“It is maybe most of all … silence that they are so intent to guard themselves against. And there is indeed a potential terror in it. It raises, still, all the old answerless questions of origins and ends. It asks a man what is the use and the worth of his life.” — Wendell Berry
It was probably ten years ago or so now when I first picked up a copy of Wendell Berry’s collection of essays, The Long-Legged House at Powell’s Bookstore in Portland with a good friend, now deceased, who had introduced me to Berry’s work some years before. Cliché, but I was immediately captured by the timelessness of his concerns articulated in this 1965 publication—a theme that runs through much of his work. His essay found therein, titled ‘Nature Consumers,’ along with chapter two, book one of Thomas A. Kempis’ The Imitation of Christ, is among the few most influential pieces of literature I’ve ever read, having revisited each of these chapters dozens of times. It doesn’t have to be brilliant—it need only hit you at the right time and space.
They have each become so ingrained in my psyche that I find myself regularly quoting them and referencing them without actually referencing them—you know, when something becomes so familiar to you that it is less a reference than it is your own exhale. Many have heard me say, “We are all frail; consider none more frail than yourself,” which comes straight from that chapter in Kempis’ Imitation.
Reading “Nature Consumers” was a pivotal moment in my life not simply because of the new ways of thinking he brought, but for the way that he encapsulated my own thoughts so well. And now, every time I look to the sky or sit around a campfire in thought—every time I walk in the woods or sit down to a cup of coffee in the chilling autumn air of Alaska’s wilderness—I think of him.
Many years ago I checked online to see if somebody had posted the entirety of the essay or something close and at that time there was nothing—I couldn’t even find anyone referencing it. I’m happy to see that some have since written their own versions of this, my ode to Berry and the impact that his essay has had on my life. I decided nonetheless to add my own voice to that chorus, more than happy to not be the first—though hopeful I won’t be the last.
When reading this excerpt, which is about 95% of the total essay, remember that he is writing in 1965 or thereabouts. The concrete items he discusses (e.g., ‘speedboats’ or ‘motorized technology’) or examples he uses can easily be substituted. I do that every time I read it and I encourage you to as well.
At times it seems that Berry, who as far as I know isn’t a very religious man if he is at all (it doesn’t particularly matter), is demonstrating the “homo religiosus” of man. The longings and groaning found there can be as easily (nay, more easily) directed to the Good than the material found by Paul in the Athenian Areopagus.
Assuming he still lives there, Berry long made his home along the banks of the Kentucky River and much of his work springs forth from and returns to his farm and the surrounding land. It is the seminal foundation he returns to again and again when speaking about things ranging from the vocation of a writer to what it means to be a citizen or how farming should be done, be it found in his poetry, stories or social commentaries. In “Nature Consumers” he starts right there and asks why the people come to the land or any other place where the longings within us can be most cultivated and ends with an indictment that most of us can identify with in one way or another.
* * *
We were awakened shortly after sunrise one Sunday morning by a woman’s voice imitating a top sergeant over a public address system. The amplifier was turned up to such volume that the sound seemed to come from all directions. The air was full of it. It could have been heard a mile away. Such a noise blasting into our sleep might have been alarming if it had not been so easy to guess the source: On the night before two cabin cruisers had tied up a hundred yards or so downriver from our house, and this was their method of waking up. That morning it had to be our method, too.
The P.A. system continued at full volume for maybe two hours: first the woman’s strident sergeant imitation, waking up her fellow boatmen, and then radio music. Finally I went down to where the boats were tied and asked that the speaker be turned down, and was told by one of the boatmen: ‘We didn’t know anybody lived around here.’
There was no need to repeat all that was said, but the boatman made one other remark that surprised me. When I insisted that he had no right to create such a disturbance, he said: ‘We’re on the river, you know.’
I came home shortly after dark one night to see the light of a campfire on the shore of the river below the house, and when I stopped my car I could hear rock ‘n’ roll coming up from a radio. Several men, their boats moored at the shore, were sitting around the fire, drinking and talking, their conversation enclosed in music as it would have been in a bar. I told them they were welcome, and asked only that they carry off their bottles and other garbage.
One of the men replied: ‘Why, we’re boatmen.’
His tone implied that my request was so unnecessary as to be insulting—that boatmen were not only respectful of the river but, as a group, especially respectful of it.
The next morning when I went back the boats were gone, and the rocks were strewn with bottles and with plastic and paper trash. The place had hardly been used, much less respected—it had been perched upon, befouled, ignored. Having spent the night there, those men doubtlessly did not recognize it on their way back.
I remember from two or three years ago a young couple who came to spend a vacation camping beside the river. Their car and camping trailer stopped on the road, and the young man got out. Even then he was wearing a pistol. He asked about a camping place, and I told him where to find one.
He made his camp on the riverbank, not far from the place where I came to work every day. He rented a rowboat from the man on whose place he camped, and the next morning went out on the river to fish. He was using the old-time leisurely equipment: pole and line, float, sinker, and hook. But her never stayed still long enough to fish. He rowed first to one place and then another and then another, the red-and-white float bobbing frantically in his wake. He could stay in any place no more than a few minutes, and when he moved he rowed with all his might. Now and then he rowed down to his camping place and called to his wife, who apparently would not leave the trailer. At almost regular intervals he drew his pistol and fired it—what at, I don’t know.
For two more days he went on in that way, rowing the boat from one place to another in the same aimless haste. He never did really fish. His wife never road with him in the boat. And at the same nervous intervals I continued to hear the report of his pistol.
On the fourth morning he rented from the same man an old speedboat, and spent the whole day trying to make the motor run. He would pull the starter rope, and make an adjustment, and pull the rope again. The motor would start and run a few hundred feet—to whet his appetite—and die. The sun burned down on the river, and the day wasted, and he pulled the rope and tinkered with the engine and pulled the rope.
The next day they were gone.
“He had made clear the sort of vacation he wanted: a simple, quiet, restful time in a natural place. But he had proved as immune to that, as alien to the possibility, as if he had never thought of it. Because he could not be still, the place could not exist for him.”
He had made clear the sort of vacation he wanted: a simple, quiet, restful time in a natural place. But he had proved as immune to that, as alien to the possibility, as if he had never thought of it. He had stayed as remote from the place he had come to as if he had never left the city where he lived. The longed-for time had come, and passed: three days of terrible restlessness, and a day of terrible frustration. He has become a symbol, to me, of an alienation from the world that I believe to be common among us, and on the increase. Because he could not be still, the place could not exist for him. If his restlessness could have found expression in horsepower—if he had had a motorboat that could run—how many miles would he have traveled in those few days? How many places would he have marked with his oblivious passage?
Our house stands on a slope overlooking the Kentucky River a few miles from its entrance into the Ohio at Carrollton. It has been a long time since this was a ‘natural river.’ A system of navigation locks and dams was built in the last century, and the land of the bottoms has been intensively farmed as any in Kentucky. Yet, for those who know where and how to look, the valley still has a rich natural life. In the summers we see wood ducks and muskrats raising their young along the banks. The great blue heron fishes here. In the woods on the bluffs and around the slews there are still enough big trees for pileated woodpeckers to make a living. At night we often hear the awesome family talk of barred owls, or the barking of a fox. Occasionally we see deer. And beavers have begun to appear again on the banks of the river and its bigger tributaries where they were exterminated long before anybody now living can remember.
Here and there on the wooded slopes of the valley are tall open groves of a solemn beauty that keep, as if in a profound interior withheld from the ceaseless drone of engines, a fragment of the great quietness that two centuries ago lay upon the whole valley. The delicate flowers and mosses and ferns and the colorful mushrooms of the woods grow there. The voice of those places is that of the wood thrush, whose notes, without replacing the quiet, flow into it from some hidden perch—and into the hearing of whoever may be there, to attach itself like a clarifying emblem on the memory. In rainy times the streams step noisily and brilliantly down the rocky notches. If one can respond to the quiet of those places with quiet, and with enough attention, the woods will reveal its lives: squirrels and chipmunks leading the eyes into unsuspected places among the treetops and among roots and rocks and fallen logs on the ground; vireos and warblers singing and feeding in the dense foliage; water thrushes searching the edges of rocky pools.
Knowing this valley, once one has started to know it, is clearly no casual matter. Like all country places, it is both complex and reticent. It cannot be understood by passing through. It does not, like Old Faithful, gush up its inwards on schedule so as to not delay the hurrying traveler. Its wonders were commonplace and shy. Knowing them is an endless labor and, if one can willingly expend the labor, an endless pleasure.
I am not sure how one would judge a valley or compare it to any other. I guess that this one must be as attractive as most. To me, because I have been its inhabitant and intimate, it is the most attractive of all. I know that among all the other lives it holds and promises there is the possibility of rich hours and days and lives for people.
I have known this valley all my life. From the first it has been a source of pleasure to me, an object of interest and curiosity, an attraction. Every day I am here I learn more about it, and the more I learn the more clearly I see that my knowledge of it is one of its fragments.
The one part of its history that I have known from the beginning is the pleasure-boat era. Since the end of World War II motorboats have increase from rarity to such prevalence that on summer holidays and weekends the traffic is comparable to that on a highway. There are days when the river will not grow quiet from the wake of one boat before it is disturbed again by the passing of another, and these boats frequently travel in groups of a dozen or two.
The episodes that begin these notes are not typical of the behavior of vacationers on this river. But I think that they are symptomatic, and that they clarify some of the meanings of the boating phenomenon, and I am disturbed by what I think those meanings are.
“…in the very unconsciousness it becomes an aspect of one of our worst national failings: our refusal to admit the need to be conscious.”
The generalization that the activities of the boatmen tend to support is that, in relation to the natural world, the pleasure of Americans can be destructive in the same way that their work has already proved to be. It is not, certainly, a conscious destructiveness. But in the very unconsciousness it becomes an aspect of one of our worst national failings: our refusal to admit the need to be conscious. Or to put it more meaningfully: our refusal to admit that unconsciousness, in our time, is almost inevitably destructive. The destructiveness of the boatmen is of a peculiarly modern kind. It is essentially the same destructiveness of certain industries, and it has the same causes: the use of powerful machines, and the discarding of more or less imperishable refuse. The destructiveness of the boatmen differs from that of industry mainly in the sad paradox that the boatmen destroy what they supposedly want to keep. They do not intend to exploit or damage anything. They have come to enjoy the river—and their enjoyment of it damages it. They do not use it as a fisherman uses it, leaving it as it was; they use it as clothing is used, leaving it always a little worse for the wear. They are the consumers of the river.
The aspect of this destructiveness that has attracted most attention, and has finally become the object of a state law, is the dumping of trash into the water. Of all the boating offenses this is certainly the most noticeable, and in many ways it is the most disgusting. An amount of trash that would be a relatively minor eyesore on a highway will deface the river for miles, carried and dispersed on the currents. One Fourth of July, while we ate a picnic on the riverbank, we watched a procession of bottles and cans and wadded papers from a lunch being served on a boat a few hundred yards up the shore. That sort of thing can give the open country a feeling of almost urban crowdedness. Much of the reuse that gets into the river is, of course, thrown in from the shores, and washed out of dumps by high water. But there is some that is just as certainly attributable to the boatmen. I have seen, for instance, whole table settings of paper and plastic dishes floating along together….
[These worries are]… hardly a part of the boatman’s experience. Speeding along, he has before him a tranquil river scene, peaceful and enticing as if pictured in a tourist brochure. When the shores begin to churn and the water to cloud with mud from the violence of his passing, he is not there….
There is another destructiveness involved in this sport that is less easy to understand, but that once explained may help to explain the rest. The use of these fast and powerful boats is not only destructive of the river and of the pleasure of other people; there is a sense, it seems to me, in which it is destructive of the pleasure of the boatmen themselves.
I know that if one of these men were asked to justify his sport he would certainly say that there is pleasure in the ownership and use o f a fine boat, and that there is a pleasure in speed. I would agree. Some of these boats are indeed beautifully made; I understand the satisfaction there would be in the maintenance and use of one. And I also am a creature of time and I know the pleasure of going fast.
But then another question is suggested: If the handling and speed of the boat are the pleasures sought, then why should these people not be content to go round and round or up and down a ten-mile course near their dock? Why should boatmen from Cincinnati and Louisville, who have the wide Ohio to maneuver on, come to a comparatively remote stream like the Kentucky that is narrower, crookeder and more difficult.
“They come to seek the stillness of a natural place, and their way of seeking assures the failure of their search.”
The only answer I can think of involves another pathetic paradox. They come in search of peace and quiet, solitude, some restorative contact with the natural world. Which is a little like going in search of a forest with a logging crew. Once they have got it, they have lost it. They come to seek the stillness of a natural place, and their way of seeking assures the failure of their search. They seek relief from restlessness and anxiety in these expensive, fast, superhorsepowered boats, which are embodiments of restlessness and anxiety. They go toward their desire with such violence of haste that they can never arrive. They go to the country to rest, only to produce their the noise, haste, confusing—and, surely, the frustration—of city traffic.
The boatman’s pursuit of pleasure is determined and limited not by his and his family’s need but by the size and speed of his boat, and so he takes far more than he needs. It may be that he actually gets less pleasure because of taking so much. And the excess of his pleasure, useless to him, is useless to everybody else. Because he takes too much, he creates the possibility that others will have too little. The boatman, then, has become what more and more seems the ideal man of our society: a superconsumer—which is to say, a waster, a ruiner, a benefit to ‘the economy,’ a burden to the world.
The mentality that could support delusions so damaging to itself is strange to the world, alien to creation. It is like a dog that, chasing its own tail, catches it and bites it off. It is both a kind of madness and a kind of unconsciousness, so impenetrable by reason that I could not articulate the questions it raises, much less find answers, until I began to reflect on the two statements of the boatman quoted in the first of these notes.
We didn’t know anybody lived around here.
They had come, one must suppose, in answer to the summons, still much alive in America, that brought some men to the frontier: the attraction of a wild, uninhabited place. And the high wooded banks of this river had permitted an illusion that would have been dissipated by a glance at a road map, or even a moment’s thought. All of Kentucky is inhabited now. The settlers have grown here for nearly two hundred years. The wild country is gone, along with the Indians and the buffalo and the wolves and the elk and the passenger pigeons and the parakeets and nearly all the old forests and much of the fertility of the land. Kentucky is inhabited all right, and for the most part the inhabitants have treated it as if it were uninhabited, or soon would be.
We’re on the river, you know.
He meant, of course, that he was in a public place, not my place, and so I had no right to complain. But I think he meant more than that. A wild, uninhabited place, such as he wanted to believe he had come to, is by the definition of our frontier experience a free place. One has no bosses there, one is free of responsibility and can do purely according to pleasures. How illusory that is proved by the fact that the country is inhabited and that some of the inhabitants objected to anyone’s behaving as if it were not. How illusory it is, and how dangerous, is proved by American history: Those pioneer forebears of ours, so attractively free of responsibility, not only settled the country but also used up the fertility and wealth and beauty of it at a rate that made their lives a disgrace to them and a burden to us. It is invariably damaging when men with neighbors act on the assumption that they are alone. And we are seeing with greater clarity and sorrow every day that the most solitary have had neighbors, and that the loneliest have had heirs.
What troubled me most and longest is that these people, having come within reach of the decent harmless restorative pleasures that I know to be possible here, are oblivious to them, as remote from them as if they were looking at panoramic shots of the valley on a movie screen.
[Note: it is here that everything culminates—where all of us, not simply the ‘boatmen’, are guilty in one way or another… – J]
Propelled at twenty or thirty miles an hour by a roaring engine, one can experience the country only as ‘scenery’—a painted landscape without life or sound. ‘Scenery,’ as we speak the word, involves an oversimplification and falsification of nature. It is landscape with all the vital details excerpted. It is the notion that permits the indulgence of our wish to prettify nature—to pretend that nature is represented by butterflies but not mosquitoes, sunrises and sunsets but not hot noons, moonlight but not darkness, life but not death. But to know the mountain, as John Marin said, it is necessary to know what is on the mountain’s back. One must go close and be still. And that cannot be done with a motor, or with motorized intelligence. At twenty or thirty miles and hour, the countryside can be no more than the pretty package a vacation comes in—to be used like other packages, disposed of as soon as the consents are used up. It is hardly to be kept in mind after it has been used, which means that it is likely to be used carelessly, or even contemptuously.
At night the roar of the engine is replaced by the radio. The watch fires of ancient travelers in the wilderness have their counterparts in the loudly playing radios of these modern voyagers. But it is no longer death that must be guarded against. It is life. What surrounds them now during their night stops is no longer the threat of attack by some enemy or large animal; it is nothing more than the life of the world as it is still serenely and persistently voiced in natural places at night in the sounds of the air and the water and the night creatures, each sound spaced, singled out, surrounded by a silence infinitely greater than it is, reaching to the stars.
“It is maybe most of all that silence that they are so intent to guard themselves against. And there is indeed a potential terror in it. Ir raises, still, all the old answerless questions of origins and ends. It asks man what is the use and the worth of his life.”
It is maybe most of all that silence that they are so intent to guard themselves against. And there is indeed a potential terror in it. Ir raises, still, all the old answerless questions of origins and ends. It asks man what is the use and the worth of his life. It asks him who he thinks he is, and what he thinks he’s doing, and where he thinks he’s going. In it the world and its places and aspects are apt to become present to him, the lives of water and trees and stars surround his life and press their obscure demands. The experience of that silence must be basic to any religious feeling. Once it is attended to, admitted into the head, one must bear a greater burden of consciousness and knowledge—one must change one’s life. If one has nothing in oneself with which to respond it would be unbearable. If the silence within the man should be touched by the impenetrable silence that ultimately surrounds him, what might happen to the thin partition of flesh and possessions. How might they have to be looked on then?
In the face of that silence—enmeshed as he most likely is in the demands of life in which the prevalent motive is to take all you can get, and the ultimate check is everybody else’s determination to do the same—no wonder he turns on the radio. No wonder he opposes the river by strewing on it his garbage and his noise. No wonder he goes as fast as he can. Pursued into the wilderness by questions he is afraid even to ask, no wonder he finds his comfort—to his bewilderment, surely—in what he thought he wanted to be free of: crowdedness and commotion and hurry and mess. He came to a natural place to be free of responsibility, only to receive from it the intimation that he cannot be free, that his life is surrounded by more demands and considerations than he can bear to admit.
Man cannot be independent of nature. In one way or another he must live in relation to it, and there are only two alternatives: the way of the frontiersman, whose response to nature was to dominate it, to assert his presence in it by destroying it; or the way of Thoreau, who went to the natural places to become quiet in them, to learn from them, to be restored by them. To know these places, because to know them is to need them and respect them and be humble before them, is to preserve them. To fail to know them, because ignorance can only be greedy of them, is to destroy them.
Nature has never permitted freedom from responsibility. The world is a most wakeful and exacting account keeper. Abusive and greedy lives are as certainly recorded on the face of the earth as they are said to be in the Book of Doomsday.
But that, the vacationing boatman seems often to conclude, is the world’s fault, and to hell with it—and he dumps his breakfast place over the side.
* * *
The concern I have expressed here is justified less by the damage I have seen done than by the damage I believe certainly will be done if our minds do not change. For boating and the other mechanized pleasures, like everything else in our country now, are on the increase, both in the number of participants and in the power of the equipment. In all that I have said there is an apprehension of the question: If we continue our attempt to enjoy the world, as well as live and work in it, with our need for space increased by many horsepower, and our population getting always bigger, where we are going to find the room? Such a question is addressed not only to the possibility of control by law but to the consciences of persons. I do not believe that all of our abuses of the world can be stopped by law.
What I hope—and it is not an easy hope—is that people will begin to come into the countryside with a clearer awareness of why they come, of what they need from it and of what they owe it. I assume—and it is not an easy assumption—that the world must live in men’s minds if men are to continue to live in the world.
:: sigh ::
His words penetrate deeply with such simplicity, do they not? We all have this longing within us and we know it. Whether it is into the mountains and deserts, or into the quiet of our own homes, we play out this tension between retro- and introspection and the avoidance of it. We need to be confronted with the questions of ‘origins and ends’ and ‘where we are going’ and ‘where have we come from’, but we are scared of what we might hear, what that might mean and where we might have to go from that point. It is an ‘ignorance is bliss’ scenario. Yet, I can say from my heart—not simply from my head—that while the questions and answers can be deeply painful, it is in heeding to them that we find that Path to true Happiness.
Be well. +++
Selected Works and Links