Thursday, February 19, 2015

Permanence In Place

     I was reading today -- re-reading, actually -- in Wendell Berry's book,  A Place on Earth.  It is one of his earliest works of fiction, written about fifty years ago in the early 60s.  The book is about people who were living in a Kentucky farming community in the mid-40s, twenty years earlier, in the closing days of the Second World War.  Wendell Berry lived that life himself as an observant boy of eleven or twelve, listening to what the older folks were saying and the stories that they told about their lives.  Twenty years later, he was writing those stories.  When you read A Place on Earth, you are reading a whole lot of well-told truth.

     In one of his stories, a fifty-ish farmer named Mat Feltner is walking in one of his fields, and talking with his young daughter-in-law, Hannah, who is far along in her first pregnancy, carrying his grandchild.  They have recently received word from the government that her husband Virgil, his son, has been reported missing in action in the war, and they are coming to terms with the knowledge that this means, really, that he is dead.  He will not be coming back to his family, or the farm, or his unborn child.

     Here is a snippet of the conversation that caught my attention:  Mat is telling Hannah about a conversation he had had with Virgil a few years earlier, when Virgil had first begun farming for himself and had made a serious, destructive mistake in how he had cared for a plowed field:

     ". . . I told him that a man's life is always dealing with permanence -- that the most dangerous kind of irresponsibility is to think of your doings as temporary.  That, anyhow, is what I've tried to keep before myself.  What you do on the earth, the earth makes permanent."

     Wendell Berry, speaking in the voice of Mat Feltner, says, "What you do on the earth, the earth makes permanent."  And so it does.  But most of us do not live much on the permanent earth.  Instead we live mostly in cars, or in buildings, or in McMansions, or in front of electronic screens flickering with data and commercials and entertainment, and none of these is even remotely permanent to us -- they are simply conveyances that get us safely and comfortably from this morning to this night.  And our far horizons -- and we all have them -- are often no farther than the next season of sports, the next installment of the franchised movie, the next job, the next election, the next war, the next person we look forward to hooking up with and having an "its complicated" relationship with on social media.  For a couple of generations now we have talked easily of "starter houses"; and indeed it makes no sense for most of us to live our lives in the same place from marriage to old age.  And now we have girls and young women frankly talking about "starter husbands" -- will the next guy we plan to hook up with be the one that we have a wedding with, and then a kid or two, and then divorce for someone better?

     "The most dangerous kind of irresponsibility is to think of your doings as temporary," Mat Feltner says, and I think he is right.  And I think that there has been a lot of irresponsibility recently, and for a long time past, and I'm not seeing it getting better right now.

     I am very sorry that the ISIS murderers are proudly killing their enemies, abusing their own citizens, and executing their prisoners.  I am also sorry that these ISIS killers were recruited, armed, and trained by agencies of our own government (as well as the governments of our "allies" in NATO and the Middle East), acting under the bi-partisan oversight of our politicians, duly and democratically chosen by us in elections that are shams, orchestrated by corporate powers and brought to us by the media for our faux "approval" or our equally faux "outrage," as the case may be.

     The soldiers and civilians who have died -- "ours" and "theirs" -- are permanently DEAD.  Those who have had arms and legs blown off by IEDs are crippled for life.  The wedding parties blown up by our brave drone warrior-pilots, the children in Gaza burned by exploding shells filled with white phosphorus, or the ones in Afghanistan maimed when they picked up the exploding "toys," the depleted-uranium dust scattered around Iraq twenty-some years ago that has induced hideous birth defects, the "Gulf War syndrome" that has affected many thousands of our veterans and that our government has avoided taking care of --

     Plenty of people can always be found who will volunteer to kill people and smash things; and they need nothing more than boundless energy to fulfill their visions, so I suppose that if we can just keep the military spending at current levels (with supplemental appropriations for active wars, of course), they can do what they want, or like, or need, to do.

     And then there are plenty of people, really a whole lot of them, you know, who just like to watch!  Can we have some more shock and awe, please?  Fire?  Explosions?  With a self-serving of grief and tears and grim determination?  Some designated enemies to fulfill our need for "two minutes of hate"?  Give us sound and fury, even if it signifies nothing.  Especially if it signifies nothing.  We'll just think of our doings as only temporary.  What do you mean, "It's the irresponsible thing to do?" Hell, it's not the irresponsible thing to do, it's the right thing to do.  After all, we can endlessly reconfigure "reality," as you can see.  Praise the Lord and pass another war "resolution."

     Of course there are always some people left who get to try to pick up the pieces.  That would have been you, Mat Feltner and Hannah, in your day.  And Virgil, if he had lived.  But he didn't.  And the baby about to be born, too, I guess.

     Now its our call.  Or our calling.  Or not.  Anyway, it's our situation.  Serious, permanent damage, much of it difficult or impossible to reverse.

     Well, I was originally going to write something engagingly alliterative about place, permanence, and patience, and I didn't get to the patience bit.  I got sidetracked there, thinking about all the damage that has been done.  It will not be repaired in my lifetime.






1 comment:

  1. One of the main problems, of course, is that permanence is a terrible business model. If a (ahem) corporation developed a product that properly worked permanently, there would be no repeat customers. This must be avoided at all costs. "Planned obsolescence," and all that.

    Elsewhere, Bro. Wendell has written:

    Love the quick profit, the annual raise,
    vacation with pay. Want more
    of everything ready-made. Be afraid
    to know your neighbors and to die.
    And you will have a window in your head.
    Not even your future will be a mystery
    any more. Your mind will be punched in a card
    and shut away in a little drawer.
    When they want you to buy something
    they will call you. When they want you
    to die for profit they will let you know.