Limited creatures in a limited world

Weave real connections, create real nodes, build real houses.

Live a life you can endure: Marge Piercy


When you do something useful things can happen. Usefulness is one of the great currents that sustains and builds communities and that upholds and creates what Marge Piercy called ‘real connections’. When we are no longer useful to one another, in the deeper sense of ‘being of service’ we retreat into smaller worlds and our lives shrink with that movement. Our experience is diminished.

It is May and the natural world has become a riot of colour and noise. After a mean winter, nature is suddenly profligate; life is rushing and pushing itself sunwards, a blossoming, budding, leafing, bursting extravagance, especially after the last few days of rain. What surplus plants and crops we have I have put out beside the lane with an honesty box and now cars and walkers stop by to browse or buy and something is beginning to happen, people stop for a chat, connections are being built.

There are many different kinds of exchange; Lewis Hyde differentiates between the notions of exchange as gift and commerce.  Gift unlike commerce brings us to an important currency in human interaction which commerce as a transactional process can and usually does, overlook which is reciprocity-the value of relationship and interrelationship in whatever exchange is made. The idea of ‘fair exchange’ takes on more meaning when the relationship between those involved becomes central and particular rather than an abstraction. The gift exchange, unlike commerce,  is complex and woven with stories and shared experience-it is a live encounter.

Relationship brings to mind the value of conversation. Conversation has its Latin root in the word conversationem meaning ‘to keep company with’. The old French word, conversation, literally means ‘a manner of conducting oneself in the world.’ In this light conversation becomes a guiding principle for how we conduct our affairs with others-not merely an act but a value or principle for being together and building fellowship, it is part of the process and practice of exchange that dances between the pleasure of the present and an investment in the future-the strengthening of bonds.

We are’, wrote Wendell Berry in an essay a few years ago, ‘limited creatures in a limited world’. Challenging our collective western view that ‘there’s always more,’ Berry described our ‘true religion’ as a kind of ‘autistic industrialism’ built on a false belief in limitless growth.  A consequence of the economic fantasy of limitlessness has been a catastrophic neglect of the real wealth of land, resources and genuine workmanship, along with other vital aspects of human interaction that give actual meaning to life including neighbourliness and caretaking which, he points out, ‘cannot be done by remote control, with the greatest power on the largest scale’.

 The recognition that human limitlessness is a fantasy matters because it tells us that, as a paradigm, its life expectancy is limited. Berry continues;

‘We are not likely to be granted another world to plunder in compensation for our pillage of this one. Nor are we likely to believe much longer in our ability to outsmart, by means of science and technology, our economic stupidity’.

The inflection point here lies in a choice, or so it seems, between hope and despair a point I have often encountered. Actually, neither hope nor despair, insofar as they take us into a remote and distant future are useful. What is useful is the recognition that an understanding of what it means to be a limited human in a limited world can begin with any one of us right now. Recognition of the value and necessity for constraint is actually a strange seed of hope because it is tangible and real-it can be acted upon, it brings us to the place of actual experience which is not tomorrow, but today, here and now.

The gift of constraint, of reimagining what life at human scale might look like is the gift of choice, we can choose to act differently and thereby contribute directly to a new story that has effects both today and tomorrow and we can do it in numerous ways. Limitless growth by contrast smacks of choicelessness another word for which is addiction. The implications of limitlessness are in fact exhausting and the consequences are visible everywhere. The gift of the recognition of our limitations is to return us, as Wendell Berry put is, to our ‘real condition’ and to our ‘human heritage, ‘from which our self-definition as limitless animals has so long cut us off’. Limitation self-imposed has some relationship with humility; it loops us back to our clay selves, our earthy nature.

Limitation in this context has two basic aspects; natural and cultural. Earth is one definition of natural limitation as is place and ecosystem. To understand our ecosystem we can think about the actual meanings of words such as economic (literally from the Greek eco nomos meaning household management) and ecology (literally from the Greek eco-logos meaning understanding of the household). From the perspective of household with all that is implied in terms of shared responsibility, we can personally rethink our understanding of what economy means in our own lives and can act accordingly in the spirit of their deeper meaning. The connection between earth and household can also help us better understand the relationship between limitation and culture which is our collective response to self-restraint.

‘As humans’ writes Berry, ‘we may elect to respond to this necessary placement by the self-restraints implied in neighbourliness, stewardship, thrift, temperance, generosity, care, kindness, friendship, loyalty and love.’ We can ask ourselves quite practically how we are today in relationship with these human cultural qualities, what they mean to us, how we actually express, rather than talk about them in our lives then we can get to work on those things and know that that work we do actually makes a difference.

Yesterday two people from the village came by for a walk around the land. After they left I sat and thought for a while about how often in recent years I have reached for hope and felt despair- lost in grief or anger or listlessness, in the face of the fantasy of limitless growth that we have adopted as our ‘true religion’. I recognised as well that for too long I have been waiting for government policy or someone or something to shift things and that in the waiting, in that sense of impotence, I have talked too much and acted too little and in so doing I have lost some of my own vitality and overlooked my own behaviours and actions that have run counter to my expressed beliefs. I have been guilty of living for a remote future with little attention for the day in which I could act.

Hope, in fact, it seems to me, is not about some future point in time where along with all else, it becomes abstract and unreal, conjoined with despair.  Hope, if it is anywhere, is here and now, in the multitude of small actions that connect and foster life-that make time for the art of conversation and companionship, that honour and respect the earth.

The ‘idea’ of global crisis and words like ‘environmental’ and ‘sustainable’ can actually get in the way when everything becomes an abstraction, taking me away from the today in which I can actually do something real, something in particular, acting in a small way, in my own place, on what I would consider a human scale in the company of others. Whatever global crisis there is, whatever healing of divisions must be done, begins with a commitment from me to re-imagine my own relationship with the principles of ecology and economics, with ideas of limitation in my life and to act accordingly and faithfully.

It is May and the world is a riot of colour. Perhaps we might imagine, as I do, looking at the grass or the weeds among the vegetables that growth is indeed limitless but of course that’s not the case. The seasons will turn and growth will follow its pattern of eternal duration and generation setting seed and fruit for the continuance of life. For my part, I too can act in this setting in a way that feels both real and consequential.  Husbandry is the art of relationship with the natural world, a legitimate place for us to be in good company with our habitat, to encourage and constrain, mindful of the extent and range of the life we must care for, balancing a need for good food and income with the long term future of the place which is, as I have come to learn, not simply the land itself but the community in which it is nested. It is an art I am still learning.

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