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A Sense of Humus I

There seems to be some debate about the etymology of our word humor. Some argue that it comes from the Latin umor, for moisture. Some take it even farther back to the Indo-European root “ghom”, for humus.

Both are intriguing. The wisdom of etymology provides endless food for contemplation. Surely, there can be no accident in the common stems of humor, humility, humus, and human. We are of the dust, and when we forget that we forget who we are, we lose our sense of humor, we lose our fitting humility.

Wendell Berry wrote an essay, included in his book, The Gift of Good Land, and called Solving For Pattern. In it, he comments on a theme I have been contemplating for some time now. I would express it like this: we cannot make right decisions when the decisions we make don’t consider the consequences of those decisions on everybody concerned and when we don’t humble ourselves before the nature of the things we will affect.

The preceding paragraph is probably so alien to our conventional way of making decisions that it came across as either petulantly obvious or ridiculously obscure. Let me direct your attention back to the title of the essay and encourage reflection from that point:

Solving For Pattern.

What does he mean? He is writing about agriculture in 1980, but he immediately recognizes the wider application. Allow me to quote his opening paragraph.

Our dilemma in agriculture now is that the industrial methods that have so spectacularly solved some of the problems of food production have been accompanied by “side effects” so damaging as to threaten the survival of farming. Perhaps the best clue to the nature and the gravity of this dilemma is that it is not limited to agriculture. My immediate concern here is with the irony of agricultural methods that destory, first, the health of the soil, and, finally, the health of human communities. But I could just as easily be talking about sanitation systems that pollute, school systems that graduate illiterate students, medical cures that cause disease, or nuclear armaments that explode in the midst of the people they are meant to protect. This is a kind of surpise that is characteristic of our time: the cure proves incurable; security results in the evacuation of a neighborhood or town. It is only when it is understood that our agricultural dilemma is characteristic not of our agriculture but of our time that we can begin to understand why these surprises happen, and to work out standards of judgment that may prevent them. (emphasis mine)

Thus we have a farming problem in America that is a part of a wider problem in the way we think and order our lives. We come up, Berry suggests, with two kinds of solutions: “First, the solution that causes a ramifying series of new problems, the only limiting criterion being, apparently, that the new problems should arise beyond the purview of the expertise that produced the solution… Second,… that which immediately worsens the problem it is intended to solve, causing a hellish symbiosis in which problem and solution reciprocally enlarge one another in a sequence that, so far as its own logic is concerned, is limitless…”

Many a marriage has fallen into this second solution. I once coined a clumsy term for the first type of solution: “the law of the catastrophic continuum.” Berry’s use of the term “ramifying” expresses the idea wonderfully. Ramifications are not understood, appreciated, measurable, predictable, so the new problems ramify.

Then he comes to the heart of the problem:

Such solutions always involve a definition of the problem that is either false or so narrow as to be virtually false. To define an agricultural problem as if it were solely a problem of agriculture – or solely a problem of production or technology or economics – is simply to misunderstand the problem, either inadvertantly or deliberately, either for profit or because of a prevalent fashion of thought. The whole problem must be solved, not just some handily identifiable and simplifiable aspect of it.

He then begins to hint in the direction of a manner of thinking that offers potential solutions, and then he states the heart of the heart of the problem:

A bad solution is bad, then, because it acts destructively upon the larger patterns in which it is contained… A bad solution solves for a single purpose or goal, such as increased production. And it is typical of such solutions that they achieve stupendous increases in production at exorbitant biological and social costs.

Berry is able to discern these patterns because he has a sense of humus. He understands that humans do not live specialized lives in which it is alright not to know what one is talking about beyond his area of specialty. He understands that our lives are lived in wider patterns even than we can see and perceive ourselves. He is seeking man’s place in the cosmos, so we can know and fulfil our duties, two bits of information we lost with the rise of fragmented and specialized “knowledge” in the late middle ages.

Later I will blog about his proposals for new ways of thinking, “Solving for Pattern,” and apply this essay, as he repeats that we ought to do, to education (to which I believe the applications are extraordinary).

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