Wednesday, 29 April 2020

"We must learn to live at home."

I have less and less to tell my parents on work days. Yesterday I once again rebelled against the tyranny of the computer by taking my coffee outside to look at my plants. I read Wendell Berry. I read a chapter of Baltic (not understanding all the words--I'll have to find that notebook). I put the last of the laundry in the washing machine. (B.A. later hung it up outside to dry.) I began work early.

I had a truncated lunch break.  I gave up on three of the runner beans and planted zucchini (courgette) seeds in their pots. I sowed radish and lettuce seeds in the Trug as I am unhappy with their siblings' slow development in the raised garden. Then I went back to work.

We were late to our 6 PM walk again, this time because I wrote to the man who sold me the dead runner beans seeds. Our walk was, therefore, just around local streets and avenues, but I cannot complain as many of the houses and building were pre-1939 and charming. The cherry trees and apple trees are still in blossom. There are Scottish bluebells in profusion in a local garden.

B.A. added extra canned tomatoes, kidney beans and a bell pepper to Monday's leftover bolognese sauce, and it became chili con carne, minus chili. (We thought the leftover tomatoes were leftover salsa, thanks to the jar I had stored them in.)  We watched an episode of "Chef's Table" (a Brazilian ex-punker chef) and the last episode of the first season of "The Chosen."

B.A. went to bed and I unwisely looked at social media and discovered I had been wronged. This kept me awake for hours. In the end I meditated on Our Lord's advice about someone taking your shirt (give also your cloak) and walking the extra mile if a member of the Occupying Army makes you carry his pack, and that greatly helped.

This morning I woke up thinking about reports about people in their 30s and 40s suffering coronavirus-related strokes, which had frightened me very much, and decided not to go back to being furious. B.A. and/or I could be dead by the end of the next week (God forbid), and therefore I would rather be as happy as possible this week.

I enjoy finishing at least two stories for work a day, so work is part of happiness. But maximal happiness these days is getting outdoors and, to be honest, eating supper.

"We must learn to live at home" comes from Wendell Berry's essay "Out of Your Car, Off Your Horse," which includes a number of principles for saving the planet, all of which are about "thinking locally." Berry explodes the "Think globally, act locally" slogan, which amuses me.

As I seem to be following the psychological pattern of other English-speaking people (at least) in their response to the crisis (beginning with the family pack of loo roll I bought before we went to Poland in February), I would not be surprised if tens of thousands of people are also reading Berry for the first time. Certainly these essays seem tailor-made to this particular ecological crisis we are living in.

"Global thinking is not possible," says Berry, which makes me feel better about weeping over New York on 9/11 while being merely sorry for the Bombing of Baghdad in 2003. (Thomas Aquinas writes about localism, in a way, in his Summa Theologiae when he discusses precedence in love.) He thinks the only way to save the planet is through thousands of small acts done by locals, and that the locals will do these things if they feel affection for the place they live. To learn to love the place they live, they should get out of their cars (or off their horses, a lovely ideas) and walk through it.

And this is true. B.A. objected to buying a flat where we live until we had to, and now through our daily walks, he has come to admire it. My affection for the place has increased, too, and when B.A. went to Tesco I asked him to pick up the local newspaper. Now I really want to know where we are.

My notes upon reading "Out of Your Car, Off Your Horse" are as follows:

Forced localism has increased our knowledge of and affection for our area.

Our area still has countryside and farms nearby, and so is still a good candidate as a locally sustainable community.

Migration and tourism have, on this occasion, endangered the world and this country.  (This is not to pick on China, as I am also thinking of luxury skiing holidays in the north of Italy. And that is also not to blame those who go to Italy to ski: it is an observation of an unintended consequence. Also, my parents were/are principally endangered by unwitting people who brought the virus back to their neighbourhood from Iran. )  

Could inherent xenophobia (for which the ordinary 20th century Briton was thoroughly mocked by more privileged/cosmopolitan Britons like Agatha Christie) be a defence against plague? (Not my original idea; I read it somewhere.)

How local is local? Last week B.A. and I walked about 3 miles from home before turning back. We have in the past walked a little over 5 miles to central Edinburgh. When you can't drive, local really does mean local.

The virus has driven many people, at very least in the English-speaking world, to gardening. Why? To be sure of food? To get out of the house? To get into the sun? To increase endorphins? Because, robbed of our usual distractions, we are reverting to what humans are supposed to do?

Not having a car means we go on foot.  Being frightened of public transport ensures it.

And this morning, I thought: Is our lockdown sustainable? That is, really, can we "learn to live at home" in a radical way?

B.A. and I are very, very fortunate because it looks as though we can. I will be very sorry if I can't see friends in Poland and Italy until 2021, but it won't crush me. At this stage of my life, I am impatient with sightseeing for sightseeing's sake, and therefore have little interest in travel unless it is to visit friends or improve my languages. My preferred freedom date is, therefore, February 2021, which is when I plan to stay with my family in Canada for a month.


  1. It occurred to me just now that you are the first person I've ever known to read Wendell Berry, take him seriously, and begin to change your life in the way I once did. All the others either did those things from other prompts and discovered him after they were environmentalists. Of course, you're in the ideal situation to begin to put true localism into practice. I'm very concerned right now about my friends and neighbors who still don't get it and likely won't until something absolutely forces them to. As in -- things that could very well kill them.

    Part of the problem is that this area is almost entirely dependent on globalism of one kind or another - a state research university plus big bucks military spending if not the crazy tourism surrounding the loved-to-death Great Smoky Mountains National Park. One of my biggest peeves is environmentalists who insist tourism is the go-to, simply brilliant replacement for coal mining and lumber..... And then there's the recent legalization of moonshine (if it's legal, then it ain't moonshine. It's corn liquor.) You should see the giant stills and the crowds of tourists gawking at them. If I were some of my critical theory acquaintances, I think I'd be muttering something about the commodification of hillbilliness or some such … Anyhow, this place and so many others just about hasn't been allowed to be local since at least World War II, and to try to change super quickly like this -- I'm overwhelmed myself trying to conceive of it and yet I know it really must be done.

    Kathy Johnson

    1. And yet it has been done for us, hasn't it, by the Dread Germ. I don't have any expertise in this field whatsoever, but my first thought (like so many others) is that we need to be able to grow our own food and collect and clean our own water.

      I don't know if I am purely a WB convert. I ordered the WB book because I wanted to read about the philosophy behind about growing our own food, and I remembered WB's reputation for this. In theology school I read a lot of Bernard Lonergan, and Lonerganism can be summed up as "Be rooted in reality." I have a hard time remaining rooted in reality, but I try. One reality is that I'm having the same ideas and making the same decisions as a lot of other people in response to the pandemic--which is interesting if humbling. The conversion to localism in the face of COVID-19 reminds me of those early Saxons (and Poles) who were baptised Christians because the local king Said So. Conversion by sword, as it were. But even that kind of conversion can become deeply rooted, perennial and bear good fruit.