The Sign, the Vector, and the Fairy Tale

No hapless adventurer I,
Daring to sally forth with no hope
Of a home at last to return to.
The dark forest bid me enter,
An invitation to the intimacy of seeing and knowing
The spruce hollows where all fear dwells;
My feet accepted the hospitality of the labyrinth,
But my hands mistrusted, strew my breadcrumbs:
The word of life and the broken bread
Scattered like my memories
Like footprints behind me
On the path I had never desired.
But this (mis)trust in uncertainty came new and uneasy--
I do not believe in signs
Who so readily lose their way
Absent the wise figure of a concrete referent.
What assurance had I
That a ball of twine made from fragile words
Would not blow away on a breeze or rot
As surely as the doves consumed
Hansel and Gretel's way home?
But the interwoven strands of story
Kept the thoughts together,
Anchored them in the soil of a land I came to know.
And when my frostbitten fingers sought
The rough comfort of their sound
There yet they were, a living vine:
A whispered welcome on the long walk home.


On Driving Manual and Deep Ecology

While driving home from work last night, I was thinking about the difference between driving an automatic car and driving a manual car. There is something in the names themselves that implies the poles of the experience. "Automatic," requiring no particular knowledge or input, only the requisite initial step of depressing the accelerator. The transmission will take care of the rest. "Manual," with its suggestion of "manos," meaning "hands" in Spanish (Spanish being a language I know, but an etymological search says what I expected--that both "manual" and "manos" come from the Latin for "hands"). But when we think of manual labor, we think of involvement in a real, physical way. Working with one's hands is often set at a contrast with intellectual labor, but this is not entirely fair. The better contrast might be to look at the products of the one and the products of the other. Manual labor applies itself to concrete materials, while the average stock broker and university professor are simply playing with abstractions.

I'm not really trying to glorify manual labor. We started with manual transmissions, after all, and there is no true correspondence between the two, and even less so between automatic and abstract.

I'm thinking, rather, of the way that resisting automation gives us a more intimate knowledge of the workings of the world around us. When I drive a manual car, I have to be more involved. Eventually, checking RPMs and shifting up or down may become as habitual as if it were automatic, but still, there is a level of attention and awareness that is absent from the automatic driver's operation.

Attention is a powerful thing. Advertisers vie for it. Friends and lovers get upset when we don't attend to them. It's something that we pay, an interesting twist of language that presupposes a debt owed--or, just as often, something purchased. I pay attention in class, because I want to obtain an education, but also because etiquette demands that I at least outwardly respect someone who has studied deeply in a particular field and presumably has earned authority to speak on the subject. How much you weight the one or the other in a given situation depends entirely upon your personality and values--I can think of friends who are so pragmatic that they would not be impressed into paying attention just by someone's credentials, although they might maintain a semblance of respect for that individual as an intrinsically valuable person.

As I am reading more about deep ecology for my honors thesis, I rather think that this intersection of manual, with its implication of contact and intentional manipulation (another word with the root of "man-" in it), and attention, as something with the dual presuppositions of debt and purchase, has an important place in how we perceive our place in and our duties toward our environment. Perhaps this is embodied by someone like Wendell Berry, whose intelligence and eloquence have been shaped powerfully by his lifelong work as a Kentucky farmer. The farmer may modify the earth to some extent, through irrigation, fertilization, pesticides, and so forth, but beyond a certain point, there can only be accommodation to the nature of that land. Importantly, that point may fall at different places for the one who thinks only of short-term profit and the one who thinks of long-term stewardship (a word that is loaded with an entire worldview, but which at least has the idea of entrusted care for another's potentially divergent interests).

Since the advent of tool-making, mankind has tended toward transcendence of nature's limits. As those tools have become more sophisticated and nature increasingly distant, we begin to believe ourselves superior to it. The aforementioned farmer or others who work to harvest the resources of earth and sea, they are no less prone to this fault than the rest of us. The one who overworks soil and the one who overfishes are both guilty of disrespect for limitation in the service of human ends and economic profits. This, then, is not a glorification of the old days or a trumpet call to return to the soil. Rather, it is a way of saying that if we resist the automation of our lives, if we allow limits to condition our plans and take up the creative task of living within them, we have started to pay attention. And, perhaps, in what begins as a debt owed to a universe of which we are not the center, we have obtained the deep satisfaction of community to the fullest extent of the word.