Review: Notes from No Man’s Land

Notes from No Man’s Land, Eula Biss. Minneapolis: Graywolf Press, 2009.

Summary: A collection of American essays connected to four places the author lived, all exploring the realities of race in which we all are implicated.

Telephone poles. An essay on the introduction of (and resistance to) telephone poles on the landscape becomes an essay on lynching. It turns out that telephone poles were used to hang many black men. Biss writes of how she once thought the “arc and swoop” of phone lines a thing of beauty. Now she comments, “they do not look the same to me. Nothing is innocent, my sister reminds me. But nothing, I would like to think, remains unrepentant.”

This striking comment captures a theme running through this book. Wherever we go in America, if our eyes are open, we recognize that we are implicated in our nation’s racial history. Nothing is innocent. And yet what also comes through in these essays is that Biss is not resigned to this state of affairs–repentance, a turning, is yet possible.

In her essays we follow Biss from New York to San Diego (and trips into Mexico), Iowa City, and the Rogers Park neighborhood of north Chicago. She describes locking kids into a Harlem school where she is teaching on 9/11 and how New York depleted her. In an essay sharing the title of Joan Didion’s “Goodbye to All That” she speaks of how “New York took everything I had” and like Didion, she left, but unlike Didion, she has not returned, and questions how Didion tolerated so many myths about the city.

She moves to San Diego, working for an African-American newspaper. One of her most telling essays describes Eve Johnson’s struggle with Child Protective Services to gain custody of her own grandchildren, and the repeated barriers she encounters because she is “too black” and her persistence. She notes that she never saw such stories in the New York Times.

Her next move is to Iowa City. She writes about her research into the Black company town of Buxton, no longer in existence that seemed idyllic. There was a fabric of community organizations and a strong sense of identity and self-respect among the black residents. She dares to wonder about the kind of “integration” in which Blacks are a small minority in a sea of white, as was the case with dissatisfied Black students at the University of Iowa. Is such integration really a form of assimilation rather than an affirmation of identity? She also discusses the race blindness she encounters as people decry “looting” after Katrina, but downplay thefts by students after a tornado tore through their city.

The title essay, “No Man’s Land” is set in Rogers Park, a neighborhood on the north side of Chicago, bordering Evanston. It was originally called No Man’s Land because of its location. It is also highly integrated with no racial majority, yet she writes both of the racial fears that persist among whites like her in this diverse community and of her husband’s hope that “more white people don’t move here.”

Her concluding essay is titled “All Apologies” and explores the meaning of apologies both in personal life and in our racial history. Amid this is her telling observation: “Some apologies are unspeakable. Like the one we owe our parents.”

Biss dares to explore both our implicatedness in racism, and the ambiguities of living among one another with all that history. She recognizes the ambiguity in her own family, the mixed racial ancestry that gives her a cousin able to move between white and black communities, even while on the basis of appearance, she cannot. Her essays reveal a very different version of our national character from what many would have the textbook versions to be. She sees both the beauty and value of people and cultures, and the blindness, the hardness, and the obfuscations that sustain these disparate versions of America. In her spare, reflective prose she does not offer answers but invites us to sit with her and see.

Review: Absence of Mind

Absence of Mind, Marilynne Robinson. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2011.

Summary: The text of Robinson’s 2010 Dwight Harrington Terry Foundation Lectures on Religion in the Light of Science and Philosophy, challenging “parascientific” explanations reducing the mind to nothing more than the physical brain.

The idea of the mind has been under assault from those who would contend our “minds” are nothing more than the physical processes making up the extensive neural network of our brains. In this collection of four essays, the text of Marilynne Robinson’s 2010 Dwight Harrington Terry Foundation Lectures on Religion in the Light of Science and Philosophy, she challenges this notion. She does not oppose the work of neuroscientists, but rather those like Daniel Dennett, who in the garb of science, make metaphysical conclusions about the existence of the mind, or rather the absence of such apart from the physical substrate of the brain. She calls this “parascience,” an intellectual argument operating alongside and apart from real scientific research.

Her first essay “On Human Nature” notes the modern assumption of a threshold, before which explanations of human nature were benighted, compared to the enlightened explanations of the likes of Bertrand Russell and Daniel Dennett, who “explain away” the mind and traditional religion.

“The Strange History of Altruism” challenges the assumption that evolutionary forces protecting gene pools explain altruistic behavior and the disregard of counterfactual evidence.

The third essay, “The Freudian Self,” takes on the suspicion of the mind in Freud, that the mind is not to be trusted due to subconscious processes. She looks at the intellectual milieu surrounding Freud and how this shaped his ideas.

The final essay, “Thinking Again,” celebrates our sense of self-awareness, that mechanistic explanations dismiss. She writes in introducing her discussion:

“Then there is the odd privilege of existence as a coherent self, the ability to speak the word ‘I’ and mean by it a richly individual history of experience, perception, and thought. For the religious, the sense of the soul may have as a final redoubt, not as an argument but as experience, that haunting I who wakes in the night wondering where time has gone, the I we waken to, sharply aware that we have been unfaithful to ourselves, that a life lived otherwise would have acknowledged a yearning more our own than any of the daylit motives whose behests we answer to so diligently” (p. 110).

Each of these essays are densely argued, invoking the various shapers of the modern mind, challenging the “authorities” who reduce mind to materialistic explanations.

Essentially, Robinson is saying, “not so fast.” At the same time, her argument also has a bit of a feel of a “mind of the gaps,” the mind not yet explained by physical processes. I would not want to see another version of the evolution-creation battle of the last 150 years in the field of neuroscience. Might there be an approach of humility, of genuine listening that refuses to dismiss both the powerful experience of our self-awareness, our consciousness, and the powerful advances of neuroscience in understanding the physical substrates of many of our “mental experiences”? Physical explanations of other phenomena have only increased for believing persons their joy in the Creator. Could not more holistic physical explanations of the mind also increase our wonder, even as we understand how that wonder is wired into us?

Robinson challenges the reductionistic materialism of parascience. I would also want her to speak against the denials of real advances in scientific understanding. I hope we can develop both a robust materiality and a robust spirituality, neither of which are at war with the other. Perhaps what we need is a sequel to these lectures titled “Presence of Mind,” for it seems that this is what we require in the present time.

Review: In the Shadow of King Saul

In the Shadow of King Saul, Jerome Charyn. New York: Bellevue Literary Press, 2018.

Summary: A collection of eleven essays spanning nearly thirty years of Charyn’s literary career, on the New York in which he grew up, his family, other authors and celebrities.

Jerome Charyn may be one of America’s most prolific writers, with over fifty books in fifty years. Michael Chabon has called him “one of the most important writers in American literature.” I only recently became acquainted with him when I reviewed Sergeant Salinger, a novel based on the World War 2 experiences of J. D. Salinger.

This collection of essays, second in Bellevue Literary Press’s “The Art of the Essay” series is a collection of ten essays by Charyn from 1978 to 2005, plus an introductory essay, “Silence and Song” that both traces his life as a writers and explains the selection of essays under his rubric of silence and song. We learn about his childhood in a poor and rough neighborhood in the Bronx, his discovery of his love of words, studies at Columbia, and the beginnings of his writing career.

“The Sadness of Saul” is in some ways the archetype for other essays in this collection. Saul reflects the contrast of silence to David’s songs. Charyn finds Saul of greater interest, a tragic figure who did not want to be king, who lacked a voice. Charyn believes writing begins in the silences.

He offers a fascinating account of the history of Ellis Island, the power brokers in the Bronx neighborhoods of his youth in “Haunch Paunch and Jowl” and the meaning of the “Faces on the Wall” in the rise of modern cinema. Most significant are the authors about which he writes–Saul Bellow, Anzia Yezierska, and a lengthy mini-biography of Isaac Babel. The last two essays are more personal, focused around his mother, “the dark lady from Belorusse,” the inattention of her husband and the letters from her brother in Mogilev that sustained her, and her angst when war interrupted them.

It strikes me that this is a book for New Yorkers and followers of Charyn. Some essays had the feeling of “inside baseball” that those familiar with his context, or the writers of whom he writes, would find fascinating. For me, they suggested that some of these places and people might be worth knowing more of. A few of the essays, on Saul, on Josh Gibson, the Negro league star who sank into insanity, and the forgotten life of Louise Brooks, all of them “silent figures,” were of greater interest.

This is part of a series on the art of the essay. The artfulness of Charyn is to awaken our interest in times and places and people outside our awareness. He is able to connect experiences we have in common, or even the essence of what it means for us to be human, our aspirations and longings, our hopes and despairs, our silences and our songs with the stories on these pages.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Fall 2021 Book Preview — Fiction and Non-fiction

I don’t only read academic theology. I enjoy history, essays, discussions of current affairs, and of course, good fiction. All of that has arrived at my door in the last months. Many are new books published this year, but mixed in are also some older titles, mainly from authors I’ve discovered I liked.

In the Shadow of King Saul, Jerome Charyn. New York: Bellevue Literary Press, 2018. Recently, I reviewed Swimming to the Top of the Tide. The publisher included a bonus book in their mailing, this collection of essays by the author of Sergeant Salinger, which I had reviewed this spring. I’m intrigued with what he will say in his essay on Saul, a biblical character I happen to have been studying of late.

Absence of Mind, Marilynne Robinson. New Haven: Yale University of Press, 2011. I love Marilynne Robinson’s fiction and essays, and this was a collection I had not read, found while browsing Thriftbooks. Turned out I was able to use a free book credit! What fun. She writes about the relation of science and religion and the new atheism in this collection.

Notes from No Man’s Land, Eula Biss. Minneapolis: Graywolf Press, 2009. I recently read this author’s Immunity and decided to pick up some of her other essays including this collection on race in America, a winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award.

Having and Being Had, Eula Biss. New York: Riverhead Books, 2020. This is a more recent collection, examining middle class ethics.

After the Apocalypse, Andrew Bacevich. New York: Metropolitan Books, 2021. Argues for a different approach to U.S. foreign policy based on moral pragmatism and mutual coexistence with war as a last resort.

Devil in the White City, Erik Larson. New York: Vintage Books, 2003. I’ve discovered Erik Larson’s books and I’m looking forward to this one on the 1893 World’s Fair and a serial murderer!

Riding High in April, Jackie Townsend. Phoenix: Sparkpress, 2021. Just received this with LibraryThing’s Early Reviewer Program. The book is a tech thriller with a human element of love and friendship written by a former Silicon Valley management consultant.

Abundance Nature in Recovery, Karen Lloyd. New York: Bloomsbury Wildlife, 2021. This is a collection of essays on conservationist efforts in the face of biodiversity loss.

The Power of Us, Jay J. Van Bavel and Dominic J. Packer. New York: Little, Brown, Spark, 2021. Builds on the idea that the groups we are part of shape identity and can enhance performance, cooperation and social harmony.

The Free World: Art and Thought in the Cold War, Louis Menand. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2021. Menand is an intellectual historian whose Metaphysical Club was one of my great reads several summers ago. This one is on the art and thought trends that arose during the Cold War.

Children of Ash and Elm, Neil Price. New York: Basic Books, 2020. The Vikings enter into the history of peoples from the Asian Steppes to North America. This birthday gift gives me a chance to read a history of these people who keep barging into so many others stories!

Cloud Cuckoo Land, Anthony Doerr. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2021. I thought All The Light We Cannot See was one of the best books I’ve read in the last decade. The writing voice I so appreciated in that work is here, but in a story occurring in three distinct times–as you can tell, I’m already into this book.

The Lincoln Highway, Amor Towles. New York: Viking, 2021. Towles is another novelist I’ve discovered in the past year, enjoying both of his deep dives into Jazz Age New York and a Russian hotel. This one is a cross-country flight to New York of several young fugitives on the title highway.

Along the way, I will be mixing in mysteries from Louise Penny, Ngaio Marsh and others. And what’s with the essays? Best I can figure is that blog posts are a version of essay, and I enjoy seeing how those who do it so well practice their craft–as well as the ideas they explore. Maybe this list will suggest some Christmas gift ideas–or not! At least you will know what not to buy me for Christmas if you are family! Whatever the case, you can look forward to hearing more about these books in the months ahead!

Review: On Immunity

On Immunity–An Inoculation, Eula Biss. Minneapolis: Graywolf Press, 2014.

Summary: A collection of essays about vaccines, immunity, fears, risks, and related concerns about environmental pollutants and other dangers faced by the human community.

A few caveats at the beginning of this review. One is that this book was published in 2014. So it was not written in the context of our current polemics about vaccines to combat COVID-19. Also, the author is not a scientist but a talented writer who has won a number of literary awards and is currently an Artist in Residence at Northwestern University. She is the daughter of an oncolgist. She is also the mother of a child suffering many allergies.

The essays in this work reflect her background as an academic, writer, child of a doctor, and a mother. It is evident that she extensively researched this work. She explores the history of vaccination from which we learn that the term comes from the Latin name for the cowpox virus, from which the vaccinated developed immunity to smallpox. She explores how the understanding of immunity developed over the years, earlier issues with the safety of vaccination, and contemporary research and reporting systems that confirm the high level of safety and rarity of risks.

She makes an important point that the effectiveness of vaccines isn’t simply for individuals but for the communities within which they live and travel. Vaccines limit or eliminate infections when a large portion of the population is vaccinated. At one point she challenges the flawed reasoning that one doesn’t need to get vaccinated because others are. This only works when very few think that way, and an ethic that you can’t commend universally runs afoul of Kant’s categorical imperative. She observes, “Immunity is a shared space—a garden we tend together.”

But she is also a mom who wants to do the right thing for her child. Her personal concerns lead her to a sympathetic examination of the fears of others, the sources of reports about autism, and various contaminants in vaccines. She both acknowledge the continuing influence of these reports and how extensive research studies have refuted all of them. She explores the question of risk, and how highly unlikely risks, like a rare side effect that may be attributed to a vaccine, and the much more prevalent and often more serious risks of the disease vaccines are meant to prevent. In the end, she comes down on the side of vaccination–but hardly in an unthinking, “sheeple” fashion. She gently challenges being more afraid of inoculation than disease, and the luxury of entertaining fears that most of the world can’t afford.

She considers other chemicals in our environment from triclosan in our liquid soaps to plastics in our foods, drink bottles, and mattresses. She comes to recognize that there is no absolute immunity we can confer on ourselves or our children from all that could render harm. She experiences this herself when she required transfusion after nearly dying from an inverted uterus during childbirth, and has to trust the safety of the blood she is given. She balances this sense of our vulnerability with our amazing immune system, that can handle multiple vaccines at once because it responds to thousands of threats every day. She asks hard questions, reviews research and doesn’t simply accept authority, but also acts on the best evidence of the science.

The book wanders a bit. It is a collection of essays, not strictly a scientific or history piece. But it is also a human piece, rather than a clinical account or research paper. Biss does what we all need to do–listen, ask questions, be the parent, and learn to discern between flawed and reliable information, and make the best decisions one can. In many ways, this may be a helpful read for those with concerns about vaccines. It challenges us to make decisions not from a place of narcissism but enlightened self interest that also considers the common good. It is written from outside the current polemics, but reflects the concerns so many of us have.

Review: The Hidden Wound

The Hidden Wound, Wendell Berry. Berkeley: Counterpoint Press, 2010 (Original edition 1968, with Afterword 1988).

Summary: An extended essay on racism in America, our collective attempts to conceal this wound upon American life, and its connections to our deformed ideas of work.

Wendell Berry wrote words that would be exceptional for most whites today. These were written in 1968 by a white man of the South, making them all the more exceptional:

“If white people have suffered less obviously from racism than black people, they have nevertheless suffered greatly; the cost has been greater perhaps than we can yet know. If the white man has inflicted the wound of racism upon black men, the cost has been that he would receive the mirror image of the wound into himself. As the master, or as a member of the dominant race, he has felt little compulsion to acknowledge it or speak of it; the more painful it has grown the more deeply he has hidden it within himself. But the wound is there, and it is a profound disorder, as great a damage in his mind as it is in his society.

This wound is in me….I want to know, as fully and exactly as I can, what the wound is and how much I am suffering from it….

Berry begins by acknowledging the story of his family as a slaveholding family, one that sold as well as acquired slaves. He acknowledges a family that went to church with its slaves but inured itself to the teachings about moral obligations that would have unraveled slavery.

He then turns to a childhood memory of Nick, a Black man who worked for his grandfather. He spoke of the racist structures that assigned Nick a place of being a worker and tenant and the dignity with which Nick accepted these but also the dignity of Nick’s work–his careful study of saddle horses, of the requirements of the land. Nick took Berry under his wing and taught him about the work of the farm. But the wound was there, evident in Nick not being able to accept the invitation to Berry’s birthday party, and Berry deciding that the only decent thing to do was to sit with Nick outside.

Berry recognizes in both what he learned from Nick in all his dignity and the underlying social divisions between them a picture of the deformities of our American society that defined success as distancing oneself from the physical labor of the farm and that used knowledge and status to make money off of the labors of others. So we have diminished ourselves, even as we had to diminish the personhood of Blacks to enslave them, something we have done since 1619. In doing so, we have alienated ourselves from good work and from the land upon which our lives depend. We have considered that work to be “n***** work” (Berry’s terminology, objectionable today but reflecting the demeaning character of its historical usage). By this we have not only demeaned persons but also lost our connection to the pleasures of good physical work and the land where this work is done.

Berry’s argument isn’t for legislation or structural change (and I believe this may be a weakness in ignoring the goods that can be done by addressing unjust structures). He argues that we need one another to heal the wounds racism has inflicted. Just as Nick taught Berry the wisdom of the farm and good work while Berry bridged the divide by sitting with Nick rather than staying with the white folks during his birthday, Berry argues that the task is not so much for whites to “free” Blacks but rather to “recognize the full strength and grace of their distinctive humanity” and that “they possess a knowledge for the lack of which we are incomplete and in pain.”

In his Afterword, written twenty years later, Berry addresses the displacement of racism from rural to urban settings and the decline of family farms, including Black farms. What has happened is simply a shift of the deformed ideas of work from the farm to the city with high paid executives and others who do “menial” work. Overcoming racism means no longer perpetuating these destructive ideas of work but paying just wages for all good and necessary work. Berry, drawing on his deep values of community also argues that integration without the restoration of the fabric of community is inadequate.

Perhaps the most significant thing in this extended essay, which I felt stands well on its own without the Afterword, is Berry’s courageous acknowledgement of the wound of racism on our national body. It is a wound caused by whites, but one from which whites suffer as well as Blacks. A strength of this work is that he owns his own complicity and his own learning with no “yes, buts.” It is vintage Berry, utterly consistent with other works of his on the dignity of manual work, of knowledge of the land, of caring for place, and of membership in community. What is striking is that Berry here offers a generous vision of community and membership that includes Black and white and the value in the humanity of each person. While Berry downplays systemic issues and may be faulted for this, his integration of issues of race into the larger themes of his work makes this more than merely a writing of place by a rural agriculturalist. It is an essay that discerns the fabric of society we are weaving, the rents in that fabric, and the crucial threads needed for a durable and useful garment.

Review: Breaking Bread with the Dead

Breaking Bread with the Dead, Alan Jacobs. New York: Penguin Press, 2020.

Summary: A case for reading old books as a means of increasing our “personal density” to expand our temporal bandwidth.

Alan Jacobs teaches students to read old books and contends, contrary to many critics, that this reading is essential in a day when we are bombarded by an avalanche of information, and all matter of questions about the future. Drawing upon Thomas Pynchon in Gravity’s Rainbow, he argues that old books increase our “personal density” through expanding our temporal bandwidth.

What does this mean? Jacobs is not arguing for learning from the lessons of the past or that old books help us recognize universal truths. Rather, he suggests that the great works of the past startle us with their difference. They help us see the choices of our own age in light of those of the past. They are the “other,” the “generative oddkin.” Jacobs believes that understanding how people of other ages met the challenges of life equip us to better face challenges of the future than if we draw only upon the resources of the present.

The greatest challenge to Jacobs’ proposal is the invidious aspects of many of these works–racist, chauvinist, colonialist, and more. Jacobs does not deny any of that. What he observes is that those in the past often enunciated ideas, the implications they failed to fully grasp in their own lives. He points to the American founders who laid the groundwork for our own ideals of equality, yet held slaves and failed until 100 years ago to enfranchise women. Reading them forces us to ask how future generations will evaluate us. Drawing upon Ursula LeGuin’s novel Lavinia, an adaptation of the Aeneid, giving voice to the woman Aeneas loved, Jacobs argues both that we read with double vision, recognizing both the work and the flawed character of work, and that our reading from our time can bring new insight that perhaps even an author like Virgil had not grasped.

Jacobs develops these themes through nine essays in which we consider works like The Iliad, The Doll’s House, and Jane Eyre, and authors from Virgil to Italo Calvino. He contends that the presence and tranquility of mind enabling us to meet the challenges of the day comes from a perspective that goes beyond “the latest thing.” If we read only sources from the present, as diverse as they may be, we may still be caught in “echo chambers.” Sometimes, the voices of the past will give voice and words that make sense of our own reality. At other times they will startle and challenge us. Rather than lulling us to sleep with placid verities, they challenge and shake us up, nurturing the kind of resistance fostering “unfragile” and resilient thought.

Jacobs does all this in elegant prose evoking the voices he would have us give more careful attention–an engaging read and a warm invitation.

Review: The Seamless Life

the seamless life

The Seamless LifeSteven Garber. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2020.

Summary: A collection of short reflections around the integral relationship between our daily life and work and the love of God, accompanied by the author’s photography.

Steven Garber has written thoughtfully on the integration of faith and learning for students in The Fabric of Faithfulnessand of loving a broken word, joining with God’s love for his creation in living out our callings in Visions of Vocation. This is a very different book that rings the changes on the themes of these previous books. Garber writes:

   This is a book about vocation, but a different book, a collection of essays and photos. An unusual effort for the publisher, it is new for me too. Rather than making an argument that is developed over scores of pages and many chapters, this one is a deeper and deeper reflection on one question: What does it mean to see seamlessly? To see the whole of life as important to God, to us, and to the world–the deepest and truest meaning of vocation–is to understand that our longing for coherence is born of our truest humanity, a calling into the reality that being human and being holy are one and the same life.

The book is a collection of short (2-3 pages each) essays that follow Garber across the country and through his personal history. We begin with a Madison Avenue company that consults with social entrepreneur non-profits seeking to do good work for the common good, later with one of the companies that are a client of the firm, situated in the Catskills, and then with faith leaders from different sectors of Pittsburgh committed to seeking the flourishing of their city. The journey continues across the country. These reflections are woven into ones on Garber’s own history, from restoring order to a house he and his son are renovating to a visit to a New Mexico livestock auction, bringing back memories of his cowboy grandfather who worked out his belief in God in the way he worked with competence and character.

He reflects on movies, and on words like vocation and occupation; the common root of cult, cultivate, and culture; and proximate. He writes beautifully of the growing friendship he has shared with his wife, Meg and thoughtfully about how joy and sorrow are linked in our lives.

All of this is accompanied by the photography of the author at the beginning of each essay. Many of these could be hung in a gallery. One I love, because it is a view etched in my own memories, is the skyline of Pittsburgh at night from Mount Washington.

This is a wonderful book to be read slowly, perhaps as it has been written over the course of many journeys. It speaks to our longing not only that our lives would matter but cohere. This is a good book to give as a graduation gift, but perhaps a better book for one in the middle of life wondering if the endeavors of every day connect to the deep and transcendent longings of us all. It is far better than the waste of a mid-life crisis. It is a book for those who both love and grieve the world and wonder how this might be held together–seamlessly.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: Upstream

upstream.jpg

UpstreamMary Oliver. New York: Penguin, 2016.

Summary: A collection of essays on nature and literary figures and how we might both lose and understand ourselves as we interact with them.

One of my reading goals of 2020 is to read some of the work of Mary Oliver, who I only learned of upon her death in 2019. One of the facts that made her even more interesting to me was that she was born in Maple Heights, Ohio, a small suburb on the southeast side of Cleveland. The fact that she was an Ohio-born author makes her of interest to me. The fact that I lived for nine years in Maple Heights makes her doubly interesting.

What I discovered in these essays was a writer not unlike Annie Dillard in her reflections on nature, but one who could do just as much in far fewer words. Perhaps that is the discipline of being a poet. Every word matters. She writes of trees, and wild flowers, connects them to her writing life, and to life itself. The first, and title essay ends with this striking aphorism that I will probably chew on the rest of 2020: “Attention is the beginning of devotion.”

She writes as well about literary figures, particularly in moving terms about Walt Whitman who was a model to her as she began writing poetry. The others are Emerson, Poe, and Wordsworth–romantics and transcendentalists–those who (Emerson and Wordsworth at least) connected goodness in nature and humanity, and access to the ultimate through our intuitions of the world. For Poe, it is the wild argument of everyone of us against the universe.

In “Staying Alive” we learn about her perspective that moved from nature and walks with a succession of dogs in the course of life to her interior world (and back again):

I learned to build bookshelves and brought books to my room, gathering them around me thickly. I read by day and into the night. I thought about perfectibility, and deism, and adjectives, and clouds, and the foxes. I locked my door, from the inside, and leaped from the roof and went to the woods, by day or darkness.

“Power and Time” explores the creative and intellectual work of a writer, and the loyalty to the work required of the writer. At other times, she arrests our attention with the things she has seen in her meanderings–the beauty of a bluefish, the wonders of a pond, or a ponderous turtle, from which she takes some but not all eggs, enough for a meal. One essay, “Swoon,” describes the life of a household spider, laying eggs, feeding on a trapped cricket, and the “billowing forth” of tiny spiders.

“Building the House” seems a metaphor for the passages of one’s life. Oliver describes building a small house by herself out of salvaged materials, writing a few poems there, and then being done with it. She remarks on her transition from the “busyness of the body” to “the tricks of the mind” perhaps tracing the journey we all take from the vitality of youth to the ponderings of later years that might be mistaken for wisdom.

Nature, the life of writing poetry and communing with the works of others, the physical business of living, all reflect Oliver’s own quest for the transcendent. In “Winter Hours” she concludes:

I could not be a poet without the natural world. Someone else could. But not me. For me the door to the woods is the door to the temple.

The arc of Mary Oliver’s life, which began in Maple Heights, Ohio, was mostly lived out with her partner of over 40 years, M (Molly Malone Cook) in Provincetown, Massachusetts, until her final years in Florida. The collection concludes with a description of the glory and decline of this fishing town into a tourist attraction and her gratitude for life in this place:

I don’t know if I am heading toward heaven or that other, dark place, but I know I have already lived in heaven for fifty years. Thank you, Provincetown.

Review: Our Only World

Our Only World

Our Only World, Wendell Berry. Berkeley: Counterpoint, 2015.

Summary: Eleven essays on various subjects related to our care for our world and its people emphasizing the local and the sustainable.

In reading this collection of essays by Wendell Berry, some transcriptions of addresses, written between 2010 and 2014, I felt like I had read much of this material before. In some sense, I have. Berry continues to ring the changes of themes that recur in his works: local membership, sustainable land practices, the character of good work, our violent relationship with our world.

There was the sense of someone who has been saying these things for a long time, and perhaps coming toward the end of his work. As I write this, Berry has recently celebrated his eighty-fifth birthday. Both his earlier essay collections and earlier novels are longer. For all that, it seems to me that we have both a summing up and a carrying forward into our current context of the things Wendell Berry has been saying to us for fifty years.

The essays range widely covering everything from our tendency to dissect life into parts rather than see wholes (his “Paragraphs from a Notebook”), our violent treatment both of the creation and our fellow human beings (“The Commerce of Violence” and “On Receiving One of the Dayton Literary Peace Prizes”), and sustainable practices centered around right-sized land management and appropriate technology (“A Forest Conversation,” “Local Economies to Save the Land and the People,” “Less Energy, More Life,” “Our Deserted Country,” and “For the 50-Year Farm Bill”). Two address wider concerns in our society (“Caught in the Middle” in which Berry sets forth his views on abortion and gay marriage and “On Being Asked for a ‘Narrative for the Future”).

There were several that stood out for me. One was “A Forest Conversation.” Much of this essay describes the practices of forest owner Troy Firth, who owns a maple sugar operation and also logs his forest with sustainable practices in his choices of trees to cut, and in how he removes them to minimize damage to the forest floor (horses!). “Our Deserted Country” chronicles the movement of people from country to city and the use of industrial technology as a substitute for an appropriate ratio of “eyes to acres” that human-scaled land care involved. He ranges widely in this essay, discussing impacts on the land, the disappearance of a country culture of fishing, hunting, and foraging, and the decline of local streams, including the loss of his favorite willows that no one can explain or had noticed.

In “Caught in the Middle,” Berry voices what many of us feel, that neither of the major political parties represent his views. He ventures into the contentious space of abortion and gay marriage. He opposes abortion as the taking of life, and yet concedes there are circumstances he would help someone obtain an abortion. He acknowledges the conflict in these statements but also contends there should be no laws for or against abortion. He argues this is a personal matter that should not be subject to law, and argues similarly with regard to gay marriage. He questions whether “rights” are bestowed by government, including the “right” to marry. He would go further in saying that neither does the church, but that a “marriage” is made by two individuals who vow and live those vows until death. I suspect this is one of those essays that has subjected him to fire from all sides, the danger of being “caught in the middle.” But Wendell Berry has never shrunk from controversy!

His concluding essay speaks a good word to all our prognostications about the future. He writes:

In this essay and elsewhere, I have advocated for the 50-Year Farm Bill, another big solution I am doing my best to promote, but not because it will be good in or for the future. I am for it because it is good now, according to present understanding of present needs. I know that it is good now because its principles are now satisfactorily practiced by many (though not nearly enough) farmers. 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.

It may well be that this is the theme that under-girds all these essays. His urging that we turn away from our energy-intensive economy is not first for the environment, but because it is not a good way to live. His arguments limiting the power of big government and reliance on national politics is centered in the goodness of the local community, and the ability of local people to best care for their land. Good work, rather than jobs, is what people were made for, but is also good for the world.

Agree with Berry or not (and probably no one will on all he writes), his contrarian voice comes from a different place from much of our public discourse. It comes from a place that is close to land from a life of tending a farm and the surrounding land, and to local people, a “membership.” He offers us the chance to examine the way of living and the way of governing a society that we have assumed. In the end, his concern is not to change the world, or Washington, but to invite each of us to consider what it means to pursue the good in the place we are. Perhaps at the end of the day, that is the best we can do in “our only world.”