Saturday, January 2, 2010

It's hardship is its possibility .

Take a walk with me.  Take a walk with me into a future place.  Sit here and drink in this vision of a world created with our own hands, not with pixie dust or fairy tales, but the old-fashioned way: plain old hard work.

Work has been maligned for far too long.  Everything in our lives today is designed to make life easier, correspondingly, our minds and bellies have become soft and lazy. There is a sharpness to both body and mind when engaged in work--real work, not the mind-numbing motions through which most of us go in the course of our daily employ.  When we really set our minds to something or push our bodies to perform, how engaged are we in what we are doing with the entirety of our being focused on the task at hand?

When when we fall into the trap of craving ease and coddling ourselves with comfy recliner chairs and big screen TVs hawking intellectual vacuity and material excess, we turn inward in a way that does not facilitate introspection, but rather narcissism.  It's all about me me me me me me me! That is no way to create or sustain a community.  People wax nostalgic about bucolic small town life where people know their neighbors, take care of their homes, and have real community, but act as though such a way of existence is no longer possible.

I live in the middle of the city and I know my neighbors. I live in a community of people who are kind and generous, who open their homes to newcomers, break bread and raise a glass.  People who work on their homes, plant flowers, and grow vegetables to sustain their families and share with neighbors.

Do you know how you get that? Work. Selflessness. You know how it starts? With you. With one person saying hello. One person smiling and dropping a note or some cookies for the new family. One person to collect e-mail addresses, put up a website, start a neighborhood association, organize a block party. One person to shovel a sidewalk that isn't theirs, offer a hand, share--time, resources, recipes.

If what we want are real and meaningful relationships with the people around us, if what we want are communities, neighborhoods, cities, and a nation served by honest people making good decisions, not just for us now, but that serve both us presently and future generations by making sustainable financial decisions, building infrastructure to meet the needs of the community over time and maintaining it so as to avoid future catastrophe, both physical and financial, then we must become willing to take a risk and believe that our good is also another's good and that her good is also ours. We must base our deliberations not on what is good and easy for me, but what is good and right for the community as a whole for the long-term. We must take responsibility for the problems we face, whether or not we created them.  We must take responsibility for educating ourselves and we must invest time, money, and energy in making things right.

So many people act as though these idyllic communities only existed in the distant past, and only because back then people clearly just had superior moral character and life was simpler and add your own excuse here... Mind you, such places probably never existed as they do in the reverie of modern nostalgists, but to the extent that they did, it was not on account of people back then just being so gosh darn better than us.  It is possible to make such a place.  If you want one, turn off your TV, open your blinds, roll up your sleeves, and get to work.

It won't be easy, but it just might be the most rewarding thing you do in your life.

A Vision (Wendell Berry)

If we will have the wisdom to survive,
to stand like slow-growing trees
on a ruined place, renewing, enriching it,
if we will make our seasons welcome here,
asking not too much of earth or heaven,
then a long time after we are dead
the lives our lives prepare will live
there, their houses strongly placed
upon the valley sides, fields and gardens
rich in the windows. The river will run
clear, as we will never know it,
and over it, birdsong like a canopy.
On the levels of the hills will be
green meadows, stock bells in noon shade.
On the steeps where greed and ignorance cut down
the old forest, an old forest will stand,
its rich leaf-fall drifting on its roots.
The veins of forgotten springs will have opened.
Families will be singing in the fields.
In their voices they will hear a music
risen out of the ground. They will take
nothing from the ground they will not return,
whatever the grief at parting. Memory,
native to this valley, will spread over it
like a grove, and memory will grow
into legend, legend into song, song
into sacrament. The abundance of this place,
the songs of its people and its birds,
will be health and wisdom and indwelling
light. This is no paradisal dream.
Its hardship is its possibility.

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Why is this place called Rough Branch?

Rough Branch is a reference to Wendell Berry's "mad farmer" poems. Berry is an agrarian populist poet, and advocate for sustainable agricultural practices. I don't agree with every position he takes, but his reverence for the beauty and balance of the natural world, for the preciousness of the life that runs through it (including our own), and of the community that sustains both the land and each other, speaks to my heart.

Over the past few years, I have sunk myself into the soil in my back yard, and into the community of neighbors that surrounds it, and it has begun to restore me. My garden is not just a plot of dirt providing vegetables for the salad bowl, it is an act of love, a place of profundity and awe. If you knew about the ecosystem that lives in but one gram of good earth, you would be humbled, literally, to the ground.

Berry's poems are passionate calls to live--deeply, profoundly, fearlessly. To step out of narrow-minded egotism, to secede "[f]rom the union of self-gratification and self-annihilation, [to] secede into care for one another, and for the good gifts of Heaven and Earth."

And so I have made my own nation small enough to walk across. I have named the small corner of the earth I steward Rough Branch. I have declared myself free of ignorant love, and I secede...

From the union of power and money,
from the union of power and secrecy,
from the union of government and art,
from the union of science and money,
from the union of ambition and ignorance,
from the union of genius and war,
from the union of outer space and inner vacuity,
the Mad Farmer walks quietly away.

There is only one of him, but he goes.
He returns to the small country he calls home,
his own nation small enough to walk across.
(From "The Mad Farmer, Flying the Flag of Rough Branch, Secedes from the Union")
The Mad Farmer challenges us to reconnect, to resurrect our land, our communities, and our souls.
So, friends, every day do something
that won't compute. Love the Lord.
Love the world. Work for nothing.
Take all that you have and be poor.
Love someone who does not deserve it.

Denounce the government and embrace
the flag. Hope to live in that free
republic for which it stands.
Give your approval to all you cannot
understand. Praise ignorance, for what man
has not encountered he has not destroyed.

Ask the questions that have no answers.
Invest in the millennium. Plant sequoias.
Say that your main crop is the forest
that you did not plant,
that you will not live to harvest.

Say that the leaves are harvested
when they have rotted into the mold.
Call that profit. Prophesy such returns.
Put your faith in the two inches of humus
that will build under the trees
every thousand years.

Listen to carrion -- put your ear
close, and hear the faint chattering
of the songs that are to come.
Expect the end of the world. Laugh.
Laughter is immeasurable. Be joyful
though you have considered all the facts.
(From "Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front")
All quotes from Wendell Berry.