July 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
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 good books.