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July 12, 2019

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Meditations on time and place

Everyday life seems to be growing ever busier and more intrusive. Modern technology has eroded our privacy and its deluge of data-streams distracts and overwhelms us with a lot of useless, even harmful “information.” As but one of many consequences, most of us have lost the precious gift of solitude without which it is very difficult to step back, calm down, take stock, and truly think.

This loss manifests itself in many ways: flaring tempers, impatience, difficulty in focusing, and in non-consideration of others. No wonder so many of us often feel worn out, frazzled, hassled, and done in!

Real thinking, after all, requires two processes — observation and reflection — which require both time and focus. To observe is to look attentively, to see all of what is before us and not just the surface or periphery of things.

We do this when we ponder a compelling piece of statuary or admire a beautiful painting or walk slowly through a lovely garden, carefully noting the varied colors, size, and placement of its many flowers and trees.

To reflect is to seek a deeper understanding of what we have witnessed or experienced by linking it to our chords of memory and assessing it through our ethical values.

Without regular use of both observation and reflection we are in danger of losing our moral way.

I would like to suggest a couple of contemporary persons whose words and thoughts have helped me acquire greater depth of understanding and more intentional behavior over the years: scientist-naturalist Loren Eiseley (1907-1977) and farmer-philosopher Wendell Berry (1934- ).

While I had previously read many of their separately published books, I recently purchased some lovely editions of their collected works from the Library of America — a nonprofit organization that seeks to keep alive classic works by American authors: Eiseley’s “Collected Essays on Evolution, Nature, and the Cosmos” and “What I Stand On: The Collected Essays of Wendell Berry 1969-2017.”

Both men looked deeply and, through such seeing, found wonder and mystery — and some sadness, too — everywhere. They each share the gift of luminous writing, giving us words — wondrous in themselves — that paint beautiful portraits of simple things and beings and past earths lost forever in the mists of deep time.

Eiseley was an archaeologist and, whether gazing at something of our world or into the inky blackness of the cosmos, linked the present visible to our eyes to beings and events of long ago.

In one memorable essay he describes floating on his back on the placid surface of the Colorado in a leisurely rate through parts of the Grand Canyon that it had taken it millions of years to carve through. It feels as if we are being borne with him as he describes colorful rock formations, discerning from their craggy faces long-ago geological events. Through his words we, too, see and marvel.

On another occasion he takes us inside his isolated cabin on a cold evening as he sits contentedly in front of the cabin’s blazing log fire. Catching its dancing reflection in his dog’s eyes, he ponders the powerful link between these creatures and ourselves and wonders what it was that caused the first wolves to approach early humans.

He further muses over a time when he once unwisely tried to take a bone away from this dog. The domestication of centuries fell away as its fur rose, its lips drew back over its sharp fangs, and it gave a menacing growl.

What he saw in the warning flare in its dog’s eyes was its deeply buried wildness, the ancient soul of its wolf ancestors that still lurks within.

The land and its creatures

Wendell Berry has spent most of his life in his native state of Kentucky, where he farms and writes.

Because of his love of the land he is an avid environmentalist and an outspoken critic of how Americans have repeatedly mistreated the land and its creatures. In musing over a humble cabin in the wilderness that he has labored to rebuild, he writes:

“… my mind became the root of my life rather than its sublimation. I came to see myself as growing out of the earth like the other native animals and plants. I saw my body and my daily motions as brief coherences and articulations of the energy of the place, which would fall back into the earth like leaves in the autumn.

“In this awakening there has been a good deal of pain. When I lived in other places I looked on their evils with the curious eye of a traveler; I was not responsible for them; it cost me nothing to be a critic, for I had not been there long, and I did not feel that I would stay. But here, now that I am both native and citizen, there is no immunity to what is wrong. It is impossible to escape the sense that I am involved in history. What I am has been to a considerable extent determined by what my forefathers were, by how they chose to treat this place while they lived in it; the lives of most of them diminished it, and limited its possibilities, and narrowed its future. And every day I am confronted by the question of what inheritance I will leave. What do I have that I am using up? For it has been our history that each generation in this place has been less welcome to it than the last. There has been less here for them. At each arrival there has been less fertility in the soil, and a larger inheritance of destructive precedent and shameful history.

“I am forever being crept up on and newly startled by the realization that my people established themselves here by killing or driving out the original possessors, by the awareness that people were once bought and sold here by my people, by the sense of the violence they have done to their own kind and to each other and to the earth, by the evidence of their persistent failure to serve either the place or their own community in it. I am forced, against all my hopes and inclinations, to regard the history of my people here as the progress of the doom of what I value most in the world: the life and health of the earth, the peacefulness of human communities and households.”

The sins of the fathers

Although his sense of deep time does not match the great reach of Eiseley’s geologic scale, he does link today’s people with their distant ancestors in ways that remind us how it is possible that there are times when the sins of the fathers are continued into distant generations.

“It occurs to me that it is no longer possible to imagine how this country looked in the beginning, before the white people drove their plows into it. It is not possible to know what was the shape of the land here in this hollow when it was first cleared. Too much of it is gone, loosened by the plows and washed away by the rain. I am walking the route of the departure of the virgin soil of the hill. I am not looking at the same land the firstcomers saw. The original surface of the hill is as extinct as the passenger pigeon. The pristine America that the first white man saw is a lost continent, sunk like Atlantis in the sea ...

“We have lived by the assumption that what was good for us would be good for the world. And this has been based on the even flimsier assumption that we could know with any certainty what was good even for us. We have fulfilled the danger of this by making our personal pride and greed the standard of our behavior toward the world — to the incalculable disadvantage of the world and every living thing in it.”

Through practice, we also can learn to see deeply, to better understand, and to more fully cherish the wondrous miracle of this beautiful planet and of all who share it with us.

But if we continue along our current unthinking path, we will lose everything and our children will inherit a wasteland.

Greg Cusack is a retired US statesman from Iowa. He now lives in Oregon.


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