|A murder of crows, lurking|
In the midst of global uncertainty, the only wise thing to do, it seems, is to construct bulwarks against approaching darkness: war, disaster, disease, or whatever else draws near. In my case, the protective bastion is built of people. Writers, to be exact: William Morris, George Eliot, Pearl Buck, Ursula K. Le Guin, Jamaica Kincaid, Kim Stanley Robinson. Wendell Berry, Margaret Renkl.
There are many others, of course, but these are the ones whose wisdom, perspectives, words, and examples provide me with protection against the weight of this particular moment. They all offer insights that furnish mortar for shoring up my sense of hope that things will, some day, change--in some more positive direction.
Margaret Renkl writes for the New York Times, and two collections of her essays have been published by Milkweed Editions: Late Migrations (2019) and Graceland, At Last (2021). The latter has recently won multiple literary awards, including the PEN/Diamonstein-Spielvogel Award for the Art of the Essay. Her most recent essay for the Times, "What to Do With Spring's Wild Joy in a Burning World," quite literally brought me to tears, when I had been wondering about how one even begins to enjoy the early spring practice of phenology when Ukraine's life and landscape are being obliterated by an unjust, undeserved war, and climate change is reaching multiple tipping points. Renkl's thoughtful, lyrical essay, however, reminds us to recognize and enjoy the non-human beauty of the world if only for a moment:
The world is burning, and there is no time to put down the water buckets.
For just an hour, put down the water buckets anyway.
Take your cue from the bluebirds, who have no faith in the future
but who build the future nevertheless, leaf by leaf and straw by straw,
shaping them and turning them into a sheltering roundness
perfectly fitted to the contours of the future they are making.
I don't have to feel too self-indulgent, however, because there are few signs of spring so far in north Texas, where our not really being southern (Renkl lives in Nashville) means that we enjoy several warm days, and then succumb to more winter weather. But the anoles are beginning to sneak out from their hiding places, and the Byzantine gladioli are beginning to poke up. And I've plucked my first daffodils--just in time for them to get frozen down again at the weekend.
Wendell Berry, who has been shaping my thought for the last fifty years or so, was recently featured in a New Yorker profile by Dorothy Wickenden: "Wendell Berry's Advice for a Cataclysmic Age." The news that he's got a new book coming out, The Need To Be Whole, couldn't have come at a better time, and the essay reminded me of the manifold contributions Barry has made to raising my consciousness (and those of myriad "boomers" like me) over the years.
In an effort to re-inject my psyche with Berry's ability to imagine a life richer and more environmentally fulfilling than the current norm, I ordered the first volume of the Library of America edition of his Port William novels and stories. I've been reading his essays several times a year for decades, but have never read any of the novels. Now is probably the perfect time to start. And just this morning, while following Molly about the garden as she probes the mulched leaf litter for emerging wildlife, I carried about my old copy of A Continuous Harmony: Essays Cultural & Agricultural, in which appears one of my favorite essays: "Think Little." A particularly pertinent observation (among many others) provides an idea of why Berry's thinking might have touched a chord in my growing awareness about the consequences of what was going on in 1970:
Odd as I am sure it will appear to some,
I can think of no better form of personal involvement
in the cure of the environment than that of gardening.
A person who is growing a garden, if he is growing it
organically, is improving the world.
Berry reminds us, throughout his life and work, that by living on this planet, we must own our part in its destruction. Each one of us really has to do what we can--even if it's only cultivating a little garden--to stave off destruction. And there is always more we can do.
Perhaps the fact that the folks I'm turning to now aren't all old dead white guys (though some are guys, and some are dead, and most are white), indicates that none of them have been fads left over from particular moments of angst in the past or simply bits of canon that stuck around on my bookshelves over the years. Some, like George Eliot (a concurrent project to reading Berry's novels is re-reading Middlemarch), I'll write about later. Some I've written about recently. All have contributed to my abiding love for the environment and have fostered my sense of place. And it's because of them that I still find some good reasons for soldiering on in these very bleak times.
Image note: an iPhone shot of a noisy gathering of doom-omens in the as-yet not-budding pecans overhead.
Editorial note: I wrote on Margaret Renkl in March of 2020 here.