The other day I was reading an article on the need for wildness by Wendell Berry, the agrarian poet-writer who lives and works on a family farm in Kentucky. He writes: “…the most dangerous tendency in modern society, now rapidly emerging as a scientific-industrial ambition, is the tendency toward encapsulation of human order — the severance, once and for all, of the umbilical cord fastening us to the wilderness or the Creation.” He calls this danger “the totalitarian desire for absolute control.”
When I came across his phrase “totalitarian desire for absolute control,” I got a shiver since a couple weeks ago I visited the Nazi concentration camp at Dachau outside Munich in Bavaria. It is a chilling experience to walk around in there for many obvious reasons. But one that particularly struck me, and then came rushing back in memory reading Berry’s article, is what life would be like living under a “totalitarian desire for absolute control.” The irony at Dachau is that you (like the prisoners 65 years ago) enter through a gate that says “Arbeit macht frei — Work makes you free.” But all the work inside was slave labor.
There is a direct danger to all of us lurking here. Wildness and freedom cannot exist in a society that longs for absolute safety, security, and control. Whether you call it wildness, or Creation, or the natural world, it is unfettered, free, and — wild. From the beginning of human existence, we have engaged with the natural world in a struggle to survive, which requires a certain amount of security and control. We are hard-wired to be afraid — but only because there are real dangers to our existence that must be safeguarded against. Throughout most of human history, feeling safe and being safe and feeling and being free have danced with each other. I mean a dance like with two people, or maybe a Virginia reel, a dance that requires cooperation, not solo dancing. A desire for total control, or total freedom, is like dancing alone.
But we are never alone. I like to use an analogy that it takes only about 10 % of my soul to be me. The other 90% is free to mingle and dance with the rest of Creation. The 10%, however, emerges in my body, mind, and feelings, it becomes my unique human spirit, and one of its responsibilities is to protect what-I-call-me. It becomes my human ego, it create boundaries so that I can avoid physical and emotional threats. But given free rein, this 10% could develop a totalitarian desire for absolute control. Then what-I-call-me would become its slave because I have a pretty good suspicion that I could get to like total security. I don’t mean the prisoners at Dachau liked their totally organized and controlled lives. They didn’t. Nor would you or I. But I think we can be deceptively convinced that, outside the concentration camps, total security might be a worthwhile goal. As Berry says, it seems to be a logical ambition of our scientific-technological way of life.
But how can it be? Only 10% of me would go for this idea. And I like to think that not the whole 10% would sign up for it. Some of it remembers that my soul is bigger than the edge of my skin and small mind. There is another 90% still swimming through Creation, still dancing with the 10,000 things that Taoists speak of, still running free, shapeshifting, exploring the great mystery in which we live.
We cannot always be in control of our lives. Certainly the Dachau inmates were not in control of their lives. Many people in many diverse situations today are not in control of their lives. Yet there is an old Celtic value called sovereignty that haunts us.
The Dame Ragnell story asks the question: What does a woman want most in all the world? And the correct answer, according to the story, is the same answer that a man would give: sovereignty. This term does not have to mean being in control of your life, it can mean being in charge of it, to assume responsibility for how we respond to life. It is not easy to do, but is necessary, as necessary as wildness. Because in assuming responsibility we become free. Many heroic prisoners in all the concentration camps around the world then and now have done that, and are doing it. It means to stand in the center of your life, for the old Irish stories tell us sovereignty is in the center, it is the hub or core through which run all the other threads of your life. It is the place where the many areas of our lives converge. And I like to think that it is at this central point where we remember our connection to the rest of Creation, where the other 90% of our souls begin, where no matter what the outward circumstances of our lives, we know that we are free, need wildness, and accept the uncertainty of the greater mystery of Creation. In the old Celtic tales sovereignty comes from the land, it speaks with the voice of the Earth. It is our connection with the wildness and freedom of a Creation that is always bigger than our individual lives.
Berry perceives in our modern thinking a “willingness to ignore an essential paradox: the natural forces that so threaten us are the same forces that preserve and renew us.” To be cut off from those natural forces, as our society seems to be doing to us more and more each day, may encapsulate human order, as Berry puts it, and make us safe. But encapsulating human order for the sake of security also means encapsulating the human spirit. This would be a safety that is dehumanizing, soul-killing, and ultimately frustrating and frustrated.
If we become encapsulated from the natural forces that preserve and renew us, we become encapsulated from the 90% of our souls that is wild and alive and moving through the natural wildernesses of Creation. We might forget that even our civilized, man-made lives depend on the natural world. The dance between security and freedom simply cannot end if we hope to dance with others, to stand in the center of our lives, yes, but to radiate out to the horizon of other human activities and even beyond it.
The horizon around our lives is a mystery, it reveals and conceals, it lures us farther from the safety of home and hearth, from government, from religions, from whatever would constrain and imprison us. The forces that threaten and scare us also renew us.
Of course this is all leading up to quoting Thoreau yet once again — but, hey! — we keep forgetting it. “In wildness is the preservation of the world.” And of the greatness of our souls.
(Quotes from Wendell Berrry can be found in The Art of the Commonplace: The Agrarian Essays of Wendell Berry, edited by Norman Wirzba; Shoemaker &Hoard, Washington, D.C. 2002)