Pictured is the Guanacaste tree for which the province of Guanacaste, Costa Rica was named. My beloved and I (wait, I get to call him my fiancé now!) spent the past week in this lovely part of the world. If you have the opportunity to visit, it would do you some good. The beaches are clean – not white like most tourists like their beaches – clean like people don’t go there. The sand is grayish due to the volcanic activity, so your toes in the sand selfie might make it look like you have dirty feet, but I’ll take a clean gray beach over a white one strewn with the trash and arrogance of people on vacation every time.
When I vacation I bring many books to read on the plane. Among this vacation’s choices was The World-Ending Fire, The Essential Wendell Berry, a compilation of essays by “American’s greatest philosopher on sustainable life and living,” according to John Warner of the Chicago Tribune. Paul Kingsworth is responsible for pulling all the essays together and writing the forward to the book.
This is not light reading, and Paul Kingsworth’s decision to lead with the the essay, A Native Hill, was very wise. The hook of this first essay guarantees I will read this book to the end. To put it simply, if Anne Lamott is my literary girl crush (and she is), then Wendell Berry is my literary soul mate.
It would benefit you for me to put aside anything I had to say and just type in the entire essay here. It is 37 pages long, so I will not do that. I will merely add a few quotes with my thoughts on the subject matter.
First, I will save you some time, and help you decide whether to continue reading. If you proudly see yourself in the description of the “American pioneer” below, I doubt there is anything here you would find valuable. If that is the case, you should probably find another blog to read.
To provide background, Mr. Berry is describing a day in which he went walking through the woods near his Kentucky home in 1968.
And now I find an empty beer can lying in the path. This is the track of the ubiquitous man Friday of all our woods. In my walks I never fail to discover some sign that he has preceded me. I find his empty shot gun shells, his empty cans and bottles, his sandwich wrappings. In wooded places alongside roadsides one is apt to find, as well, his over traveled bedsprings, his outcast refrigerator, and heaps of the imperishable refuse of his modern kitchen. A year ago, almost in this same place where I found this beer can, I found a possum that he had shot dead and left lying, in celebration of his manhood. He is the true American pioneer, perfectly at rest in his assumption that he is the first and the last whose inheritance and fate this place will ever be. Going forth, he may think, to sow, he only broadcasts his effects.Wendell Berry. WORLD-ENDING FIRE : The Essential Wendell Berry. Counterpoint, 2019, p. 23.
Out where I grew up, and where I own property now, there is a constant battle with the true American pioneer. He shows himself in several forms. In one incarnation, he fills up the back of his large gas consuming pickup with things he has purchased but no longer wants. He drives out through the gates of his subdivision, way out to where the stop lights are replaced by signs, finds a secluded spot and empties his truck there. Why pay for responsible disposal, when this method costs him nothing? The trash is now out of sight, out of mind. He probably heard the county is going to level the area, remove tons of valuable topsoil and trees, and put in another turnpike. The American pioneer is 100% in favor of it, even if it means he will have to find another place to dump his refuse. He never gives a thought to the members of the community who must now either choose to accept the pile of trash he has left on their collective doorsteps, or clean it up themselves.
In another version, he fancies himself a woodsman. He has a gun, a fishing pole, and a weekend free from his job. What he doesn’t have is land. So he sneaks through a secluded gate, slides in under the radar. He walks ground that does not belong to him. He kills a deer or a turkey if he’s a good shot, a farm animal if he is not. He takes the part he wants; just the antlers, or the small prized strip of meat, and leaves the rest to rot. Maybe, even worse, he leaves it all, because all he really wanted was to kill and feel superior.
This American pioneer believes he has a right to whatever it is he wants. Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, don’t you know? In his arrogance, he shrugs his shoulders at the needs of the land and the rights of the people who care about it. He only drives this path to dump his trash. He only comes around here under cover of night to sneak in and kill, hidden behind hills and stands of trees. Does his nocturnal arrival prove he knows he is wrong in his trespasses, or only that he is aware the residents won’t like it?
The essay continues:
We have lived by the assumption that what was good for us would be good for the world. And this is based on the even flimsier assumption that we could know with any certainty was was good even for us. We have fulfilled the danger of this by making our personal pride and greed the standard of our behavior toward the world – to the incalculable disadvantage of the world and every living thing in it. And now, perhaps very close to too late, our great error has become clear. It is not only our own creativity – our own capacity for life – that is stifled by our arrogant assumptions; the Creation itself is stifled.Autor: Wendell Berry. WORLD-ENDING FIRE : The Essential Wendell Berry. Counterpoint, 2019, p. 24
Of course Berry was speaking primarily of the environment, but there are of course other applications. We can expand this philosophy to the recent arrogant actions of a specific world leader. Mr. Putin believes as fully in his right to bring his brand of destruction to Ukraine as does the American pioneer. They are no different. Greed is greed. Destruction is destruction. Whether death of the land or death of humanity, death is death.
We have been wrong. We must change our lives so that it will be possible to live by the contrary assumption that what is good for the world will be good for us. And that requires that we make the effort to know the world and to learn what is good for it. We must learn to cooperate in its processes, and to yield to its limits. But even more important, we must learn to acknowledge that the creation is full of mystery; we will never entirely understand it. We must abandon arrogance and stand in awe.Autor: Wendell Berry. WORLD-ENDING FIRE : The Essential Wendell Berry. Counterpoint, 2019, p. 24.
When I travel, whether it be here in the U.S., or abroad, I am fully engaged in keeping my impact at a minimum for those places in which I am merely a guest. But also, I’m interested in how the residents themselves maintain their little part of the world; some are better than others. It is obvious that some of the worst environmental conditions are attributable to ignorance, poverty, lack of infrastructure and municipal funding. However, here and abroad, the American pioneer carries much of the responsibility.