Framing the Questions
Wendell Berry, whom I have never met but would like to, has taught me something of significant value: the question I have used to introduce this website is the wrong question. I am aware of the short-sightedness of the question, and yet I leave it on the site, as a reminder that sometimes the wrong questions can further us on our path of discovery to better ones.
The question I leave on the site is this: Science provides us today, in exquisite detail, not only the damage we have inflicted upon the ecosystem(s) of the planet but the consequences as well. Why then, are we not changing our behavior?
This is a great example of a question asked from the perspective of an outsider, one who doesn’t yet see where s/he belongs. In this question, there is a we and a they, we being the humans, they being the ecosystems of the planet. This really isn’t just about semantics, by the way. If my commitment is to learn what it means to live from within the earth community, and to walk with others who want the same thing – then a question which separates us from the very community of which we are a part – is the wrong question.
And . . . it’s leading to better questions! Evolution of thought is a process!
What will our politics look like, our environmental law, our moral compass, our education, our economies look like, if we learn to ask the questions from our proper place within the earth community? What difference will it make? And how will we know when we are learning to ask the right questions?
Most humans – certainly I include myself – have little experience making decisions from within. So, into my life (again) comes Wendell Berry, on this occasion not as poet, but farmer (not that it’s possible to separate them). I’ve just added Bringing It To The Table to the book section of the website, and may it become as life-changing an experience for you as it has been for me.
In the early pages, Berry debunks the practice of industrial agriculture, calling it a dictatorial or totalitarian form of behavior, telling nature what it wants, taking what it wants, and imposing no limit on its wants. He then offers us a gentler way.
“An agriculture using nature, including human nature, as its measure,” he writes, “Would approach the world in the manner of the conversationalist . . . Farmers would ‘consult the genius of the place.’ They would ask what nature would be doing if no one were farming there. They would ask what nature would permit them to do there, and what they could do there with the least harm to the place and to their non-human and human neighbors. And they would ask what nature would help them do there.”
To be in conversation; to ‘consult the genius of the place’ . . . to imagine myself in such relationship, from within my own community, the community of all life forms, brings me closer to what I want to call the right questions. These are questions asked not from the outside, “Why are we still doing what we’re doing to the planet” but from within. “Why are we doing this to ourselves?”
Conversations with the earth can happen from the space between. In fact, until we humans can lose our forgetfulness as to our proper place within the earth community, the space between may be the only place we can have such conversations. I am pointing back to earlier posts on this website, so that we can begin to claim new vocabulary with which to speak of new ways of being in the world.
Berry writes of farmers in conversation, “After each asking, knowing that nature will respond, they would attend carefully to her response. The use of the place would necessarily change, and the response of the place to that use would necessarily change the user. The conversation itself would thus assume a kind of creaturely life, binding the place and its inhabitants together . . .”
In fact, Berry reminds us that when humans come into right relationship and conversation with the earth community, when we learn to honor the otherness of the other party, we understand that we must not expect always to receive a reply that we foresee or a reply that we will like.
This way of thinking is not at all familiar to most of us; it’s awkward, maybe a little scary. Change the user are the operative words. But the space between is where our hope lies, our hope for a future in which we understand and honor the sacred value of all life, including our own.