Taking Care of It

In reading and re-reading some of Steinbeck’s novels and stories, I came across a short novel I had never read before, entitled To A God Unknown. It is a strange novel, unlike any of his other works that I am familiar with. It fails as great literature in my view because his characters are thinly disguised symbols and the author seems to be intent on setting out his message rather than writing an imaginative work of literature. This is not to say that the work lacks imagination. On the contrary, it is highly imaginative. But also a bit strange.

The reader really doesn’t get to know the characters at all, and the central character seems a thinly disguised transcription of a Christ-like figure who sacrifices himself for the land — of which  he has become a part, almost literally. In any event, he is interesting and the novel has some important things to say to all of us here in the twenty-first century, because it is about the earth and about our responsibility to care for it.

The central character’s name is Joseph, and he leaves Vermont just before his father dies to homestead in California. As he takes possession of his piece of land he exclaims: “It’s mine and I must take care of it.” He feels a deep and pervasive responsibility to the land which he shares with his two brothers. Initially the land produces bountiful crops and he and his brothers prosper. But, almost inevitably, the skies cease to produce rain and the land dries up. His older brother takes what is left of their herd of cattle 100 miles to greener pastures while Joseph insists on staying behind. He abandons the ranch for a small oasis of green trees and a small spring which he regards as the heart of the land. But this, too, begins to dry up and because he is convinced that he has failed to care for the land, he sacrifices himself to the rains that he hopes will come. As the novels ends, the rains finally do come.

But the message within this tightly wound novel seems clear, despite the fact that it was written in the 1930’s when folks seem to have had a greater sense of their responsibilities to the earth which is their mother and to whom they will all return at some point. Today, we ignore this fact and many (most?) would regard it as a bit of romantic nonsense. We are too busy exploiting the earth for our own short-term interests, destroying the land and polluting the air and water as we check our bank accounts and ignore the signs around us that, like Joseph’s, is drying up, turning to powder. We need not sacrifice ourselves as Joseph does, cutting our wrists while lying spread-eagle on a huge rock covered with dying moss in the middle of the last remaining green spot for hundreds of miles around. But we could certainly inconvenience ourselves to the extent that we make small sacrifices in creature-comforts to conserve the land and protect the earth upon which we depend for our very lives. Joseph knew that well; we have forgotten it — if we even knew it.

This point was driven home to me recently after reading the World Wildlife magazine in which a feature story spells out the food shortages that will inevitably face the world we take for granted. In that article it was pointed out that, given the expanding world populations and the diminishing food supply, our only hope is to “double the amount of food available” on the earth and its oceans. The article goes on to say,

“By improving efficiency and productivity while reducing waste and shifting consumption patterns, we can produce enough food for all on roughly the same amount of land we use now.”

This, of course, ignores the fact of global warming and the very real possibility that our world, or large portions of it, will no longer be able to produce any food at all. It’s not simply a question of greater efficiency. It’s also a question of reducing the numbers of humans on earth and seeing to it that those who remain take responsibility for it — as Joseph did.

True Freedom

In re-reading some of John Steinbeck’s stories I came across “The Pearl,” which I had not read before. It is a fascinating story, well told, like all of Steinbeck’s stories, and one with a deep and disturbing message.

The story is about a young man, his wife, and their new-born baby who live in a poor village near the sea where the father makes a bare subsistence by diving for pearls. One day the young man, Kino, finds the “Pearl of the World,” a huge pearl that all pearl divers dream of but never actually find. But he has found it and with that discovery his life changes forever. He dreams of the wonderful things he will be able to buy with the pearl. And he dreams that he and his wife will finally be able to be married in the Church and their baby can be baptised. Previously they could not afford this. But with the dreams comes a creeping fear and anxiety. The entire village, and eventually the entire town, learn about Kino’s find and while the villagers are happy for him, there are those who would steal it because if its immense value. Steinbeck carefully creates the atmosphere in which Kino and his family are now living:

“In the brush houses by the shore, Kino’s neighbors sat long over their breakfasts, and they spoke of what they would do if they had found the pearl. And one man said that he would give it as a present to the Holy Father in Rome. Another said that he would buy Masses for the souls of his family for a thousand years. Another thought he might take the money and distribute it among the poor of La Paz; and a fourth thought of all the good things one could do with the money from the pearl, of all the charities, benefits, of all the rescues one could perform of one had money, All of the neighbors hoped that sudden wealth would not turn Kino’s head, would not make a rich man of him, would not graft onto him evil limbs of greed and hatred and coldness. For Kino was a well-liked man;it would be a shame if the pearl destroyed him.”

Kino sleeps uneasily at night and hears evil music in his ears while others from the town plot to steal the pearl. There are several attempts to steal the pearl from his home, which is burned to the ground in the process. After he has returned from the town where he had gone to sell the pearl only to be told it was worthless and offered a fraction of what he instinctively knew was its real worth, he is attacked and kills one of his attackers. With his wife and baby in tow, he leaves the village in the dark of night and heads over the mountains to the city where he hopes to find an honest dealer who will buy the pearl for its true value.

Kino and his family are followed by a man with a rifle on horseback and two professional trackers who eventually catch up with the small and desperate family. After a violent altercation in which Kino kills the man with the rifle, takes it and shoots the other two men, his baby is killed. He and his wife return to the village with their dead son wrapped in a blanket. They walk through the town and the village to the seaside and Kino flings the pearl into the ocean.

The story is fascinating in so many ways. Its message to all of us is crystal clear. Indeed, it almost seems like a lengthy parable from the New Testament. We do not own things; they own us. They take possession of our souls and dictate our feelings and actions; they displace such things as compassion and fellow-feelings, just as Kino can no longer hear the family music and feel in harmony with his world: he hears only the evil music, is anxious, and cannot find peace. Until we free ourselves from the burden of our possessions we cannot be truly free. It’s ironic that so many in our culture are convinced of the opposite: that it is the things we buy that will make us free. But, as Kino discovers, those things bring fear and uncertainty, worry over things unseen and unheard, specters in the night. We bar our houses and change our passwords. We sleep uneasily and we make sure that the doors are locked tight. Kino never felt fear until he found the pearl. He was never free from that fear until he had flung the pearl into the sea. But in the meantime his infant son was killed and his house burned to the ground while he and his young wife lived through a nightmare only to discover that true happiness was theirs before they found the pearl. And it might never be theirs again. As I say, Steinbeck tells a remarkable story that is deeply disturbing in so many ways.

Steinbeck’s Wisdom

John Steinbeck apparently believed that there is some good in all of us — no matter how degenerate we appear. He was fond of writing about the scraps and bits of cast-off humanity that others ignored. In Cannery Row, for example, he writes about a small community of people who are likely to be unnoticed and dismissed as beneath contempt, if not avoided at all costs. The main group of five men, led by Mack, are “bums” in the eyes of most of us. They don’t work unless absolutely necessary — and then only as long as they must. They live with their dog they love too much to train or restrict in any way in a deserted warehouse, called the “Palace Flophouse,” owned by a Chinese man who has decided he is better off letting them live there rent-free than to turn them away and possibly suffer unseen consequences. The only “respectable” character, and the central character in the novella is “Doc,” an educated marine biologist who collects specimens along the California coast, prepares them for dissection and study in America’s colleges and universities, and lives a quiet and sober life among his jars, his books, and his beloved records (remember them??)

Midway through the novella a bizarre incident occurs in which Mack and his boys drunkenly trash Doc’s laboratory and home in their well-meaning desire to throw him a party because he has been good to them; Doc is indeed beloved by all in Cannery Row because he is gentle, caring, and only too willing to put himself out for others. Mack and the boys (“I and the boys,” as he says) feel awful about what their excess of enthusiasm has brought to Doc’s doors — it takes Doc, who arrives after the party is over, a day to clean up the mess they have left behind. Accordingly there is a rift between Doc and Mack’s crew, but it is one they are determined to mend — by throwing him another party (at the suggestion of the madam of the local whore house)! In the meantime, as they go about planning the party in secret, Doc is having a beer with one of his friends and reflecting on Mack and his boys “the Virtues, the Beatitudes, the Beauties,” as Steinbeck calls them; Doc comes up with the following speech which strikes me as worldly-wise:

“Doc said, ‘Look at them. There are your true philosophers. I think,’ he went on, ‘that Mack and the boys know everything that has ever happened in the world and possibly everything that will ever happen. I think they survive in this particular world better than other people. In a time when people tear themselves to pieces with ambition and nervousness and covetousness, they are relaxed. All our so-called successful men are sick men, with bad stomachs, and bad souls. But Mack and the boys are healthy and curiously clean. They can do what they want. They can satisfy their appetites without calling them something else.’ This speech so dried out Doc’s throat that he drained his beer glass. . . .

“‘It has always seemed strange to me,’ said Doc. ‘The things we admire in men, kindness, and generosity, openness, honesty, understanding and feeling, are the concomitants of failure in our system. And those traits we detest, sharpness, greed, acquisitiveness, meanness, egotism, and self-interest, are the traits of success. And while men admire the quality of the first they love the produce of the second.'”

Can I hear an “AMEN”!!??