There Before Us: Religion and American Literature from Emerson to Wendell Berry

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For both Emerson and Thoreau the rhythm of engaging in daily foot exercise embodied, for example, a ritual practice that in Asian spirituality amounts to walking meditation. Above all, of course, Emerson extolled training and exercise in ocular attentiveness, in right seeing, as the most promising pathway toward communion with the all-encompassing soul of Nature. Yet doubtless the eye, rather than ear, remained his primary channel of sensory insight. But for Emerson it is ordinarily the sensate faculty of in-sight—i. Gatta , pp.

In Walden Thoreau highlights the ritually methodical purpose of his labor throughout the several stages of constructing his house beside the pond. He thus incorporates this materially productive activity into his spiritual practice. For Thoreau to build deliberately contributes to his larger project of living deliberately.


Thoreau manifests a more visceral relish for food-mediated communion. In Walden , for example, his allusions to bread and other nutriments often combine a literal application with metaphoric overtones. He takes pains to describe not only what he ate but also how he obtained and prepared it.

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Of course his labor with beans and other crops serves the practical end of supporting his livelihood. Though human animals are bound to feed upon Nature, how might they do so without denying part of their own complex nature, or the worth of other animals? Thoreau displays a distinctively revealing, often surprising linkage between food and faith in later writings describing his gathering and feeding on wild fruits and nuts.

As the exacting editorial work of Bradley P. Thoreau found the sensory appeal of wild fruit and nuts capable of fostering transcendental communion not only as tasted but also through their sight and smell. They have so painted this fruit, and freighted it with such a fragrance that it satisfies much more than an animal appetite. I have felt, when partaking of this inspiring diet, that my appetite was an indifferent consideration—that eating became a sacrament—a method of communion—an ecstatic exercise a mingling of bloods and sitting at the communion table of the world.

And so have not only quenched my thirst at the spring but the health of the universe. Thoreau , 2: The fields and hills are a table constantly spread. Diet drinks, cordials, wines of all kinds and qualities are bottled up in the skins of countless berries for the refreshment of animals, and they quaff them at every turn. They seem offered to us not so much for food as for sociality, inviting us to a picnic with Nature.

We pluck and eat in remembrance of her. It is a sort of sacrament, a communion—the not forbidden fruits, which no serpent tempts us to eat. Slight and innocent savors which relate us to Nature, make us her guests, and entitle us to her regard and protection. Thoreau , p. Dickinson , p. For both Emerson and Thoreau, the only form of sacred communion ordinarily worth pursuing was that realized through individual rather than communal forms of engagement. Granted, too, documents affiliated with Brook Farm, Fruitlands, and other social experiments of the period do advance sympathy for corporate rather than solitary economic and spiritual enterprises.

The "industrial model" now has invaded everything. Universities are talking about "business plans" and "return on investment. WB: The trouble was there as soon as they started referring to their writings as "production.

So teaching is entirely different from research and is subordinate to it. I'm not knocking research.

History of American Literature (1800-1900) (ENG)

Everybody who's interested in things benefits from somebody's research; there isn't any escape from that, but when you've started a reductive process and all research is reduced to page numbers, to get back from that is a problem, and I don't know how to solve it. Some things you just raise hell about and hope somebody smarter than you can fix it.

TB: I do know part of your hope comes from the fact that there's some younger people now who are hard at work on these issues.

I mean there are good people coming along. WB: No, I haven't. He gets into the food system and lays the problems out to be seen. Maybe we're gaining ground.

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But we don't have the power; we don't have voices in the government. HKB: One of the things that has meant a lot to me, especially the past year or so as I was writing about some of your poems, is an essay from Sex, Economy, Freedom, and Community. It's called "Christianity and the Survival of Creation," and it describes the division between secular and sacred, the material and the spiritual. It recalls for me a great concept by Robert MacAfee Brown. He calls this division the Great Fallacy. Brown's book is called Spirituality and Liberation , and he argues that this division is really the root problem of much of modern society.

Could you just talk a little bit about how the desire to separate those things in Western Culture has been disastrous? WB: Well, I'm not scholar enough or philosopher enough either to deal with this issue as it should be dealt with. But the dualism of body and soul, matter and spirit, creator and creation, Heaven and Earth, time and eternity, is destructive. Once you separate those things, the next step always is to depreciate what's perceived as the less valuable half of the dichotomy. So spirit is more valuable than matter, the body is less valuable than the soul.

The upshot of it is that people of religion have abandoned economics as an issue; I mean economics in the fundamental sense of the use of the world, the housekeeping of the world. And so people feel free to abuse and destroy the material creation. I think the only way that you can ever hope to stop that is to see that the dichotomy, the duality, is wrong to start with. But, as I say, I'm not the master of all of this. I'm not very good at dealing with abstract ideas.

The daunting fact to me is that we are destroying the actual world. There's the hypoxic zone in the Gulf of Mexico that's a direct result of nitrogen fertilizer applied in the Mississippi River Valley. We've got those so-called greenhouse gases. The issue really is not whether we ought to be doing something about global warming; the real issue is whether we ought to be wasteful or not, whether we ought to be regardless or not. Where did we get permission to use up half the world's supply of petroleum in my lifetime? Where did we get permission to do that, to behave that way?

Where did we get permission to waste and degrade the soil and consider that an acceptable cost of agriculture? The only way you can understand that is to assume that an implicit permission is given in the downgrading of the body's life in the material world. WB: Sure, the churches are complicit.

We've got all these people who ought to be allies in trying to defend the forests and the watersheds and the croplands and the mountains, and they're all preoccupied with going to heaven. Which is, you know, boring. Mark Twain said, "Heaven for climate, Hell for company. HKB: How did you become conscious of these ideas? Was it because you were farming yourself, or because you are a writer, or because it just suddenly came to you at some point as an insight or revelation? WB: No, no. Nothing has ever been very dramatic for me in that line. My father was concerned in his way about many of the same things that I'm concerned about.

He loved a field of grass. One of the reasons he loved a field with a good grass cover is because it's safe, it's not going to erode, and it has an economic value that's pleasing. So I picked it up little by little, from people who hated to see erosion in a field and who knew that there were ways to prevent it.

Then I got interested in the subject on my own and learned a good bit about it, not a whole lot but a good bit, and the best thinking that's been done on farming in my lifetime and before has come straight out of the Orient. There was a man named F. King who wrote Farmers in Forty Centuries , a very influential book published in King traveled in Japan, China, and Korea, when the rural cultures of those countries were still intact and the peasants were practicing their wonderful frugality. That book influenced other people, most notably Sir Albert Howard, who did his major work in India.

Howard went into his practice of agricultural science as a mycologist, but he understood very quickly the limits of the specialist system in agriculture. He realized he needed a place to take his own advice before he gave it to anybody else. He arrived at the idea that the farm had to maintain in itself, in its economy, the processes of the natural ecosystem that proceeded it. It had to maintain the cycle of birth, growth, maturity, death, and decay.

Everything he said, everything he did, was ruled by his understanding that health in the land, plants, animals, and humans, is "one great subject.

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The cycle has to revolve in place year after year, and those old Oriental peasants understood that and had developed the practices necessary to keep it going. HKB: I have several questions about the work of poetry and the imagination. Do you think that poetry can help us overcome this false dichotomy, this dualism? Do you see your poetry as contributing to that?

Was W. Auden wrong to say, "poetry makes nothing happen"? WB: Well, the work of poetry of course is to be poetry, as fully as it can be. The danger, if people object to Auden's line, "poetry makes nothing happen," is that they will lunge too far in the other direction, toward some kind of utilitarianism or some kind of crude pedagogy. You don't want that either. Poetry is the use of imagination, one of the ways of using it, and I take that very seriously. I take imagination very seriously. Blake said that the arts were ways of conversing with Paradise.