In The-World Ending Fire, essayist and poet, Wendell Berry raises a rallying cry against compromising with myths that are destroying the earth.
We are destroying our … land. This is a terrible thing to know, but it is not a reason for despair unless we decide to continue the destruction. … We have got to learn better to respect ourselves and our dwelling places. … There should be no compromise with the destruction of the land or of anything else that we cannot replace.
Not repeating the patterns
We’re approaching the The Celtic festival of Samhain, which has come to us as Halloween or All Hallows e’en. Traditionally, it marks the end of summer and autumn. It’s the beginning of a time of darkness when seeds become roots and new life is germinating. It’s a time for thinking of those who have gone before us, for thinking about loss.
This year has been one in which perhaps more of us across the globe have faced our finitude all at one time than for previous decades. It’s been a year when Whitman’s lyrical phrasing of how intimately connected we all are has been brought home by a tiny, invisible virus that forced us to try to maintain often impossible boundaries:
Every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.
In this chain of connection, we’ve been bequeathed patterns of how we do things, how we live, the stories that shape our cultures and days. Some of these are vital and life giving, the blessing of ancestors. Some are death dealing, either because they grew in toxicity or because the world has shifted in ways that demand new stories.
One day we will be those ancestors and we want to leave two things:
stories that go on helping, nurturing and connecting
stories that can be changed when they no longer serve
We don’t have to repeat stories that are no longer life-giving.
Throwing off the decaying myths
At any given point in history we live in myths. At their best, these help us to navigate our world with powerful archetypes and metaphors in order to give meaning to ethical and social relations. But what when the myths no longer serve us? What when the myths have been corrupted?
Story is powerful and that power can be used for evil and terror as well as for healing and good. We see that, for example, when we look at stories of ethnic superiority under Nazi rule in Germany. We see it when we look at stories of so-called beauty or femininity that have supported practices like foot binding or genital mutilation.
But it’s so much easier to see how corrupt, harmful and toxic the framing myths of other times or cultures are. It’s much harder to get a clear perspective of the myths we live in; myths that might be just as pernicious. It’s harder because we are enmeshed in them. This, sadly, makes it easier for governments and big corporations to peddle myths with the underlying message that ‘There is no alternative’ (TINA).
The psychologist D Stephenson Bond uses a powerful image of myth as a whale whose belly we live within, like Jonah. Eventually, the whale dies and its body is washed onto the shore where it begins to rot. Some people get out and see the whale for what it is — not the world, but a carcass to move on from. Others cling inside, determined that this is the limit of reality.
During the lockdown in the UK, I had a friend who was worried about being thought insane, because the pandemic totally transformed his outlook. He felt his family was clinging inside that carcass while he saw a different world outside. He also felt increasingly uneasy when people talked about ‘getting back to normal’ because, for him, it was a myth that the world we were living in before the pandemic was ‘normal’, a world in which we decried, yet often saw no alternatives to:
- Polar ice caps melting
- Forests burning across the Amazon
- Fires destroying great swathes of Australia
- Child and slave labour supporting the global demand for goods from phones to chocolate bars, from cheap clothes to plastic toys
- Roads being built across deserts to mine rare earths
- The destruction of the ozone layer
- The mantra that we can consume more and more and more without limit
Wendell Berry, like my friend, is someone who sees the myths we are living in with clarity, but he doesn’t despair. He writes, he protests (non-violently), he deploys a language of alternatives and suggests ways of living … He also knows that change begins with each of us, particularly when we learn to respect ourselves and our dwelling places.
We can’t do it all. We don’t have to do it all. We do what we can, refusing to believe that ‘there is no alternative’ and being brave enough to ask ourselves what myths we feel we are living within currently and how they are they impacting us.
I must attempt to care as much for the world as for my household
says Wendell Berry in his essay ‘Some Thoughts on Citizenship and Conscience’.
The focus on the household has been particularly sharp this year. Some families, not used to being in each other’s company all day every day, felt enormous strain during lockdown and relationships were under pressure. For some, it was not simply mounting pressure but a different scale of volatility, with domestic abuse rising. Many, though, were households of one, some at ease with the solitude and others feeling increasingly lonely.
Whatever our particular household looked like, the need for kindness and patience, to ourselves as well as to whoever we may be sharing space with, was high.
Berry goes on to talk about how a competent morality balances between the doorstep and the planet.
No matter how sophisticated and complex and powerful our institutions, we are still exactly as dependent on the earth as the earthworms. To cease to know this, and to fail to act upon the knowledge, is to begin to die the death of a broken machine. In default of [hu]man[ity’s] personal cherishing and car, the earth must now become the victim of [her/]his institutions … And so, conversely, the most meaningful dependence of the earth is not on the […] government, but on my household — how I live, how I raise my children, how I care for the land entrusted to me.
In a situation of large scale ecological degradation or of global pandemic, it’s easy to understand why we look to mass solutions and big logistics. Clearly it matters that huge interests like governments and corporations take action. And as individuals or small groups we can feel ineffectual and overwhelmed. Berry admits that it can be enormously and at points impossibly difficult to maintain our integrity in the face of oppression, wars, racism and destruction.
And yet, once we think we are helpless, that nothing we think or do matters; once we submit to overwhelm or despair, then the forces of destruction have won.
Berry’s insight is a tiny but wonderful crack of light that uproots the perspective of overwhelm and despair. It asserts that each of us matters in our global as well as immediate relationships, and we do so by nurturing those closest relationships and the tiny bit of earth we can do something about, whether that’s several acres of forest or a window plant. Berry goes on:
Those two poles of life and thought offer points of view, perspectives that are opposite and complementary. But morally, because one is contained within the other and the two are interdependent, they propose the same consciousness and the same labor.
Holding on to visions of utopia might feel futile at the moment, but the world is hungry for new stories. Changing our myths is powerful. Writing about reclaiming paradise in an age of climate destruction, my son, Rowan, noted:
For me, however, the best fiction does not tell us what is before our eyes, it excavates, scours, reveals. […] Even if the Mephistophelesian pact of modernity is our extinction, utopias insist that there was a chance at shared liberation, of collectively getting it right. It demands we project our values outward, realise them as something to be shared. […] utopia asks us to imagine the recreation of society as a whole and ourselves only within that context. […] …utopia is hope projected outwards.
This is Berry’s global pole. We need those big stories coming from the local, the domestic, from each of us. The United Nations holds that there are four key qualities that are needed in times of crisis: kindness, generosity, empathy, and solidarity. If our relationship to our home and to our world rests on those, then we begin to write the stories of utopia that all of us can live by.
All of us need to dive deeply and ask
- What do we hope for the world?
- What do we hope for those you love? For family, friends, our household?
- What do we hope for ourselves?
Becoming a different story
Thank you for reading — if you’d like to join writers who are diving deeply into the writing life and making transformations, sign up to my email list. You’ll also find free courses on my site. While you’re there, take a look at my book Writing Down Deep: an alchemy of the writing life.