Our Only World
The following are bits of essays I borrowed from Wendell Berry. This is taking a calculated chance. Having read many of his books over the years (some purchased, others borrowed ) I am following Wendell’s own premise that the ownership of words and ideas is absurd – he only lays claim to their arrangement on the page. In this case, I’m arranging his words on a page. Mostly gleamed from his 2015 book OUR ONLY WORLD, I’ve borrowed from these essays:
1. Less Energy, More Life 2. On Receiving One of the Dayton Literary Peace Prizes
3. Contempt for Small Places 4. On Being Asked for a Narrative of the Future
I have also included a portion of a separate Wendell Berry essay, Compromise, Hell! As usual, images are added to help bolster the narrative. Hopefully, you find some sensibility in all this.
Cheers – Bruce
Condensed excerpts from Our Only World
by Wendell Berry
Book liner notes:
The planet’s environmental problems respect no national boundaries. From soil erosion and population displacement to climate change and failed energy policies, American governing classes are paid by corporations to pretend that debate is the only democratic necessity and that solutions are capable of withstanding endless delay. Late Capitalism goes about its business of finishing off the planet.
Farmer in Ottawa Valley, August 2005 – photo by Bruce Witzel
If we want to do better, we will have to recognize the old mistake as a mistake… We can respond rationally to this predicament only by honest worry, unrelenting caution, and propriety of scale…
Swiss chard and celery in our cold-frame March 3, 2021 – bruce witzel photo
We will have to repudiate the too-simple industrial standards and replace them with comprehensive standard of ecological health, realizing that this standard involves necessarily the humane obligation of neighbourliness to other humans and to other creatures. This means that all our uses of the natural world must be governed by our willingness to learn the nature of every place, and to submit to nature’s limits and requirements…
Mono Lake, California October 2012 – photo by Bruce Witzel
In this collection of essays, Wendell Berry confronts head-on the necessity of clear thinking and direct action…
Wendell Berry at his farm in Kentucky – photo by Guy Mendes
Found Essays from (and by) Wendell Berry
We must not speak or think of the land alone or of the people alone, but always and only of both together. If we want to save the land, we must save the people who belong to the land. If we want to save the people, we must save the land the people belong to…
Since the beginning of the conservation effort … conservationists have too often believed that we could protect the land without protecting the people… If conservationists hope to save even the wild lands and wild creatures, they are going to have to address issues of economy, which is to say issues of the health of the landscapes and the towns and cities where we do our work, and the quality of that work, and the well-being of the people who do the work.
Bar U Ranch Historic Site on the Eastern Slope of Canadian Rockies near Oldman River – photo by Bruce Witzel
Governments seem to be making the opposite error, believing that the people can be adequately protected without protecting the land… If we know that coal is an exhaustible resource, whereas the forests over it are with proper use inexhaustible, and that strip mining destroys the forest virtually forever, how can we permit this destruction?
If we honor at all that fragile creature the topsoil, so long in the making, so miraculously made, so indispensable to all life, how can we destroy it?
. . . Like a lot of people I know, I am concerned about mountain top removal and climate change. But when we delay our concern until dangers have become sensational we are late. . . Even if we are too late, we must still accept responsibility and try to make things better.
Some of the recently proposed coal projects in southern Alberta lie within the Oldman watershed and would draw water from the headwater tributaries that have been previously largely untouched by industry. Map: Carol Linnitt / The Narwhal
Rachel Herbert and her family have been ranching in the Porcupine Hills of Southern Alberta for four generations. Now, she’s concerned how proposed coal mines will impact the local water supply which she and her neighbours all rely on.
Photo: Canadian Angus Association
The industrial economy, from agriculture to war, is by far the most violent the world has ever known, and we are all complicit in its violence…
Toy truck and my lumber – bruce witzel photo
There is in fact no significant difference of means between weapons of massive destruction and the technologies of industrial production. The means are invariably combustion (internal and external) and poison (by intention, accident, or “act of God”)…
Sault St. Marie, August 9, 2005 – bruce witzel photo
But surely, by now, the official rationalizations of our violence have become to obviously hypocritical to be ignored. Violence against our world and our fellow human beings finally cannot be disassociated from the violence of falsehood.
How can we continue to insist that our land destroying, water and air-polluting agriculture is the only way “feed the world”, especially since we have now devoted so much of it to “biofuels” to feed our automobiles? ….
Moreover: Why should we continue to believe that our government is uniquely to be trusted with our weapons of mass destruction, whereas other nations are not to be trusted with theirs? …. What does trustworthiness mean in relation to possession of such weapons?
Why is the cost of our wars now paid almost exclusively by the young people in the armed services, who must pay with their bodies and their lives? …. Why do not our patriotic trustees of the common good, upon consenting to a war, not resign from their offices and volunteer to put their own “boots to the ground”?
Such questions no doubt are merely naive…
Living Memorial Sculpture Garden, Weed California October 8, 2012 – bruce witzel photo
We speak of freedom, of our God-given freedom, of defending, using, and enjoying freedom, as if something memorized in grade school and never thought about again. We might as well be talking in our sleep. We have been so thoughtless and careless of our freedom for so long that by now we cannot see that our assumed right to be limitlessly violent would finally bring us to a violence against freedom that may destroy it…
The general purpose of the present economy is to exploit, not to foster or conserve…
Clear cut logging site on North Vancouver Island March 01, 2018 – bruce witzel photo
Maybe we could give up saving the world and start to live savingly in it. If using less energy would be a good idea for the future, that is because it is a good idea.
The government could enforce such a saving by rationing fuels, as it did during World War Two… But to wish for good sense from the government only displaces good sense into the future, where it is no use to anybody…
On the contrary, so few as just one of us can save energy right now by self-control, careful thought, and remembering the lost virtue of frugality. Spending less, burning less, traveling less may be a relief. A cooler, slower life may make us happier, more present to ourselves and to others who need us to be present… The government might even do the right thing by imitating the people…
If we are serious about these big problems, we have got to see that the solutions begin and end with ourselves. Thus we put an end to our habit of over simplification. If we want to stop the impoverishment of the land and people, we ourselves must be prepared to become poorer…
We must understand that fossil fuel energy must be replaced, not just by “clean” energy, but also by less energy. The unlimited use of any energy would be as destructive as unlimited economic growth or any other unlimited growth. If we had a limitless supply of free, non-polluting energy, we would use the world up even faster than we are using it up now.
If we are not in favor of limiting the use of energy, starting with our own use of it, then we are not serious. If we are not in use of rationing energy, starting with fossil fuels, we are not serious. If we have the money and are not willing to pay two dollars to keep the polluting industries from getting one, we are not serious.
Travelling down to southern Vancouver Island to be with Francis in Victoria 2008
At the North end of Vancouver Island
If, on the contrary, we become determined to keep the industries of poison, explosion, and fire from determining our lives and the world’s fate, then we will steadfastly reduce our dependence on them and our payments of money to them.
We will cease to invest our health, our lives, and our money in them. Then finally we will be serious enough, our efforts complex and practical enough. By so improving our lives, we will improve the possibility of life…
Kentucky River flows behind Berry in this 2012 image, taken by his former student Guy Mendes.
Only the present good is good. It is the presence of good – good work, good thoughts, good acts, good places – by which we know that the present does not have to be a nightmare of the future. “The kingdom of God is at hand” because, if not at hand, it is nowhere.
8 thoughts on “Our Only World”
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Wonderful post! If I eat less, consume less, and by doing so, gain the freedom to live on less, thus charging my clients less….. IF I seek to support those things that ensure continued life, among many fronts, while also standing against the fronts that single-mindedly insist no living thing should ever ‘die’, I may find my way through the morass of so many voices yelling for ‘this, that or the other’ to be ‘handled’ just now. I surmise, I’ve read Wendell Berry, before now, but I doubt I have any of his works on my bookshelf – and yet, what you posted here, makes sense to me AND I agree with on this, that, the other fronts – all of which, for my daily life? Always means choosing – for myself, my backyard, local neighbors (humans, flora and fauna – I list humans separately because they are the loudest on driving forth what is wanted, just now…NOW!). Sigh – thanks for posting – enjoyed the read through and well, for myself, for good or ill? I’m ‘right there with ya’ and Wendell, on oh, so many fronts
To live more with less…. Yes! Not always easy in our consumer society. A no brainer, living a conservor lifestyle.,, it takes more heart. And ingenuity, Wendell Berry lives by example and though we can’t follow exactly his way, much of it is possible for any person… discerning between our wants and needs is key…also, to recognize the necessary sacrifices we all must make for the common good. Impossible when individual freedom supersedes all,
Yes. I have, for the past few years, over and over, re-visited the Zero-Sum game so many buy into, or feels like they do – very nice people, some who I love, some who I work with, some who I know. both the ‘I have to take care of me in order to be there for others” but also the ‘If I win, someone else loses, and that’s just the way it is’ – – I feel like Zero Sum thinking and Survival of the fittest are somehow, in my mind, the holy grail root, and yet, it seems to me, humans get lost in their brain on that one trajectory, including me at times – in my various own coping mechanisms, “I have been hungry before and went without food so my children could eat” becomes “I made a lot $ this month – so I order in more non-perishable food stores, seeds, tools and supplies’ to start the garden I have been working on for nearly 9 years. :). I have more supplies stocked than I have energy to put to use, just now! When I had money to purchase, I was working so many hours 7 days a week, I didn’t have time to build. I have sold off supplies I decided were from fronts I may not explore anymore, or aren’t a priority (yarn to make things for local farmer’s market) etc., but, on small scale? I did my own ‘haording’ bit, too, on various fronts, as in, taking castoffs from others, purchasing pieces of infrastructure I’ve yet to install/put to work, and I think, “how am I any different from the CEO of a global investment company?” – LOL. The supplies are just sitting there – they are my ‘investment in the future’ – etc. I say all these things while pointing out my own foibles. Sigh – at this point, I have to seriously revisit my long ago thought of ‘so, our frontal cortext/lobe is what set’s us apart, but it is our greatest gift OR is it potentially, our greatest enemy?? That said, I’m glad I didn’t kill myself to go out and start various seeds or remove mulch from done areas – – it’s still snowstorm/hard freeze season – but, I’m a cautious gambler at heart – if I don’t get infastructure built/in place this spring, maybe NEXT fall, I’ll be ready and set for 4-season gardening where I live! LOL. thanks for listening. I replied, because, I just figured, you’d understand my arguing with myself on various fronts – LOL
I am always so interested in what you have to share, and I agree with you about concerns (concern; a very weak word) relating to environmental protections. I am, of course, deeply saddened when I read of vulnerability of Canadian waterways, and we in the United States have an incredibly cavalier attitude about our “freedom” to take, use, and abuse what we “want now” and not concern ourselves with what we leave our children and grandchildren. I’ll never understand.
I wonder if you’ve heard about the innumerable barrels of toxic waste laced with DDT that have been discovered off the coast of Long Beach/Catalina, California? They were dumped in the 1940s and are only now discovered. The damage to marine life and who knows about human health, goes beyond what I can even grasp.
I just bought “Our Only World” a month ago! I wanted to support our local independent bookstore after months of it being outside my ability to visit, and this was one of the books I wanted to own. Your post encourages me to put aside some others I was reading and dive right into Wendell Berry! Thank you, Bruce.
Hi Debra… I hadn’t heard of the deteriorating disposed barrels of DDT recently found off of Long Beach… how terrible is that, and especially so near such a large metropolitan area! Immediately it made me think of your daughter’s recent illness. And although I have always thought that our Canadian attitudes although have important nuanced differences that that of many U.S. citizens, I believe we have for much more in common (some good, some bad)…. for example, YES… this cavalier view of freedom and wants.
Such serendipity that you have also recently purchased “Our Only World”. This time I did a library loan, and after I returned it I immediately re-read his much earlier book Sex, Economy, Freedom and Community. And then as I just now looked for the title of that book on our bookshelf I discovered another of his books, “Home Economics. So I pulled it out for for a re-read too (thanks to your comment).
I generally don’t go for many U-tubes but I was so inspired by “Our Only World” I looked for a few… my favorite was Wendell Berry’s “Thoughts in the Presence of Fear” where he reads from an essay he wrote within days of 9/11
It is quite lengthy though … 45 minutes. I’ll add the link below, if you were so inclined. I love the way he builds up in his essay, point after point… for me it was more like prayerful discernment or powerful treatise, rather than a documentary.
Take care Debra.
Wendell Berry’s every word is filled with truth and wisdom. Thanks for sharing.
Wendell Berry is a gem. I’m also a big fan of Joel Salatin. Thanks for this, Bruce.
Your welcome and I’m glad you like Wendell Berry, I have heard of Joel Salatin but not read him yet. I will have to look for a book of his. Thanks for that, Janet,