Ecology of Mind

A Book Review:

Wendell Berry  The Unsettling of America: Culture and Agriculture  Avon Books, 1977.

Roderick Nash   Wilderness and the American Mind   Yale University Press, 1973.

Wendell Berry's The Unsettling of America- Culture and Agriculture depicts a society in cultural depravity, because it has lost all conception of the unity of all and instead sees the world as fragments. The rich cultural reflections of awareness of the interconnections among man and land, value and work, body and soul, health and wholeness has been sacrificed in the name of a radically simplified culture whose placement of value rests with the machine. Man is turned into a specialist and the land is turned into a production machine. Work has lost all value and is termed beneath human dignity. Body and soul are divided with the body considered an encumbrance. Health has lost its standard of wholeness which has been replace and simplified by "absence of disease".

The disease of modern man (or society in the plural) is specialization, which causes the breakdown of character and culture through the machine metaphor which places value on organization and efficiency, not on the health and wholeness of the individual and the land. The machine metaphor, because its economy is production and consumption, is one way- materials are run through an open ended system where efficiency is measured by speed and volume. No where is this more evident than in agribusiness, which simplifies the soil from the "great connector of lives the source and destination of all", into a production machine. The farmer, the nurturer, the husbandman, steeped in rich culture and tradition, operates by the "wheel of life" metaphor, a complex unified relationship with the soil whose nature is to be "...highly complex and variable, to conform very inexactly to human conclusions and rules.: This metaphor has a third function and dimension: return. This ensures the presence of responsibility and leads to morality, a building block of culture. The specialist mentality always overcomes the nurturer because the nurturer doesn't just produce a single commodity but also produces responsibility, character and culture, which is not considered efficient in the specialist way of thinking, since the specialty defines where the value is placed.

Emerging from or possibly contributing to the machine mentality has been an agricultural orthodoxy, which regards a living biological entity- the soil- as a production machine. This mentality, with its narrow focus on quantitative production and exploitation of land, turns the farmer into just another specialist. No thought is given to the ecological and social consequences of the simplification of mind and character. The rich cultural tradition that is possible only through agriculture is scrapped as "obsolete" in favor of a culture which must reflect the refusal of agriculture to accept the cyclical nature of soil and land.

Organized attempts to correct environmental problems are doomed to failure because the dichotomy of man and land is preserved. The environment is nothing but that which surrounds us. "Once we see our place, our part of the world, as surrounding us, we have already made a profound division between it and ourselves." Organized conservation places the focus of value not on a personal care for the land, but places it one step away- on society. Societal solutions cannot be as effective as individual solutions. "The use of the world is final a personal matter, and the world can be preserved in health only by the forbearance and care of a multitude of persons." Character and culture should reflect the responsibilities and obligations of being a member of the man land community.

The hope for man lies in a responsible and unifying agriculture. "We can have agriculture only within nature and culture only within agriculture." An agriculture in tune to the health of the land ensures development of character and ensures cultural richness and health. Rather than giving experts the job of food production, we should give back the farmer or husbandman his livelihood, the responsibility of growing and nurturing food. Instead of expertise, we should rely on experience. "Experience which is the basis of culture, tends always towards wholeness because it is interested in the meaning of what has happened..." By living, working, resting and recreating in the same place can a unity of life exist which will form a foundation of culture by being a producer of ecological morality and character along with energy, and body and soul sustaining food.

Roderick Nash’s Wilderness in the American Mind delves into the role of wilderness in the development of american character and its role in american life. Wilderness was the initial condition of this continent and furnished the raw material from which civilization(in both the material and psychological sense) was made. Wilderness, by definition, is an area of land where the effects of man and his civilization do not exist. It is, according to the transcendentalists, a mirror of creation itself. It is the antithesis of civilization, where man apparently strikes out on his own.

The common theme which seems to underlie the reasons for wilderness is to provide a balance to offset the effects of civilization. Civilization does not supply all the essentials for maintaining health in people. Man, originally a creature out of the wilderness- needs them to satisfy his basic instincts, without which tension and despair usually result. Wild areas offer the spark of creativity necessary for realizations of human potential. Without the tonic of wilderness, life would revert to meaningless drudgery. Because pressure will always be born by wilderness areas in an increasingly resource deficient world, and considering the non-renewability of wilderness areas, constant attention must be aimed at preserving its integrity.

The ecology of mind, I seek is one of undoing and eliminating basic conflicts that arise in everyday living. For myself, rather than plunging into these issues, I prefer to go back to the origins and look at basic precepts. Wendell Berry states one of the goals of his book is "to show how the practical divorced from the discipline of value tends to be defined by the immediate interests of the practitioner and so becomes destructive of value, practical and otherwise." Societal and cultural pressure that acts on every person is to specialize. This never say very well with me, I prefer to be a generalist. Specialization entails a simplification of awareness of a world that I wish to know more about. I seek to understand the world in its unity rather than in fragments. An ecology of mind like the ecology of living organisms, requires diversity as a prerequisite of stability. To simplify unnecessarily is to invite disaster.

The environmentalist and conservationist are specialists. No where is conflict and division more evident than here. The environmentalist, like all specialists, modifies and subverts his values to the needs of his specialty. Only a specialist would deny whaling rights and livelihood to the Eskimo people in the name of conservation. What about conservation of human culture? The Sierra club was found to own stock in major corporations including strip mining firms, having pollution record among the worse.

The dichotomy of wilderness and civilization formed the basis of our culture. Perhaps this basic division, where unity should be, is at the root of our present dilemma. Shouldn't we look at the annual migration of people to national parks as a symptom of a deeper problem rather than thinking of specialist solutions such as the expansion of highways to accommodate those people? Wilderness should be incorporated into everyday living. A good farmer always recognizes the importance of areas left untouched in the ecology of his farm. Hedgerows and unmanaged woodlots are areas vital and complementary to the workings of a healthy farm. In a healthy agriculture with maybe 20-40% of the population involved in food production, wilderness and civilization will merge into oneness in the human spirit. The greater number of people taking the responsibility of stewardship will be infinitely more effective solutions to urban unrest and unease., Agriculture is the most important use for land for human survival. With a healthy agriculture, maximizing the numbers of small farmers, interconnectedness and responsibility will be enhanced, and the superficial and destructive obesity in american lifestyle will decrease. Wilderness areas will not serve as just another consumer want but as culturally and environmentally valued component of the biosphere.

I find two alternatives in seeking to correct and change basic cultural precepts. one is revolution. But the revolutionary is a specialist and is subject to similar symptoms of fragmentation. Revolution must come through organization and is subject to narrow mindedness and distortion of value as is the machine it is trying to overthrow. In both cases, values are prostituted to serve the interests of the organization.

The other alternative is to live your values to the greatest extent possible and not bow to specialization. Since true value can only lie in respecting and caring for fellow man, society and land, then to live those values in an ecologically moral way of life, with the least conflict between value and action, is by being responsible to a piece of land and being self-sufficient from it.

Jon Towne 1979

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