Posts Tagged ‘conservation’


I’m reading Wendell Berry: Life and Work, because I like Wendell Berry and wanted to learn more about his life and work. All right, and the book was deeply discounted when a local Barnes & Noble closed. It contains an essay by Barbara Kingsolver, “The Art of Buying Nothing.” In it she gives the best description of writing I believe I have ever read. But we’ll get to that in a minute. This is about the journey, as well as the destination, and there is plenty of nice scenery along the way.

Our journey begins, in fact, 25 years ago when Berry wrote a piece, published in Harper’s, in which he declared that he would never buy a computer (“Why I Am Not Going to Buy a Computer”). His reasons were plainly enumerated in a list of questions he asked himself before any purchase. In a tightly packed nutshell, these include: Can another tool do the same job, be more easily repaired, and consume less electricity? Berry wrote, “I would hate to think that my work as a writer could not be done without a direct dependence on strip-mined coal,” and vowed to continue writing with a pencil for everyday use, and a 1956 Royal standard typewriter for dress-up.

Kingsolver’s essay was written not as a response, exactly, but as a celebration of Berry’s attitude. She writes that she works hard to use Berry’s buying guidelines as her own, since she wishes to avoid acquiring the unnecessary things that are paraded before her in gleaming home-delivered catalogs, on television, etc.

I consider it no small part of my daily work to sort out the differences between want and need. I’m helped along the way by my friend Wendell, without his ever knowing it. He advises me to ask, in the first place, whether I wish to purchase a solution to a problem I don’t have. Down through the ages we’ve been threatened with these: ring around the collar, waxy yellow buildup, and iron-poor tired blood were all the products of a fairly unsophisticated advertising industry, and still they sent consumers running for the cure. Now the advertisers are psychologists; they are wizards. They convince us we must zip around and dazzle all who see us…. The siren song of needless want inflicts internal damage on people of every class. Buying new things accosts our stability, our satisfaction with ourselves and one another as we already were.  …

I have such respect for the art of buying nothing. It is honorable work to be happy just as we are.

Kingsolver is well aware of the societal pressures against buying nothing, and she relies upon Berry’s essay to keep her on the straight and narrow path. Happily, he accomplishes this in part by making her laugh. Here she quotes Berry describing his pro-consumerism critics:

[T]hey repeat, like a chorus of toads, the notes sounded by their leaders in industry. The past was gloomy, drudgery-ridden, servile, meaningless, and slow. The present, thanks only to purchasable products, is meaningful, bright, lively, centralized, and fast. The future, thanks only to more purchasable products, is going to be even better.

Then Barbara Kingsolver lays it out there: Much as she esteems Wendell Berry and strives to follow his doctrine of buying less, she writes on a computer.  This being so, she understands that her work had better be good to make it worth the price of the energy it costs to produce:

“When somebody has used a computer to write a work that is demonstrably better than Dante’s,” Wendell declares, and when the computer is proven to be the secret of that success, then he says he’ll speak of computers with a more respectful tone (though he still will not buy one). Lord have mercy, but I’m not even entering that race. I am just aiming each day for a draft that’s demonstrably better than the gobbledygook I wrote yesterday….

And now, finally, here it comes—listen!

To save my life I can’t write a book from beginning to end. I seem to write them from the inside out, twisting them around like a dog trying to put on a pair of pajamas, panting and craning my neck until I’ve finally gotten the thing buttoned up, face forward, right side out. For that organizing miracle I need the help of strip-mined coal and a computer.

I’m pretty sure that this post has gotten twisted around, backside front. And that’s in spite of the use of a computer run on coal-powered energy.  What in the world would Wendell say?  Something sharp, I expect.

I loved her description of writing so much that I went to visit Barbara Kingsolver’s Web site in search of more good stuff. I found this beauty:

Pounding out a first draft is like hoeing a row of corn – you just keep your head down and concentrate on getting to the end.  Revision is where fine art begins.  It’s thrilling to take an ending and pull it backward like a shiny thread through the whole fabric of a manuscript, letting little glints shine through here and there. … I love that word “fabrication,” because making an elaborate fiction feels so much like making cloth.

With the right sort of cloth, you can make a spectacular pair of pajamas for a dog.


“The Art of Buying Nothing” in Wendell Berry: Life and Work, edited by Jason Peters. University Press of Kentucky (Lexington, KY), 2007.

Image source:  Whippet Snippets (http://www.whippetsnippets.com/2009/06/merch-of-the-penguins.html)

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Missouri Botanical Garden

Roger Deakin’s book, Wildwood: A Journey Through Trees—which I have mentioned before—includes an interesting bit about early 19th-century naturalist, Charles Waterton. Waterton owned a wooded estate in England where he took care to see that the birds were treated with proper respect. 

Waterton did most of his bird watching from inside trees… [His estate] was full of thousands of ancient trees, which Waterton nurtured and protected, even retaining dead, hollow or rotten ones for the sake of the owls, jackdaws and woodpeckers. … He went barefoot about the park and climbed the trees barefoot, reclining for hours in the boughs of the old oaks, reading books or watching owls or foxes. Waterton stood six feet tall, all but half an inch, wore his silver hair in a brush cut, slept on a bare elm floor with a hollowed oak block for a pillow all his life and was double-jointed until his death.

I wouldn’t have thought that double-jointedness was a talent that you lost with age—or even with death, for that matter. It seems to me that your joints would still be jointed exactly the same, which makes me wonder if Charles Waterton could have been folded like a letter and buried in a shoebox. A true preservationist would not wish to take up too much land.  

I was once a bit of a land preservationist, myself. When I worked for the City of Fernandina Beach as a grant writer, I wrote detailed requests for state funds to purchase land for conservation and light recreation. I had to trek through the oak hammock that ran down the middle of the island along Egans Creek, where I took pictures of animal trails, endangered green orchids, gopher tortoise burrows, and areas of degradation. I studied the soil composition, took pictures of magnolia and elm trees, sabal palms, and live oaks and the understory of saw palmetto, ferns, and holly. I never got inside a tree to observe the birds, but I did research the painted bunting, which used Amelia Island as a way station during migration. It was hot, nasty, spidery work, and I loved it.

(One prime section of the hammock that the city wished to preserve was owned by a gentleman called Smiley Lee. Lee owned a lucrative scrap metal business and had served a legendary and, yes, scrappy stint on the city commission before my employment began. Lee’s property unfortunately provided habitat for rather a lot of junked machinery, making its acquisition problematic. I’m not sure what happened to Smiley’s land; perhaps he owns it still. I do know that Mrs. Smiley Lee passed on a few years later, and her obituary included this wonderful tribute to her skill as a cook: “Her specialities, fried shrimp, banana pudding with meringue, and cornbread dressing were served on holiday tables in three states.”)

I wonder if Charles Waterton, who traveled all over the world to observe birds and nature, ever visited Amelia Island. The cover of Julia Blackburn’s biography of Waterton features a painting in which he’s riding an alligator, so I like to think that he did. Anyway, I’m sure he would have approved of the idea of saving the oak hammock for the egrets, painted buntings, owls, ospreys, and mockingbirds that lived in and around it.  Not that he was always wise:  He once went so far as to climb up to a crow’s nest while the crow was away and place two rooks’ eggs in it. The crow tended to the eggs very lovingly and raised the young rooks as her own. Waterton then (meanly, in my opinion) stole the two rooks back to tame them and keep them as pets. This did not go well. They were so tame, Deakin writes, that “they met untimely ends, including one that was drowned by an aggressive chicken.”

But birds survive contact with humans because they are amazingly adaptable. We visited a Lowe’s Garden Center two weeks ago, and the birds have taken it over as a sort of urban forest. The roofed section of the Garden Center is open at the front, where the plants and flowers are able to get sun and rain. Under the roof, the tall rows of metal shelving that hold peat moss, composters, planters, and hoses have become roosts for birds. I saw high nests tucked between boxes, and the birds fly in and out without regard for the people shopping below. The birdsong is constant and cheerful. They have learned to live with us and in spite of us. But surely they would prefer to journey through trees, like I do.

[Updated 5/2/12 at 12:24 p.m. to format Deakins block quote.]

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