Tuesday, December 10, 2013

“… there’s a world of pleasure in contrariness” (Wendell Berry)

“… there’s a world of pleasure in contrariness” (Wendell Berry

Moyers and Company celebrated Wendell Berry, the man, his prose, poetry, and political activism, in an encore presentation of a program that aired earlier in the fall. I enjoyed both programs and encourage you to watch them both or read the transcript of each episode at the links provided. I promise you won’t regret the time you spend.

What struck me during the encore program was Berry’s answer to Moyers’ questions about despair and hope during this political season of denial and nay-saying. Like the anecdotal ostrich, people who wield power seem to have tucked their heads under the surface, content to ignore the hue and cry to protect Earth, feed hungry children, and deploy resources to make lives better. They have instead engaged in getting, acquiring, and hoarding.

Berry eschews these. Replying to Moyers' question about despair, Berry offers wisdom derived from experience, faith, and scholarship. He grants that all things seem endangered by capitalism, the siren song of wealth, and declares"

“’No amount of fiddling with capitalism to regulate and humanize it … can for long disguise its failure' to conserve the wealth and health of nature. ‘Eroded, wasted, or degraded soils; damaged or destroyed ecosystems; extinction of biodiversity, species; whole landscapes defaced, gouged, flooded, or blown up … thoughtless squandering of fossil fuels and fossil waters, of mineable minerals and ores, natural health and beauty replaced by a heartless and sickening ugliness. Perhaps its greatest success is an astounding increase in the destructiveness and therefore the profitability of war’” (Cited by Moyers from Berry’s 2012 lecture as a Jefferson Lecturer in behalf of the National Endowment of the Humanities)

Photo by Al Griffin

A state like the one Berry describes is reason for despair, but Berry has not forsaken hope and demonstrates his optimism through activism. He advocates for sustainable farming and the humane treatment of animals used for food. He sat in the Kentucky Governor’s office four days after all other efforts to communicate the harms of slicing away whole mountaintops in order to claim the coal therein failed. More important, he speaks to the strength and peace derived from being contrary.

“Going against men, I’ve heard at times a deep harmony thrumming in the mixture, and when they asked me what I say I don't know. It is not the only or the easiest way to come to the truth. It is one way." Berry is also one among many, including Vandana Shiva about whom I’ve written in the past. She and many more are:

“The ones who are committed. These people. The country and I think Vandana could tell you, the world, is full of people now who are doing what I just said, seeing something that needs to be done and starting to do it, without the government’s permission, or official advice, or expert advice, or applying for grants or anything else. They just start doing it.”

One final and perhaps esoteric reason for hope, according to Berry, is the fleeting nature of this life and all things. Berry points out:

Snapshot by Connye Griffin, Taken from the Water, Autumn 2013

“The poet, William Butler Yeats, said somewhere, ‘things reveal themselves passing away.’ And it may be that the danger that we’ve now inflicted upon every precious thing reveals the preciousness of it and shows us our duty. Some of us, these people and their friends and allies that now cover the world, these people are free to acknowledge the preciousness of the precious things.”

In closing, let us remember the fictional icon, Atticus Finch, that inspired this blog. He stood up, stepped up, and never lost hope even when a suit of despair fit more comfortably. He believed in the power of one to make a change, and so does Berry who admits:

“… it’s dangerous to do acts of civil disobedience. I [Berry] think once you’ve crossed that line, well, something is settled.” Something rests within us when we summon contrariness for causes worth fighting for. May we all find our inner beings at rest while being contrary.