wendell berry

My Harvard Institute for Learning in Retirement class is over. When I planned it and choose the primary readings from Aldo Leopold and Wendell Berry (pictured), I had not tied it to my own work. I thought how wonderful it would be just to expose my colleague to their work. But as the term progressed, I discovered that both writers offer extraordinary examples of the right-brain at work. That we are interconnected to one another and to the Earth is central to both their essays. Berry is more explicit, as the following examples show.

I have excerpted a few paragraphs from “Two Minds.” This was written a decade before the publication of McGilchrist’s book. I wish I had read this before I wrote my book, but picked it only as I was getting this course together. The parallels are uncanny.

The Rational Mind is motivated by the fear of being misled, of being wrong. Its purpose is to exclude everything that cannot empirically or experimentally be proven to be a fact.

The Sympathetic Mind is motivated by fear of error of a very different kind: the error of carelessness, of being unloving. Its purpose is to be considerate of whatever is present, to leave nothing out.

The Rational Mind is exclusive; the Sympathetic Mind, however failingly, wishes to be inclusive.

These two types certainly don’t exhaust the taxonomy of minds. They are merely the two that the intellectual fashions of our age have most deliberately separated and thrown into opposition.

My purpose here is to argue in defense of the Sympathetic Mind. But my objection is not to the use of reason or to reasonability. I am objecting to the exclusiveness of the Rational Mind, which has limited itself to a selection of mental functions such as the empirical methodologies of analysis and experimentation and the attitudes of objectivity and realism. In order to go into business on its own, it has in effect withdrawn from all of human life that involves feeling, affection, familiarity, reverence, faith, and loyalty. The separability of the Rational Mind is not only the dominant fiction but also the master superstition of the modern age.

The Sympathetic Mind is under the influence of certain inborn or at least fundamental likes and dislikes. Its impulse is toward wholeness. It is moved by affection for its home place, the local topography, the local memories, and the local creatures. It hates estrangement, dismemberment, and disfigurement. The Rational Mind tolerates all these things “in pursuit of truth” or in pursuit of money—which, in modern practice, have become nearly the same pursuit.

He has nailed it. An almost perfect anticipation of McGilchrist, without benefit of any data about how the brain works. It’s too close to be a mere coincidence. This shows what distinctions can show up when one takes in the world with the right-side.

The thread continues in “Is Life a Miracle.”

To make things in a way that answers the requirements of good stewardship requires both good artistry and great breadth of mind. It requires a mind capable of seeing human work within its various contexts: religious, ecological, economic, cultural, and political. The modern, specialist mind makes things badly, by the measures of stewardship, of artistry, and often even of utility. It is a mind too narrow, and its artistry is incomplete and destructive.

While the subject may vary from essay to essay, Berry continues to make the same distinctions. In “It All Turns on Affection,” he uses new metaphors to make his case.

The boomer is motivated by greed, the desire for money, property, and therefore power. James B. Duke was a boomer, if we can extend the definition to include pillage in absentia. He went, or sent, wherever the getting was good, and he got as much as he could take.

Stickers on the contrary are motivated by affection, by such love for a place and its life that they want to preserve it and remain in it. Of my grandfather I need to say only that he shared in the virtues and the faults of his kind and time, one of his virtues being that he was a sticker. . . .

The term “imagination” in what I take to be its truest sense refers to a mental faculty that some people have used and thought about with the utmost seriousness. The sense of the verb “to imagine” contains the full richness of the verb “to see.” To imagine is to see most clearly, familiarly, and understandingly with the eyes, but also to see inwardly, with “the mind’s eye.” It is to see, not passively, but with a force of vision and even with visionary force. To take it seriously we must give up at once any notion that imagination is disconnected from reality or truth or knowledge. It has nothing to do either with clever imitation of appearances or with “dreaming up.” It does not depend upon one’s attitude or point of view, but grasps securely the qualities of things seen or envisioned.

I will say, from my own belief and experience, that imagination thrives on contact, on tangible connection. For humans to have a responsible relationship to the world, they must imagine their places in it. To have a place, to live and belong in a place, to live from a place without destroying it, we must imagine it. By imagination we see it illuminated by its own unique character and by our love for it. By imagination we recognize with sympathy the fellow members, human and nonhuman, with whom we share our place. By that local experience we see the need to grant a sort of preemptive sympathy to all the fellow members, the neighbors, with whom we share the world. As imagination enables sympathy, sympathy enables affection. And it is in affection that we find the possibility of a neighborly, kind, and conserving economy.

I have nowhere the observational power that Wendell Berry has, nor the ability to turn what I see into such wonderful and compelling prose. But when I find evidence in such far-different sources as a neuroscientist/psychiatrist and a poet/farmer/essayist, I can’t but feel reinforced in the arguments I have been making about the need to rebuild modern societies on a right-brain foundation.

Both Berry and Aldo Leopold, earlier, wrote about the need to take care of the land and pointed to the disastrous way we have been treating it. Last week I read a warning from a colleague that the US can only expect about 60 more harvests before the topsoil becomes so depleted that it will become unable to support the kind of agriculture we have come to rely on. I will have passed on by then, but I do fear for ability of my grandchildren and their own families to flourish, much less subsist.

The world will be different after the corona virus subsides, but in ways we cannot predict, in spite of those who claim to know how it will be. One message that does come through loud and clear is that we need each other to live. And although we are doing a pretty bad job of taking care of the most important people, that is, surprisingly perhaps, the “little” people, we can see how critically they are to protect and nourish us. The powerful, right up to the President, are almost irrelevant. How terribly skewed our values have become.

One key takeaway is that relationships are critical, that we are connected to one another, and that we can live just fine without all the stuff that we usually consume. Zoom is not the perfect means to connect, but it does make the process obvious and tangible. Connecting has become deliberate, instead of one of those routine, unfeeling actions that the left-brain produces. Last night, Ruth and I were invited to join a Zoom 75th “birthday party” for a friend. It was lovely and I saw, on the screen, others that were connected to me in ways beyond those associated with the birthday boy. The interconnections that we have rose out of the blur of the usual mindless acts we perform most of the time. I am not sure about six degrees of separation but, certainly, two or three.

I really do not know how to make the necessary changes happen, although I have some thoughts in my book and explore some on the blog. I think, more and more, that change to a humane balance of the two brain hemispheres has to come from the bottom-up because the local is the only scale that allows presencing and the emergence of other humans as unique, living beings and of the whole world as being alive, rather than an only assemblage of abstracted, commodified, lifeless things. If nothing else, the virus has forced us to be aware of others and to take care of them in what might be considered strange ways. The latest statistics I saw indicate that about 70% of the population accept the need to wear masks. These folks know, at some level, that are part of an interconnected web. I have yet, however, to hear leaders acknowledge them explicitly for taking care of others by that act. This cohort displays a bit of the right-brain at work. As for the other 30%, that side of the brain is either asleep or half dead.

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