Man As Endangered Species

Another Turn of the Crank,  by Wendell Berry

Another Turn of the Crank, by Wendell Berry

“As we know, we are under increasing pressure to choose caring over not caring. We know that caring will involve us in great effort and discomfort and we dread to choose it, but we know too that the toils and miseries of not caring are becoming greater by the day. Someday, presumably, it will become easier to care than not to care – if by then we still remember how to care and if the choice is still possible.”
This warning – this call to action – is from an essay titled “The Conservation of Nature and the Preservation of Humanity.” It can be found in the book “Another Turn of the Crank” (Counterpoint, 1995), a collection of essays by Wendell Berry. Berry, the most intriguing moral philosopher in America today, is a former professor of English who literally went back to the land, giving up a secure position as a university academic for the uncertain life of a Kentucky farmer.
When it comes to caring, Berry implies, we are terribly deficient. We are so concerned with just getting through the day that the thought of taking time out for anything other than ourselves is beyond us.
Enter the ecologist, the conservationist. Here is someone who tells us that the disappearance of a single species of plant or animal diminishes us immeasurably – a noble-sounding sentiment to be sure. Yet the conservationist may exasperate us. “Look here,” we say. “How can you worry about the fate of plants and animals when people are dying in the streets? Shouldn’t we secure the human race before turning our attention to endangered trees and birds?”
Questions of priority and of caring have been raised in recent days in our city. It has just been revealed that two out of three murders committed in Los Angeles are never solved; no one is ever punished for these acts. Yet the City Council has just voted to punish gardeners – come July – caught in the act of using a gas-powered leaf blower. It is fantastically ironic and absurd that leaf blowing should be criminalized at the moment it is learned that the culprits of far worse acts are walking around without fear of apprehension.
Those who wish to ban the leaf blower claim to care deeply about the environment and the quality of life in Los Angeles. Yet, do they care half as much about the gardeners who will now have to work longer on every job because brooms and rakes clean more slowly than blowers? Has the City Council encouraged the citizens of Los Angeles to voluntarily increase monthly payments to gardeners as compensation for more time spent on the job? (Gardeners are notorious for never requesting a raise.) This idea of paying more than is asked may seem ludicrous, but in a truly caring world it would not even raise an eyebrow.
When people have lost the ability to care for one another, they need to gradually relearn this skill or else they are doomed. The starting point of that path which leads to caring may be found in the garden. Anyone who begins to see what goes on in nature will experience an increase of heart and a greater generosity of spirit.
Deke Dietrick is one of the most generous men you will ever meet. Generous with his time. Generous with his knowledge. Dietrick’s expertise is insects. He started the world’s first commercial insectary, (insect farm) and invented a special vacuum for the sole purpose of collecting all the insects that might be present, at any given moment, on a single plant.
Dietrick contends that an understanding of the relationships between insects is impossible until you have vacuumed them up, dumped them in a pile and examined them as they occur together on a single plant. He discovered the most varied and diverse combinations of insects – including many beneficial types – on alfalfa and concluded that a healthy garden should be bordered or surrounded by a stand of alfalfa plants.
Just as there is a definite order to creation – first plants, then animals, then man – the study of nature should perhaps proceed in a similar manner. We should start with the study of a plant and then progress to the animals or insects that inhabit it or, for that matter, live below it in the soil. After we have mastered the plant and its environment and understood how each creature is dependent on every other, perhaps we humans will finally catch a glimpse of how we were meant to relate to and care for each other as well.
Tip of the week: Root crops – carrots, radishes, turnips, beets, onions – can be grown from seed at almost any time of the year in Los Angeles, including winter months. The colder the weather, the longer the growth process will take.

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