THE BODY AND THE EARTH, Wendell Berry, Second Chunk



            After I had begun to think about these things. I received a letter containing an account of a more recent suicide. The following sentences from that letter seem both to corroborate Crane’s lines and to clarify them:

            “My friend —- jumped off the Golden Gate Bridge two months ago…She had breen terribly depressed for years. There was no help for her. None that she could find that was sufficient She was trying to get from one phase of her life to another, and couldn’t make it. She had been terribly wounded as a child… Her wound could not be healed. She destroyed heself.”

            The letter had already asked, “HOW DOES A HUMAN PASS THROUGH YOUTH TO MATURITY WITHOUT ‘BREAKING DOWN’?” And it had answered: “help from tradition, through ceremonies and rituals, rites of passage at the most difficult stages.”

            My correspondent went on to say: “Healing, it seems to me, is a necessary and useful word when we talk about agriculture.” And a few paragraphs later he wrote: “The theme of suicide belongs in a book about agriculture…”

            I agree. But I am also aware that many people will find it exceedingly strange that these themes should enter so forcibly into this book. It wil be thought that I am off the subject. And so I want to take pains to show that I am on the subject – and on it, moreover, in the only way most people have of getting on it: by way of the issue of their own health. Indeed, it is when one approaches agriculture from any other issue than that of health that one may be said to be off the subject.

            The difficulty probably lies in our narrowed understanding of th word health. That there is some connection between how we feel and what we eat, between our bodies and the earth, is acknowledge when we say that we must “eat right to keep fit” or that we should eat “a balanced diet.” But by health we mean little more than how we feel .We are healthy, we think, if we do not feel any pain or too much pain, and if we are strong enough to do our work. If we become unhealthy, then we go to a doctor who we hope will “cure” us and restore us to health. By health, in other words, we mean merely the absence of disease. Our health professionals are interested almost exclusively in presenting disease (mainly by destroying germs) and in curing disease (mainly by surery and by destroying germs).

            But the concept of health is rooted in the concept of wholeness. To be healthy is to be whole. The word health belongs to a family of words, a listing of which will suggest how far the consideration of health must carry us: heal, whole, wholesome, hale, hallow, holy. And so it is possible to give a definition to health that is positive and far more elaborate than that given to it by most medical doctors and the officers of public health.

            If the body is healthy, then it is whole. But how can it be whole and yet be dependent, as it obviously is, upon other bodies and upon the earth, upon all the rest of Creation in fact? It becomes clear that the health or wholeness of the body is a vast subject, and that to preserve it calls for a vast enterprise. Bake said that “Man has no Body distinct from his Soul…” and thus acknowledged the convergence of health and holiness. In that, all the convergences and dependences of Creation are surely implied. Our bodies are also not distinct from the bodies of other people, on which they dpeend in a complexity of ways from biological to spiritual. The yare not distinct from the bodies of plants and animals, with which we are involved in the cycles of feeding and in the intricate companionships of ecological systems and of the spirit. They are not distinct from the earth. the sun and moon, and the other heavenly bodies.

            It is therefore absurd to approach the subject of health piecemeal with a departmentalized band of specialists. A medical doctor uninterested in nutrition, in agriculture, in the wholesomeness of mind and spirit is as absurd as a farmer who is uninterested in health. Our fragmentation of this subject cannot be our cure, because it is our disease. The body cannot be whole alone. Persons cannot be whole alone. It is wrong to think that bodily health is compatible with spiritual confusion or cultural disorder, or with polluted air and water or impoverished soil. Intellectually, we know that these patterns of interdependence exist; we understand them better now perhaps than we ever have before; yet modern social and cultural patterns contradict them and make it difficult or impossible to honor them in practice.

            To try to heal the body alone is to collaborate in the destruction of the body. Healing is impossible in loneliness; it is the impossible of loneliness. Conviviality is healing. To be healed we must come with all the other creatures to the feast of Creation. Together, the above two descriptions of suicides suggest this very powerfully. The setting of both is urban, amid the gigantic works of modern humanity. The fatal sickness is despai, a wound that cannot be healed because it is encapsulated in loneliness, surrounded by speechlessness. Past the scale of the human, our works do not liberate us- — they confine us. They cut off access to the wilderness of Creation where we must go to be rebron – to receive the awareness, at once humbling and exhilarating, grievous and joyful, that we are a part of Creation, one with all that we live from and all that, in turn, lives from us. They destroy the communal rites of apssage that turn us toward the wilderness and bring us home again.




            Perhaps the fundamental damage of the specialist system – the damage from which all other damages issue – has been the isolation of the body. At some point we began to assume that the life of the body would be the business of grocers and medical doctors, who need take no interest in the spiirt, whereas the life of the sprit would be the business of churches, which would have at best only a negative interest in the body. In the same way we began to see nothin wrong with putting the body – most often somebody else’s body, but frequently our own – to a task that insulted the mind and demeaned the spirit. And we began to find it easer than ever to prefer our own bodies to the bodies of other creatures and to abuse, exploit, and otherwise hold in contempt those other bodies for the greater good or comfort of our own.

            The isolation of the body sets it into direct conflict with everything else in Creation. It gives it a value that is destructive of every other value. That this has happened is paradoxical, for the body was set apart from the soul in order that the soul should triumph over the body. The aim is stated in Shakespeare’s Sonnet 146 as plainly as anywhere:


            Poor soul, the center of my sinful earth,

            Lord of these rebel powers that thee array,

            Why does thou pine wihtin and suffer dearth,

            Painting thy outward walls so costly gay?

            Why so large cost, having so short a lease,

            Dost thou upon thy fading mansion spend?

            Shall worms, inheritors of this excess,

            Eat up thy charge? Is this thy body’s end?

            Then, soul, live thou upon thy servant’s loss,

            And let that pine to aggravate thy store;

            Buy terms divine in selling hours of dross;

            Within be fed, without be rich no more.

            So shalt thou feed on death, that feeds on men,

            And death once dead, there’s no more dying then.


            The soul is thus set against the body, to thrive at the body’s expense. And so a spiritual economy is devised within in which the only law is competition. If the soul is to live in this world only by denying the body, then its relation to worldly life becomes extremely simple and superficial. Too simple and superficial, in fact, to cope in any meaningful or useful way with the world. Spiritual value ceases to have any worldly purpose or force. To fail to employ the body in this world at once for its own good and the good of the soul is to issue an invitation to disorder of the most serious kind.

            What was not foreseen in this simple-minded economics of religion was that it is not possible to devalue the body and value the soul. The body, cast loose from the soul, is on its own. Devalued and cast out of the temple, the body does not skulk off like a sick dog to die in the bushes. It sets up a counterpart economy of its own, based also on the law of competition, in which it devalues and exploits the spirit. These two economies maintain themselves at each other’s expense, living upon each other’s loss, collaborating without cease in mutual fiutility and absurdity.

            You cannot devalue the body and value the soul – or value anything else. The prototypical act issuing from this division was to make aperson a slave and then instruct him in religion – a “charity” more damaging to the master than to the slave. Contempt for the body is invariably manifested in contempt for other bodies – the bodies of slaves, laborers, women, animals, plants, the earth itself.[1] Relationships with all other creatures become competitive and exploitive rather than collaborative and convivial. The world is seen and dealth with, not as an ecological community, but as a stock exchange, the ethics of which are based on the tragically misnamed “law of the jungle.” This “jungle” law is a basic fallacy of modern culture. The body is degraded and saddened by being set in conflict against the Creation itself, of which all bodies are members, therefore members of each other. The body is thus sent to war against itself.

            Divided, set against each other, body and soul drive each other to extremes of misapprehension and folly. Nothing could be more absurd than to despise the body and yet yearn for its resurreection. In reaction to this supposedly religious attitude, we get, not reverence or respect for the body, but another kind of contempt: the desire to comfort and indulge the body with equal disregard for its health. The “dialogue of body and soul” in our time is being carried on between those who despise the body for the sake of its resurrection and those, disesased by bodily extravagance and lack of exercise, who nevertheless deesire longevity above all things. These think that they oppose each other, and yet they could not exist apart. They are locked in a conflict that is really their collaboration in the destruction of soul and body both.

            What this conflict has done, among other things, is to make it extremely difficult to set a proper value no the life of the body in this world – to believe that it is good, howbeit short and imperfect. Until we are able to say this and know what we mean by it, we will not be able to live our lives in the human estate of grief and joy, but repeatedly will be cast outside in violent swings between pride and despair. Desires that cannot be fulfilled in health will keep us hopelessly restless and unsatisfied.[2]




            By dividing body and soul, we divide both from all else. We thus condemn ourselves to a loneliness for which the only compensation is violence – against other creatures, against the earth, against ourselves. For no matter the distinctions we draw between

body and soul, body and earth, ourselves and others –

the connections, the dependences, the identities remain.

And so we fail to contain or control our violence.


It gets loose.


Thouugh there are categories of violence, or so we think, there are no categories of victims. Violence against one is ultimately violence against all. The willingness to abuse other bodies is the willingness to abuse one’s own. To damage the earth is to damage your children. To despise the ground is to despise its fruit; to despise the fruit is to despise its eaters. The wholeness of health is broken by despite.

            If competition is the correct relation of creatures to one another and to the earth, then we must ask why exploitation is not more successful than it is. Why, having lived so long at the expense of other creatures and the earth, are we not healthier and happier than we are? Why does modern society exist under constant threat of the same suffering, deprivation, spite, contempt, and obliteration that it has imposed on other people and other creatures? Why do the health of the body and the health of the earth decline together? And why, In consideration of this decline of our wordly flesh and household, our “sinful earth,” are we not healthier in spirit?

            It is not necessary to have recourse to statistics to see that the human estate is declining with the estate of nature, and that the corruption of the body is the corruption of the soul. I know that the country is full of “leaders” and experts of various sorts who are using statistics to prove the opposite: that we have more cars, more superhighways, more TV sets, motorboats, prepared foods, etc., than ay people ever had before – and are therefore better off than any people ever were before. I can see the burgeoning of this “consumer economy” and can appreciate some of its attractions and comforts. But that economy has an inside and an outside; from the outside there are other things to be seen.

            I am writing this in the north-central part of Kentucky on a morning near the end of June…






About earthyearth

from brooklyn, nebraska.

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