Eagles and Wendell Berry

Our theology book group met today, at the Atlas Coffee Mill on the Fox River in Appleton. We’ve just started reading Wendell Berry’s The Unsettling of America: Culture & Agriculture, and our discussion today was on the first chapter. First published in 1977, but still in print and in demand, the book sets out the basis for Berry’s passionate view that Western industrialized society reflects the triumph of exploitation over nurture, to the great detriment of our planet’s, and therefore our own, well-being. Here’s a typical summation (pp. 12-13):

Thus we can see growing out of our history a condition that is physically dangerous, morally repugnant, ugly. Contrary to the blandishments of the salesmen, it is not particularly comfortable or happy. It is not even affluent in any meaningful sense, because its abundance is dependent on sources that are rapidly being exhausted by its methods.

By the end of our discussion, many of us were feeling the weight of Berry’s critique and confessed to a certain sadness, even despair, as a result.

On leaving the meeting, I walked east on Water Street toward its intersection with Olde Oneida. On my right was the Fox River, glittering in the crisp sun and reflecting the bright blue sky overhead. The winter moon had already risen and could be seen ahead of me as I walked. In the water, ducks swam idly, presumably enjoying today’s warmer temperatures.

As I watched, I noticed shrill, shrieky calls from birds circling the river above the ducks. Expecting gulls, I looked more closely and noticed their great size, white heads, and variegated deep-gray bodies. Not gulls, but a trio of eagles! They’ve become much more common along the Fox in recent years after a decades-long hiatus caused by deteriorating water quality, and thus diminished fish populations, in the Fox. As steps have been taken by the citizens of Wisconsin to redress the abuse of the Fox River that occurred during the industrialization of the area, a better balance of nuture in relation to exploitation (to use Berry’s terms) has been restored.

In watching the eagles circle and swoop, come to rest in a few trees on a small island, then launch themselves again over the water, and in remembering a time when there were no eagles to be found along the Fox from Neenah to Green Bay, I felt my spirits lift again.  And I recalled the words with which the chapter ends (p. 14):

But the care of the earth is our most ancient and most worthy and, after all, our most pleasing responsibility. To cherish what remains of it, and to foster its renewal, is our only legitimate hope.

In the story of the eagles’ return to the Fox River, I find testimony that the ancient, worthy, and pleasing responsibility of caring for the earth and its creatures still may lift us out of our complacent lethargy and set us on our true way again.

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