land abuse cannot brighten the human prospect

Imbolc                                                       Hare Moon

The moist air, the rising warmth gave the house a summertime feel last night.  Our seed zigguratsaver’s order for seeds came in the mail yesterday and I just got an e-mail from Luke Lemmer of Highbrix gardens about nitrogen for the 2014 garden.  I also found this Wendell Berry essay, It All Turns on Affection, a couple of days ago.  This is the Jefferson lecture for the National Endowment for the Humanities.

(ziggurat of ur)

That’s background for my thoughts which turned toward the city, spurred by Berry:

“Though the corporations, by law, are counted as persons, they do not have personal minds, if they can be said to have minds. It is a great oddity that a corporation, which properly speaking has no self, is by definition selfish, responsible only to itself. This is an impersonal, abstract selfishness, limitlessly acquisitive, but unable to look so far imagesahead as to preserve its own sources and supplies. The selfishness of the fossil fuel industries by nature is self-annihilating; but so, always, has been the selfishness of the agribusiness corporations. Land, as Wes Jackson has said, has thus been made as exhaustible as oil or coal.” op.cit.

In this thought the farms lay on level ground and as one moved from country village to town to exurb to outer ring suburb and inner ring suburb to the city itself, the ground would rise, like steps cut into the earth.  This would leave the city figuratively on a flat plateau lifted high above the farms far out in the distance and reachable only by climbing the steps upward.  It was this image that struck me because as I considered it, the word ziggurat came to mind.

The tower of Babel was a ziggurat, an artificial mountain created to take humans closer to the gods.  It was a place where the priest could intercede with the gods from a spot between heaven and earth.

All those millennia and still we climb up the ziggurat, separate ourselves from the land 330px-Pieter_Bruegel_the_Elder_-_The_Tower_of_Babel_(Vienna)_-_Google_Art_Project_-_editedand pray to the gods of technology and economics to save us.  Babel has become a long-standing meme for hubris.  Why?  Well, in part because the tower lifts humans up, gives them a transcendent feeling high above the earth.  In that separation, that isolation, and, yes, I would say, alienation from mother earth the essential bond between creature and nurturer grows intolerably thin.

(Pieter Bruegel the Elder, The Tower of Babel)

Again, Berry:

“Corporate industrialism has tended to be, and as its technological and financial power has grown it has tended increasingly to be, indifferent to its sources in what Aldo aldo leopoldLeopold called “the land-community”: the land, all its features and “resources,” and all its members, human and nonhuman, including of course the humans who do, for better or worse, the work of land use.3  Industrialists and industrial economists have assumed, with permission from the rest of us, that land and people can be divorced without harm.”  op. cit.

Here’s the clincher in Berry’s lecture:  ”There is in fact no distinction between the fate of the land and the fate of the people. When one is abused, the other suffers.” op. cit.

I love cities.  I love almost everything about them.  The jangle of people, the compressing of ideas one right after the other, the neon lights, the colleges and universities, the neighborhoods, the politics, the music.  All of it.

And yet.  Up on that plateau, on top the artificial mountain, the land seems so far away.I-and-the-Village-by-font-b-Marc-b-font-font-b-Chagall-b-font-abstract  It’s as if the food appears by magic, not grown, but made in the trucks themselves or in the boxcars, showing up when we need it.  It is not so.

Berry makes what I think is an unintentionally theological argument:  ”When we give affection to things that are destructive, we are wrong.”  This is the same argument that H. Richard Niebuhr makes in his essay, “Radical Monotheism and Western Culture.”  He critiques our devotion to centers of value:  money, job, ambition, nation, sports team, even family and self.   It is Niebhur’s contention that the only center of value to which we can turn with complete devotion and not distort our own lives is the God of the Judaeo-Christian tradition.

(I and the Village, Marc Chagall)

While I don’t agree with his identification of God as the solution, I do agree with Niebuhr’s diagnosis of the problem, which, like Berry’s, turns on our misplaced affections.  The question for both Berry and Niebuhr is:  ”To what can we offer ourselves that will not destroy us?”

There are, I think, two answers, wedded in the intimacy of their bond: each other and the Earth. We need each other and we need the Earth.  The other, both the thou of Buber and the less exalted you we know less well, must eat, as must I.  The link between our day-to-day survival (yes, we should underline survival for that is what it is at stake) and the others is what?  Yes, the Earth.

That this is not obvious to all, especially not obvious to policy makers who, like most of the powerful of the Earth, gather in cities, is a function I think not of malignity, or intentional disregard, but of the splendid isolation that comes from living high up on the ziggurat and under the mistake assumption that there they are closer to the gods.  No, what they are is further from the Earth.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

*

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>