THE BODY AND THE EARTH…. Wendell Berry, from “The Unsettling of America” …. first chunk…

The Body and the Earth





            The question of human limits, of the proper definition and place of human beings within the orer of Creation, finally rests upon our attitude toward our biological existence, the life of the body in this world. What value and respect do we give to our bodies? What uses do we have for them? What relation do we see, if any, between body and mind, or body and soul? What connections or responsibilities do we maintain between our bodies and the earth? These are religious questions, obviously, for our bodies are part of the Creation, and they involve us in all the issues of mystery. But the questions are also agricultural, for no matter how urban our life, our bodies live by farming; we come from the earth and return to it, and so we live in agriculture as we live in flesh. While we live our bodies are moving particles of the earth, joined inextricably both to the soil and to the bodies of other living creatures. It is hardly surprising, then, that there should be some profound resemblances between our treatment of our bodies and our treatment of the earth.

            That humans are small within the Creation is an ancient perception, represented often enough in art that it must be supposed to have an elemental importance. On one of the painted walls of the Lascaux cave (20,000 – 15,0000 B.C.), surrounded by the esquisitely

shaped, shaded, and colored bodies of animals, there is the childish stick

figure of a man,

a huntsman who, having cast his spear into the guts of a bison, is now weaponless and vulnerable,

poignantly frail, exposed,

and incomplete.

The message seems essentially that of the voice out of the whirlwind in the  Book of Job: the Creation os bonteous and mysterious, and humanity is only a part of it – not its equal, much less its master.

            Old Chinese landscape paintains reveal, among towering mountains, the frail outline of a roof or a tiny human figure passing along a road on foot or horseback. These landscapes are almost always populated. There is no implication of a dehumanized interest in nature “for its own sake.” What is represented is a world in which humans belong, but which does not belong to humans in any tidy economic sense; the Creation provides a place for humans, but it is greater than hmanity and within it even “great men” are small. Such humility is the consequence of an accurate insight, ecological in its bearing, not a pious deference to “spiritual” value.

            Closer to us is a passage from the fourth act of King Lear, describing the outlook from one of the Dover cliffs:


            The crows and choughs that wing the midway air

            Show scarce so gross as beetles. Halfway down

            Hangs one that gathers samphire, dreadful trade!

            Methinks he seems no bigger than his head.

            The fisherman that walks upon the beach

            Appear like mice,, and yond tall anchorig bark

            Diminished to her cock – her cock, a buoy

            Almost too small for sight.


            And this is no mere description of a scenic “view.” It is part of a play-within-a-play, a sort of ritual of healing. In it Shakespeare is concerned with the curative power of the perception we are dealing with: by understanding accurately his proper place in Creation, a man may be made whole.



            In the lines quoted, Edgar disgued as a lunatic, a Bedlamite, is speaking to his father, the Earl of Gloucester. Gloucester, having bee blinded by the treachery of his false son, Edmund, has despaired and has asked the supposed madman to lead him to the cliff’s edge, where he intends to destroy himself/ But Edgar’s description is fromm memory;

            the two are not standing on any such dizzy verge.

What we are witnessing is the working out of Edgar’s strategy to save his father from false feeling – both the pride, the smug credulity, that led to his suffering and the despair that is its result. These emotions are perceived as madness; Gloucester’s blindness is literally the result of the moral blindness of his pride, and it is symbolic of the spiritual blindness of his despair.

            Thinking himself on the edge of a cliff, he renounces this world and throws himself down. Though he falls only to the level of his own feet, he is momentarily stunned. Edgar remains with him, but now represents himself as an innocent bystander at the foot of what Gloucester will continue to think is a tall cliff. As the old man recovers his senses, Edgar persudes him that the madman who led him on the cliff’s edge was in reality a “fiend.” And Gloucester repents his self-destructiveness, which he now recognizes as another kind of pride; a human has no right to destroy what he did not create:


            You ever-gentle gods, take my breath from me.

            Let not my worser spirit tempt me again

            To die before you please.


            What Gloucester has passed through, then, is a rite of death and rebirth. In his new awakening he is finally able to recognize his true son. He escapes the unhuman conditions of godly pride and fiendish despair and dies “smilingly” in the truly human estate. “’Twixt two extremes of passsion, joy and grief…”

            Until modern times, we focused a great deal of the best of our thought upon such rituals of return to the human condition. Seeking enlightenment or the Promised Land or the way home, a man would go or be forced to go into the wilderness, measure himself against the Creation, recognize finally his true place within it, and thus be saved both from pride and despair. Seeing himself as a tiny member of a world he cannot comprehend or master or in any final sense possess, he cannot possibly think of himself as a god. And by the same token. Since he shares in, depends upon, and is graced by all of which he is a part, neither can he become a fiend; he cannot descent into the final despair of destructiveness/ Returning from the wilderness, he becomes a restorer of order, a preserver. He sees the truth, recognizes his true heir, honors his forebears and his heritage, and gives his blessing to his successors. He embodies the passing of human time, living and dying within the human limits of grief and joy.


            ON THE TOWER


            Apparently with the rise of industry, we began to romanticize the wilderness – which is to say we began to institutionalize it within the concept of the “scenic.” Because of railroads and improved highways, the wilderness was no longer an arduous passage for the traveler, but something to be looked at as grand or beautiful from the high vantages of the roadsides. We became viewers of “views.” And because we no longer traveled in the wilderness as a matter of course, we forgot that wilderness still circumscribed civilization and persisted in domsticity.[1] We, forgot, indeed, that the civilized and the domestic continued to depend upon wilderness—that is, upon natural forces within the climate and within the soil that have never in any meaningful sense been controlled or conquered. Modern civilization has been built largely in this forgetfulness.

            And as we transformed the wildnerness into scenery, we began to feel in the presence of “nature” an awe that was increasingly statistical. We would not become appreciators of the Creation until we had taken its measure. Once we had climbed or driven to the mountain top. We were awed by the view, but it was an awe that we felt compelled to validate or prove by the knowledge of how high we stood and how far we saw. We are invited to “see seven states from atop Lookout Mountain” as if our political boundaries had been drawn in red on the third morning of creation/

            We became less and less capable of sensing ourselves as small within Creation, partly because we thought we could comprehend it statistically, but also because we were becoming creators, ourselves. Of a mechanical creation by which we felt ourselves greatly magnified. [2]We built bridges that stood imposingly in titanic settings. Towers that stood around us like geologic presences, single machines that could do the work of hundreds of people. Why, after all, should one get excited about a mountain when one can see almost as far from the top of a building, much farther from an airplane, farther still from a space capsule? We have learned to be fascinated by the statistics of magnitude and power. There is apparently no limit in sight, no end, and so it is no wonder that our minds, dizzy with numbers, take refuge in a yearning for infinitudes of energy and materials.

            Ad yet these works that so magnify us also dwarf us, reduce us to insignificance. They magnify us because we are capableof them. THEY DIMINISH US BECAUSE, say what we will. ONCE WE BUILD BEYOND A HUMAN SCALE, ONCE WE CONCEIVE OURSELVES AS TITANS OR AS GODS, WE ARE LOST IN MAGNITUTDE; WE CANNOT CONTROL OR LIMIT WHAT WE DO.[3] The statistics of magnitude call out like Sirens to the statistics of destruction. If we have built towering cities, we have raised even higher the cloud of megadeath.


If people are as grass before God,

they are as nothing before their machines.[4]


            If we are fascinated by the statistics of magnitude, we are no less fascinated by the statistics of our insignicance. We never tire of repeating the commonizing figures of population and population growth. We are entranced to think of ourselves as specks on the pages of our own overwhelming history. I remember that my high-school biology text dealt with the human body by listing its constituent elements, measuring their quantities, and giving their momentary worth – at that time a little less than a dollar. That was a bit of the typical fodder of the modern mind, at once sensation and belittling – no accidental product of the age of Dachau and Hiroshima.

            In our time Shakespeare’s cliff has become the tower of a bridge – not the scene of a wakening rite of symbolic death and rebirth, but of the real and final death of suicide. Hart Crane wrote its paradigm, as if against his will, in The Bridge:


            Out of some subway scuttle, cell or loft

            A bedlamite speeds to thy parapets,

            Tilting there momentarily, shrill shirt ballooning,

            A jest falls from the speechless caravan.


In Shakespeare, the real Bedlamite or madman is the desperate and suicide Gloucester. The supposed Bedlamite is in reality his true son, and together they enact an eloquent ritual in which Edgar gives his father a vision of Creation. Gloucester abandoms himself to this vision, literally casting himself into it, and is renewed; he finds his life by losing it. Gloucester is saved by a renewal of his sense of the world and of his proper lace in it. And this is brought about by an enactment that is communal, both in the sense that he is accompanied in it by his son, who for the time being has assumed the disguise of a madman but the role of a priest, and in the sense that it is deeply traditional in its symbols and meanings. In Crane, on the other hand, the Bedlamite is alone, surrounded by speechlessness, cut off within the crowd from any saving or renewing vision. The heigh, which in Shakespeare is the traditional place of vision, has become in Crane a place of blindness: the bridge, which Crane intended as a unifying symbol, has become the symbol of a final estrangement.





[3] “we are born half animal and half god.

you choose.

whether to indulge your animal side, or your god side.

most people are animals.

            Munch. Munch. Munching at the viands….

Rise up.”


(and why was he so deeply, deeply, deeply

            unhappy, unsatisfied,


[4] (the Grandmaster falls into his great depression…)



About earthyearth

from brooklyn, nebraska.

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