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Thursday, August 20, 2009

Life and Land

I've just finished two books: The Good Earth by Pearl S Buck and Life is a Miracle by Wendell Berry. The former has been sitting on my bookshelves waiting to be read for a couple of years. The latter I purchased on recommendation and instantly started into it. Both were finished, providentially, within days of each other. Both speak to what happens to the soul when one "degrades...the ordinary life" in the desire for "various kinds of stardom", to quote Berry. These two books seem to be almost like two versions of the same message: one prose and the other poem.

You may know The Good Earth is set in pre-revolutionary China. A man, Wang Lung, starts out with nothing and slowly builds his life. He ends with everything, but then realizes he had more that was real when he had nothing. He pleads with his progeny to heed his error. They promise, but they wink behind his back. The revolution can be heard building in the background. That, in a nutshell, is The Good Earth.

From The Good Earth:
"Thus spring wore on again and again and vaguely and more vaguely as these years passed he felt it coming. But still one thing remained to him and it was his love for his land. He had gone away from it and he had set up his house in a town and he was rich. But his roots were in his land. . . . (...) Spring passed and summer passed into harvest and in the hot autumn sun before winter comes Wang Lung sat where his father had sat against one wall. And he thought no more about anything now except his food and his drink and his land. But of his land he thought no more what harvest it would bring or what seed would be planted or of anything except of the land itself, and he stooped sometimes and gathered some of the earth up in his hand and he sat thus and held it in his hand, and it seemed full of life between his fingers. And he was content, holding it thus, and he thought of it fitfully and of his good coffin that was there; and the kind earth waited without haste until he came to it."

Wendell Berry has a lot to say in his book, Life is a Miracle, about Science and Art and Religion and Life. What struck me, especially as I read it in conjunction with The Good Earth, is that there are things in life that are unexplainable and are damaged in the attempt to explain. Rather they must be experienced. To be experienced they must be loved and if loved, protected. And those things that are loved are worthy to be passed on to, and protected for, the next generation. This is the Nature of Life. Our modern life is an example of too many explanations and not enough experiences, and of disordered and inadequate love.

From Life is a Miracle:
"Unlike the culture of the European Middle Ages, which honored the vocations of the learned teacher, the country parson, and the plowman as well as that of the knight, or the culture of Japan in the Edo period which ranked the farmer and the craftsman above the merchant, our own culture places an absolute premium upon various kids of stardom. This degrades and impoverishes ordinary life, ordinary work, ordinary experience...depricates...the work of the primary producers of goods, and the performers of all kinds of essential but unglamorous jobs and duties...results are that most work is now poorly done; great cultural and natural resources are neglected, wasted, or abused; the land and its creatures are destroyed; and the citizenry is poorly taught, poorly governed, and poorly served."

"But if we are to know any part of the planet intimately, particularly, precisely, and with affection, then we must live somewhere in particular for a long time. (...) One of the most significant costs of the economic destruction of farm populations is the loss of local money, local history, and local names."

"This living procession through time in a place is the record by which such knowledge survives and is conveyed. When the procession ends, so does the knowledge"

Or as Wang Lung says, "It is the end of a family - when they begin to sell the land."

Both of these books made me think about a lot, but particularly Place. How a place can shape us as much as we can shape it. How the sense of Place is lost in modern life with fabricated neighborhood and street names.

My family lives in such a fabricated neighborhood. We often go on the search for a home with a sense of Place. But, do we choose a worthy Place to live or can we make the place we live worthy? Can we overcome this cleaned up modern version? Can we find Place in suburbia and nurture it? And if we can, how do we do that?

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