Monday, February 16, 2009

On Wanting More Turf Than 7 Feet of Canadian Soil

I've had Wendell Berry on the mind of late, and a post has been hovering at the back of my mind, waiting for articulation.

One of the things I wanted to mention was our desire to have a bit of land to nurture, to use, to reap. E. and I were discussing Ochlophobist's recent series of posts (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12) - a thesis in pictures, really, lauding a way of life that he (and we) finds laudable - and it struck us forcefully that there is a fascinating subculture within Orthodoxy (agrarian postmodern?) that hungers for land. This is a hunger not for the gain that land might bring, but a hunger for the toil and the sweat and the tears that is a Christian engagement with God's Creation. A step back and away from the petroleum-fertilized factory farming of the latter part of the 20th century, a return to sustainable (ie. non-polluting) living, even if on a limited scale, and a re-engagement with God's Creation after the soul-straitening concrete canyons of the Big City.

A recent moment of envious yearning (and joy! - both with him and for him) was reading about Lotar's purchase of a homestead for he, his wife, and his 1.5 children. These things are possible, evidently - I just don't know how to get where I can realize these dreams also.

Andrea Elizabeth articulates some of that bewilderment. She is not in quite the same place that I am in - I still hope for something a little more country, and I get the feeling that she has reached a point of contentment with her place/situation in life. In her words:
While I agree with and admire [Wendell Berry's] ethics, I haven’t been able to become an ardent disciple because I don’t think his particular way of life is completely practical for everyone. I love self-sufficiency, but not everyone is as smart as he is. Did he make most of his livelihood on his farm or by his gifted writing? I’ve talked about how much more fertile and better watered Kentucky is compared to where I live too. Still, I could probably get by with the produce available at our Farmer’s Market. Wait, last time I was there I noticed that most things weren’t local. But if I spent a lot of time studying, I could probably find enough local sources to keep us well-fed. But my attentions are usually diverted elsewhere. I resent the hour and a half I spend at Walmart every week as it is. And my home garden, which I prefer to access rather than going across town to the farmer’s market, I’m self-sufficient that way, got mostly eaten by bugs, or didn’t produce much (for the needs of a family of 8) for other unknown reasons. I intend on getting better at gardening though. It is a healthy sport.
Again, I don't agree with her conclusions, but I sympathize with her frustration. Here is Ochlophobist's response:
This weekend past we spent time with our best friends, on their third attempt at a sustainable farm [the subject of which was the photo-essay mentioned above -- V.]. They have all the skills and the desire to farm, but did not inherit any land, or any significant means, and they have not followed the most common path of niche farming today - to spend a few decades in a lucrative field and then, after accumulating means, running off to the boutique farm. It is likely that this third attempt will be their last, that most of their lives will be spent as serious gardeners, and not as farmers. There is a place for the mourning over lost dreams, but then one must go on and do the hard work in the real here and the real now that God presents to us.

I have written before, and I think honesty requires us of agrarian bents to say it again and again - Wendell Berry inherited the family farm, one that was semi-functional. He had financial means outside of farming, whether or not he needed such. What of those of us who did not inherit such things, and would never have access to such means? These facts are one reason why I must read Berry and Edwards (who wrote Ebenezer) as, first and foremost, eulogists.

But we can learn many important things from these eulogies. We can remember many important things. We are offered in them something of an image of repentance, if we look with our eyes open enough. And we can make our little, sputtering, seemingly inconsequential efforts at the human things. I live in a cheap ranch house on half an acre, but I can double dig a small garden, and I can make things with my hands as time permits, I can cook my own food from as honest of ingredients as I am able to secure. I can read lasting words, sing hymns, sit still. I can attempt to pace my life in a manner that bows as little as possible to the rush of the constant movement of consumption. I can remember that I have failed, and I will fail, and that I am small, that my efforts will matter little but somewhere in that littleness is my salvation, and as God wills the salvation of my children. One can still strive, even in this place, to cultivate the quiet, the slow, to choreograph the movement of one's hands and breath in the dance of activity and stillness in a manner that befits a human life - as best as one is able, in the midst of all those troublesome cares and demands. To borrow my oft put example - even the single mother living in one of those awful bauhuas projects can bake her own bread, and while that may be the only careful human act she has time for, aside from prayer, it is the sort of rebuke of consumenivorism that reveals a clinging to life, and grants a reward, the richness one experiences when coming upon the flower in the desert.

There is also the temptation, the very American temptation, of taking from Berry & Co. a moralist perfectionism. An all or nothing disposition which rots the soul, as it judges any effort which does not achieve a fast and secure perfection to be hell-fodder. There is a lack of pause with this sort of perfectionism, scarce disposition to cover the sins of others, few allowances, a poverty with regard to tenderness of heart. We have to live the life that we are given, and when we read Berry as moralist only, or moralist primarily, most of us end up under a load of impossible moral burdens. I will never get to the farm in KY. I have no way of getting there. I must concern myself with my own home, as Berry exhorts. In much of Berry's literature there is that call to be who you are where you are, in as human a manner possible, but the overt moralism in much of his work provides something of a contradiction in tone at times, and one is best to follow Andrea Elizabeth's reading and take this with a grain of salt. There is not going to be a Wendell Berry movement that changes America. You are not going to take part in some great motion of social change by getting your produce from a local farmer or growing one quarter of your caloric intake. This is not to say that such social movements do not exist and will not push and pull society in this and that way. It is to say that such an agenda betrays Berry and the whole notion of living an honest human life. Movement agendas are destructive abstractions. It is better to simply and quietly go about doing the best things one is able. There will always be the temptation to fight the Dark Lord of Mordor with his own Black Speech. Our focus must be upon the goodness of a row of okra where and when we find it, the goodness of the chicken in the backyard, the goodness of a pig allowed to run about, the goodness of grain and water getting under fingernails. These things are miracles always and only in their instances. As soon as we make of them a rule or a paradigm they are lost to us. God only ever loves this bruised reed, the one here, that you see trampled in front of you. The Society for the Protection of Bruised Reeds (S.P.B.R.) is not the work of angels, but a diversion. The poor in spirit hold up those reeds within their very short reach. And yet that greatest of miracles - the seemingly smallest reach that is the summit of all human affairs, of all human history, that short length from pierced torso to nailed hand, holds the entire universe in its mercied place. Today, right now, this world is kept on its rotational axis for the prayer of a little old nun, chanting O Heavenly King as she presses a cucumber seed into earth with her nub of a finger. There is no other way. [highlighting mine -- V.]]
This is life in the meantime, living without despair, living in prayer and finding God in the here, in the now. This is re-remembering that what is holy in yearning for land is not the ideal of healthy land, sound ecology, the economy of thinking small and local ... what is holy is that baptism of the broken (land, ecology, and the rest of the cosmos) by Orthodox, through prayer, through vigil, through labour offered to God, ascesis in all its forms.

I will continue to yearn, and hope. I don't think this is wrong. But the now cannot, must not be forgotten.

- V.

On the meaning of the title:
When King Harald Hardrada of Norway put in his bid for the Kingdom of Anglo-Saxon England, the holder of the crown - Harold Godwinson of Wessex - retorted that the only English land that he would give Harald was the 6 feet to bury him. Or, as Harald was reputed to be a tall man, 7 feet.

... I would like land, yes, but I would rather that there be more planted in it than just me.


V and E said...

Relevant thoughts from "Glory to God for All Things."

St. Silouan the Athonite:
We must always pray the Lord for peace of soul that we may the more easily fulfil the Lord’s commandments; for the Lord loves those who strive to do His will, and thus they attain profound peace in God.

He who does the Lord’s will is content with all things, though he be poor or sick and suffering, because the grace of God gladdens his heart. But the man who is discontented with his lot and murmurs against his fate, or against those who cause him offense, should realize that his spirit is in a state of pride, which has taken from him his sense of gratitude towards God.

But if it be so with you, do not lose heart but try to trust firmly in the Lord and ask Him for a humble spirit; and when the lowly spirit of God comes to you you will then love Him and be at rest in spite of all tribulations.

The soul that has acquired humility is always mindful of God, and thinks to herself: ‘God has created me. He suffered for me. He forgives me my sins and comforts me. He feeds me and cares for me. Why, then should I take thought for myself, and that is there to fear, even if death threaten me?

In the comments section Father Stephen clarifies the difference between apathy and apatheia:

V & E,
To be content with one’s lot in life does not mean to forego school, or turn down a raise, etc. But it means that having done all I know to do, to place the outcome of things in God’s hands, and to accept them with peace. It doesn’t mean to quit trying. If you are in the world, work hard. If you are a monk, work hard. Apatheia is not apathy in the modern sense at all. It is freedom from false cares not freedom from all cares.

- V.

elizabeth said...

I know the desire to have what we are not given... for you, land, ideals; for me family; but God's mercy needed above all;

this comment in your comment really shows what I need to learn:

" But it means that having done all I know to do, to place the outcome of things in God’s hands, and to accept them with peace. "

Fr. Stephen is such a blessing.

Keep hoping your posts will have news of E and child.

Much love, and my small prayers.