Wendell Berry: Letter to Wes Jackson…


From WENDELL BERRY
Home Economics (1982)

[This evening, August 3rd, will be our second First Friday of Neighbors Reading at Mulligan Books downtown Ukiah, 6-7pm. We share favorite passages from favorite books around topics of community, transition, resilience, or anything else, as part of the second semester of Mendo Free Skool. We video the readings for Community TV and invite your participation. I will be reading from one of my favorite authors, Wendell Berry… passages from an essay The Family Farm, from his book Home Economics. What follows is the opening essay from that book… -DS]

Dear Wes,

I want to try to complete the thought about “randomness” that I was working on when we talked the other day.

The Hans Jenny paragraph that started me off is the last one on page twenty-one of The Soil Resource:

Raindrops that pass in random fashion through an imaginary plane above the forest canopy are intercepted by leaves and twigs and channeled into distinctive vert space patterns of through-drip, crown-drip, and stem flow. The soil surface, as receiver, transmits the “rain message” downward, but as the subsoils lack a power source to mold a flow design, the water tends to leave the ecosystem as it entered it, in randomized fashion.

My question is: Does “random” in this (or any) context describe a verifiable condition or a limit of perception?

My answer is: It describes a limit of perception. This is, of course, not a scientist’s answer, but it may be that anybody’s answer would be unscientific. My answer is based on the belief that pattern is verifiable by limited information, whereas the information required to verify randomness is unlimited. As I think you said when we talked, what is perceived as random within a given limit may be seen as part of a pattern within a wider limit.

If this is so then Dr. Jenny, for accuracy’s sake, should have said that rainwater moves from mystery through pattern back into mystery.

If “mystery” is a necessary (that is, honest) term in such a description, then the modern scientific program has not altered the ancient perception of the human condition a jot. If, in using the word “random,” scientists only mean “random so far as we can tell,” then we are back at about the Book of Job. Some truth meets the eye; some does not. We are up against mystery. To call this mystery “randomness” or “chance” or a “fluke” is to take charge of it on behalf of those who do not respect pattern. To call the unknown “random” is to plant the flag by which to colonize and exploit the known. (A result that our friend Dr. Jenny, of course, did not propose and would not condone.)

To call the unknown by its right name, “mystery,” is to suggest that we had better respect the possibility of a larger, unseen pattern that can be damaged or destroyed and, with it, the smaller patterns.

This respecting of mystery obviously has something or other to do with religion, and we moderns have defended ourselves against it by turning it over to religion specialists, who take advantage of our indifference by claiming to know a lot about it.

What impresses me about it, however is the insistent practicality implicit in it. If we are up against mystery, then we dare act only on the most modest assumptions. The modern scientific program has held that we must act on the basis of knowledge, which, because its effects are so manifestly large, we have assumed to be ample. But if we are up against mystery, then knowledge is relatively small, and the ancient program is the right one: Act on the basis of ignorance. Acting on the basis of ignorance, paradoxically, requires one to know things, remember things— for instance, that failure is possible, that error is possible, that second chances are desirable (so don’t risk everything on the first chance), and so on.

What I think you and I and a few others are working on is a definition of agriculture as up against mystery and ignorance-based. I think we think that this is its necessary definition, just as I think we think that several kinds of ruin are the necessary result of an agriculture defined as knowledge-based and up against randomness. Such an agriculture conforms exactly to what the ancient program, or programs, understood as evil or hubris. Both the Greeks and the Hebrews told us to watch out for humans who assume that they make all the patterns.
~~

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