Selecting letters

When I was in Burkina Faso recently, during the long flights and the small gaps in work, I was reading, 'Distant Neighbours: The Selected Letters of Wendell Berry and Gary Snyder' and realising that (for me) reading such collections only work if you are deeply familiar with the life and work of the authors. Then the intimate snapshots of an unfolding life (or lives) adds a deepening colour to your understanding of them, and more than a touch of humanising grace.

The continuing tale of the friendship between Berry and Snyder was deeply moving. Both are animated by a deeply concrete spirituality that lives in the practice of making themselves at home in a particular place (a Kentucky farm and a Californian homestead) that vividly contrasts with my own exceptionally peripatetic life. Both weave their vocations of writing on the woof of those places and how the practice of care for those places imply universal truths. One (Snyder) is deeply versed in an 'Oriental' tradition: Buddhism, the other (Berry) stands four square within the Western tradition and a (rebellious) Christian framing. They understand and love each other, even, though at times they vigorously disagree, because their traditions drive them inwards to a core of shared humanity and outwards to a reverence for the creation that sustains and gifts their (and all) our lives.

Reading the letters, I came to the conclusion that we must go beyond notions of 'environmentalism' as if this was some other thing that we should care for (among a long list of similar responsibilities) and finally recognise that there is only one true way of becoming fully human and that is by being responsible to our created giftedness and that if we genuinely want to reverence ourselves, those selves mutually arise with all that is. The reverence of all that is begins with the practice of making ourselves genuinely at home. Being at home implies caring for the particularities of our place and time, in making love manifest in the daily acts of our abiding.

Given the complexities of an entangled (and despoiling) economy (and world), we will undoubtedly find this caring a highly responsible burden (with many opportunities for hypocrisy between intention and act) but it is a yoke whose burden, freely accepted, is light - as the joy inherent in both the authors' lives shows.

The book gave me a taste for letters and I began looking about for other volumes that I might (re)read and noticed (and, given my addiction also purchased) several. One of the latter arrived today - the Selected Letters of Aldous Huxley. In a way I feel more deeply comfortable with Huxley (who shared many of Berry's and Snyder's key concerns) because he was inescapably a peripatetic intellectual, rather than a writer embedded in the care of places! Utopias and dystopias are for me imaginatively safer than the demands of lambing sheep, actual floods and the effect of this particular Spring on the blossoming (or not) of one's apricot trees! But each to his especial vocation!

They meet in the deeply shared concern that no inward turn (of a spiritual life) can authentically be imagined without external consequence - what does this mean in practice for the ordering of the world? And no external work can be imagined as bearing good fruit unless it is conducted from the inward placing of reverence for oneself and all others.


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