A Continuous Harmony: Essays Cultural and Agricultural

A Continuous Harmony: Essays Cultural and Agricultural

by Wendell Berry

Paperback(2012 Edition)

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"This book is broad and leisurely and important. Something like the river itself on which Wendell Berry lives. It is full of wide and flowing thoughts and one thing leads to another in the manner that nature intended―or used to. The language ranges from the grave and beautiful to the sharp and specific, depending on the need to express the vast variety of subjects he presents."
The Nation

The title of this book is taken from an account by Thomas F. Hornbein on his travels in the Himalayas. "It seemed to me," Horenbein wrote, "that here man lived in continuous harmony with the land, as much as briefly a part of it as all its other occupants." Wendell Berry's second collection of essays, A Continuous Harmony was first published in 1972, and includes the seminal "Think Little," which was printed in The Last Whole Earth Catalogue and reprinted around the globe, and the splendid centerpiece, "Discipline and Hope," an insightful and articulate essay making a case for what he calls "a new middle."

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781619020009
Publisher: Counterpoint Press
Publication date: 05/08/2012
Edition description: 2012 Edition
Pages: 128
Sales rank: 781,937
Product dimensions: 4.90(w) x 7.90(h) x 0.60(d)

About the Author

Wendell Berry is the author of more than fifty books of poetry, fiction, and essays. He was recently awarded the National Humanities Medal, the Cleanth Brooks Medal for Lifetime Achievement by the Fellowship of Southern Writers, and the Louis Bromfield Society Award. For more than forty years he has lived and farmed with his wife, Tanya, in Kentucky.

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A Secular Pilgrimage

ONE OF THE MOST exciting and vital kinds of poetry being written now in this country is nature poetry. There is some danger of oversimplification in saying so, for you will not find many poets, if any, who are writing only about nature; those who are writing the best nature poems are also writing well on other subjects: the city, love, marriage, politics, war, history, art, and so on. But running through the work of such poets as Gary Snyder, Denise Levertov, and A. R. Ammons, there is a sustained attentiveness to nature and to the relation between man and nature.

"Nature poetry" is a clumsy term, and it presents immediate difficulties, for there is a sense in which most poetry is nature poetry; most poets, even those least interested in nature, have found in the natural world an abundant stock of symbols and metaphors. But I will use the term here to refer only to those poets who seem to me to have turned to the natural world, not as a source of imagery, but as subject and inspiration — as Marvell and Wordsworth and Thoreau (in his prose) turned to it. With those men nature was of primary interest; by seeing into its life they sensed the presence of a shaping and sustaining spirit within it. With poets such as Donne or Pope or Shelley the particulars of nature were only of secondary interest insofar as they "stood for" an abstraction that interested the poet primarily and that he had in mind before he turned to nature for an image.

The nature poets of our own time characteristically approach their subject with an openness of spirit and imagination, allowing the meaning and the movement of the poem to suggest themselves out of the facts. Their art has an implicit and essential humility, a reluctance to impose on things as they are, a willingness to relate to the world as student and servant, a wish to be included in the natural order rather than to "conquer nature," a wish to discover the natural form rather than to create new forms that would be exclusively human. To create is to involve oneself as fully, as consciously and imaginatively, as possible in the creation, to be immersed in the world. In "Some Notes on Organic Form" Denise Levertov has said: "For me, back of the idea of organic form is the concept that there is a form in all things (and in our experience) which the poet can discover and reveal." "Form," she says, "is never more than the revelation of content." And she speaks of "a religious devotion to the truth, to the splendor of the authentic...."

As I have already made clear, this poetry arises out of a state of mind that could very accurately be described as religious. I am probably giving that adjective a broader application than it usually has. My use of it might, I suppose, be defined as primitive. I would apply it, for instance, to the sense of the presence of mystery or divinity in the world, or even to the attitudes of wonder or awe or humility before the works of the creation. And I will not use the word here to refer to any of those revealed certainties that are so large a part of the lore of the various churches. A better term than religious might be worshipful, in the sense of valuing what one does not entirely understand, or aspiring beyond what may be known. There is a passage in John Stewart Collis's book The Triumph of the Tree that will serve perfectly as a definition of the state of mind I am talking about; he is speaking of primitive man:

Having become aware of objects and begun to name them, this Earliest Man became aware of something else. It is a remarkable fact that no sooner had he looked closely at the phenomena of Nature than he began to concern himself with, not the visible object in front of him which he could clearly see, but with an invisible object which he could not see at all. He looked at the trees, the rocks, the rivers, the animals, and having looked at them he at once began to talk about something in them which he had never seen and never heard of. This thing inside the objective appearance was called a god. No one forced man at this time to think about gods, there was no tradition imposing it upon him — and yet his first thoughts seem to have turned towards a Thing behind the thing, a Force behind or within the appearance. Thus worship ...

The peculiar aspiration of the contemporary nature poetry might be fairly accurately suggested by calling it a secular pilgrimage — at least that is a phrase that has begun to accompany it in my own thinking. It is secular because it takes place outside of, or without reference to, the institutions of religion, and it does not seek any institutional shrine or holy place; it is in search of the world. But it is a pilgrimage nevertheless because it is a religious quest. It does not seek the world of inert materiality that is postulated both by the heaven-oriented churches and by the exploitive industries; it seeks the world of the creation, the created world in which the Creator, the formative and quickening spirit, is still immanent and at work. This sense of immanence is given memorably in two lines of Guy Davenport's long poem, Flowers and Leaves: "... the ghost who wears our inert rock / is fanatic with metamorphosis...."

I begin, then, with the assumption that perhaps the great disaster of human history is one that happened to or within religion: that is, the conceptual division between the holy and the world, the excerpting of the Creator from the creation. Collis is worth quoting again in this connection; though perhaps it may be argued that he is wrong about the cause, I think he is correct in his description of what happened:

... whereas under polytheism the gods were intimately connected with the earth, and stimulated veneration for it, under monotheism deity was extracted from the earth. God was promoted to higher regions. He went completely out of sight. It became possible to fear God without fearing Nature — nay, to love God (whatever was meant) and to hate his creations.

If God was not in the world, then obviously the world was a thing of inferior importance, or of no importance at all. Those who were disposed to exploit it were thus free to do so. And this split in public attitudes was inevitably mirrored in the lives of individuals: A man could aspire to heaven with his mind and his heart while destroying the earth, and his fellow men, with his hands.

The human or earthly problem has always been one of behavior, or morality: How should a man live in this world? Institutional Christianity has usually tended to give a non-answer to this question: He should live for the next world. Which completely ignores the fact that the here is antecedent to the hereafter, and that, indeed, the Gospels would seem to make one's fate in the hereafter dependent on one's behavior here. Some varieties of Christianity have held that one should despise the things of this world — which made it all but mandatory that they should be neglected as well. In that way men of conscience — or men who might reasonably have been expected to be men of conscience — have been led to abandon the world, and their own posterity, to the exploiters and ruiners. So exclusively focused on the hereafter, they have been neither here nor there.

This schism in man's sense of himself was protested at the end of the eighteenth century by William Blake, who wrote (of the time when "the whole creation will be consumed and appear infinite and holy"): "But first the notion that man has a body distinct from his soul is to be expunged. ..." It was protested by Henry David Thoreau, who wrote in his journal on June 21, 1840: "The body is the first proselyte the Soul makes. Our life is but the Soul made known by its fruits, the body. The whole duty of man may be expressed in one line — Make to yourself a perfect body." And it has been protested in our own time by the Welsh clergyman R. S. Thomas, in his poem, "The Minister":

Is there no passion in Wales? There is none Except in the racked hearts of men like Morgan, Condemned to wither and starve in the cramped cell Of thought their fathers made them. Protestantism — the adroit castrator Of art; the bitter negation Of song and dance and the heart's innocent joy — You have botched our flesh and left us only the soul's Terrible impotence in a warm world.

The contempt for the world or the hatred of it, which is exemplified both by the wish to exploit it for the sake of cash and by the willingness to despise it for the sake of "salvation," has reached a terrifying climax in our own time. The rift between soul and body, the Creator and the creation, has admitted the entrance into the world of the machinery of the world's doom. We no longer feel ourselves threatened by the God-made doomsday of Revelation, or by the natural world's-end foreseen by science. We face an apocalypse of our own making — a manmade cosmic terror. The old-fashioned doomsdays of religion and nature were terrifying enough for mere humans, perhaps, but looking back from the perspective of our own time, we can see that their meanings were not entirely negative. The doomsday of God, as described in the Bible, in spite of the terror and the destruction, was at the same time to be the triumph of divinity, of virtue, of spiritual value. In the doomsday of nature, the burning out of the sun or whatever, the life of the world would presumably be survived by natural law, the cosmic forces that brought it into being in the first place, and might bring into being another of the same kind or a better. But the doomsday of man is creation in reverse. Should we accomplish the destruction we are now capable of, we will destroy not only ourselves and the world, but also whatever right we may once have had to live. Doubtless many men have come, like Job, to wish that they had never been born. But until ours, no generation ever had to face the possibility that its extinction at birth might have been a benefit to the world. Such is the drastic and fearful change we have made in our life and in our sense of ourselves. How did it happen? It could only have happened by our failure to care enough for the world, to be humble enough before it, to think competently enough of its welfare. Rather than be ruled by the thought of the world's good, which is identical with our own most meaningful good, we have set up the false standards of national interest, power, production, personal comfort or pride or greed — or the desire to get to heaven, which, if it involves neglect of the life of the world, becomes only a rarefied form of gluttony.

Do we really hate the world? Are we really contemptuous of it? Have we really ignored its nature and its needs and the problems of its health? The evidence against us is everywhere. It is in our wanton and thoughtless misuse of the land and the other natural resources, in our wholesale pollution of the water and air, in strip-mining, in our massive use and misuse of residual poisons in agriculture and elsewhere, in our willingness to destroy whole landscapes in the course of what we call "construction" and "progress," in the earth-destroying and population-destroying weapons we use in our wars, in the planet-destroying weapons now ready for use in the arsenals of the most powerful and violent nations of the world. It is in our hatred of races and nations. It is in our willingness to honor profit above everything except victory. It is in our willingness to spend more on war than on everything else. It is in our unappeasable restlessness, our nomadism, our anxiousness to get to another place or to "the top" or "somewhere" or to heaven or to the moon.

Our hatred of the world is most insidiously and dangerously present in the constantly widening discrepancy between our power and our needs, our means and our ends. This is because of machinery and what we call efficiency. In order to build a road we destroy several thousand acres of farmland forever, all in perfect optimism, without regret, believing that we have gained much and lost nothing. In order to build a dam, which like all human things will be temporary, we destroy a virgin stream forever, believing that we have conquered nature and added significantly to our stature. In order to burn cheap coal we destroy a mountain forever, believing, in the way of lovers of progress, that what is of immediate advantage to us must be a permanent benefit to the universe. Fighting in Vietnam in the interest, as we say and would have ourselves believe, of the Vietnamese people, we have destroyed their villages, their croplands, their forests, herded the people into concentration camps, and in every way diminished the possibility of life in that country; and the civilian casualties are vastly greater than the military. In order to protect ourselves against Russia or China, or whoever our enemy will be in ten years, we have prepared weapons the use of which will, we know, involve our own destruction and the destruction of the world as well. Great power has always been blinding to those who wield it. Those who follow blindly in the wake of their own power practice hypocrisy by reflex; it is their natural camouflage. And in this age of super machines and super weapons hypocrisy is not only sinful, it is probably suicidal.

A man cannot hate the world and hate his own kind without hating himself. The familiar idea that a man's governing religious obligation is to "save" himself, procure for himself an eternal life, is based on a concept of individualism that is both vicious and absurd. And this religious concept is the counterpart, and to a considerable extent the cause, of the vicious secular individualism that suggests that a man's governing obligation is to enrich himself in this world. But man cannot live alone — he cannot have values alone, religious or otherwise, any more than he can live by bread alone. Such desires can live only at the world's expense and at the expense of one's own earthly life, which one inevitably devalues in devaluing the earth. So when a man seeks to live on the earth only for the eternal perpetuation, or only for the economic enrichment, of a life that he has devalued and despised, he is involved not only in absurdity but in perversion — a perversion that has now become the deadly disease of the world.

In The Triumph of the Tree, Collis outlines a most useful and clarifying historical scheme. First, he says, there was the "Era of Mythology," when men believed that they should venerate the world because it was inhabited by spirits and gods; they were frugal and considerate in their use of the world for fear of offending the resident divinities. Next came the "Era of Economics," when the creation began to be valued in terms of cash; the sacred groves were cut down and, since the gods took no direct revenge, the trees were sawed into lumber and put up for sale. This era built into an orgy of exploitation that has now "brought us to the edge of disaster." At this point we may, if we are able to make ourselves wise enough and humble enough, enter an "Era of Ecology," when we will utilize "the science of achieving an equilibrium with the environment." We will be as protective of the natural world as our primitive forebears, but this time for reasons that are knowledgeable and conscious rather than superstitious. We will realize and live in the realization that nature is not inexhaustible and that, in fact, we have already used up more than our share of its wealth. We will realize that we do not live on the earth, but with and within its life. We will realize that the earth is not dead, like the concept of property, but as vividly and intricately alive as a man or a woman, and that there is a delicate interdependence between its life and our own. We will take for granted what our farmers have had to learn with surprise and pain and to their cost, and what most politicians and businessmen have never learned: It is not the area of a country that makes its value or its most meaningful strength, but its life, the depth and richness of its topsoil.

But Collis's vision of this last era, this future in which man may live in harmony with the world, is not merely scientific, though science will provide many of the necessary insights and methods; his vision is also religious. He accepts the contemporary decline of the organized religions, and finds hope in it:

Both polytheism and monotheism have done their work. The images are broken, the idols are all overthrown. This is now regarded as a very irreligious age. But perhaps it only means that the mind is moving from one state to another. The next stage is not a belief in many gods. It is not a belief in one god. It is not a belief at all — not a conception in the intellect. It is an extension of consciousness so that we may feel God, or, if you will, an experience of harmony, an intimation of the Divine, which will link us again with animism, the experience of unity lost at the in-break of self-consciousness. This will atone for our sin (which means separation); it will be our at-one-ment.


Excerpted from "A Continuous Harmony"
by .
Copyright © 2012 Wendell Berry.
Excerpted by permission of Counterpoint.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

A Secular Pilgrimage 1

Notes from an Absence and a Return 35

A Homage to Dr. Williams 55

The Regional Motive 61

Think Little 69

Discipline and Hope 83

In Defense of Literacy 163

Mayhem in the Industrial Paradise 169

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