Essayist Wendell Berry says affection is key to solving Earth's woes
April 26, 2012
for Montana Health Journal
This year the National Endowment for the Humanities bestowed its highest honor for intellectual achievement in the humanities on the farmer, essayist, novelist, conservationist, and poet, Wendell Berry. "Yes!" I said, when I heard the news. For nearly fifty years, Berry has been unabashedly and sometimes scathingly critical of our highly industrialized, overly capitalized, and profoundly disconnected society. As an alternative, Berry has offered the rural life and values, his account of which drew me - and I'm sure many of you - to his work. (If you have not yet spent an afternoon in Wendell Berry's company, get to a library as quickly as you can. Treasure awaits.)
So often we are informed by sound bites and statistics and think we have the whole story. In this increasingly text-based world, I have come to think of this level of understanding as 'coming in one ear and going out our thumbs.' Mr. Berry speaks a different language. He writes from the practical memory of how America was when small towns thrived, when neighbors knew each other their whole lives, when people stayed put. He speaks to our true intelligence, to our deepest values. Something in us responds.
For the 41st Jefferson Lecture in the Humanities which he delivered on Monday evening at the Kennedy Center, Mr. Berry, American intellectual and agrarian-minded elder, described how and why affection, yes, affection!, ought be considered the cornerstone of a new economy. Berry tells us that affection does not spring up fully formed; it is gotten to by way of imagination. It's a train of thought worth quoting at length: "For humans to have a responsible relationship to the world," says Berry, "they must imagine their places in it. To have a place, to live and belong in a place, to live from a place without destroying it, we must imagine it. By imagination we see it illuminated by its own unique character and by our love for it. By imagination we recognize with sympathy the fellow members, human and nonhuman, with whom we share our place. By that local experience we see the need to grant a sort of preemptive sympathy to all the fellow members, the neighbors, with whom we share the world. As imagination enables sympathy, sympathy enables affection. And it is in affection that we find the possibility of a neighborly, kind, and conserving economy." Affection, then, takes us beyond statistics and generalizations to the immediate and the particular. It focuses our attention on the beloved things right in front of us. This field, this child, this community.
Berry observes that we live in a time where affection is discounted. It's true: rare is the public discussion where affection - or beauty, or hope, or joy - is brought forward as a good and weighty reason to do anything. But Berry believes that affection is deeply motivating. "Affection involves us entirely," he writes. If he is right, love itself could be what moves us, finally, to care for the Earth.