Henry Beston’s Beautiful 1948 Manifesto for Reclaiming Our Humanity by Breaking the Tyranny of Technology and Relearning to Be Nurtured by Nature
“Oh, work that is done in freedom out of doors, work that is done with the body’s and soul’s goodwill, work that is an integral part of life and is done with friends — is there anything so good?”
By Maria Popova
Twice a century, if we’re lucky, a writer comes along who re-enchants us with the glory and grandeur of this world; who helps us remember, in our hearts and our bones, that we are of this earth and this earth is of us and the bond between the two is the wellspring of life’s most rewarding wisdom. In the nineteenth century, that writer was Henry David Thoreau; in the second half of the twentieth, Annie Dillard. Lodged between them is Henry Beston (June 1, 1888–April 15, 1968) — an exceptionally bewitching bridge-builder between humanity and nature, whose words remain some of the most pleasurable prose ever written.
Exactly twenty years after his beautiful love letter to darkness, Beston revisited the subject of our humanity’s abiding relationship with nature from a different angle in the breathtaking Northern Farm (public library). Grounded in nature’s seasonal rhythms like Thoreau’s diary and woven of diurnal philosophical reflections like Tolstoy’s Calendar of Wisdom, this exquisite book chronicles a year of life on Beston’s farm, Chimney Farm in Maine, in the late 1930s. What emerges is a timeless meditation on the relationship between nature, humanity, and technology, swelling with extraordinary poignancy and timeliness in the context of our world nearly a century later.
In a lamentation partway between Nietzsche’s insistence that difficulty is essential for a full life and Bertrand Russell’s admonition against the spiritual perils of severing our tie to nature, Beston considers how the mechanized conveniences of modern life are robbing us of the essential inconveniences that make us human:
The chromium millennium ahead of us, I gather, is going to be an age whose ideal is a fantastically unnatural human passivity. We are to spend our lives in cushioned easy chairs, growing indolent and heavy while intricate slave mechanisms do practically everything for us as we loll.
What a really appalling future! What normal human being would choose it, and what twist of the spirit has created this sluggish paradise? No, I do not mean that we should take the hardest way. Compromises are natural and right. But a human being protected from all normal and natural hardship simply is not alive.
This overprotection, Beston argues, stems from the ways in which we’ve enlisted our technology in our compulsion for control. Two decades before Alan Watts extolled the wisdom of insecurity, Beston writes:
No age in history can afford to lay too much emphasis upon “security.” The truth is that from our first breath to our last we inhabit insecurely a world which must of its transitory nature be insecure, and that moreover any security we do achieve is but a kind of an illusion. While admitting that a profound instinct towards such safety as we can achieve is part of our animal being, let us also confess that the challenge involved in mere existence is the source of many of the greater virtues of human character.
Many decades before legendary psychiatrist Irvin D. Yalom argued that uncertainty is central to our search for meaning, Beston echoes Thoreau’s memorable case for the value of “useful ignorance” and considers the fine line between our fruitful pursuit of knowledge and the foolish eradication of life’s inherent mystery:
Perhaps asking too much is an error more dangerous than we realize, a thing of strong poison to the human soul. Our world would do well for awhile to muse upon the serenity and happiness possible within our human and earthly limitations.
In a sentiment that calls to mind Junichiro Tanizaki’s magnificent meditation on why every technology is a technology of thought, penned just a few years earlier, Beston argues that there exists a mutuality between our tools and our intentions — while our tools are the product of our intentions, they also shape our intentions in turn:
There is one principle which our world would do well to remember, for it is of first importance whether one sharpens a pencil, builds a house, bakes bread, or lays the intended foundations for Utopia. It is this — that what we make is conditioned by the means we use making it. We may have the best intentions in the world, but if we sharpen our pencils with a dull knife or build a house with a faulty rule, the pencil will be badly sharpened and the house will have an odd little way of opening doors by itself and leaning to one side.
Later in the season, Beston revisits the tyranny of mindless technology:
The mechanical strain is in humanity, and if it has given us a machine civilization increasingly difficult to manage, it has also given us the wheel and the knife. I do not forget that memorable saying of my old friend Edward Gilchrist that “the secret of the artificer is the secret of civilization.” Yet what we must ask today is whether or not the mechanist strain has increased out of all bounds, and taken over an undue proportion of the way of life. It is well to use the wheel but it is fatal to be bound to it.
What Beston implies is that doing for doing’s sake traps us in a perpetually unrewarding hamster wheel of productivity. A rewarding life, instead, comes from the intelligent integration of being and doing, and true being requires that we reinhabit our relationship with the living world. He captures this idea with elegant succinctness:
Oh, work that is done in freedom out of doors, work that is done with the body’s and soul’s goodwill, work that is an integral part of life and is done with friends — is there anything so good?
Lamenting the “increasingly dehumanized and even anti-human perversity” of mechanization, Beston ends with a reflection of piercing poignancy today:
What has come over our age is an alienation from Nature unexampled in human history. It has cost us our sense of reality and all but cost us our humanity. With the passing of a relation to Nature worthy both of Nature and the human spirit, with the slow burning down of the poetic sense together with the noble sense of religious reverence to which it is allied, man has almost ceased to be man. Torn from earth and unaware, having neither the inheritance and awareness of man nor the other sureness and integrity of the animal, we have become vagrants in space, desperate for the meaninglessness which has closed about us. True humanity is no inherent and abstract right but an achievement, and only through the fullness of human experience may we be as one with all who have been and all who are yet to be, sharers and brethren and partakers of the mystery of living, reaching to the full of human peace and the full of human joy.
All proceeds from this edition of the tremendously rewarding Northern Farm go toward protecting and preserving the very land that inspired Beston’s perennial humanism. Complement it with his 1928 love letter to darkness, then revisit Annie Dillard on how to live with mystery and how to reclaim our capacity for joy and wonder.
Published November 16, 2015