Monday, January 15, 2018


On November 17 and 18, First Nations University at the University of Regina hosted "Land and Imagination," a symposium on "Sustainable ways to Inhabit Rural Saskatchewan," largely the brainchild of Sheri Benning who is now teaching creative writing at U of S.  Writers and visual artists came together to share their artistic practice and to create a dialogue about how art helps us understand the natural world and our place in it and about how our art can encourage its audiences to engage with the environment.  Presenters of papers that were provocative, angry, playful, insightful, challenging, and often guilt-inducing included Jesse Archibald-Barber, Heather Benning, Lori Blondeau, Terri Fidelak, David Garneau, Trevor Herriot, Tim Lilburn, Randy Lundy, Sherry Farrell Racette, and Jan Zwicky.  I'm not sure the symposium's subtitle reflects what actually happened that day, which seemed to variously--and rightly--triangulate between Indigenous Issues and art practices, environmentalists of a variety of stripes, and the way the making of art can bring us all closer to a just engagement with the natural world.  Because Bill still was not entirely well, I attended only about half of the symposium--and perhaps that's all my brain could have taken in.

At one point, when the guilt had gotten particularly thick, Jan Zwicky provocatively said that the best thing she could do for the planet was to volunteer to be shot.  Interestingly and appropriately, this led us all to ponder, via Zwicky's reference to one of Plato's Symposia, 'what is enough?'  How much stuff do we really need?  To put this question in context, let me cite an article in The Guardian on November 28.  The production of clothing produces 1.2 billion tons of greenhouse gases a year--more than international flights and shipping combined.  World wide, a truckload of clothing is taken to the dump every second of every day.

Curiously, I was reading two very different books that could contribute something to our conversation:  Tolstoy's War and Peace and Thoreau's Walden.  Two books that couldn't be more different both have something to say about this issue of "enough."

Tolstoy was born to an aristocratic, land-owning family, but toward the end of his life became an anarchist and a pacifist; his ideas about nonviolent resistance informed those of Gandhi and Martin Luther King.  Even before his conversion, he believed his privilege and his responsibility went hand in hand, so that in years when there was famine from which agricultural workers were dying, he and his family opened up countless soup kitchens.  I love the image, from  Alexandra Popoff's biography of Tolstoy's wife, Sophia, of her scouring the streets of Moscow for someone who would donate a railroad car full of onions:  high in vitamin C, they would prevent scurvy among the starving peasants.  

Toward the end of his life Tolstoy's ideals became more extreme.  Tolstoy wanted to earn no money from royalties and to give away all his property.  He had a Christ-like idea of purity in mind that he felt he couldn't achieve laden with material wealth.  Sophia--who took a lot of abuse from Tolstoy--pointed out that they had brought 13 children into the world, 8 of whom survived.  How were they to be educated if the family decided to live in poverty? Popoff's wonderful, award-winning biography makes its easy for us to see how difficult Tolstoy made her life:  how Sophia was faithful to him--even copying a manuscript that put her in a bad light--even while attempting to balance between Tolstoy's extreme spiritual needs, the needs of her family, and her faith in the integrity of his work.

War and Peace is an earlier work begun in 1862 and finished in 1869 when Tolstoy was 41.  Sophia copied out no fewer than 7 complete drafts of what is generally believed to be one of the longest novels ever written.  Although its composition predates Tolstoy's more extreme beliefs about the evils of property and ownership, Tolstoy does not fail to critique the generation of aristocratic landowners who lived between 1805 and 1814--the years of the novel's events.  

The two heroes of War and Peace are Prince Andrei Bolkonsky and Count Pierre Bezukhov, both in their early twenties when the novel opens, both of whom have liberal leanings.  Prince Andrei regards the well-being of the serfs who work his land as part of his responsibility.  He sees to it that their children are educated and that everyone has the medical attention they need.  All this is done without fanfare, and although it works efficiently his serfs are not exactly happy.  In a sense, he's trying to be an enlightened slave owner, so his serfs' dissatisfaction is understandable.

We first meet Pierre Bezukhov, the illegitimate son of a count, at at party where he reveals himself to be a well-informed young man with ideas.  Having spent his late teens and early twenties largely in France, he is full of the revolutionary and philosophical rhetoric that imbued late-eighteenth-century Europe.  When he inherits his father's estates and title, he plans to carry out reforms.  Tolstoy lets us see that in spite of Pierre's good intentions, each of his far-flung estates is run by a steward Pierre barely knows and certainly should not trust.  At one point, Pierre observes that he actually had more money for himself when he was a poor student:  now the incompetence and corruption of stewards and the requests of distant family members seem to require far more money than he actually takes in.  At the end of the novel--two wars with Napoleon later--Pierre marries Natasha, the novel's heroine, who keeps a well-run, efficient house.  Pierre, who has sold most of his land, realizes that running his private finances well is more cost-effective than trying to manage estates that are several days' travel away.  (Pierre is not the only one who discovers this; Natasha's father, Count Rostov, is nearly ruined by his greedy steward.  His finances are only rescued when both his oldest son and middle daughter marry well.)  Like today's CEOs, Russian aristocrats are too far away from their sources of their income to understand what their serfs need or how their income is derived.

While much of the information about the characters' relationship to money is offered by the characters themselves, Tolstoy clearly suggests that the Russian aristocracy has more than enough and often uses that excess very badly.  Many of the novel's most vital moments in characters' lives occur in moments of great privation--as when the Rostov family is on the road out of Napoleon-occupied Moscow with several cart loads of wounded officers, staying in mere huts. If you are dying, as Prince Andrei is, Natasha's loving, open, patient heart is enough.  Similarly, Bezukhov spends several months nearly starving in prison, accused by some of Napoleon's officers of being a spy, but it is here that he learns how little is enough if there is food for thought and reflection and if he can maintain his curiosity about his fellow prisoners, one of which is an uneducated peasant who is nevertheless very wise and  who knows the answer to the question Bezukhov has been puzzling over since the novel began:  why does one live and how does one live well?

In some ways, Henry David Thoreau's Walden couldn't be more different from War and Peace, though the two authors' lives intersect chronologically, Thoreau born in 1817 and dying merely 45 years later in 1862, Tolstoy born in 1828 and living on into the twentieth century until he was 82.  At least three different Thoreaus inhabit the pages of Walden.  There's Thoreau the purist, who is so delighted that he can make bread without yeast out of simply grain, water, and salt (though he admits pensively that no one ever comes to eat with him). Somehow that bottle of yeast that he carries all the way from Concord to Walden Pond is just too much--heavy, profligate, unnecessary and "trivial" as well.  I feel as if the purist in Thoreau, in paring down to "enough" has eliminated some things that many of us would consider important to a good life. His first (sometimes annoying) chapter is called "Economy," where he argues that all we need is food, shelter, clothing, fuel.  Oh, yes, and a few tools with which to build a house and hoe a bean field.

The purist in Thoreau makes me want to growl.  He seems unaware of the fact that his Harvard education--supported by Harvard's large library that he made excellent use of--forms the foundation of his thought and accompanies him in the woods.  Where's the simplicity in that?  He doesn't see the cultural richness of the few physical books he takes with him, nor does he consider what has gone into the paper he writes on or how books are made, transported, and sold.  Like many purists, he cherry-picks his ideals, ignoring those that don't quite fit. It's good to remember--just in case your New Year's resolutions embraced some absolute idea--that purity is entirely ideological and cultural:  you can't prove its presence or its absence except by appealing to ideas.

One of the babies he throws out with his ideological bathwater is man-made beauty--except insofar as it is  inevitably present in the books he reads and in the book he writes and rewrites to describe his time here. As he carefully describes his hut, I longed to have him mention a beautiful quilt to keep him warm or a beautiful bowl to mix his bread in.  Perhaps the taste of the day for "gewgaws" had sullied his ideas about domestic beauty.  Yet if we must have a table, a plate, a glass, a bed covering, why not have one that is beautiful?

Then there's Thoreau the philosopher who, like Bezukhov, wants to know what the good life is.  For him the good life contains enough time to be self reflective and time to observe the natural world.  The good life--in contrast to what it means now:  a life of wealth and power--can be had rather cheaply:  "Money is not required to buy one necessary of the soul" (221).  Rather, one should "Love your life, poor as it is."  With a bit of blindness about what real poverty is, Thoreau observes that "You may perhaps have some pleasant, thrilling, glorious hours, even in a poor-house.  The setting sun is reflected from the windows of the alms-house as brightly as from the rich man's abode; the snow melts before its door as early in the spring.  I do not see but a quiet mind may live as contentedly there and have as cheering thoughts, as in palace" (220).  It is the phrase "a quiet mind" that reveals Thoreau's shortcomings:  at least in the twentieth- and twenty-first centuries, the poor and homeless seldom have quiet minds, struggling as they do with mental illness. In another sense altogether, Thoreau is reflecting on the fact that the beauty of nature is available to most of us.  (And even here, I want to argue with him: I doubt there is much nature in the "projects" we have built to house poor families.)  Nevertheless, Thoreau's image of the good life proceeds from the age-old tradition of self-knowledge:  "Explore thyself.  Herein are demanded the eye and the nerve."  A life that is pared down to 'enough' makes this easier:  "In proportion as he simplifies his life, the laws of the universe will appear less complex, and solitude will not be solitude, nor poverty poverty, not weakness weakness."  Simplifying life gives one time for reflection and observation which we don't have when we are glued to our cell phones or our 24/7 jobs.     

And then there's Thoreau the naturalist, constantly and closely observing the natural world--and gobsmacked by the order, ingenuity, and beauty of what he sees. His very reason for trimming his life down as much as he could was to afford him unencumbered time to wander the natural world, observing, keeping records, indulging his curiosity.  Thoreau kept daily journals between 1837 and 1861 which give us a sense of the shape of his days; many of them begin by outlining where he walked to in the afternoons. 

 The tie between simplifying his life and his observations of nature are clear throughout much of Walden, but particularly potent in his comment on watching spring arrive;  "One attraction in coming to the woods to live was that I should have leisure and opportunity to see the spring come in.  The ice in the pond at length begins to be honey-combed, and I can set my heel in it as I walk.  Fogs and rains and warmer suns are gradually melting the snow...I am on the alert for the first signs of spring, to hear the chance note of some arriving bird, or the striped squirrel's chirp, for his stores must be now nearly exhausted, or see the woodchuck venture out of his winter quarters....I am affected as if in a peculiar sense I stood in the laboratory of the Artist who made the world and me."  

I have been to Walden Pond and have seen a replica of Thoreau's 10 feet by 15 feet house there. He had a bed, table, desk, bookshelf, and three chairs (so he could have company).  It bears quite a bit of resemblance to the rooms at Sage Hill or St. Peter's or Banff--or to a dormitory room, for that matter.  There are times in our lives when a monastic cell is the perfect form for us, the smaller space ironically liberating us into creating the inscape that can now dwell in our unassaulted brains.

What the conference on "Sustainable ways to Inhabit Rural Saskatchewan," War and Peace and Walden have in common is that they urge us to think about "enough."  Pierre Bezukhov's concept of "enough" will seem an excess to many of us, while Thoreau's might seem a little sparse.  But if we all think about "enough" in terms of both time and money--how much time on our cell phones is "enough?" how much wardrobe is necessary? how much income? I suspect we would find two things.  One is that our environmental footprint would shrink.  The other is that we would be happier, more engaged with the important people and the beauties of our everyday lives.

The Manchester Guardian's essay on how wasteful our relationship with clothing is can be found here.

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