The Call, Column 52 – “The Peace of Wild Things, Who Do Not Tax Their Lives”

31 07 2016

(July 31, 2016)

The Urban Farmer

“The Peace of Wild Things, Who Do Not Tax Their Lives”

Let me tell you a story. I was working in my garden a few months ago, replanting that bed of greens that had, yet again, been visited by my resident woodchuck. I happened to look up at the right time, and I noticed that the chickens were taking a break from their determined pursuit of bugs, and were instead watching me work. It was as if they were questioning what I could possibly be doing, putting so much effort into digging the soil, just to pass up the tasty worms, beetles, and crab grass already there for the taking, and instead plant small, fragile annuals that, by the looks of it, I had no intention of immediately pecking (err, eating) down to the root.

I imagined them saying something of that nature; and in response, I found myself both full of pride – that I regularly participate in humanity’s long tradition of hard agricultural labor in order to grow food – and resentment – because they, like every other animal on Earth, do not.

Today’s column is going to be much deeper and more emotional than you’re used to. I’m going to start by being really honest with you about one of my most deep-seated behavioral quirks. I’ve always had a problem with time, and specifically a hyperawareness of its passage. It probably started some time in high school, when my meticulous need to control things and my focus on academics turned into a constant awareness of “how much time is left before ___” (“bed”, “this assignment is due”, “the summer ends”, “I die, statistically speaking”) and a tendency to write exorbitant to-do lists as a record of everything that I want to accomplish in that time.

As the years have passed, and my time is increasingly spent on responsible adult activities (high school, then college, then grad school, and now working two jobs), these quirks have gotten worse. There are a lot of things that I enjoy doing, and others that I feel it is my civic or human responsibility to do. And so to make sure that none of them get overlooked or forgotten, I obsessively keep track of them with lists – I currently have at least five separate ones, including a four-year-old Word document that is perpetually opened on my laptop. Inevitably, all of the things on my lists do not get done in the ridiculous timelines I set for them, and with my urban farm and various related hobbies and political involvement and social life and trying to work towards my central life goals, the lists tend to grow rather than shrink.

I try to accomplish as much as possible each day, but with the cropping up of unforeseen daily tasks, my constant awareness of the limitedness of the time I have to do those tasks, and the fact that I always carry some form of to-do list with me to remind me of all I have to do…I often get overwhelmed with whatever I’m doing, and frequently end up feeling that I haven’t accomplished much of anything. This leads me to be more conscious of my time, and more vigilant with my writing of lists. And the evil cycle continues.

I would imagine that everyone has anxieties similar to these, albeit probably not as pervasive as those I’ve just described. So why did I just throw all of this at you?

Our early human ancestors – whose bodies and brains we still inhabit, like it or not – spent no more than a few hours a day hunting or gathering their food. The rest was spent in recreation, in exploring the huge, wonderful world around them. The anxieties I’ve discussed above are but one of the products of modern, Western society, where the threat of not fitting into the group forces otherwise social, recreational, natural, biologically-wild animals – yes, us, human beings – to conform to a rigid definition of what responsible life looks like, deviating so fiercely from our adaptive behaviors. We are forced into a mold of taxpaying, law-abiding consumerism, where our natural inclination to explore, create, and revel in the lives we’ve been given, living in and for the present moment with a clear mind and no anxieties about what’s to come and what hasn’t yet been done, is squashed; rejected, in favor of the faux security of a society which only values us insofar as we make our tax, loan, and insurance payments, and buy cheap plastic goods from foreign sweatshops.

In thinking about this column, I kept returning to a few lines from my favorite poem, “The Peace of Wild Things” by Wendell Berry. It’s very short, and you can read it at http://tinyurl.com/berrypeacewild, which I strongly suggest you do before continuing.

The poem is about Berry’s concern for the degradation of human society and the Earth; and about how he finds solace in uncivilized nature. He describes how he comes “into the peace of wild things/ who do not tax their lives with forethought/ of grief”, and rests “in the grace of the world”.

Consider stress. There are three major types: acute, which occurs irregularly over a very short time, like what is felt before asking someone on a date; episodic, which is made up of acute stressors that happen frequently and regularly, like an alarm clock blaring every morning; and chronic, which is the result of long-term situations and becomes an underlying feature of daily life, like debt.

In this, I believe, lies the key to understanding the “peace of wild things”, and why it contrasts so starkly with the discord of modern civilization. The only real type of stress that exists in the wild is acute – an attack by a predator, being temporarily unable to find food or water, a scary or threatening weather event. The prevalence of these stressors is even naturally reduced over time, because they represent evolutionary pressures that are solved with migration, adaptation, collaboration, and (infrequently) extinction.

These wild things, ranging from the most intelligent primates (other than us) and dolphins, to the simplest microbes and plants, “do not tax their lives with forethought of grief”. They live in a habitat for which their species has become well-adapted over time, and which itself has been shaped by their species, that provides them with the food, water, shelter, and community they need to survive. As it’s said in one of my favorite verses from the Gospel of Matthew (6:26-27), “Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they? Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your life?”

The “despair for the world” that Berry describes is, I believe, a perfect surrogate for the chronic and episodic stressors that define modern human life. In my world, those are my various to-do lists and my hyperawareness of the limitedness of time, which tend to make my behavior so reactionary and filled with forethoughts of what’s to come, that it’s almost always impossible to live in the moment.

And then, I step outside. I walk in the woods, or through my garden at sunrise; with no phone, no to-do list, no way of telling the time. “I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.”

There’s a reason that Jesus often went off into the quiet of natural areas to talk to the Father; why Thoreau relished his quiet existence on the bank of Walden Pond; why studies consistently find medical benefits to time spent in nature, even without any component of exercise. We are wild things.

That imagined conversation with my chickens sparked an awesome awareness that happiness, contentedness, the removal of chronic stress lie outside constrains imposed by human society. I’m still sort of working through this awareness, and it has manifested itself as an overwhelming desire for adventure, for breaking arbitrary rules (note I didn’t say “laws”) and living in such a way that my behavior and recreation is dictated by what I want to do, right now, in this place, rather than by what I have to do.

To truly be happy, we have to spend time in nature; away from to-do lists, from our phones, from the worrying that, as Matthew alludes, blinds us to the amazing, natural Creation around us, while adding not a single hour to our lives. We have to spend time amongst contended wild things, and learn from nature by going into nature. We inhabit wild bodies with wild brains. Only once we finally recognize that concept will we be free.

My column appears every other Sunday in The Woonsocket Call (also in areas where The Pawtucket Times is available). The above article is the property of The Woonsocket Call and The Pawtucket Times, and is reprinted here with permission from these publications. These are excellent newspapers, covering important local news topics with voices out of our own communities, and skillfully addressing statewide and national news. Click these links to subscribe to The Woonsocket Call or to The Pawtucket Times. To subscribe to the online editions, click here for The Call and here for The Times. They can also be found on Twitter, @WoonsocketCall and @Pawtuckettimes.

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