(Promoted by Colorado Pols)
“Invest in the Millennium”
The opening stanza of Wendell Berry’s poem, “Manifesto: The Mad Farmer’s Liberation Front” is a good place to start this blog:
Love the quick profit, the annual raise,
vacation with pay. Want more
of everything ready-made. Be afraid
to know your neighbors and to die.
And you will have a window in your head.
Not even your future will be a mystery
any more. Your mind will be punched in a card
and shut away in a little drawer.
When they want you to buy something
they will call you. When they want you
to die for profit they will let you know.
Greg Walcher, who many are familiar with as former head of the Colorado Department of Natural Resources (under Governor Owens), a one-time Congressional candidate, and long-time leader of the extractive-industry and Western Slope lobby group: Club 20, writes a weekly column in the Grand Junction Daily Sentinel. Reading it is part of my Friday ritual.
Walcher’s column is widely panned as light on facts, heavy on conjecture, and harsh on any who think public health, other life on the planet, and environmental sustainability are more critical than padding private portfolios.
This week he writes about the heavy thumb of Washington holding back rural Coloradans who only want to cut things down, dig things up, and frack their way to freedom. To make his point, he quotes author, poet, farmer, and philosopher Wendell Berry, who–of course–never really meant what Mr. Walcher seems to want him to. Perhaps it seemed like a handy quote as his deadline loomed–would anyone even know better?
As an erstwhile Kentuckian and separated by one slight degree from Mr. Berry, who lectured one of my classes once in school, who knows my father, and who’s body of work I am at least acquainted with enough to know better: No, Greg Walcher. Wendell Berry is not advocating for fossil fuel industrializing the West.
The mining companies have made it clear that they will destroy anything, they will stop at nothing, so long as the result can be inked in black on their accounting sheets. They have been abetted by the mischief and greed of local officials, by public indifference, by state paralysis, by federal cross-purposes and confusion. Against them there has been only a local organization of small landowners. -Wendell Berry
It is obvious in his latest column what Walcher tries to do. But sleight of hand only works with a good distraction. Ham-fisted illusionists only fool the willing or gullible. Walcher wants to argue one thing–local control and democratic agency–and slip in how that means accepting rural America’s role: as an energy field or timber farm. Walcher writes:
This is not news to people in the West, whose communities are surrounded by federal lands, and whose natural resources are under the control of distant federal agencies that do not bear the consequences. In fact, it has been a sore subject for decades.
…over the years it has been the same distress over wilderness management, endangered species, road closures, gas leases, timber sales, power plants, pipelines, and a hundred others.
Walcher sings the same tune week in and week out, and finding a fresh way to say the same old thing must take some initiative. Thus his latest amalgamation of words in the Daily Sentinel, which seems the product of nothing more than a hasty Google search, as the author basically admits:
A quick search on the internet easily finds hundreds of famous quotes about how the everyday decisions we make can change our lives.
But the misappropriation of the Wendell Berry quote takes the cake, which comes at the summation of Walcher’s column, in which he correctly identifies Berry as “one of conservation’s most prolific and gifted writers” and pastes:
“To put the bounty and the health of our land, our only commonwealth, into the hands of people who do not live on it and share its fate will always be an error. For whatever determines the fortune of the land determines also the fortunes of the people. If history teaches anything, it teaches that.”
The quote is a misappropriation because it ignores all context and the body of Berry’s life and work. And because the ‘absentee’ authorities that Berry decries, which are holding rural communities back, are not the environmental agencies or the public health officials–in Frankfort or in DC. No, Berry’s criticisms are directed at the absentee coal baron, the Texas oil man, the faraway capitalist figuring on a ledger sheet that human health and local wealth is less important than what shows up on his side of the balance sheet, that are holding rural communities, too long shackled to boom and bust volatile economies, in a subservient position.
If there is to remain any hope at all for the region, strip mining will have to be stopped. Otherwise, all the federal dollars devoted to the region’s poor will have the same effect as rain pouring on an uprooted plant. To recover good hope and economic health the people need to have their land whole under their feet. And much of their land has already been destroyed.
Berry is a permaculturalist. His ethic is one that seeks permanence by taking care of the present. By reducing consumption, by returning what we use to the earth to be reborn again. Berry preaches sustainability not immediate gain, which–based on his writings–he views not only as ephemeral but as somewhat illusory . Berry’s opening stanza from Mad Farmers’ suggests this, and–later in the poem–he continues the theme:
Ask the questions that have no answers.
Invest in the millennium. Plant sequoias.
Say that your main crop is the forest
that you did not plant,
that you will not live to harvest.
Say that the leaves are harvested
when they have rotted into the mold.
Call that profit. Prophesy such returns.
In his 2015 essay on Climate Change, Berry writes:
The one other right thing we must do today is to provide against want. Here the difference between “prediction” and “provision” is crucial. To predict is to foretell, as if we know what is going to happen. Prediction often applies to unprecedented events: human-caused climate change, the end of the world, etc. Prediction is “futurology.” To provide, literally, is to see ahead. But in common usage it is to look ahead. Our ordinary, daily understanding seems to have accepted long ago that our capacity to see ahead is feeble. The sense of “provision” and “providing” comes from the past, and is informed by precedent.
Provision informs us that on a critical day—St. Patrick’s Day, or in a certain phase of the moon, or when the time has come and the ground is ready—the right thing to do is plant potatoes. We don’t do this because we have predicted a bountiful harvest; history warns us against that. We plant potatoes because history informs us that hunger is possible, and we must do what we can to provide against it. We know from the past only that, if we plant potatoes today, the harvest might be bountiful, but we can’t be sure, and so provision requires us to think today also of a diversity of food crops.
What we must not do in our efforts of provision is to waste or permanently destroy anything of value. History informs us that the things we waste or destroy today may be needed on the morrow. This obviously prohibits the “creative destruction” of the industrialists and industrial economists, who think that evil is permissible today for the sake of greater good tomorrow. There is no rational argument for compromise with soil erosion or toxic pollution. (Emphasis added).
Writing a weekly column is a challenge. And sometimes filling column inches with material from a “quick search on the internet” is warranted.
But to avoid looking like a hack, it might be worth understanding a bit more about the individuals quoted, unless you are just phoning it in.
The land destroyed by strip mining is destroyed forever; it will never again be what it was, it will never be what it would have become if let alone. Such destruction makes man a parasite upon the source of his life; it implicates him in the death of the earth, the destruction of his meanings. Those men who send the bulldozer blades into the mountainsides bear the awesome burden of responsibility for an act that no one can fully comprehend, much less justify.
-From the “Landscaping of Hell,” by Wendell Berry
Pete Kolbenschlag is an environmentalist, blogger, and strategic consultant. He opines regularly from Paonia, Colorado, usually to his dog and cat.