LIFE IS A MIRACLE: An Essay Against Modern Superstition by Wendell Berry Counterpoint, $24.00
MY WIFE WAS COMPLAINING THE other night about some dogs a mile or so down our lonely road. They chase her every time she rides by on her bike, she said; they scared her. "Oh bosh," I replied, "I've gone by them a thousand times and nothing's ever happened" Karmic (and at only 6 stitches almost comic) payback came to me on my morning run just eight hours later.
Hubris usually has a longer incubation period--he who the gods would destroy they first give 2,000 points on the NASDAQ--but as our world speeds up, the cycle of arrogance and downfall seems to be accelerating too. Which is why it's hard to imagine that the millennium has seen a more important book than this slim volume from our finest essayist.
Wendell Berry holds that tide precisely because he does not spend most of this time essaying. For four decades he has firmed a small patch of Kentucky, restoring a corner of degraded land to health by concentrating on the small, the particular. In his poems and novels, as well as his collections of essays, he has preached the same gospel: We were made to care for our homes and our neighbors; our satisfaction lies in commitment to the same. He's changed many lives, mine included, but of course he has been swimming upstream against the culture, and the dams just grow taller. Those same four decades have seen the near-destruction of rural economies based on small farming. Our emotional lives have grown ever more self-centered and careless--for proof, one need look only at the statistics on the lives of children, or on the size of our cars and houses, or at the feverish way we spend our money. (Careful societies don't have "negative savings rates.")
At the same time, our view of the future grows ever more grandiose and gaudy. Consider the millennial issues of any magazine you want, for they spoke with a common voice: Whatever temporary problems still plague us, science stands on the verge of solving them, with an explosion of knowledge and technology so vast it will make our progress to date seem like a firecracker in the shadow of Nagasaki. Since the first of the year we've finished decoding the human genome--an achievement, more than any other, that should serve to demarcate the new epoch.
And so it is toward science and technology that Berry directs this splendid denunciation--in particular towards E.O. Wilson and his bestselling book, Consilience. It...