Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Our Duty to Hope

Today is Wendell Berry's birthday. I've admired Wendell Berry for many years, even as I've only read his work in bits and pieces. I like his poems, love most of his essays, and haven't read his novels. I admire his commitment to his farm in Kentucky, a commitment which has led to quiet environmental activism; I expect that future generations of scholars will realize that he's written some of the most important environmental writing of the last part of the twentieth century.

I've just ordered a copy of the exchange of letters between Wendell Berry and Gary Snyder.  They have had similar interests--environmental, poetic, spiritual--but they've come and gone in such different directions.

As I placed the order, I thought about how ephemeral our communications are these days.  The Facebook exchange that I had with a friend last night--could I find that 10 years from now if I thought it was important?

At this point, I could--I scrolled back and saw that our whole correspondence going back to 2009 seems to be there.  Ten years from now?  Hard to say.

Of course, paper has its impermanence too. 

Berry's work has seemed vital for decades now. I first read him as an undergraduate, and I felt somewhat embarrassed for liking someone whose work was so accessible.  Now, of course, I think it's one of his more important traits.

What I value most these days is his ability to never sink into gloom for too long. He manages to sound prophetic (one of the prophet's duties being to call people back to right living, as well as to warn), without setting up a house in the land of the apocalypse. He always comes back to one of his main themes: ". . . hope is one of our duties. A part of our obligation to our own being and to our descendants is to study our life and our condition, searching always for the authentic underpinnings of hope. And if we look, these underpinnings can still be found. For one thing, though we have caused the earth to be seriously diseased, it is not yet without health. The earth we have before us now is still abounding and beautiful" ("Conservation and Local Economy" from Sex, Economy, Freedom, and Community, page 11).

He wrote those words almost 20 years ago, and yet, they still have relevance.  Some days, when the news seems unrelentingly bad, it's hard to continue to hope.  But it's one of the more important activities we can undertake.

Here's a passage that reminds us of the miracles which surround us each day:  "Whoever really has considered the lilies of the field or the birds of the air and pondered the improbability of their existence in this warm world within the cold and empty stellar distances will hardly balk at the turning of water into wine--which was, after all, a very small miracle. We forget the greater and still continuing miracle by which water (with soil and sunlight) is turned into grapes" ("Christianity and the Survival of Creation" from Sex, Economy, Freedom, and Community, page 103).

That passage made me gasp when I first read it, and it still does.

1 comment:

Stacy Wolfe said...

Recently one of my environmental science students told me the class was very depressing. This comment bothered me a great deal. I need to be more hopeful about the way I present the environmental facts of our Earth today. I am going to post this passage on Ecompanion and use it to spark a class conversation about this very topic. THANKS for showing it to me.