The obligation of care: “saving the planet” means sticking with a place – and each other – Saving the Wild Planet

The obligation of care: “saving the planet” means sticking with a place – and each other – Saving the Wild Planet – Cover Story

Wendell Berry

IT HAS BECOME TOO EASY TO SUPPOSE THAT AMERICAN HISTORY HAS been entirely determined by the experience of the frontier, and moreover that our frontier experience was determined entirely by arrogance, violence, and greed. But the history of the frontier is more complex than that. When history has been reduced to cliche, we need to return to the study of history.

We have had no better student of the history of the westward movement than Wallace Stegner, who was born into the frontier’s failed and still failing dream of easy wealth and easy escape–the dream of the people he called “boomers.” He recognized the powerful influence of this dream in his father, who “wanted to make a killing and end up on Easy Street,” but who was driven, first by hope and then by failure, from one money-making scheme to another, and finally to ruin. This mental condition of American boomers Stegner described as “exaggerated, uninformed, unrealistic, greedy expectation.” In his own early experience, this expectation led to the plowing of the prairie in southwestern Saskatchewan–prairie that was “totally unsuited to be plowed up.” The same expectation led to the settlement of the American West on the basis not of sound local knowledge but of presumption and pipe dream.

Of his novel The Big Rock Candy Mountain, Stegner wrote, “I had been trying to paint a portrait of my father”–not realizing until later that “my father was also a type.” But even in that early novel, there is evidence that he already recognized the type as such and accurately understood its bias:

“Why remain in one dull plot of earth when Heaven was reachable, was touchable, was just over there? The whole race was like the fir tree in the fairy tale which wanted to be cut down and dressed up with lights and bangles and colored paper, and see the world and be a Christmas tree.”

In his later books, Stegner gives much attention and no little grief to the results, human and natural, of the “feeding frenzy” that inevitably accompanied the entrance of an uninformed and limitless greed into a land that was both abundant and fragile. But unlike many recent commentators on our history, he also knew that, as a people, we were not conditioned entirely by the inordinate desires and acts of the boomers. There was, virtually from the beginning, a counter-theme, the theme of settlement. Stegner was born into this theme also; he knew it in his mother, of whom he wrote in The Big Rock Candy Mountain: “She wanted to be part of something, an essential atom in a street, a town, a state; she would have loved to get herself expressed in all the pleasant, secure details of a deeply lived-in house.”

Later, I think, he realized that his mother in this sense was also a type. Not all who came to American places came to plunder and run. Some came to stay, or came with the hope of staying. These Stegner called “stickers” or “nesters.” They were moved by an articulate hope, already ancient by the time of Columbus, of a settled, independent, frugal life on a small freehold. We can find this hope in Hesiod, in the fourth of Virgil’s Georgics, in the 128th Psalm. This was the vision that we finally came to call “Jeffersonian”–a free nation of authentically and securely landed people. Stegner knew that this vision, though it may have been a secondary influence on our history, was nevertheless a considerable one. He knew that it could not be left out of account. His preference for settlement, I think, explains his sustained and respectful interest in the Mormons. Of himself he said, “I was at heart a nester, like my mother.”

Thus it is possible–and probably necessary–to think of Wallace Stegner’s work as taking form within the tensions between these historical opposites: boomer and sticker, exploitation and settlement, caring and not caring, life adapted to available technology and personal desire and life adapted to a known place. But to lay out these pairs of opposites is not simply to define a moral choice, though it certainly is to do that; it is also to define a historical and cultural split that characterizes us as Americans. And by “us” I mean all of us. I don’t think this characterization can be successfully limited to any group–political, racial, sexual, or otherwise. All of us, I think, are in some manner torn between caring and not caring, staying and going.

Wallace Stegner obviously made the correct moral choice–that is, he chose to be like his mother and not like his father–but not in the sense that he ever finished making it. Having chosen one way, we are never free of the opposite way. A good deal of the power in Stegner’s work, for example, comes from his thorough understanding of his father, an understanding that involved sympathy–the recognition of himself in his father and of his father in himself. Such choices are not clean-cut and final, as when we choose one of two forks in a road, but they involve us in tension, in tendency. We must keep on choosing.

If enough of us were to choose caring over not caring, staying over going, then the culture would change, exploitation would become subordinate to settlement, and then the choice to be a sticker would become easier. The necessary examples would be more numerous and more available. The way would be clearer.

As we know, we are under increasing pressure to choose caring over not caring. We know that caring will involve us in great effort and discomfort, and we dread to choose it, but we know too that the toils and miseries of not caring are becoming greater by the day. Someday, presumably, it will become easier and less miserable to care than not to care–if by then we still remember how to care, and if the choice is still possible.

Many of us, in fact, already have a conscious preference for caring. Some of us, perhaps, have been stickers all along: maybe we were born into the underclass of settlers. Anyhow, we have taken the side of care. We know that we need to live in a world that is cared for. The ubiquitous cliches about saving the planet and walking lightly on the earth testify to this. But I believe that all of us who prefer caring over not caring are going to have to study very closely the implications of our preference. For we not only need to think beyond our own cliches; we also need to make sure that we don’t carry over into our efforts at conservation and preservation the moral assumptions and habits of thought of the culture of exploitation. So far, it seems to me, we have done just that: we have incorporated in our efforts to preserve the natural health and wealth of the world a number of the assumptions that have made such an effort necessary.

The most persistent and the most dangerous of these is the assumption that some parts of the world can be preserved while others are abused or destroyed. As necessary as it obviously is, the effort of “wilderness preservation” has too often implied that it is enough to save a series of islands of pristine and uninhabited wilderness in an otherwise exploited, damaged, and polluted land. And, further, that the pristine wilderness is the only alternative to exploitation and abuse. So far, the moral landscape of the conservation movement has tended to be a landscape of extremes, which you can see pictured in any number of expensive books of what I suppose must be called “conservation photography.” On the one hand we have the unspoiled wilderness, and on the other hand we have scenes of utter devastation–strip mines, clearcuts, industrially polluted wastelands, and so on. We wish, say the conservationists, to have more of the one, and less of the other. To which, of course, one must say amen. But it must be a qualified amen, for the conservationists’ program has been embarrassingly incomplete. Its picture of the world as either deserted landscape or desertified landscape has misrepresented both the world and humanity. If we are to have an accurate picture of the world, even in its present diseased condition, we must interpose between the unused landscape and the misused landscape a landscape that humans have used well.

That there have been and are well-used landscapes we know, and to leave these landscapes out of account is to leave out humanity at its best. It is certainly necessary to keep in mind the images of the human being as parasite and wrecker–what e. e. cummings called “this busy monster manunkind”–for it is dangerous not to know this possibility in ourselves. And certainly we must preserve some places unchanged; there should be places, and time too, in which we do nothing. But we must also include ourselves as makers, as economic creatures with livings to make, who have the ability, if we will use it, to work in ways that are stewardly and kind toward all that we must use. That is, we must include ourselves as human beings in the fullest sense of the term, understanding ourselves in the fullness of our cultural inheritance and our legitimate hopes.

We must include ourselves because whether we choose to do so or not, we are included. We who are now alive are living in this world; we are not dead, nor do we have another world to live in. There are, then, two laws that we had better take to be absolute.

The first is that as we cannot exempt ourselves from living in this world, then if we wish to live, we cannot exempt ourselves from using the world. Even the most scrupulous vegetarians must use the world–that is, they must kill creatures, substitute one species for another, and eat food that otherwise would be eaten by other creatures. And so by the standard of absolute harmlessness, the two available parties are not meat eaters and vegetarians but rather eaters and non-eaters. Us eaters have got ’em greatly outnumbered.

If we cannot exempt ourselves from use, then we must deal with the issues raised by use. And so the second law is that if we want to continue living, we cannot exempt use from care.

A third law (perhaps not absolute, but virtually so) is that, if we want to use the world with care, we cannot exempt ourselves from our cultural inheritance, our tradition. This is a delicate subject at present because our cultural tradition happens to be Western, and there is now a fashion of disfavor toward the Western tradition. But most of us are in the Western tradition somewhat as we are in the world: we are in it because we were born in it. We can’t get out of it because it made us what we are; we are, to some extent, what it is. And perhaps we would not like to get out of it if that meant giving up, as we would have to do, our language and its literature, our hereditary belief that all people matter individually, our heritage of democracy, liberty, civic responsibility, stewardship, and so on. This tradition obviously involves errors and mistakes, damages and tragedies. But that only means that the tradition too must be used with care. It is properly subject to critical intelligence and is just as properly subject to helps and influences from other traditions. But criticize and qualify it as we may, we cannot get along without it, for we have no other way to learn care; and in fact care is a subject about which our tradition has much to teach.

And so I am proposing that in order to preserve the health of nature, we must preserve ourselves as human beings–as creatures who possess humanity not just as a collection of physical attributes but also as the cultural imperative to be caretakers, good neighbors to one another and to the other creatures.

Whether we consider it from a religious point of view or from the point of view of our merely practical wish to continue to live, our presence in this varied and fertile world is our perpetual crisis. It forces upon us constantly a virtual curriculum of urgent questions: can we adapt our work and our pleasure to our places so as to live in them without destroying them? That is, can we make adequately practical and pleasing local cultures? Are we Americans capable of an authentic (which is to say a land-based) multiculturalism? Can we limit our work and economies to a scale appropriate to our places, to our place in the order of things, and to our intelligence? Can we understand ourselves as creatures of limited and modest intelligence? Can we control ourselves? Can we get beyond the assumption that it is possible to live inhumanely and yet “save the planet” by a series of last-minute preservations of things perceived to be endangered and, only because endangered, precious?

When we include ourselves as parts or belongings of the world we are trying to preserve, then obviously we can no longer think of the world as “the environment”–something out there around us. We can see that our relation to the world surpasses mere connection and verges on identity. And we can see that our right to live in this world whose parts we are is a right that is strictly conditioned. We come face to face with the law I mentioned a while ago: If we want to become “stickers,” even if we merely want to live, we cannot exempt use from care. There is simply nothing in Creation that does not matter. Our tradition instructs us that this is so, and it is proved to be so, every day, by our experience. We cannot be improved–in fact, we cannot help but be damaged–by useless or greedy or merely ignorant destruction of anything.

Once we have understood that we cannot exempt from our care anything at all that we have the power to damage–which now means everything in the world–then we face yet another startling realization: we have reclaimed and revalidated the ground of our moral and religious tradition. We now can see that what we have traditionally called “sins” are wrong not because they are forbidden but because they divide us from our neighbors, from the world, and ultimately from God. They deny care and are dangerous to creatures.

As an example, I would offer Philip Sherrard’s definition of avarice in his invaluable book, Human Image: World Image. Avarice, he says, “is a disposition of our soul which refuses to acknowledge and share in the destiny common to all things and which desires to possess and use all things for itself…. Throught this seeming act of self-aggrandizement we actually debase the whole of our being as well as that of everything with which we come into contact.” Avarice, then, is a sin for very practical reasons: it makes division within unity, disorder within order, and discord within harmony. This is exactly Ezra Pound’s understanding of the related sin of vanity–and notice here again the appeal is to harmony with the natural or created order:

Pull down thy vanity, it is not man

Made courage, or made order, or made grace,

Pull down thy vanity, I say pull down.

Learn of the green world what can be thy place

In scaled invention or true artistry …

Pound was not always sane, but in those lines he is sane as few modern people have been.

What we have traditionally called “virtues,” on the other hand, are good not because they have been highly recommended but because they are necessary; they make for unity and harmony. Faith, to speak only of the highest of the traditional virtues, is our life’s instinctive leap toward its origin, the motion by which we acknowledge the order and harmony to which we belong. To deny that this is so is not to destroy faith but only to reduce and misdirect it, for faith of some kind is apparently necessary also in the sense that we cannot escape it; we have to have some version of it. Our instinct for faith is like a well-bred border collie, who lacking cattle or sheep will herd children or chickens or cats. If we don’t direct our faith toward God or into some authentic “way” of the soul, then we direct it toward progress or science or weaponry or education or nature or human nature or doctors or gurus or genetic engineers or computers or NASA. And as we reduce the objects of our faith and so reduce our faith, we inevitably reduce ourselves. As creatures of faith, we must choose whether to be religious or to be superstitious, to believe in things that cannot be proved or to believe in things that can be disproved. The present age is an age of superstition, and some of our shallowest superstitions have the authorization of our hardest-headed rationalists and realists. The modern ambition to control nature, for instance, is an ambition based foursquare on a superstition: the idea that what we take nature to be is what nature is, or that nature is that to which it can be reduced. If nature is to be controlled, then it has to be reduced to that which is theoretically controllable. It must be understood as a machine or as the sum of its known, separable, and decipherable parts.

Care, on the contrary, rests upon genuine religion. Care allows creatures to escape our explanations into their actual presence and their essential mystery. In taking care of fellow creatures, we acknowledge that they are not ours; we acknowledge that they belong to an order and a harmony of which we ourselves are parts. To answer the perpetual crisis of our presence in this abounding and dangerous world, we have only the perpetual obligation of care.

The idea that we cannot exempt anything from care is of course difficult, because it is difficult to care for all things. As creatures of modest intelligence, we ought perhaps to fear that it is impossible. And yet it is this very difficulty that is the key to our place and role as human beings. To be fully human, we must accept the likelihood that several or even many things may at the same time be of ultimate importance. That should at least save us from the folly of trying to solve “environmental” problems one at a time. It should inform us that we are dealing with the issue of health in its largest and also its most literal sense: creaturely orders and communities that are whole. And so we see that we must be whole ourselves, for the good solutions must come from our wholeness, our affection and reverence, not from our sense of duty, much less from desperation.

We have tried on a large scale the experiment of preferring ourselves to the exclusion of all other creatures, with results that are manifestly disastrous. And now, conscious of those results, we are tempted to correct them by denigrating ourselves, by wishing somehow to efface ourselves. But that is only the opposite kind of self-indulgence, utterly worthless as an answer to any problem. Misanthropy is not the remedy for “anthropocentrism.” Finally we must see that we cannot be made kind toward our fellow creatures except by the same qualities that make us kind toward our fellow humans.

The problem obviously is that we are not well practiced in kindness toward our fellow humans. In the course of our unprecedented inhumanity toward other creatures and the world, we have become unprecedentedly inhumane toward humans–and especially, I think, toward human children.

I know of nothing that so strongly calls into question our ability to care for the world as our present abuses of our own reproductivity. How can we take care of the other creatures, all born like ourselves from the world’s miraculous fecundity, if we have forsaken the qualities of culture and character that inform the nurture of children?

Maybe it is because our society is so dominated by the economic ideal of productivity that we have no time for people who are not highly productive. Or maybe it is because of our rather frivolous idea of personal freedom that we shrug off the claims of those most in need and most deserving of our care. Or maybe it is the fault of an economy that now requires both parents of many families to work away from home. Or maybe it is the increasing commercialization of family relationships, according to which nobody, not even a husband or a wife, should do anything for anybody else that is not compensated by a price agreed upon in advance.

Whatever the reason, it is a fact that we are now conducting a sort of general warfare against children, who are being abandoned, abused, aborted, drugged, bombed, neglected, poorly raised, poorly fed, poorly taught, and poorly disciplined. Many of them will not only find no worthy work, but no work of any kind. All of them will inherit a diminished, diseased, and poisoned world. We will visit upon them not only our sins but also our debts. We have set before them thousands of examples–governmental, industrial, and recreational–suggesting that the violent way is the best way. And we have the hypocrisy to be surprised and troubled when they carry guns and use them.

There are of course many parents who care properly for their children, and traditions of good upbringing still survive. But, like the local traditions of good land-use, these traditions of family life have become subordinate. As a lot of parents have found out, it is not easy to bring up your children in a way that is significantly different from the way your neighbors are bringing up their children.

A child psychologist told me not long ago that he frequently sees four-year-olds who, when asked, “Who loves you?” reply, “I don’t know.” If we have even a suspicion that we must not exempt anything from care, how can we bear this? And yet this neglect is hedged around on every side by talk of rights and freedoms and careers and professions.

Abortion, for instance, which might be defensible as a tragic choice acceptable in the most straitened circumstances, is defended as a “right” derived from “the right of a woman to control her own body.” The right of any person to control her or his own body, subject to the usual qualifications, is incontestable–or, at any rate, it is not going to be contested by me. But the usual qualifications hold that if you can control your own body only by destroying another person’s body, then control has come too late. Self-mastery is the appropriate way to control one’s own body, not surgery.

I am well aware of the argument that a fetus is not a child until it can live outside the womb, but I am aware also that every creature is surrounded by such questions of dependency and viability all its life. If we are unworthy to live as long as we are dependent on life-supporting conditions, then none of us has any rights. And I would not try to convince any farmer or gardener that the planted seed newly sprouted is not a crop.

Let us suppose, on the contrary (as we once did suppose, as some of us still do), that it is the right of every child, from conception, to have the care of both parents–would that not go far toward growing us up out of our present sexual childishness and delusion?

As we humans come of age and enter into sexuality, we surely confront yet another law that we had better understand as absolute: sex and fertility are joined. We have spent a lot of effort and money to disjoin them, and have generated a lot of giddy propaganda about our supposed success–but we have also a lot of evidence to prove our failure, and I mean the number of childhood pregnancies, single parents, abortions, abandoned babies, babies kept but unwanted, children raised by public institutions and TV.

How is it that we come to these issues of sexuality in worrying about the conservation of nature? Well, for a reason that ought to be obvious: if sex and fertility are joined, then sex and the world are joined. Sex is a part of the world’s wilderness; it is a part of our wildness. To say that we must be careful of it is not to say that we must make it tame, but rather that we must not damage it or ourselves by ignorance or foolishness. The world’s wilderness, wherever we meet it, requires us, at a minimum, to grow up, to rid ourselves of false assumptions about who and where we are.

It is wrong to assume that sex carries us into a personal privacy that separates us from everything else. On the contrary, sex joins us to the world. If it doesn’t carry us into love for what it joins us to, then it carries us into disrespect, damage, and loneliness. Thinking of the human family’s “ecstatic moment, the sexual choice of man and woman,” and of the perils of that moment, William Butler Yeats wrote that “the great sculptors, painters, and poets are there that instinct may find its lamp.”

The lamp that human culture holds up for the guidance of human instinct is something that we too must think about. For our connection to nature is never theoretical. We work it out daily in the most insistently practical ways. In dealing with our own fertility and its consequences, we are not just carrying on personal or private “relationships.” We are establishing one of the fundamental terms of our humanity and our connection to the world.

For clarification, we can turn once again to those opposed historical themes (and psychologies) of boomer and sticker. Boomers, as Wallace Stegner understood them, are people who expect or demand that the world conform to their desires. They either succeed and thus damage the world, or they fail and thus damage their families and themselves.

In The New Yorker, Daphne Merkin described as follows “the postmodern view of connubial love”:

“To live with a man or a woman on an ongoing, intimate basis is to grow jaded, weary of the imaginative possibilities; at some point our husbands and wives fail to live up to a long-ago sensed potential. They become to us who they have become to themselves, and it is hard to envision them as promising more than they currently yield.” Ms. Merkin’s description conforms exactly to the understanding of boomer desire that we find in The Big Rock Candy Mountain. There is nothing new or “postmodern” in Ms. Merkin’s sentences, which describe, in fact, the psychology of the Spanish gold seekers of the 16th century and all their countless followers until now. The boomer’s mind operates outside all restraints of culture and principle. Just as tragically, it operates outside history; it does not remember experience. It deals with all of its subjects on the basis of the crudest economic metaphor: any person, place, or thing is understood as a mine having a limited “yield”; when the yield falls below expectation, it is time to move on. It is easy to see that this mind must be equally destructive of nature and of humanity–hard on landscapes and on spouses, hard on children and other small creatures.

We have, in fact, no right to ask the world to conform to our desires. Sooner or later, if we hope to grow up, we have to confront the opposite imperative: that our rights and the realization of our desires are limited by human nature, by human community, and by the nature of the places in which we live. If we can accept our world’s real limits and the responsibilities that protect our authentic rights, if we can unite affection and fidelity, if we can keep instinct and light together, then (as our tradition teaches) we may legitimately hope to transcend our limits, so that our life may grow in generosity, love, grace, and beauty without end.

COPYRIGHT 1995 Sierra Magazine

COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group