The stories we tell and the future we create
When they were little the children were always wanting stories. We read them stories and we told them stories. The stories they wanted most to be told were the stories of Nathan’s childhood at Port William and mine at Shagbark.
“Tell us what you did when you were little.”
“Tell us about the old days.”
Well, the days before the war [that is, the Second World War] were the “old days,” sure enough. The war changed the world. The days when Nathan and I were little, before we had electricity and plumbing and tractors and blacktopped roads and nuclear bombs, must have seemed almost legendary to the children, and so they were fascinated.
But did we tell the stories right? It was lovely, the telling and listening, usually the last thing before bedtime. But did we tell the stories in such a way as to suggest that we had needed a better chance or a better life or a better place than we had?
I don’t know, but I have had to ask. Suppose your stories, instead of mourning and rejoicing over the past, say that everything should have been different. Suppose you encourage or even just allow your children to believe that their parents ought to have been different people, with a better chance, born in a better place. Or suppose the stories you tell them allow them to believe, when they hear it from other people, that farming people are inferior and need to improve themselves by leaving the farm. Doesn’t that finally unmake everything that has been made? Isn’t that the loose thread that unravels the whole garment?
And how are you ever to know where the thread breaks, and when the tug begins?
“Hannah Coulter” by Wendell Berry
The other day a friend of mine and I were having a conversation regarding the bringing up of children. His son is about the same age as my youngest, and his wife just found out a few weeks ago that they are pregnant with their second child. Our conversation centered around our mutual concern with the number of young people who end up leaving our church community, but I think the concern has broader implications. That is why it was interesting to me that I would come upon the above quote while finally reading “Hannah Coulter” this week (I have been haunting my local used book store in search of this title, which completes my collection of Wendell Berry’s novels). Hannah’s doubt and pain over whether she and Nathan “[told] the stories right” is a powerful thread that dominates the final third of the book. In a way I think the problem was easier for her. For most of us trying to make a break from a modern, industrial society that is not sustainable, it is not simply that we did not tell our stories of a better way of life right, we do not have any stories to tell. It will be the stories we tell, that pass down through the years, that will form the thread that ties our efforts to heal ourselves, our society, and our environment to those that will follow us.
So the bigger question becomes: Who are we doing this for?
It is fashionable, and unfortunate, that among people interested in living sustainably, having children is often seems as part and parcel with the downfall of everything good. The usual statistics showing how the average America uses an exorbitant amount of energy and resources per-capita are presented, which I think in a subtle way, denigrates the message of a sustainable life. It is as though people who are most committed to sustainable living are telling a story that says their children will follow the usual path of leaving home, setting out on their own and will eventually become SUV driving, McMansion dwelling boobs. The question of who will take the sustainable way of living into the future is not dealt with (in most cases). This is perhaps what I see as the biggest problem with the Permaculture movement as I understand it (aside from the fact that, like every movement, there seem to be a great many who want to put the “cult” in Permaculture). While great attention is given to crafting the environment to fit the Permaculture pattern, little thought seems to be given to how the “permanent” part will be manifested. If we do not have someone that will carry on our vision after we are gone, than no matter how careful our work, and how wonderfully we have integrated our lives and the places with live with the environment around us, it will all be lost. At best of course we could donate to a trust, or try to find someone of like mind to pass our work on to, but no trust or stranger will show the same care and be bound by the same bond of love as our own family. While it is true that the is no guarantee our offspring will be true to a vision of a sustainable life, it is equally true that there is no better way to pass that vision along.
The last couple of weeks I’ve spent pruning and cultivating the small orchard my father planted. While it is easy for me to justify the care I take for this orchard intellectually; it provides local food, wildlife habitat, CO2 reduction, the real reason I take care of this orchard is because the bond of love I have with my father (who passed away ten years ago). My older son now helps me in the orchard, and while we work I tell him about how his grandfather planted it, and how I worked with him and played here when I was a child. I hope I can pass on the love and care I have for this place to my sons so that they too will love and care for this place. A place can be follow all the precepts of permaculture, or whatever other method of sustainable living you can think of, but the bond of love will be what sustains it. I cannot guarantee that my sons will not grow up to be SUV-driving, McMansion-dwelling boobs. But I can guarantee that if they choose to continue what my mother and father began, and what my wife and I are continuing (and it is my responsibility to tell them the story that this continuation is a good thing), no one will show greater care for this place than they will. It was mentioned on another blog recently that as part of their planning process, some Transition Town members are trying to imagine telling the story of their town’s transition from a vantage point 200 years in the future. This exercise strikes me a being overly abstract to the point of uselessness. I cannot cast my vision 200 years into the future, but I can create a concrete vision of handing over this place to my sons when they are grown. Some of the work I do, from expanding the orchard and garden (some of the fruit trees will not bear main crops for 8-10 years), to building a “tiny house” for my wife and I to retire to, is done with this vision in mind. I can tell my sons the story of this place and tell them it is their story, much as when I was young my father told me many times “son, this is your home, you will always have a place here”, and hope they will take up the vision, make it their own, and carry thread of love that my father and mother handed to me.
The forces of modern industrial society have scattered us and broken the old patterns of care. My father was himself a refugee. While it is impossible for us to return what was, there is nothing that is stopping us from saying, “This far, and no further” and making that our story.