Author Quotes: Wendell Berry and Our Violent Heritage


“When I lived in other places I looked on their evils with the curious eye of a traveler; I was not responsible for them; it cost me nothing to be a critic, for I had not been there long, and I did not feel that I would stay. But here, now that I am both native and citizen, there is no immunity to what is wrong. It is impossible to escape the sense that I am involved in history. What I am has been to a considerable extent determined by what my forebears were, by how they chose to treat this place while they lived in it; the lives of most of them diminished it, and limited its possibilities, and narrowed its future. And every day I am confronted by the question of what inheritance I will leave. What do I have that I am using up? For it has been our history that each generation in this place has been less welcomed to it than the last. There has been less here for them. At each arrival there has been less fertility in the soil, and a larger inheritance of destructive precedent and shameful history.

I am forever being crept up on and newly startled by the revelation that my people established themselves here by killing or driving out the original possessors, by the awareness that people were once bought and sold here by my people, by the sense of violence they have done to their own kind and to each other and to the earth, by their persistent failure to serve either the place or their own community in it. I am forced, against all my hopes and inclinations, to regard the history of my people here as the progress of the doom of what I value most in the world: the life and health of the earth, the peacefulness of human communities and households.

And so here, in the place I love more than any other and where I have chosen among all other places to live my life, I am more painfully divided within myself than I could be in any other place.”

– Wendell Berry, Excerpt from the essay “A Native Hill”
_______

I rediscovered this essay a few days ago and it was a welcome comfort to read the same sentiments I have been wrestling with spoken of with the characteristically gentle articulation that Wendell Berry brings to all his writings.

I am a great lover of nature and physical spaces. While I have long been considering the tragedies we commit against nature agriculturally and ecologically, I have been realizing in a shocking new way that every physical place is stained with the blood of the innocent. Perhaps “realizing” isn’t the correct word. I’ve known it long, but it is beginning to violently discourage me.

My heart has been heavy with the immensity of human suffering in every corner of this beautiful planet. Not just human suffering, but oppression at the hands of other men. Human history is a series of violent oppressions, revolutions, exterminations, and slaveries. Men fight each other as tribes until they are stolen away to become generations of slaves in a foreign land, a land itself obtained by the routing and eradication of the native children by those who arrived there themselves under force of oppression. It’s almost too much to bear, and at this point the gravity of it makes me despair regardless of the beauty of the greatest landscapes.

Berry goes on to sight further historic references and propose that it is our disconnection from identifying with a multi-generational history and a detachment to our physical land that leads us to consume without question and thus builds over generations a willingness toward violence.

I can see the correlation.

Read A Native Hill here.

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4 comments

  1. I echo your thoughts regarding the state of the world. I am guessing you don’t use the word ‘despair’ lightly, but it is the word that best describes what I feel about our ability to make the changes necessary to repair the damage we have done to the planet and to create a just, equitable society. The tide is strong and when it turns I’m not sure there will be ground high enough…or certainly not enough of it to go around.
    I am also struck by the timelessness of Berry’s essay…as I was reading it I did not realize it was written in 1969. In part the subject matter is itself timeless, but I think it speaks to the genius of the man.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I agree wholeheartedly with your concerns and thoughts, it seems that even if we were to create a perfect society and teach our children the same values, the whole thing would still be bound to destruction in a generation or two. A lifetime devoted to good can’t stem the tide, but I still believe that it’s worth the effort. Even though there is no hope of it creating a lasting change, it does count for as much as a life can count for.

      Also, yes, everything Wendell Berry writes is shockingly timeless, which also points to his level-headed, history and land-aware life. When you devote a lifetime to living slowly and intentionally for good, what you have to say generally blesses everyone and remains eternally relevant.

      Like

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