Wendell Berry likes to quote Alexander Pope. "Consult the genius of the place in all." This runs hard against our contemporary enthusiasm for "no place in particular" articulated by Bruce Sterling; "As long as I've got broadband, I'm perfectly at ease with the fact that my position on the planet's surface is arbitrary." Berry would contend that this very ethic of geographical arbitrariness, fostered by the computer and social network technologies that he assiduously refuses to participate in, is what has driven our culture and ecology to the brink. There is a fierceness in Berry, tempered by "a kind of calm despite full awareness of the storm.” (Mark Bittman). His family has lived around Port Royal, KY, for two hundred years, and he has become the patron saint of local living economies in America. David Skinner has said, "Instead of being at odds with his conscience, he is at odds with his times. . . Government, he believes, should take its sense of reality from the ground beneath our feet and from our connections with our fellow human beings. And it should have a better sense of proportion: Its solutions should be equal to its problems and should not beget other problems." “You can describe the predicament that we’re in as an emergency,” Berry says, “and your trial is to learn to be patient in an emergency.” How do we do that? It seems to come down to a willingness not only to be thwarted, but to remain capable of joy and curiosity in the midst of being thwarted. In a pronouncement that rings especially true to me, Berry has said, "It may be that when we no longer know what to do, we have come to our real work and when we no longer know which way to go, we have begun our real journey. The mind that is not baffled is not employed. The impeded stream is the one that sings.”
There is something supremely un-American about a "baffled mind". With our technological prowess, we Americans believe we can fix any problem. Which is turning out to be a really big problem in itself. One cause of the fix we're in, in other words, is our refusal to acknowledge legitimate befuddlement. (Who can stand down climate change, for instance, and not feel befuddled and shaky in the knees?) There is a kind of joyous defiance that emanates from Berry's proclamation that “You can best serve civilization by being against what usually passes for it.”
When I feel myself stuck in an impeded stream, it is sometimes the smallest things that set the inner waters flowing again. For me it usually involves re-establishing contact with my physical body in an act of getting out into physical nature (on foot, by bicycle or kayak). There the two grand streams of Self and Cosmos find their confluence again, and the illusion of stuckness unsnarls itself naturally, at a place beyond thought.
Last weekend, for example, after years of meaning to, I finally did paddle the Snohomish River estuary - the great river of the central Cascades that was the reason local Salish tribes chose this particular place to live. All I've known of it until now is the industrialized slurry of the I-5 corridor heading north out of Everett. Blasting across the Snohomish delta on giant concrete legs, there is almost nothing within the near terrain of the freeway corridor that suggests wildness, or even the possibility of wildness. But that is what I found as I headed a few miles up Ebby Slough out of Marysville, then back out Steamboat Slough, two of the main channels off the Snohomish that snake through the delta to tidewater in Possession Sound.
Four years ago, during my year of car-free local exploration, I walked this narrow concrete pathway through industrial yards that barely hint at something grander beyond the margins, and I have wanted to venture beyond those margins ever since. I was amazed by how quickly nature reasserts itself in the uninhabited floodplain of the lower river channels. Heron rookeries and large schools of coho smolt filled the upper channels - rich rearing habitat for salmon - while rows of cormorant nests crowned the rotting rows of pilings along the lower channel.
My friend Bruce Davis and I never saw another boat or person until the river gave back out into the Salish Sea. On a busy Saturday afternoon in late spring, it was just us, the herons, cohos and cormorants.
What does this have to do with Wendell Berry? This is my Port Royal. Sinking back into the land that I inhabit expands the boundaries of the near at hand. I came out of this day on the river with a feeling of elation and gratitude that so much wildness still waits just beyond (and within!) the margins of our human-dominated world. I can't wait to explore the other river channels now. One more good reason to stick around, and to open my eyes and senses to what I have been for too long blind.