think you are right that people are primarily emotional beings. And one of the reasons we are not responsive to the ruination of our climate is that we have been taught that nature is our enemy — dangerous, dirty, uncivilized, something to be avoided. Nature is good to look at from a distance, or to experience during a vacation in a sanitized form, but we have largely lost touch with the real thing. We are ignorant of nature, and ignorance breeds fear. Of course,that fear is fueled by corporations who have just the products to help us subdue and circumvent nature. They work really well.

  4. These comments apply so well to poultry. Traditional dual purpose breeds are best for small flocks, but the corporate poultry industry raises these amped-up creatures that gain weight so fast they can hardly walk. Hundreds of thousands of birds under a single roof, fed subclinical doses of antibiotics that then cook up antibiotic-resistant pathogens. The mindset of the industry is that birds in small flocks are subject to diseases and predation, while their birds are safe and clean. Thanks for this blog, John.