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The Nature of Generosity

The Nature of Generosity

2.0 1
by William Kittredge

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Hailed as one of our finest writers about the American West, William Kittredge now brings all his experience and intelligence to bear on the wider, and wilder, West of our civilization. In certain respects, The Nature of Generosity continues the story of Hole in the Sky, the acclaimed memoir of Kittredge's early life on his family's vast ranch in Oregon;


Hailed as one of our finest writers about the American West, William Kittredge now brings all his experience and intelligence to bear on the wider, and wilder, West of our civilization. In certain respects, The Nature of Generosity continues the story of Hole in the Sky, the acclaimed memoir of Kittredge's early life on his family's vast ranch in Oregon; but it also ranges freely, and exhilaratingly, around the world and through recorded time.

A travel book of sorts--from New York and Venice to the Andalusian hills of García Lorca, from the cow towns of Montana to the caves at Lascaux--it is driven by the quest to reconcile childhood simplicities with the complex, urgent, adult questions about who to be, and how, and why. Drawing on our various histories--biological, cultural, psychological--Kittredge celebrates diversity as the cornerstone of our social possibilities, examines the freedom and responsibility this entails, and suggests that our culture's habitually selfish, combative behavior is far from being in our best interests--or, indeed, in our nature.

Less geographical than philosophical, at once learned and curious, observant and personal, The Nature of Generosity is a revolutionary, and practical, magnum opus.

From the Hardcover edition.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
In this memoir turned inside out, veteran writer Kittredge (who won the PEN West Literary Award for his earlier autobiography, Hole in the Sky) jigs in and out of his childhood on an isolated ranch in Oregon and the much older cities of Europe to make a plea for a what he terms "extreme long loop altruism." His geographical movement is quickly outpaced by his tour of literature (from Darwin to Walt Whitman to E.O. Wilson), as he races haphazardly through the development of an increasingly isolated and corrupted human society that disdains compassion, seeks to control the natural world and tries to buy happiness. He argues that we must--and can--reinvest in the world by, for example, "learning to think of progress as a movement toward sharing, rather than accumulating, and to consider our most central values in terms of our willingness to give." But such ethics seem palpable only in the rare moments when Kittredge slows down enough to describe how they spring from the world around him. He acknowledges that "[t]his book proceeds more like a dance than an argument," but the rush of his often gorgeous images and jumbled summaries yield only flirtatious glances at the power of his ideas. (Dec. 8) Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
Combining travelog, history, autobiography, and philosophy, these five long, meandering essays are at once erudite and personal. Prolific author and noted Western writer Kittredge (Owning It All) here explores how humans developed, discovered agriculture and formed civilizations, and created a consumer world headed by corporations. He concludes that "We must relearn the arts of generosity. We cannot, in any long run, survive by bucking against natural forces, and it is our moral duty to defend all life." A former Oregon cattle rancher, the author went on to teach English at the University of Montana, Missoula, for nearly 30 years. Now retired, he remains an active writer. This thought-provoking work is recommended for academic and public libraries.--Nancy P. Shires, East Carolina Univ., Greenville, NC Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.
A highly personal account of the author's attempts to reconcile childhood simplicities with the complex, urgent adult questions about who to be, how and why. Through illustrations from around the world, and drawing on various human biological, cultural, and psychological histories, Kittredge argues that diversity is the cornerstone of social behavior, and that our culture's habitually selfish, combative behavior is neither in our best self interests nor, in fact, in our nature. Annotation c. Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (booknews.com)
William Kittredge's Nature of Generosity blends a memoir of the author's early life on his family's ranch with a travel account of his search for diversity around the world. With a definite philosophical twist, this provides an observation of cultural diversity and human nature which is filled with interesting insights.
You'd be hard-pressed to find a book this season that packs more wisdom per sentence than The Nature of Generosity. Kittredge seamelessly turns his travels into philosophical inquiries. His personal stories both energize and lighten the load...read this book!
Ruminator Review
Brad Knickerbocker
Kittredge's latest work makes for compelling and provocative reading, It's a deeply personal ramble that is neither self-indulgent nor dull, and intellectual exercise with many poetic moments, and ardently argued assertion that leaves plenty of room for discussion.
Christian Science Monitor
Kirkus Reviews
Kittredge (Hole in the Sky, 1992, etc.) continues his explorations, identifying the ingredients of a good and worthy life as he mines them from recollections of his early years. Exposure to the world and analysis of experience are not just antidotes to despair—they are ways of living, of helping us to attain a private understanding of our own stories and so a ration of freedom and happiness. Kittredge takes readers on a select tour of his experiences, from the early days with his father to those he shares today with his companion, Annick Smith, during which he is ever attentive to the resonant metaphors of daily life. Sometimes his descriptions can sound painfully studied, as if each word were a Claymore mine ready to compromise his rough poet image: ". . . tricksters and jazz next to manicured gardens in Kyoto, walled cities against wilderness, and island empires that evolve into commodified carnivals." But more often his writing is richly contextualized, a dizzily inclusive response to experience (be it garnered in the caves at Lascaux or the Alhambra or the hills and swales of his Montana home) that swarms and rushes and finds no problem stirring into a discussion of, say, the roots and downsides of agriculture such elements as the Greek alphabet, violence among hunter-gatherers, the humanity that can be wrung from a hard life, and the greasy buckskins of John Colter. We can ignore the excesses, however, and tap into Kittredge's abiding decency, his love of intimacy and the pleasures and rewards of giving, in a life in which "the great projects have to do with freedom from want, ignorance, disease, and despotisms, with a peaceful homeland thick with the textures of whatismost beloved, and with tearing down the barricades between ourselves and liberty, pleasure, enfranchisement, release, and play." A carefully constructed memory palace almost as comfortable for its visitors as it is for its inhabitant. Levi, Anthony CARDINAL RICHELIEU: and the Making of France Carroll & Graf (256 pp.) Nov. 2000

From the Publisher
"[A]n unpredictable magnum opus, a daring and poetic polemic that challenges at every turn."
--San Francisco Chronicle

"Synthesizes a lifetime’s worth of fears and hopes for the planet."
--New Age

"Fascinating and instructive."
--The Oregonian

Product Details

Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date:
Vintage Departures
Sold by:
Random House
Sales rank:
File size:
2 MB

Read an Excerpt

Part One

The Old Animal

Man is the only animal that blushes. Or needs to.

--Mark Twain

DUST LIFTED in slow streaks off the alkaline playa in the dry basin called
Long Lake. Tiny orange and white flowers blossomed among boulders of black
lava-flow basalt.

Ten thousand years ago, when the first humans came to the Great Basin
highlands where I stood, Long Lake was part of a sweep of swamps and vast
watery basins fed by melting glaciers. Waterbirds lifted to wheel and
settle, refolding their wings. Their movements, to my dreaming, are a
flowering of momentum--in this, much like music.

At the end of a rocky two-track road, Long Lake is lost among the ridges
rising from the east side of Warner Valley into an enormous run of
uninhabited lava-rock and sagebrush highlands. I grew up believing there
was nothing in the vicinity of Long Lake but shimmering distances.

Then, sixty-five years old, I found that I'd spent my boyhood near an
ancient holy place. Over hundreds of thousands of years, the lava-flow
ridge at my back had fragmented into intricate, smooth-sided boulders,
which were everywhere inscribed--drawn on by ancient humans attempting to
manage their luck and their fate. The inscriptions were particularly thick
in places next to fractures, breaks where souls and spirits could be
thought to have emerged from an underworld, and through which they might
be fortunate enough to reenter.

Thousands of designs and figures had been pecked into the basalt surfaces
with stone or bone tools, ranging from entropic (behind the eye) patterns
of the sort seen in trances--grids and dot complexes--to discernible figures
metamorphosing from moss to fish to men and women. Some were colored with
pigment; others were delineated by thin encrustations of yellow and
greenish lichens. The oldest images reach back ten thousand years.

Anthropologists suggest they were created by shamans, priests who thought
all things, including stones, possess an innate soul. Animist cultures are
a global phenomenon that seems to have lasted thirty thousand years or so,
and still endure among people along the Yukon River lowlands of Alaska, in
enclaves like the Kalahari Desert of southwestern Africa, and in central
Australia. These cultures hold that their shamans talk to animals, that
while the shaman's body remains locked in a trance, the soul takes flight
through fissures in the rock (actuality) and goes down into the underworld
in order to encourage the emergence of hunting animals, or even out to the
Milky Way for instruction from gods and ancestors who live there. At least
that's what they've told anthropologists.

IT WAS NOT that I'd never seen such inscriptions. At various points around
the edges of Warner, there are smooth-sided boulders inscribed with what
I'd thought were simplistic snakes and sunrises; or maybe the jagged lines
indicated days of travel. Those etchings were ordinarily considered the
work of ancestors of the northern Paiute, who lived in Warner when the
white settlers arrived. But the Paiute were relative latecomers, occupying
Warner for less than a thousand years. Earlier cultures
had come and gone since those boulders were inscribed.

Peter Farb, in Man's Rise to Civilization: The Cultural Ascent of the
Indians of North America
, explains that the people of
the northern Great Basin had fewer than a thousand of what
anthropologists call "cultural items." While this seems unlikely--
can a dream of heaven be called a cultural item?--Farb contrasts it to the
fact that, in 1942, George Patton's armies landed in North Africa with
547,000 different categories of nonmilitary hardware. This statistic
illustrates the vast distance between the Paiute mind-set and our own.

In Shoshone, Edward Dorn tells of visiting a Paiute couple who claimed to
be more than a hundred years old. Until midlife, they had lived the
traditional wandering life, but by Dorn's time, they were living in a
tin-sided trailer house on the Duck Valley Indian Reservation along the
Idaho-Nevada border. Savvy about the games of anthropology, they asked for
cartons of Camel cigarettes before allowing him to take pictures of them.
Then they told him something extraordinary: They'd never heard of white
men until they were adults.

Is it possible to imagine with any accuracy the psychology of people from
that preliterate culture? What did they yearn for, and how did they define
joyfulness? Can we guess, and would we know if we got it right? Open seas
lie between my intuitions about the world and those of Paiute people. Yet
here were those people, living in that trailer and demanding tribute in
cigarettes, who seemed to have crossed those seas so easily.

A Paiute family lived just up the hill from us in Warner, under a row of
Lombardy poplars planted by homesteaders next to a garden ditch. The man
of the family ran Caterpillar bulldozers for my father--his name was Don
Pancho--and his wife cleaned and ironed for my mother. The children--Vernon, Pearl, and
Henry--played with us kids, and Vernon was my best friend (he's been dead
for decades). Summer and winter, they lived in a pair of canvas tent
houses, one with a cookstove and the other for sleeping. Never allowed
inside, we used to wonder about what they did and said in those tents as
they persisted in surviving what I knew even then to be poverty. Now I
wonder if they despised us in their secret hearts, and if not, why not?

Peoples who tell their stories aloud are rapidly vanishing everywhere on
earth. Did anybody from our culture ever take the time to find out much
about the lives of native people who wandered the streets of northern
Nevada towns like Lovelock and Winnemucca when I was a young man? Or were
the northern Paiute basically invisible to a European culture obsessed
with getting rid of them so that settlement could proceed. What do we know
about the people who inscribed their designs on those boulders? Not much
really, except that in fundamental ways they were just like us.

FOR MILLENNIA, Long Lake was a gathering place. I like to think it was
sacred and thus invaluable. But in the years I lived there, preoccupied by
visions of an agricultural dream as we diked and drained the swamplands in
Warner, lost in rhythms of endless work, nobody ever guessed there was
much of anything to value in this country except for the fertile parts. As
a boy, I collected obsidian arrowheads and stored them in shoe boxes, yet
I believed wisdom was found only in books. Later, I tried to read
Aristotle and Kant, came to see my own emptiness, and went half-crazy. I
was lost, quite desperately wanting to understand how my life in Warner,
the happy land of childhood, had in the long run brought me to feel
so entirely contingent.

People whose ancestors had made peace with isolation were still living
nearby, but I didn't think of contacting them. What could they know? What
I might have done was recognize that those people were like me. Another
generation of Paiutes was no doubt still telling its stories; I might have
understood more about what it means to be myself if I'd made an attempt to
listen to them. But I didn't even think of this possibility, and in that
way, I missed another boat.

What might I have discovered? The little wind went on stirring the white
dust. The inscriptions at Long Lake were only props for unimaginable
ceremonies. What I could do was forget the wind and unpeopled distance and
think of the ordinary desperation that accompanied shamans on their
voyages, as evidence of the degree to which we are all alike.

Anthropological case studies are always partly make-believe, fictions
invented out of research, and are often infected with an unconscious
belief in progress--from a condition called "primitive" to one called
"civilized."So they are frequently vehicles for condescension, in which
dominion over other peoples is regarded as inevitable, if not entirely
justifiable. In such documents, primitive sometimes connotes being less
than human, and people are discussed as if they were animals, or objects.
But while interest in "simpler" or more "innocent" or "purer" societies is
often driven by simple curiosity or implicit condescension, we ultimately
value anthropological research as useful in our search for models we can
use in our efforts to reform and manage our own cultures.

It is often claimed that humans reached the limits of evolutionary
adaptation during the Paleolithic period. Sharman Apt Russell writes that
"we were few in number, tribal, creative, dependant on nature, in awe, in
touch, in our natural setting. We were at home." Then she asks, "Was it better emotionally? Were we
better? Were we more alive, more human, more engaged?"

With her, I wonder: If "primitives" were leading more natural lives, were
they necessarily happier? Besides, what does "natural" mean? According to
Russell, "We don't even know the meaning of better." But codifications of
"better" seem to be part of every political agenda. Do we think the lives
of preliterate people simple? An utterly condescending notion. There are
no simple lives. Who would want one?

Meet the Author

William Kittredge is the author of Hole in the Sky; Owning It All, a book of essays; and the story collections The Van Gogh Field and We Are Not in This Togethe. With Annick Smith, he edited The Last Best Place: A Montana Anthology.

From the Hardcover edition.

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