I think only Wendell Berry could have written an essay in a reputable journal entitled “Out of your car, off your horse” – mainly because so few people are either willing to get out of their cars, or actually get onto horses. The essay is 28 years old, appearing in the Atlantic Monthly in 1991, and consisting of “27 propositions about global thinking and the sustainability of cities.” It could have been written yesterday, except that the grammar is better, its scope is wider and more challenging than the Extinction Rebellion and “climate change” protest currently on offer, and, as in most of his writing, it makes a virtually unanswerable case for care and attention to local ecology, to local place.
I have known about this essay for a long time and its title was in my head last Wednesday as I was biking west along the A421 (that’s H8 to the MK locals) in the pouring rain. And it was in my head again last Friday when we went for a long walk in the Ouse River Valley Park, through the forest floodplain, and out across the meadows toward Stony Stratford, in the evening sun – the first we had had for nigh on a fortnight.
Somehow we were made to go at walking pace. That is how our bodies are designed. The Incas built an enormous empire without the wheel or the horse, nobody really going much faster than the local champion llama. Berry’s second proposition of the 27 is this:
Global thinking can only be statistical. Its shallowness is exposed by the least intention to do something. Unless one is willing to be destructive on a very large scale, one cannot do something except locally, in a small place. Global thinking can only do to the globe what a space satellite does to it: reduce it, make a bauble of it. Look at one of those photographs of half the earth taken from outer space, and see if you recognize your neighborhood. If you want to see where you are, you will have to get out of your space vehicle, out of your car, off your horse, and walk over the ground. On foot you will find that the earth is still satisfyingly large, and full of beguiling nooks and crannies.
I am constantly beguiled by flowers, in particular, poppies. This year our garden has two varieties, and every garden, hedgerow and field has some version of them. The purple-pink ones, that look alarmingly like opium poppies, are particularly lovely, and like all poppies, they grow in the most unpromising situations. We have been lucky this year – I had a whole flourishing of poppies in Cyprus in the Mediterranean spring, and an equally amazing, and more varied, English country flowering. But they need to be looked at on foot. We love biking, and will happily just get on bikes and go. It is one of the rare pleasures of taking exercise whilst actually getting places. Shopping by bike is a particular joy, planning the panniers, baskets and backpacks we will use to get everything we need. But you don’t really talk or stop and look when biking. For all its preference to being in a car, it is still essentially a way of getting somewhere. So I was glad when the rain forced me off my bike on Wednesday and I could start looking properly at the stunning wildflower display along the A421. And as I dismounted, the title of Berry’s essay came straight into my head. Whoever planted this wild assortment of plants not only created beauty, but gave home to a whole variety of wildlife too. It was good to see spiders and bees there, even in the rain, even 4 metres from a dual carriageway. Scale alters perception, as Berry describes.
And then to walk in quiet of an evening, along a flooding Ouse, in the intermittent presence of a huge flock of lapwings that rose and fell in the uncut meadows on the north bank of the river, and the call of the cuckoo from the sycamores near the Wolverton viaduct – this brought us into the presence of a world that is at once local and enormous – satisfyingly large. Small enough, as Berry says elsewhere in the essay, to destroy with some stupid remote weapon, but wide enough to fill an entire mind and a life’s work. We were there – very consciously – as guests. Perhaps we had a right of way, but to be truthful, we were guests in a world of birds, insects and plants. It had a character, a singular beauty, an inhabited identity, that is different from every other place on earth. And we were its guests.
It is abstraction, the idea that one place will do just as much as another, that the powerful use to exert power and “ownership.” Abstraction inherently contains the “inability to distinguish one place or person or creature from another” and therefore destroying or sacrificing one area will do as much as another. Where the coal is, will be the place we destroy, because (probably) we don’t live there, and those that do need the jobs. This has been the abstraction tragedy in all managerial thinking: as long as we get the stuff, it doesn’t matter where it comes from. As long as we get the results, it doesn’t matter how schools go about getting them.
But a winsome, carefully reclaimed floodplain such as that along the Ouse is not an abstraction. It is a vibrant community of birds and ducks, of insects and crawling creatures, of small rodents, of farm animals and wild ponies, and occasionally of humans too. Abstraction does not see complexity, it tends to the extraction, production or destruction of just one product. Coal is there, so what lies above it is of no value by comparison. But life lived on the earth, in small communities, with or without humans that care for it, is a complex, multi-faceted local ecology, different along the A421 to the Ouse floodplain or to my garden. One classroom is not the same as another. One school is not the same as the next. Everything is local, and makes different demands of us, as complexities usually do.
So what do we do with this complex local ecology? Berry argues that until cities begin to see themselves as part of the same ecology, as relying on and giving work to the local agricultural communities, as belonging to them and not going to the ends of the earth to acquire their food, then cities can never be sustainable. They will always outgrow their needs and generate the poverty and inequity that most cities bear. His conclusion is perhaps beyond us now, but worth repeating simply to gaze upon what we may have lost. His final proposition runs thus:
A beginning could be made, for example, by increasing the amount of food bought from farmers in the local countryside by consumers in the city. As the food economy became more local, local farming would become more diverse; the farms would become smaller, more complex in structure, more productive; and some city people would be needed to work on the farms. Sooner or later, as a means of reducing expenses both ways, organic wastes from the city would go out to fertilize the farms of the supporting region; thus city people would have to assume an agricultural responsibility, and would be properly motivated to do so both by the wish to have a supply of excellent food and by the fear of contaminating that supply. The increase of economic intimacy between a city and its sources would change minds (assuming, of course, that the minds in question would stay put long enough to be changed). It would improve minds. The locality, by becoming partly sustainable, would produce the thought it would need to become more sustainable.