We Are Living From Mystery

Our kitchens and other eating places more and more resemble filling stations, as our homes more and more resemble motels. ‘Life is not very interesting,’ we seem to have decided. ‘Let its satisfactions be minimal, perfunctory, and fast.’ We hurry through our meals to go to work and hurry through our work in order to ‘recreate’ ourselves in the evenings and on weekends and vacations. And then we hurry, with the greatest possible speed and noise and violence, through our recreation — for what? To eat the billionth hamburger at some fast-food joint hellbent on increasing the ‘quality’ of our life? And all this is carried out in a remarkable obliviousness to the causes and effects, the possibilities and the purposes, of the life of the body in this world.

I mentioned earlier the politics, esthetics, and ethics of food. But to speak of the pleasure of eating is to go beyond those categories. Eating with the fullest pleasure — pleasure, that is, that does not depend on ignorance — is perhaps the profoundest enactment of our connection with the world. In this pleasure we experience and celebrate our dependence and our gratitude, for we are living from mystery, from creatures we did not make and powers we cannot comprehend. When I think of the meaning of food, I always remember these lines by the poet William Carlos Williams, which seem to me merely honest:

There is nothing to eat,
seek it where you will,
but the body of the Lord.
The blessed plants
and the sea, yield it
to the imagination
intact.

— Wendell Berry, The Pleasures of Eating

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Do As You Should Do Now

There isn’t a person who is alive and who has any appetite for living, who doesn’t make plans. I make a plan for every day I live. I’ve got certain things I want to do that day, and if I didn’t, I suppose I wouldn’t do anything. But I can’t help but notice, and I’ve been noticing for a good many years now, that my plans almost never work out. The day almost never exactly fits the plan. Some days depart wildly from the plan. So I conclude that even though you’re going to make plans, if you’re a live human being, one of the things you must learn to do is to take them lightly.

A plan really is useful for signifying to yourself and other people that you like living, that you’re looking forward to living some more, that you have a certain appetite to continue the enterprise. But one’s real duty to the future is to do as you should do now. Make the best choices, do the best work, fulfill your obligations in the best way you can, and work on a scale that’s appropriately small. Make plans that are appropriately small. If you do those things, then the future will take care of itself. But if you don’t do those things, then you build up a debt against the future, which is what we’re doing now.

— Wendell Berry, interviewed by Jordan Fisher-Smith

A Perilous And Fearful Effort

All this, I think, was more meaningful and proper than I knew at the time. To a greater extent than is now common, or even possible for most men, I had by my own doing prepared the house I was to bring my wife to, and in preparing the house I prepared myself. This was the place that was more my own than any other in the world. In it, I had made of loneliness a good thing. I had lived days and days of solitary happiness there. And now I changed it, to make it the place of my marriage. A complex love went into those preparations – for Tanya, and for the place too. Working those bright May days, the foliage fresh and full around me, the river running swift and high after rain, was an act of realization: as I worked, getting ready for the time Tanya would come to live there with me, I understood more and more what the possible meanings were. If it had gone differently – if it had followed, say, the prescription of caution: first ‘enough’ money, and then the ‘right’ sort of house in the ‘right’ sort of place – I think I would have been a poorer husband. And my life, I know, would have been poorer. It wasn’t, to be sure, a permanent place that I had prepared; we were going to be there only for the one summer. It was, maybe one ought to say, no more than a ritual. But it was a meaningful and useful ritual…

It would be a mistake to imply that two lives can unite and make a life between them without discord and pain. 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 hardship. In a time when divorce is as accepted and conventionalized as marriage, a marriage that lasts must look a little like a miracle. That ours lasts – and in its own right and its own way, not in pathetic and hopeless parody of some ‘expert’ notion – is largely, I believe, owing to the way it began, to the Camp and what it meant and came to mean. In coming there, we avoided either suspending ourselves in some honeymoon resort or sinking ourselves into the stampede for ‘success.’ In the life we lived that summer we represented to ourselves what we wanted – and it was not the headlong pilgrimage after money and comfort and prestige. We were spared that stress from the beginning. And there at the Camp we had around us the elemental world of water and light and earth and air. We felt the presence of the wild creatures, the river, the trees, the stars. Though we had our troubles, we had them in a true perspective. The universe, as we could see any night, is unimaginable large, and mostly empty, and mostly dark. We knew we needed to be together more than we needed to be apart.

–Wendell Berry, The Long-Legged House (p. 36-37)

The Mind That Is Not Baffled Is Not Employed

There are, it seems, two muses: the Muse of Inspiration, who gives us inarticulate visions and desires, and the Muse of Realization, who returns again and again to say ‘It is yet more difficult than you thought.’ This is the muse of form. It may be then that form serves us best when it works as an obstruction, to baffle us and deflect our intended course. It may be that when we no longer know what to do, we have come to our real work and when we no longer know which way to go, we have begun our real journey. The mind that is not baffled is not employed. The impeded stream is the one that sings.

— Wendell Berry

This Momentous Giving

Lovers must not, like usurers, live for themselves alone. They must finally turn from their gaze at one another back toward the community. If they had only themselves to consider, lovers would not need to marry, but they must think of others and of other things. They say their vows to the community as much as to one another, and the community gathers around them to hear and to wish them well, on their behalf and its own. It gathers around them because it understands how necessary, how joyful, and how fearful this joining is. These lovers, pledging themselves to one another ‘until death,’ are giving themselves away, and they are joined by this as no law or contract could join them. Lovers, then, ‘die’ into their union with one another as a soul ‘dies’ into its union with God. And so here, at the very heart of community life, we find not something to sell as in the public market but this momentous giving. If the community cannot protect this giving, it can protect nothing.

— Wendell Berry, Sex, Economy, Freedom & Community: Eight Essays

Do As You Should Do Now

The first characteristic of a plan is that it won’t work. The bigger the plan and the more far-reaching and ‘futuristic’ it is, the less likely it is to work.

There isn’t a person who is alive and who has any appetite for living, who doesn’t make plans. I make a plan for every day I live. I’ve got certain things I want to do that day, and if I didn’t, I suppose I wouldn’t do anything. But I can’t help but notice, and I’ve been noticing for a good many years now, that my plans almost never work out. The day almost never exactly fits the plan. Some days depart wildly from the plan. So I conclude that even though you’re going to make plans, if you’re a live human being, one of the things you must learn to do is to take them lightly.

A plan really is useful for signifying to yourself and other people that you like living, that you’re looking forward to living some more, that you have a certain appetite to continue the enterprise. But one’s real duty to the future is to do as you should do now. Make the best choices, do the best work, fulfill your obligations in the best way you can, and work on a scale that’s appropriately small. Make plans that are appropriately small. If you do those things, then the future will take care of itself. But if you don’t do those things, then you build up a debt against the future, which is what we’re doing now.

–Wendell Berry, interviewed by Jordan Fisher-Smith

Standing by Words

Fearnside: For me, as for many people, being a writer means getting up early in the morning — sometimes when it’s dark — writing as much as possible, and then going out and working a full-time job. I’m content with this, knowing that I’m doing my best under the circumstances, and I define myself as a writer even though I’m not writing full time or earning my living from it.

Berry: That’s good, but you need to realize something else: that you can lead a perfectly good and satisfactory life even if you’re not a writer.When I figured out that I could be perfectly happy and not be a writer, I became a better writer.

Fearnside: But you never gave up writing.

Berry: No, but I don’t think you ought to let your happiness depend on writing. There are a lot of worthwhile things you can do. The unhappiest people in the world may be the ones who think their happiness depends on artistic success of some kind.

Fearnside: In your essay “Standing by Words” you note that love is not abstract and cannot lead to abstract action. Love is the catalyst for concrete action, which is taking responsibility for what we do here and now. It seems to me that in some ways this kind of love is the salvation of the world.

Berry: That’s true. But like religion, love has to be practiced. It has to find something to do. Love isn’t just a feeling. It’s an instruction: Love one another. That’s hard to do. It doesn’t mean to sit at home and have fond feelings. You’ve got to treat people as if you love them, whether you do or not.

Fearnside: The Buddhists try to follow a path of “right livelihood,” which means that a person should not engage in work that brings harm to others, either directly or indirectly.

Berry: Right livelihood would prohibit strip mining and building warplanes. And so would “Love one another,” if anybody took it seriously.

— Jeff Fearnside interviews Wendell Berry for The Sun

The Forgiveness Of The New Dawn

All yesterday afternoon I sat
here by the river while the holiday
boats sped by. Their wake
beat on the shores, muddying
the water, their sleek hulls
rocking and pounding in the wake
of other boats the engines filling
the air with torment. They will come
again today and again tomorrow,
for this is Labor Day weekend,
a time to celebrate with restlessness
the possibility of rest always
farther one. But this morning I came
again at first light. The river
had cleared. It lay still from bend
to bend. The night birds were passing
homeward ahead of the day. An owl
trilled once, and then a wren woke
and sang. The herons stalked
soundlessly the dusky shadows. Quietly,
quietly, the river received
the forgiveness of the new dawn.

— Wendel Berry, “Sabbaths 2002”, IX, from Given

Technology

To make myself as plain as I can, I should give my standards for technological innovation in my own work. They are as follows:

1. The new tool should be cheaper than the one it replaces.
2. It should be at least as small in scale as the one it replaces.
3. It should do work that is clearly and demonstrably better than the one it replaces.
4. It should use less energy than the one it replaces.
5. If possible, it should use some form of solar energy, such as that of the body.
6. It should be repairable by a person of ordinary intelligence, provided that he or she has the necessary tools.
7. It should be purchasable and repairable as near to home as possible.
8. It should come from a small, privately owned shop or store that will take it back for maintenance and repair.
9. It should not replace or disrupt anything good that already exists, and this includes family and community relationships.

–Wendell Berry, from “Why I am NOT Going To Buy a Computer” (written in 1987)