One of my favorite authors is the agrarian writer, Wendell Berry. He’s a poet, an essayist, an activist for agriculture policy reform, an advocate for the endangered family farm, and best of all, a serious, old-time, practicing farmer working his land with draft horses at Port Royal, Kentucky.
I recently indulged myself in the purchase of two of his books of poetry, A Timbered Choir: The Sabbath Poems 1979-1997 (Berkeley, CA: Counterpoint, 1998), and Leavings (Berkeley, CA: Counterpoint, 2010). I find Berry as good as it gets in writing poems at once terse and elegantly simple yet laden with message and meaning. Berry does not write to obscure; he writes to express and to communicate.
For more than 20 years he’s invested his “sabbaths” in solitary walks to his timbered cathedral, a stand of old-growth trees on his Kentucky farm he has refused to cut down or sell. Out of his silent reveries come his “Sabbath Poems” which are quiet reflections on nature, man, work, culture, and modernity.
Here’s an example:
If we have become a people incapable
of thought, then the brute-thought
of mere power and mere greed
will think for us.
If we have become incapable
of denying ourselves anything,
then all that we have
will be taken from us.
If we have no compassion,
we will suffer alone, we will suffer
alone the destruction of ourselves.
These are merely the laws of this world
as known to Shakespeare, as known to Milton:
When we cease from human thought,
a low and effective cunning
stirs in the most inhuman minds.
Berry’s point about nurturing our humanity and cultivating compassion resonates in me. Interestingly, the concepts of intelligence, humanity, and compassion merge in our language in our word “humane.”
But the discovery for me, an urban transplant to the countryside, is how my exposure to animals has deepened my ‘humanity’ and I’m not ashamed to say, has made me a better human being. Living with donkeys, goats, sheep, chickens, pond fish, and of course, Scotties and cats has sensitized me to the Others with whom we share our planet and more particularly to the truth that the Others have value and soul as real as my own. To know a Scottish Terrier, not merely as extension of yourself, but as a being of habits, joys, pains, and purposes not unlike my own, is to sense the folly of the self-privileging “lower animals” thinking which too easily justifies heedlessly exploiting animals, trees, earth, and Nature.
Berry is onto important truth when he cautions that humane sensibilities neglected are replaced by a “low and effective cunning” that stirs “in the most inhuman minds.”
I don’t think of my donkeys, goats, chickens –and I certainly don’t think of my Scotties or cats — as “brutes” or “beasts.” But I do think those labels fit pilfering low-lives who steal from honest, hard-working others. The labels fit because low and effective cunning minds trash the humane in their heart, devolving into lower life forms. Put another way, such brutes lose their way in a profound sense: their humanity warps by losing the humane from their souls.
The more I’m around my animals the clearer it is to me that “brute” is misapplied when labeling creatures great and small. It’s we humans who are the most dangerous animal on the planet.
I believe my Scotties and donkeys are agreed on this one: It’s the so-called “higher life-forms” on planet earth who sorely need Berry’s ’sabbath’ gentling.
Joseph Harvill, publisher Great Scots Magazine