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Posts Tagged ‘culture’

27 APRIL, 2015

Turning Trauma into Power: Marina Abramovic on How Her Harrowing Childhood Became the Raw Material for Her Art

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“You know you are an artist if you have to do art — it’s like breathing and you have no choice. Nothing should be able to stop you.”

Let’s get one thing out of the way: Although creative history is littered with tortured geniuses who survived terrible childhoods full of abuse and violence — take Franz Kafka’s abusive father or Maya Angelou’s rape or Eve Ensler’s trauma — and although my own early years contain elements of these experiences (sans the subsequent genius), I am not one who romanticizes pain, upheaval, and adversity as prerequisites for success. That said, I do find tremendous value in reading about celebrated creators who persevered through traumatic childhoods — first, because to anyone who has ever been stymied by crushing circumstances, these stories offer assurance that it is possible to have a deeply fulfilling life despite the cards one has been dealt; secondly, because these personal accounts yank into question the privilege narrative of our almost automatic assumption that those who have attained public recognition and its capitalist byproduct of financial success must be living charmed, untroubled lives. These stories are, above all, a sometimes jarring, sometimes gentle reminder to heed the words of 19th-century Scottish writer and theologian Ian Maclaren (often misattributed to Plato): “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.”

This is why I found myself at once deeply moved and hugely heartened by artist Marina Abramović’s contribution to Getting There: A Book of Mentors (public library) — a stimulating compendium by lawyer, photographer, and writer Gillian Zoe Segal, illustrating the notion that “success comes in a potpourri of flavors” through a tasting menu of wildly diverse success-stories by such cultural icons as inventor Craig Venter, mayor extraordinaire Mike Bloomberg, Mad Men creator Matthew Weiner, composer Hans Zimmer, Teach for America founder Wendy Kopp, and billionaire-philanthropist Warren Buffet. (I’d be remiss not to point out that only a quarter of these featured success-models are women and only one is a person of color — a fact stated not as self-righteous criticism, for I did enjoy the volume, but as an unrelenting reminder that we can and, in fact, must do better if we are to have a truly diverse and inclusive cultural rhetoric of success.)

Marina Abramović, 'The Artist Is Present,' performance, 2010; Museum of Modern Art, New York. Courtesy of the Marina Abramović Archives.

Abramović was born in Belgrade in 1946, shortly after the end of WWII. Her formative years, while heartbreaking, are not entirely unusual for those of us raised in Eastern Europe — while Abramović’s experience is undoubtedly a function of her parents’ particular personalities, it also reflects more general cultural pathologies related to discipline and the chronic denial of emotional reality. She recounts:

My parents were both partisans and national heroes. They were very hard-core and were so busy with their careers that I lived with my grandmother until I was six. Until then, I hardly even knew who my parents were. They were just two strange people who would visit on Saturdays and bring presents. When I was six, my brother was born, and I was sent back to my parents. From that point on, my childhood was very unhappy. I grew up with incredible control, discipline, and violence at home. Everything was extreme. My mother never kissed me. When I asked why, she said, “Not to spoil you, of course.” She had a bacteria phobia so she didn’t allow me to play with other children out of fear that I might catch a disease. She even washed bananas with detergent. I spent most of my time alone in my room. There were many, many rules. Everything had to be in perfect order. If I slept messily in bed, my mother would wake me in the middle of the night and order me to sleep straight.

Illustrating just how reality-warping such parenting is and how hungry for affectionate care such systematic deprivation leaves the child, Abramović relays the reverse reaction she had to an experience most children would find utterly distressing:

When one of my baby teeth fell out and the bleeding wouldn’t stop, everyone thought I might have hemophilia so I was put in the hospital for a year. That was the happiest, most wonderful time of my life. Everybody was taking care of me and nobody was punishing me. I never felt at home in my own home and I never feel at home anywhere.

And yet under these harsh conditions, Abramović had no choice but to cultivate a skill fundamental for creativity — that vital capacity for “fertile solitude” and ability to do nothing all alone with oneself.

Illustration by Sophie Blackall from 'Pecan Pie Baby' by Jacqueline Woodson. Click image for details.

Isolated from other children and condemned to forced aloneness, she began drawing daily — one of the few activities her mother supported — when she was only three. Drawing became a lens through which she saw and understood the world. She relays one particularly formative experience:

One day I was lying on the ground looking up and a few supersonic planes flew over me and made these incredible lines, like drawings. I watched them appear, form, then disappear; and then the sky was blue again. It was incredible. I immediately went to the military base and asked friends of my father’s if they could give me twelve supersonic planes to make a drawing in the sky. They called my father and said, “Get your daughter out of here. She is completely nuts!” But after that, I never went to the studio again. It was almost like a spiritual experience, and I realized that I could make art from practically nothing. I could use water, fire, earth, wind, myself. It’s the concept that matters. This was the beginning of performance for me.

Her first steps in performance — something that wasn’t considered a form of art at the time — were often public stumbles. But despite frequent ridicule and criticism from the press, she continued to push her physical and mental limits, putting on provocative performances that challenged our core assumptions about what art is supposed to be. (As Neil Gaiman urged in his fantastic commencement address on courage and the creative life: “When things get tough, this is what you should do: Make good art… IRS on your trail — make good art. Cat exploded — make good art. Someone on the Internet thinks what you’re doing is stupid or evil or it’s all been done before — make good art.”)

Meanwhile, already well into her twenties, Abramović was still living with her parents and was still being constantly punished by her mother, who continued to beat her and even burned art she made. In a sentiment painfully familiar to those who come from similar circumstances and cultures, Abramović reflects:

It never even crossed my mind to leave. At the time there was really no other choice. Several generations in the same house was how people lived in Eastern Europe.

Illustration by Pascal Lemaitre from 'The Book of Mean People' by Toni and Slade Morrison. Click image for details.

And then something literally life-changing happened: On her twenty-ninth birthday, Abramović received an invitation to perform on a Dutch television show. She recounts:

When I arrived at the airport in Amsterdam, I was met by another artist, a man named Ulay, who was to be my guide. We discovered that we had the same birthday and much more than that in common. We immediately fell terribly in love. I returned to Belgrade, but we got lovesick and planned to meet in Prague, which is between Amsterdam and Belgrade. We decided we would live together in Amsterdam and work together too. It was one of those magical moments where everything comes together. So at twenty-nine I ran away from home to live with Ulay. I literally escaped. My mother went to the police, told them that I was missing, and gave them a description of me. The police officer said, “But how old is she?” When he learned I was twenty-nine, he made my mother leave.

Invoking Kierkegaard’s assertion that “the more a person limits himself, the more resourceful he becomes,” Abramović considers how deeply the human spirit is imprinted by those early experiences and how challenging it is to inhabit one’s freedom once the despot is removed from the picture — something as true politically, for countries newly liberated from dictatorship, as it is personally, for those who break free from abusive relationships:

At first, I had trouble adjusting to my newfound freedom. While on one level I hated and rebelled against all my restrictions in Belgrade, both the political control and my home life, I also fed on them. In Amsterdam I felt the need to create my own restrictions and started building instructions for myself in my performances. To this day, every performance I do is based on discipline and specific instructions that have to be executed in front of the public. It’s become the frame I make my work within.

One essential commonality emerges between artists who struggled before finding success. Like Patti Smith, who was homeless and starving for years and yet thought of herself not as a homeless person but as an artist who hasn’t yet found her muse, Abramović made no compromises about being a full-time artist:

All I wanted to do was be an artist. I didn’t want to work in a restaurant or do any other job, so Ulay and I decided to live together in a van. It was the most radical but also the simplest decision I have ever made. It was really the only way we could exist. We had no money and the performances we did hardly paid. We lived like that for five years and it was bliss!

And yet this ecstatic romance eventually came undone and the couple began to drift apart. The heartbreak of the farewell and its actual performance were commensurate with the magnitude of how their love had begun:

For eight years Ulay and I had been requesting permission to do a performance piece on the Great Wall of China. Our plan was to start at opposite ends, walk toward each other, and get married when we met. By the time the Chinese finally said yes, our relationship was over. I have never been one to give up a good opportunity, so we decided to still walk toward each other but say good-bye instead when we met. It was extremely painful. To make things worse, I knew at the time that Ulay had made his Chinese guide pregnant and would soon be having a child with her.

What began as a fairy-tale romance ended in a nightmare. Abramović was forty and even though she felt “fat, ugly, and unwanted,” she had only one choice in order to go on — make good art. She brings the journey full-circle to the determinative experiences of her childhood, attesting to the fact that great artists spend a lifetime making power from their wounds:

When I was growing up, my private life was not valued. The noblest thing one could do in my family was to sacrifice everything for a cause. Art became my cause and it’s still everything to me. I dedicate all the energy in my body to my work and have completely sacrificed a more conventional personal life for it. I have no partner and no children, but I’m very proud of myself for always doing what I want, no matter what the cost and no matter how long it’s taken… I wake up in the morning with this urge to create; it’s almost like I am in a fever. Every single day is structured. I work, work, work, and my curiosity never ends.

Illustration for 'Alice in Wonderland' by Lisbeth Zwerger. Click image for more.

With the wry self-awareness of those who have found a way to transmute their vulnerability into art — “Maybe all of our coping mechanisms are our artwork,” my dear friend Wendy MacNaughton once said to me — Abramović adds:

I’m also like a clinical case: If you don’t get love from your family, you turn to other things to get it. I get the love I need from my audience. Without the public, my performances wouldn’t exist because I am not motivated to perform alone. The public completes my work and has become the center of my world.

And yet that public love and its tangible material rewards are — must be — only a byproduct of the private passion driving the artist. Echoing Sherwood Anderson’s magnificent letter of life-advice to his son when the young man was headed to art school, Abramović cautions:

When a young artist comes to me and says, “I want to be famous and rich,” I ask him to leave because this is not the reason to make art. Those things are just side effects that you may be lucky enough to achieve. Your reason for doing art should be much deeper. You know you are an artist if you have to do art — it’s like breathing and you have no choice. Nothing should be able to stop you.

Noting that art is sometimes rejected not because it is bad but because it is “ahead of society” — “the function of the artist in a disturbed society,” she has asserted elsewhere, “[is] to ask the right questions, to open consciousness and elevate the mind.” — Abramović adds:

The success of an artist is generally measured by how much he can sell his work for, especially in America. This is shocking to me. How can you measure people like that?

Complement Getting There with wisdom on life from the sagest commencement addresses of all time and some timeless resolutions from humanity’s greatest mentors, then revisit some of the most celebrated artists of our time — including Abramović herself — on courage, criticism, success, and what it really means to be an artist.

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24 APRIL, 2015

This I Believe: Thomas Mann on Time and the Soul of Existence

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“The perishableness of life … imparts value, dignity, interest to life.”

“The best thing about time passing,” Sarah Manguso wrote in her magnificent meditation on ongoingness, “is the privilege of running out of it, of watching the wave of mortality break over me and everyone I know.” More than half a century earlier, the great German writer, philanthropist, and Nobel laureate Thomas Mann (June 6, 1875–August 12, 1955) articulated this idea with enchanting elegance in NPR’s program-turned-book This I Believe: The Personal Philosophies of Remarkable Men and Women (public library) — a compendium of wisdom from eighty contributors ranging from a part-time hospital worker to a woman who sells Yellow Pages advertising to luminaries like Eleanor Roosevelt, John Updike, Errol Morris, Gloria Steinem, Eve Ensler, and Andrew Sullivan.

NPR’s invitation was simple yet enormously challenging: Each contributor was asked to capture his or her personal credo — that essential set of guiding principles by which life is lived — in just a few hundred words. In an era long before people were being asked to capture their convictions in 140 characters, this was a radical proposition — particularly for writers used to exploring such matters in several hundred pages.

Answering in the 1950s — decades after his touching correspondence with young Hermann Hesse and a few years before his death — Mann writes:

What I believe, what I value most, is transitoriness.

But is not transitoriness — the perishableness of life — something very sad? No! It is the very soul of existence. It imparts value, dignity, interest to life. Transitoriness creates time — and “time is the essence.” Potentially at least, time is the supreme, most useful gift.

Time is related to — yes, identical with — everything creative and active, with every progress toward a higher goal. Without transitoriness, without beginning or end, birth or death, there is no time, either. Timelessness — in the sense of time never ending, never beginning — is a stagnant nothing. It is absolutely uninteresting.

What is interesting, of course, is that Mann’s work — his words, his wisdom — is very much timeless, as is even his antagonism toward timelessness itself. And yet even as he scoffs at timelessness, he remains keenly attuned to this duality — the eternal dance between transitoriness and the tenacity of existence:

Life is possessed by tremendous tenacity. Even so, its presence remains conditional, and as it had a beginning, so it will have an end. I believe that life, just for this reason, is exceedingly enhanced in value, in charm.

Discus chronologicus, a depiction of time from the early 1720s, found in 'Cartographies of Time.' Click image for details.

The privilege of this experience, Mann argues, is a centerpiece of the answer to the age-old question of what it means to be human:

One of the most important characteristics distinguishing man from all other forms of nature is his knowledge of transitoriness, of beginning and end, and therefore of the gift of time.

In man, transitory life attains its peak of animation, of soul power, so to speak. This does not mean man alone would have a soul. Soul quality pervades all beings. But man’s soul is most awake in his knowledge of the inter-changeability of the terms “existence” and “transitoriness.”

To man, time is given like a piece of land, as it were, entrusted to him for faithful tilling; a space in which to strive incessantly, achieve self-realization, move onward and upward. Yes, with the aid of time, man becomes capable of wresting the immortal from the mortal.

This I Believe is a timelessly glorious read in its entirety. Complement Mann’s contribution with Alan Lightman on reconciling our longing for immortality with an impermanent universe and Claudia Hammond on the psychology of why time slows down when you’re afraid, speeds up as you age, and gets warped while you’re on vacation.

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23 APRIL, 2015

Thoreau on Libraries and His Ideal Sanctuary for Books

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“Those old books suggested a certain fertility … as if they were making a humus for new literatures to spring in.”

“We have an obligation to support libraries,” Neil Gaiman asserted in contemplating our responsibilities to the written word, adding: “If you do not value libraries then you do not value information or culture or wisdom. You are silencing the voices of the past and you are damaging the future.”

More than a century and a half earlier, another great man of letters extolled the value of libraries with equal wholeheartedness. From The Journal of Henry David Thoreau, 1837–1861 (public library) — that timeless trove of wisdom on such matters as the myth of productivity, the greatest gift of growing old, the creative benefits of keeping a diary, and the only worthwhile definition of success — comes a beautiful recollection 35-year-old Thoreau penned before sunrise on March 16, 1852:

Spent the day in Cambridge Library.

The Library a wilderness of books. The volumes of the Fifteenth, Sixteenth, and Seventeenth Centuries, which lie so near on the shelf, are rarely opened, are effectually forgotten and not implied by our literature and newspapers. When I looked into Purchas’s Pilgrims, it affected me like looking into an impassable swamp, ten feet deep with sphagnum, where the monarchs of the forest, covered with mosses and stretched along the ground, were making haste to become peat. Those old books suggested a certain fertility, an Ohio soil, as if they were making a humus for new literatures to spring in. I heard the bellowing of bullfrogs and the hum of mosquitoes reverberating through the thick embossed covers when I had closed the book. Decayed literature makes the richest of all soils.

The New York Public Library reading room by Robert Dawson from his photographic love letter to public libraries. Click image for more.

And yet despite his reverence for these traditional bastions of literature, Thoreau sees something insufficiently alive in the physicality of the library. In another entry, having just returned from a quest to find works by fellow naturalists and poets at the Boston and Cambridge libraries, he marvels at the curious disconnect of the proposition and imagines a wholly different home for these books — a place more akin to a sanctuary, imbued with the aliveness the books themselves:

How happens it that I find not in the country, in the fields and woods, the works even of like-minded naturalists and poets. Those who have expressed the purest and deepest love of nature have not recorded it on the bark of the trees with the lichens; they have left no memento of it there; but if I would read their books I must go to the city, — so strange and repulsive both to them and to me, — and deal with men and institutions with whom I have no sympathy. When I have just been there on this errand, it seems too great a price to pay for access even to the works of Homer, or Chaucer, or Linnæus. I have sometimes imagined a library, i.e. a collection of the works of true poets, philosophers, naturalists, etc., deposited not in a brick or marble edifice in a crowded and dusty city, guarded by cold-blooded and methodical officials and preyed on by bookworms, in which you own no share, and are not likely to, but rather far away in the depths of a primitive forest, like the ruins of Central America, where you can trace a series of crumbling alcoves, the older books protecting the most modern from the elements, partially buried by the luxuriance of nature, which the heroic student could reach only after adventures in the wilderness amid wild beasts and wild men. That, to my imagination, seems a fitter place for these interesting relics, which owe no small part of their interest to their antiquity, and whose occasion is nature, than the well-preserved edifice, with its well-preserved officials on the side of a city’s square. More terrible than lions and tigers these Cerberuses.

Illustration by D. B. Johnson from 'Henry Hikes to Fitchburg,' a children's book about Thoreau's philosophy. Click image for more.

The Journal of Henry David Thoreau remains a secular bible for every thinking, feeling human being. Complement it with Thoreau on the the spiritual rewards of walking and what it really means to be awake.

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22 APRIL, 2015

Wendell Berry on Our Contempt for Small Places and the Perils of Our “Rugged Individualism”

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“The extent of our knowledge will always be… the measure of the extent of our ignorance.”

Novelist, poet, farmer, and environmental activist Wendell Berry (b. August 5, 1934) is the closest thing our era has to Thoreau — a magnificent writer whose poems and essays remind us, over and over, what it means to be awake to the world, inner and outer. Whether he is contemplating solitude and the two great enemies of creative work or examining how poetic form illuminates the secret of marriage, Berry breaks through even our most hardened ego-shells and beams into the cracks enormous warmth and wisdom.

That’s precisely what he does in The Way of Ignorance and Other Essays (public library) — a masterwork of luminous lucidity on our civilizational shortcomings, delivered with the intelligent hope necessary for doing better.

Wendell Berry (Photograph: Guy Mendes)

In the introduction, penned years before Stuart Firestein’s manifesto for “thoroughly conscious ignorance” and a decade before astrophysicist Marcelo Gleiser’s elegant modern case for living with mystery in the age of knowledge, Berry clarifies the misunderstood value of ignorance:

There are kinds and degrees of ignorance that are remediable, of course, and we have no excuse for not learning all we can. Within limits, we can learn and think; we can read, hear, and see; we can remember. We don’t have to live in a world defined by professional and political gibberish.

But… our ignorance ultimately is irremediable… Do what we will, we are never going to be free of mortality, partiality, fallibility, and error. The extent of our knowledge will always be, at the same time, the measure of the extent of our ignorance.

Because ignorance is thus a part of our creaturely definition, we need an appropriate way: a way of ignorance, which is the way of neighborly love, kindness, caution, care, appropriate scale, thrift, good work, right livelihood…

The way of ignorance, therefore, is to be careful, to know the limits and the efficacy of our knowledge. It is to be humble and to work on an appropriate scale.

Illustration from 'The River' by Alessandro Sanna. Click image for details.

In a beautiful essay titled “Contempt for Small Places,” Berry — a lifelong celebrator of the grandeur of smallness, and a self-described “small writer” and “small farmer” — reflects:

The health of the oceans depends on the health of rivers; the health of rivers depends on the health of small streams; the health of small streams depends on the health of their watersheds. The health of the water is exactly the same as the health of the land; the health of small places is exactly the same as the health of large places…

We cannot immunize the continents and the oceans against our contempt for small places and small streams. Small destructions add up, and finally they are understood collectively as large destructions.

Berry points to the coal industry as a major culprit in this accretion of small destructions — and now, a decade later, one can’t help but wonder whether almonds are the new coal, with so many of the same commercial and political dynamics at play. With an eye to “the contradictions in the state’s effort ‘to balance the competing interests,’” Berry quotes Kentucky Appalachian Commission director Ewell Balltrip’s perfect articulation of the interdependencies at stake:

If you don’t have mining, you don’t have an economy, and if you don’t have an economy you don’t have a way for the people to live. But if you don’t have environmental quality, you won’t create the kind of place where people want to live.

He revisits the complexities surrounding these conflicting interests in another essay from the same collection, titled “Rugged Individualism”:

The career of rugged individualism in America has run mostly to absurdity, tragic or comic. But it also has done us a certain amount of good. There was a streak of it in Thoreau, who went alone to jail in protest against the Mexican War. And that streak has continued in his successors who have suffered penalties for civil disobedience because of their perception that the law and the government were not always or necessarily right. This is individualism of a kind rugged enough, and it has been authenticated typically by its identification with a communal good.

The tragic version of rugged individualism is in the presumptive “right” of individuals to do as they please, as if there were no God, no legitimate government, no community, no neighbors, and no posterity. This is most frequently understood as the right to do whatever one pleases with one’s property. One’s property, according to this formulation, is one’s own absolutely.

Illustration from 'Once Upon an Alphabet' by Oliver Jeffers. Click image for details.

To be sure, Berry’s “rugged individualism” is simply a more poetic term for our common complaint of “entitlement” — an accusation usually aimed at the young, which upon closer inspection reveals itself as a major undercurrent of capitalist society itself. Contemplating how we got there, Berry points to the aberrant evolution of property rights — something that originated as protection of the private individual and mutated into destruction of the public good:

Rugged individualism of this kind has cost us dearly in lost topsoil, in destroyed forests, in the increasing toxicity of the world, and in annihilated species.

When property rights become absolute they are invariably destructive, for then they are used to justify not only the abuse of things of permanent value for the temporary benefit of legal owners, but also the appropriation and abuse of things to which the would-be owners have no rights at all, but which can belong only to the public or to the entire community of living creatures: the atmosphere, the water cycle, wilderness, ecosystems, the possibility of life.

What has only exacerbated the situation, Berry argues, is the growing tendency toward granting brands and companies the status of “persons,” who then exercise their own “rugged individualism” by further abusing these property rights as permission to do as they please. Berry writes:

Because of the overwhelming wealth and influence of these “persons,” the elected representatives and defenders of “the people” … become instead the representatives and defenders of the corporations.

It has become ever more clear that this sort of individualism has never proposed or implied any protection of the rights of all individuals, but instead has promoted a ferocious scramble in which more and more of the rights of “the people” have been gathered into the ownership of fewer and fewer of the greediest and most powerful “persons.”

Illustration from 'Inside the Rainbow: Beautiful Books, Terrible Times.' Click image for details.

Once again, it’s hard not to think about the almond-farming predicament and other such modern manifestations of this corporate anthropomorphism of property rights as Berry concludes:

“Every man for himself” is a doctrine for a feeding frenzy or for a panic in a burning nightclub, appropriate for sharks or hogs or perhaps a cascade of lemmings. A society wishing to endure must speak the language of care-taking, faith-keeping, kindness, neighborliness, and peace. That language is another precious resource that cannot be “privatized.”

Under the tyranny of “rugged individualism,” this profound disconnect between our personal interests and our world’s wellbeing is a rift rooted in pitting the wilderness as an antagonist to human progress and seeing the welfare of the two as mutually exclusive — a pie fallacy which began at least as early as the Industrial Revolution and which Bertrand Russell bemoaned in his 1930 classic, observing that we’ve come to measure our progress by our “separation from the life of Earth.” How we ended up with this rift is what Berry examines in another essay from the volume, titled “Compromise, Hell!”:

Since the beginning of the conservation effort … conservationists have too often believed that we could protect the land without protecting the people… If conservationists hope to save even the wild lands and wild creatures, they are going to have to address issues of economy, which is to say issues of the health of the landscapes and the towns and cities where we do our work, and the quality of that work, and the well-being of the people who do the work.

Governments seem to be making the opposite error, believing that the people can be adequately protected without protecting the land… If we know that coal is an exhaustible resource, whereas the forests over it are with proper use inexhaustible, and that strip mining destroys the forest virtually forever, how can we permit this destruction? If we honor at all that fragile creature the topsoil, so long in the making, so miraculously made, so indispensable to all life, how can we destroy it?

[…]

The general purpose of the present economy is to exploit, not to foster or conserve.

The Way of Ignorance and Other Essays is a spectacular read in its entirety. Complement it with Berry on pride and despair and form, faith, and freedom, then revisit Jon Mooallem on rediscovering the larger value of small places.

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