It’s a little bit passive-aggressive, I suppose, but I enjoy scandalizing my mom. My most recent attempt involved the statement, “I was reading an excellent Playboy article the other day…” When her bespectacled nose wrinkled up a bit, I continued nonchalantly, “It was by a well-known Christian.”
Job accomplished, my mom’s face betrayed her titillated curiosity. It was magnificent. I told her about Wendell Berry: a novelist, culture critic, environmental advocate, and distinguished voice of our time.
In addition to my huge respect for Berry, at times, I even sort of feel as though I have a personal connection with him. For several summers, I have listened to audiobook versions of his works while caretaking a remote 40-acre expanse of parkland. Learning of the personal struggles and triumphs of his characters not only passes the time, but has helped me feel as though the labor I am doing is worthwhile. Scraped and scratched by barbs and branches, stiff from bending over thousands of adolescent trees, being invariably sun-scorched, and suffering from both literal and metaphorical bruises, Berry nourishes me. His celebration of ordinary lives connected to the earth and to each other feeds my soul.
As I hear about everyday folks living out their everyday lives in cultivating the soil, relationships, and gratitude for being, I become more accepting of the mundane tasks that fill my own days. As I move about between tending trees, I see each one as less of a burden or a task to be completed, and more as a unique and important part of the world. I see my tending to them as an act of tending to nature itself, and therefore a worthy goal. If I was asked to sum up what I appreciate most about Berry’s worldview, I would say his “think little” philosophy.
I feel so bombarded with the message to “go big or go home” or “to escape the ordinary” that it can be easy for me to feel under-accomplished and purposeless. Let’s face it, pulling weeds is not contributing to global peace in any recognizable way. It doesn’t feel as though it’s making a difference. And, at some level, isn’t that what we all want to do most—make a difference? So as I kneel on barbed grass, occasionally letting out shrieks of terror at the sudden passing of a garter snake that moves into my periphery, I take strength from Berry’s reinforcement of the value of the seemingly mundane—the importance of the little things.
In his essay “Think Little,” Berry says, “For most of the history of this country our motto, implied or spoken, has been Think Big. I have come to believe that a better motto, and an essential one now, is Think Little.”
I take from this that the little thoughts, motivations, and actions we all have or take daily are what shape the world. When it comes to our relationship with creation, Berry emphasizes gardening over joining a protest group. Not because protest is never necessary, or is even unimportant, but because meaningful and lasting changes usually result from adjustments we make in our personal lives. Because our value systems matter; and our value systems are often demonstrated more in our daily lives than in what organization we belong to. Whether I go out of my way to rescue the beetle from the water bucket shows how much I value life; ultimately, how much the God I believe in values life in its variety of forms. And while this cognitively makes sense to me, I find it difficult to put it into practice because everyday choices can seem so boring.
For Berry, though, when we come to recognize our place within creation and relationship with it, “we will know that no person is free except in the freedom of other persons, and that man’s only real freedom is to know and faithfully occupy his place—a much humbler place than we have been taught to think—in the order of creation.” Essentially, as we become more aware of the principles of ecology, we will become increasingly aware of how interconnected everything and everyone is.
So interconnected, in fact, that in attuning ourselves to nature, “we will see that war and oppression and pollution are not separate issues, but are aspects of the same issue.” Essentially, the issue of how much we value life and creation.
In other words, Berry calls me not to lethargy about the world at large, but to fully engage and pay attention to my world at small. To step back from the hyper-individualism and hyper-materialism that ravage society and take meaningful steps to nurture healthful practices in my own world.
Berry says this: “I can think of no better form of personal involvement in the cure of the environment than that of gardening. A person who is growing a garden, if he is growing it organically, is improving a piece of the world.” Gardening, for one, subverts culture’s emphasis on efficiency. In many ways, it is just as much about what I cultivate in a garden as what it can cultivate in me: awareness of natural rhythms and seasonal patterns, attention to growth, tending to the needs of something other than myself, the desire to foster health.
Like many people, though, for logistical reasons I simply can’t grow a garden; however, I’ve discovered something else I can do: sprout. It’s a pretty small thing, but that’s what the spirit of think little is about, I think. Sprouting encourages me to think about my relationship with food; it facilitates a better understanding of growing things and nature at large; and it fosters a spirit of creative simplicity.
Although sprouting is simple, sprouts don’t grow themselves. From the first time I select my seeds, to the time I eat them, they require washing and rinsing and watering and proper airflow and the right light conditions. They require attention. With too much or too little of anything they could rot, dry out, or grow nasty bacteria. In short, sprouting takes me a step away from the glitzy advertising in my neighborhood supermarket and brings me closer to a better understanding of ecology. Yes, they lighten my grocery bill every month because I use them to subsidize my vegetable purchases, but they also require culinary creativity. I can’t make eggplant and zucchini lasagna with sprouts. To live the more minimalistic life of a sprout-depender, I must think of ways to incorporate them into my diet.
Sprouting forces me to think small because the process of sprouting demands that I pay attention to the little things. And it’s a process that leaks out into other areas. For example, as I’m learning to think little about the type of food I consume, I’m learning to think more about the people I encounter in my everyday life, I’m thinking more about my habits and how I steward my time, I’m thinking more about what communities I belong to and how I can contribute at a grassroots level. I’m thinking more about creation and my interconnection with all created things. It’s a work in progress, but when I have moments of resentment about “meaningless” work or about the seemingly grueling necessities of life, I remind myself to choose to think little. To choose to embrace the small: and that by embracing the small, I am, in fact, embracing life and my place in the world.