Another Turn of the Crank

One of my favorite book titles is Another Turn of the Crank by Wendell Berry. The first time I heard of it was when my literary agent, Victoria Shoemaker, mentioned it to me. It caused me to burst out laughing. I’ve yet to read this collection of essays, but I’ve read others by Berry, so I got the title immediately. The meaning is multi-layered. Berry is a farmer and inclined toward older, more mechanical ways of doing things. Actually, he prefers to do things by hand as much as possible. What made me laugh, though, was Berry’s humorous acknowledgment of himself as a relentless crank—that is, someone who is utterly appalled by the direction modern life has taken and feels an urgent need to alert others to the facts.

During my hiatus from this blog, I reread every post. I’d assumed that I’d want to edit some posts and delete a bunch of others, but that wasn’t the case. I did delete a few innocuous posts, but I changed very little. Like Berry, I’m very critical of the way things are going. I understand his desire to acknowledge his persistently critical views with some humor. As far as I’m concerned, it’s very difficult these days to avoid being critical. Still, I want to make an effort at writing more about the world I’d like to see. Those of us who oppose the materialism and egotism of the modern age need to develop a solid foundation from which to build as the present-day order crumbles—which it seems to be doing. (I meet a surprising number of people who feel that the country—the empire—is seriously fraying. I feel it constantly.)

Notwithstanding the current troubles, there are answers, and we need to be able to present them with clarity to those who are looking for them.

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11 Responses to “Another Turn of the Crank”

  1. Tracy Glomski Says:

    I’ve somehow never got round to reading Wendell Berry, although I’ve encountered his name at several blogs I like. Berry sounds like the type of author I’d enjoy. I checked the online catalog of my public library, and there’s a copy of Another Turn of the Crank on the shelves. I’ll check it out this weekend. Thanks for the tip.

    The world is a better, richer place with a few good cranks in it. It’s nice to see you posting again.

    • markbittner Says:

      I used Berry’s Life is a Miracle to help clarify my thoughts for the chapter called “Consciousness Explained” in The Wild Parrots of Telegraph HIll.

      It’s nice to be back.

  2. Tracy Glomski Says:

    As it turns out, Another Turn of the Crank is quite a compact book, just six essays and 109 pages. You might especially like the last chapter, which addresses the material vs. spiritual issue, specifically in the context of health care. It might be somewhat of a reiteration of the material you already read in Life Is a Miracle, however. I need to track down Life Is a Miracle next and see for myself!

    Your chapter “Consciousness Explained” is important, and one of my favorites in The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill.

    I’ve been fortunate to live in the company of several parrots over the past 20 years. They’ve all been special, but I lost an especially special one in 2008. He was a dusky conure. He died quite suddenly of a mysterious respiratory ailment at a young age.

    I hadn’t yet bought a copy of your book at that time, although I had read a borrowed copy. Fortunately, I did already own Judy’s movie on DVD. Not long after my dusky’s death, I put the DVD into the laptop (we’re TV-free) and skipped straight to the video chapter equivalent of “Consciousness Explained.” I remembered hearing the Suzuki-roshi story about the waterfall and knew I needed to hear it again. It really helped. It was a tremendous comfort to me. So I greatly appreciate that you shared it, along with the rest of your insights.

  3. Tracy Glomski Says:

    I’m stopping by again to happily report that I found a book of Gary Synder’s essays, The Practice of the Wild, at the library. I’m a couple of pages in, and I believe I will really enjoy this one, too. I read a lot of Alan Watts in my 20s, when I was struggling to find my calling in life, but I somehow missed all the great authors who inspired you.

    I’ll have to get Life Is a Miracle through interlibrary loan. I have a feeling it will be a much more difficult read than Crank. I made the mistake of skimming through some reviews and it sounds like Life Is a Miracle has an anti-science slant. Much of my formal education was in the sciences. Those studies have greatly expanded my appreciation of the elegance, intricacy, and grandeur of the Universe. It is very humbling to try to take it all in, and to realize how much we do not, on a rational level, yet know.

    I can identify with the frustrations Berry expresses in Crank, however. We as a culture are have lost much of our connectivity. And unfortunately, science sometimes is badly misapplied, when it is used to support a reductionist, materialist, mechanistic worldview. I just don’t think science is the cause of that worldview. That’s not how I experienced it, anyhow. At its best, science is a form of truthseeking, which broadens the curiosity rather than contracts it. So I will have to see what Berry has to say about it. Even if I end up not agreeing, I like to sometimes read thoughts which don’t entirely mesh with my own. It is a good practice.

    Mark, if you have the time and interest, would you consider posting a list of some of the authors who’ve most intrigued you over the years? I’d rather curl up with a good book than an iPad any day. Whatever the hell an iPad is.

    • markbittner Says:

      I don’t remember Life is a Miracle as being difficult to read or anti-science. What it opposes is “scientism,” science as religion, science as support for that “reductionist, materialist, mechanistic world view” you mentioned. For some reason, probably lack of time, I’ve yet to read “Practice of the Wild,” but it is highly regarded by those who love Snyder. And yes, I’d be happy to list some of the books and writers who’ve made an impression on me. I’ll try to get around to it soon.

  4. Tracy Glomski Says:

    Thanks, Mark! You can add my voice to those who speak highly of The Practice of the Wild. It’s an excellent, powerful work. I took it along on last weekend’s “Chicken and Stars” tour and was very glad to have it with me.

    I agree that science is no substitute for religion. Then again, much of what is called religion is no substitute for religion.

    • markbittner Says:

      Yes, my thought precisely. Most of what we call religion has nothing to do with religion. It’s the most poorly understood “subject” of out time.

  5. Tracy Glomski Says:

    It had been a while since I read “Consciousness Explained.” So I re-read it last night. I was curious if I remembered it correctly, or if my understanding had changed.

    For what it’s worth, I still regard your critique of science as tough but fair. I believe we’re on the same page with this concept: science has a certain appropriate scope of practice. When it applied outside that scope, bad things can happen. I stand by my assertion that science is (or should be) a form of truthseeking. But in any meaningful line of scientific inquiry, there is eventually a point where the equations and the predictions can go no further. It takes skill to recognize that point and maturity to honor it. There are people who try to do science without sufficiently cultivating those qualities in themselves. They are the scientists who give science a bad name, in my opinion.

    I’ll never know if I would’ve been a good scientist. I aborted that career path when I was 23. Possibly I’m too sloppy of a thinker to have ever contributed much. In my real world experiences, the material and the spiritual don’t seem all that terribly different to me.

    For example, when I gaze at a distant star cluster, it tickles me to consider how that light has reached me. I think about the stars exuberantly throwing off photons in all directions. A teeny tiny portion of those photons travel across ginormous distances, get jostled around a bit in the Earth’s atmosphere, plop down through the tube of my Dobsonian telescope, bounce off the primary mirror, bounce off the secondary mirror, transmit through the eyepiece, enter my eye, and excite my retina, my optic nerve, and my brain. The stars touch me. Physically. It’s not an either/or, material vs. spiritual experience. It’s both. It’s all. My delight is not diminished by the fact that I can recite the speed of light or describe how star color relates to temperature.

    I do think that good science becomes more challenging as we move away from the “harder” fields (like physics, my specialty in school) to the “softer” fields (like biology, where I’ve directed more of my autodidactic attention). It’s really quite beyond me, when people try to turn stuff like economics into a science.

    My late dusky conure was the only bird I ever adopted as a baby. He was the only bird I ever named, since all the others have come to me with names already attached. I know how you feel about Darwinism, so don’t hate me for this, but…I called him Darwin. I chose that name before I knew his sex. A couple of friends teased that if he was actually a she, I’d have to change to “Darwina.” And I told them: “No. Because there was also a Mrs. Darwin. She was a very interesting person in her own right.” She was, in fact, deeply religious. Mrs. Darwin and Mr. Darwin, by all accounts, had a very loving and harmonious marriage. Imagine.

    I understand that you’re busy, and I’m not the least bit offended if you can’t reply in detail to my posts. You’ve been a very patient and gracious host, to allow me to comment so extensively at your blog. I’ll drop by again when I’ve had a chance to explore more Berry. Your next book is the one I most want to read, however.

    • markbittner Says:

      It looks to me like we’re in agreement on all the essentials.

      There is a Buddhist saying (I think it’s Buddhist) that I’ve come across a few times that goes something like this (I’ve seen two versions): “When you reach the top of the 100 foot pole, keep climbing.” The other version says when you reach the top of the pole “let go,” or something like that. To me the 100 foot pole is human reason, which can only take us so far. To understand reality, you have to let go of the pole.

  6. Tracy Glomski Says:

    I’m not terribly familiar with Buddhism, but if that’s not Buddhist, it should be. It has a distinctly koan-like feeling. It’s a puzzle: how is further progress possible, once the top of the pole is reached? Plus this solution: by not clinging, even if it means a fall to the death of the body or the ego. Or perhaps there will be a continued flight of ascension, if one trusts enough to let go.

    I wonder what a Taoist would do. Probably the same thing I enjoyed as a kid, shimmying up poles for kicks. It felt good to work my monkey muscles and get a different view of the world. Then the natural way out was to slide–whee!–all the way back down to earth.

    Speaking of earth, my husband and I planted a few seeds and tender sprouts in our garden today. It was nourishing to soak the spring sunshine into my skin again. I’ll spend somewhat less time with books for the next six months, since it’s now the season for digging, watering, and weeding.

    I read this recently, that the best way to build community is by feeding each other. That idea has a certain appealing Taoist simplicity to it. So that is my approach for now, to begin to practice that. I don’t know if those efforts will ultimately make a difference in the face of a peak-oil-global-warming-overshoot disaster. I do know I’m happiest nowadays on the ground. I haven’t any magic beans to grow a stalk to take me higher, but sometimes even ordinary beans can be miraculous.

  7. Tracy Glomski Says:

    Eh, I finished it, and on the whole, Life Is a Miracle wasn’t quite my cup of tea. I’m super glad you got something good out of it, however. Berry does express some good points in his criticism of modern notions of progress.

    To paraphrase a classic, the pole that can be poled is not the True Pole.

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