16, 2004: Doing the garden, digging the weeds,
who could ask for more? The Beatles “When I’m
Sixty-Four” evokes an older couple’s hands in
the dirt of their own garden. This is a scene Wendell Berry
would treasure. For Berry, the familiar and intimate experience
is always valued over novelty. This principle has shaped his
life—he left his academic career behind to live, farm,
and write in his native Kentucky—and his lifestyle promotes
fulfillment over detachment, veneration in lieu of consumption.
Life is a Miracle is a taut, relevant, and convincing
essay that argues life must be revered, not reduced. The fruitfulness
of Berry’s own life—that prolific writer with
his hands in the dirt—always seems to shimmer behind
his argument as proof of what he’s proposing.
The essay’s title comes from Shakespeare’s King
Lear. It means simply that our existence is inexplicable;
unexplainable; marvelous. Reductive science proposes another
ideology—one, according to Berry, whose mechanical and
oversimplified explanations wrest the life out of the living.
Its reach includes a conglomeration dubbed ‘science-technology-industry,'
whose adverse and widespread influence upon our cultural institutions
is laid bare. In higher education, for instance, the contemporary
trend is to devote more time and money to research than to
ensuring a quality education for students. Thus the modern
university strays from its ideal purpose of learning and teaching
to that of “industrial economic ideals of high productivity
and constant innovation.”
Berry uses some controversial topics, such as cloning and
genetic engineering, to illustrate the folly of treating life
as predictable and knowable, but more widely accepted beliefs
and practices are rebuked as well once they fall under his
examination. Berry observes, “The media, cultivating
their mediocrity, seem quite comfortably unaware that many
of the calamities from which science is expected to save the
world were caused in the first place by science…. Nobody,
so far as I have heard, is attempting to figure out how much
of the progress resulting from this enterprise is net”.
Common sense is a weapon Berry wields with devastating effect.
It’s tough to dispute the point that we have yet to
find a satisfactory way to dispose of rubber tires.
A genuine concern for the health and beauty of our planet
and its citizens imbue these pages; yet miraculously, it avoids
sentimentality. It is equally impressive that the critique
is never vicious. Berry acknowledges the usefulness and value
in the work of science while critiquing the misalignment of
its present goals. Like a hired consultant, Berry enters this
conversation because standards are down and the whole enterprise
may soon be awash in failure.
The essay’s heart is a critique of Edward O. Wilson’s
Consilience, a book that endorses the already widespread
belief in science’s ability to solve all of humanity's
problems. Wilson believes the world can be empirically known
once it is reduced to its physical laws. According to Berry,
the abstractions inherent in such scientific proofs underestimate
the uniqueness of living things. The result is “to give
up on life, to carry it beyond change and redemption, and
to increase the proximity of despair.” If this conclusion
seems unclear or illogical, you can usually depend on Berry
to deliver a lucid explanation or example to support his argument.
At times Berry mocks Wilson’s way of thinking with
undertones of pity instead of contempt. Ironically, Wilson
pities unscientific minds in the same manner. Both thinkers
view each other as fundamentally ignorant of certain aspects
of the world. In fact, Berry is overtly concerned with what
Wilson does not know and dubious of how complete knowledge
can ever be (the first chapter is entitled “Ignorance”).
Directly opposing Wilson’s proposed theory of total
understanding, Berry believes our knowledge has always been
incomplete, and there is no reason to predict it will become
significantly more complete. He says, “What we have
come to know so far is demonstrably incomplete, since we keep
on learning more…. And so the question of how to act
in ignorance is paramount."
This approach to living is full of humility and appropriate
caution. The poet e.e. cummings wrote that “progress
is a comfortable disease." On occasion, unfortunately,
we are poor critics of our own thoughts and intentions. At
a time when we are able to dominate and manipulate life more
than ever, certain standards and practices of science must
be rigorously criticized and defined. Life is a Miracle
refreshes ideals—local adaptation, elegance, thrift—equally
conducive to human and ecological health in Kentucky as in
the rest of the world.
Adam Grybowski is a former farmworker and a lover of