Wendell Berry's "The Nature Consumers" and the Roots of Distraction

by Ben Carter in

This fall, my friend Tim is teaching an English class called “The Contemplative Life” to his high school seniors. We discussed the class during a round of frisbee golf and I promised to send him an essay by Wendell Berry called, “The Nature Consumers.” I sent him that essay and this:

Tim, here is a copy of Wendell Berry’s essay, “The Nature Consumers.”

I read this essay at the exact right time at the exact right place. It’s the summer before I start at Davidson and I’m in Tennessee working as a camp counselor at the camp I went to as a kid. That spring, I had read all of Berry’s novels and short stories and created a genealogical history of his fictional town in Kentucky. But now, it’s night. The kids are asleep.

As I’m reading, the crickets chirp and nocturnal mammals rustle leaves just outside the cabin. The wind sifts through the trees. The camp’s lake is not far away; not too far to walk down for a solo swim under the slivered moon.

As a camp counselor, one of my responsibilities was to give a devotional to my campers each night. I used this essay as one of my devotionals the night after I first read it. This is what I did: after they’d brushed their teeth, I took my campers down to the lake, down to the dock where I taught swimming each morning. During the morning and afternoon, the lake was filled with sometimes-terrified, sometimes-stoked kids–swimming, rope-swinging, canoeing, diving. It was loud. Someone was always shouting, blowing a whistle, splashing. But now, at night, the kids whisper as we creep down to the dock, down where the night sky and the stars were framed by dark trees all around and where the creek frogs burp and chirp at water’s edge.

I read them the passage on page forty-one as we lie on the dock looking up at the stars.

It is maybe most of all that silence that they are so intent to guard themselves against. And there is indeed a potential of terror in it. It raises, still, all the old answerless questions of origins and ends. It asks a man what is the use and the worth of his life. It asks him who he thinks he is, and what he thinks he’s doing, and where he thinks he’s going. In it the world and its places and aspects are apt to become present to him, the lives of water and trees and stars surround his life and press their obscure demands. The experience of that silence must be basic to any religious feeling. Once it is attended to, admitted into the head, one must bear a greater burden of consciousness and knowledge–one must change one’s life. If one has nothing in oneself with which to respond it would be unbearable. If the silence within the man should be touched by the impenetrable silence that ultimately surrounds him, what might happen to the thin partition of flesh and possessions? How might they have to be looked on then?

I read the passage about the boaters being unwilling to confront all the “old answerless questions of origins and ends” and then, together, we sit or lie down in silence for a long, long, long time. Pressed by obscure demands.

I think, in retrospect, it was the fact that we were together that allowed us to be silent. I never realized that until now. And, not to digress too much because this is not my main point, but I think silence is easier when it’s with other people. Sure, there’s the awkward silence, but I’m talking about a group of people being intentional about silence: Quakers, monks, zazen…

Over the summers, I read this passage to fourth graders, sixth graders, seventh graders, and sophomores. Regardless of the age of the boy, the passage seemed to resonate with something inside of him. We were all—for the most part—very privileged kids growing up in cities all across America who lived very busy lives. One of the things that was most valuable for me at the camp were all the opportunities that were built into the fabric of camp life that offered us a chance to reflect, to be still, to be quiet.

We had campfires every Friday night and Vespers every Sunday night where we’d sings sad, mournful songs and watch the sparks dash out of the fire and upwards. “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” still haunts me. We would have church service by the lakeside every Sunday morning and watch the wind wave across the water. And, on campouts on Tuesday nights there was certainly time for Capture the Flag and for boyish hijinks, but it seemed like many times the night ended with quiet conversation, all eyes turned towards the glowing embers of the fire.

Looking back, I know those quiet times provided me the space I needed to become that man I’ve become. So, I want to encourage you and thank you for offering your students the opportunity and challenge of confronting all of the old answerless questions we so often and so willingly avoid.

It seems to me that any inquiry into the contemplative life has to engage two questions. The first: “What are the external factors that prevent us from pursuing contemplative life?” While I think it is important, strategically, to be able to identify the external forces pulling us away from contemplation and mindfulness, the answers to this question seem mostly uninteresting.

The second question is: “To what extent do we seek ourselves to avoid the contemplative life and why?” The answers to the second question are so much more important and so much more interesting. What is it within ourselves, what’s that piece of us that seeks to create noise and distraction from our own existence? This is what “The Nature Consumers” is about.

For me, the miracles of modern technology—radio and Twitter and cell phones and two-hundred channels of television—are simultaneously a problem and not a problem. They certainly add to the distraction. But, they are not the distraction. They’re not the reason humans seek distraction; they are simply tools of the distraction. In other words, these electronic miracles are the objects to which our psyche clings as it desperately attempts to avoid paying attention to some pretty uncomfortable questions. They are the symptoms and not the cause of our dis‑ease.

And I think that’s what’s so important about “The Nature Consumers”: it refrains from what could be a pretty tired refrain. That is, it avoids giving modern humans a pass because “modern life is so much more noisy than life has been for previous generations.” That fact is undeniable and it’s also not the point. Humans are not distracted because of modern life. Modern life is distracting because humans want to be distracted. I say this as a man who cares deeply about sports teams I’ve never met who play sports I’ve never played.

We have yet to come up with satisfactory answers for very difficult, very uncomfortable, and very offensive questions. These are the questions Wendell Berry poses in “The Nature Consumers.” “What is my life for?” “How am I supposed to exist in relationship with the Earth? With my family? With the community of human beings?” “What are my responsibilities?” “What happens when we die?”

If you sit not for very long and are quiet for not very long these questions will confront you almost immediately. Death is the ultimate cognitive dissonance–a dissonance our minds are bent upon and yet incapable of resolving.

Further, this isn’t the only intractable dissonance we face. We are precariously situated as a society: our human existence unbalances our natural systems. Our individual existences embody and often renew all of the inequality, injustice, and oppression of human history. These dissonances are growing, not resolving. The questions posed by these facts—the same questions confronted by previous generations—get more uncomfortable, more pressing with each passing year. The harder these questions get, the more inclined humans will be to quit trying to answer them. (And I think the act of trying to answer them is important, even if the questions are unanswerable. In fact, I think the act of trying to answer an unanswerable question, that struggle, is the answer.)

This is why the class you’re teaching is so urgent: the less mindful we are of how we are to relate to each other and to the natural world the more out of balance our relationship becomes with other people and with other species. We are caught in a vicious cycle and the only way to extricate ourselves from it is to train a generation of people to exist comfortably with very uncomfortable questions. Because the questions are so uncomfortable we run to distraction. Until we have humans able to tolerate the uncertainty and uncomfortable feelings these questions will generate, we will never be able as a community of people to answer these questions and, most importantly, to act on their answers—incomplete and uncertain as those answers might be.

To summarize, I think all I’m trying to say is that the distractions of modern life are the logical consequence of our inability thus far to answer hard questions. We should see the trappings of modern technology modern life for what they are: symptoms and not causes. Until we can get to the underlying dis-ease we all feel and wrestle with and strain against, until we can humble ourselves to our own mortality, we will always yearn for distraction from the tragedy of our condition.

We will die and history, one day, will forget us all. Fashioning empathy and compassion and love in the face of an apparently futile endeavor is hard. It’s painful to know the beautiful things and places and people we love so earnestly will again pass again into nothingness. But, this is the only work that matters: learning how and why we must work to love one another despite and because of our finiteness. This is the work of being human. How can we live with and live out the futility, ultimately, of that love?

Is it too much to hope that we may one day rest within that love?