Friday, December 9, 2011

From the Archive: From the Margins (1991), part one

Following up on my last post, I dug deep into my files to find the notes from a presentation I gave at the very beginning of my work in environmental ethics. Doing so has brought me around to acknowledging one of the oldest and deepest of my intellectual debts.

For giving shape to my thought in environmental ethics, and for raising questions about place and character with which I still grapple in every aspect of my life, I owe a debt of gratitude to Wendell Berry.

I first became aware of the field of environmental ethics in 1988 when, as an undergraduate student at Miami University, I enrolled in a course in the subject offered by Stan Kane (to whom I also owe a debt of gratitude). One of our readings for the semester was an essay by Wendell Berry, titled "Preserving Wildness," which had just been published in his collection, Home Economics (1987)

The essay had a profound influence on the direction of my thought but, until this last trip to the archives, I had forgotten just how profound and pervasive was that influence.

The summer following that first introduction I took an unpaid internship with the National Audubon Society, living and working at the Aullwood Center outside Dayton, Ohio. I spent some of my free time there reading as much of Berry's work as I could find, including more of his essays, his collected poems, and the first of his novels about the "membership" of Port William, Kentucky.

My interest in traditional music and dance dates to that summer, though I had never been involved with either, to that point, other than occasional attempts at square dance in gym class and at family weddings. I was swayed by Berry's portrayal of traditional music and dance as woven into the fabric of local community, and as itself weaving the fabric of community, embodying values and ways of connecting not to be found, say, in contemporary pop music, nor in the atomistic gyrations of club dancing.

For some reason, I didn't follow through on transferring my skill on the violin into playing fiddle; I did make a few feeble passes at it that summer, but didn't really know where to start. That would have to wait nearly twenty years.

When I first heard of contra dance, near the end of my first year of graduate school, I leaped at the opportunity.  I learned of it from a young woman in whom I took some interest, which gave me some further incentive to try it. My relationship with that young woman, and our subsequent marriage, have been forged in part on the dance floor, as part of a community of people brought together in keeping an old tradition alive and growing.

I also gained from Berry's work an inescapable tension with my own life history. His own story is one of venturing away from, then returning to, his home place, a farm in northern Kentucky. Because of his practice as a farmer, he has ways of connecting with a landscape that I can only imagine, and then only at the risk of romanticizing them.

My home place was a house in the suburbs, a place to which there could be no returning: not only had my parents already moved on to a smaller condominium, but the broader suburban landscape seems always to be in flux. It is a restless landscape, with elements and people always shifting this way and that, which makes it difficult to forge enduring connections with places or with people. It is also a very demanding landscape, a landscape of consumption rather than production.

This is the tension: I was learning to value and to valorize landscapes and ways of life I could not adopt as my own. My upbringing had already made me, in a sense, a foreigner in my own land.

I could easily have ended up as an absurdity: a child of the postwar suburbs, with no dirt under my fingernails, blathering on about the nobility of farm labor; an itinerant intellectual, moving from state to state (in my early career) to find academic positions in which to teach students the importance of staying home and cultivating local community; a rootless man singing the praises of those who have deep roots.

In this light, my decision to take suburbs and, later, metropolitan growth as the practical focus of my work could be seen as one way of resolving that tension or, at least, confronting it and working through it. If the suburbs are my home, my native habitat, then the least I can do is to learn to understand them, and to see what kinds of practices, connections, and communities are possible in metropolitan landscapes.

But I'm getting ahead of myself.

This trip to the archives takes me back to 1991, the spring of my first year of graduate study in philosophy at Stony Brook. Earlier in that academic year, I had co-created an environmental philosophy reading group with fellow students Irene Klaver and Dave Macauley. Others would join the group in later years, but the three of us read and discussed widely in the environmental literature.

In April 1991 - the same month in which I first heard of contra dance, as it happens - the three of us put together an Earth Day Forum, in which we presented ideas each of us had been developing through our reading and research.

My own presentation focused on Wendell Berry's essay, "Preserving Wildness." My particular interest was the intertwining of the domestic and the wild in our experience of particular places, moving toward an experiential or phenomenological approach to place and the ethics of place.

All I have from that presentation are the flier and a few pages of notes, mostly quotation and paraphrase from "Preserving Wildness" and from Berry's earlier book, The Unsettling of America (1977), with the addition of a few hand-scribbled comments for drawing out some of the philosophical and ethical implications of Berry's ideas.

This post is already quite long enough, so I'll write in more detail about the substance of the presentation on Monday.

What strikes me about my notes, though, is the degree to which the outlines of all the work I've done since were already set down at the very beginning of my career, and the degree to which Berry's way of framing environmental responsibility helped to draw those outlines. But, in the years since, I would lose the connection with those origins, only to "discover" them later, I thought, independently.

For example, Berry writes of the possibility of "landscape criticism" (1987, p.151), a way of assessing how human activities (i.e. projects) fit within the broader wilderness (i.e., natural dynamics, not of our making) in a particular place. Over the course of my early career, that idea took hold, morphing eventually into "an ethical survey of landscapes" and, finally, into the framework that is the centerpiece of my current work on the ethics of metropolitan growth. I have not always remembered, let alone acknowledged, the direct connection back to an essay I read as an undergraduate.

There are other connections, regarding the duality of human beings, the nature of our predicament, and the vulnerability of ourselves and what we value. In fact, there are connections with other of Berry's work and my current interest in the tragic outlook.

All of that will have to wait for subsequent posts.

Wendell Berry. 1977. The Unsettling of America: Culture & Agriculture. San Francisco: Sierra Club Books.

Wendell Berry. 1987. "Preserving Wildness," in Home Economics. San Francisco: North Point Press, pp. 137-151.

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