“Health is the capacity of the land for self-renewal.” – Aldo Leopold
“The needs of the land and the needs of the people are the same.” –Wendell Berry
Wendell Berry’s latest book, A Small Porch, contains both new Sabbath poems and an eloquent essay titled The Presence of Nature in the Natural World. Mr. Berry is perhaps the most anti-American radical in the country today, speaking as he does on behalf of settling in a place, coming to know a place and living in accordance with the necessary limits of the natural world. He lives his life on a farm in direct and deeply thought-out opposition to what has driven our culture and still does: “Science + Technology + Political Will = The Solution.”
In contrast to the true American way practiced by Native Americans, who held the land as sacred and practiced the responsible use of its limited resources, our marauding American way has been the slaughtering of the buffalo for short-term gain, not to mention the wholesale slaughter and exile of the Native Americans themselves. On we continued with clear-cut logging, monoculture farming, fracking, the industrial robber barons thriving on cheap labor and wanton use of resources for their own profit. As Berry notes:
“Waste of the gifts of Nature from the beginning of industrialism has subsidized our system of corporate profits and ‘economic growth.’ Albert Howard (in his book An Agricultural Testament), judging by the unforgiving standard of natural health, described this ‘economy’ unconditionally: ‘The using up of fertility is a transfer of past capital and of future possibilities to enrich a dishonest present: it is banditry, pure and simple.’”
The natural world, of which we are inescapably a part, is built fundamentally on the cycle of life and death, the repeated circling of birth, growth, maturity, death and decay, from which new birth springs. This is also the fundamental tenet of all religions, from Christ’s resurrection to Buddha’s enlightenment to the Hindu cycle of reincarnation and beyond. Our Science + Technology + Political Will tries to oppose this inescapable Truth, seeking Eternal Life in Cryogenics or control birth with Nanotechnology or convince that everything we need or need to know is on our i-Phone or mess around with dangerous nuclear solutions to the world’s energy needs. All of which requires massive capital protected by Police States and stolen from our children’s future.
As with the land that we steward, so with our own sense of health. In my own small life, everything that I do that brings refreshment, renewal, rejuvenation, comes from dipping below the line of the surface life into a deep spring hidden in some mountain forest of consciousness.
Beginning the day with a Zen meditation to dive below the surface of the constant activity of the “monkey mind,” spending time with 3-years olds close the source of life, playing the piano digging into the inexhaustible no-boundary world of the imagination. All this helps make each moment feel closer to the mind of my 2-year old grandson Malik, the world awash with wonder and possibility. To be renewed is to see the world again with new and fresh eyes.
This is where the outer and the inner join. Our political life and our personal life and our economic life and our spiritual life will be healthy only when we organize all of it around the incontrovertible truth of co-participation in Nature’s way of growth, death and renewal. Political policies separate from our own participation in Nature’s bounty on Nature’s terms are impotent to effect lasting and meaningful change. Our own “personal growth” separate from our cultural decisions is likewise not enough. As Berry says, “Health is not the painlessness of a body part, or the comforts of parts of a society…a healthy individual in an unhealthy community in an unhealthy place is an absurdity…” The needs of the land and the people are the same.
And so on a beautiful Spring day filled with life’s promise, I’m off with the grandchildren on the Larkspur Ferry. May we and the land all be renewed.