6 January 2017 07:47PM
Mark Scherzer


Photo: Beauty in barren bleakness

For every one who said to me in the early days of 2017 “thank God last year is over, I cannot remember a worse year,” there is someone like the friend who recently said, instead, “brace yourself, last year was only the tip of the iceberg.” I would like to think that maybe he was being optimistic, and that he is implying a giant iceberg will emerge from the ocean and counteract global warming. But I don’t think so. His message, I believe, was that we should expect bad times ahead, and I would add that we should all learn to appreciate the joys of commiseration.

Well, joyful commiseration with someone who is a master of the art suits me to a tee. My misery loves company, and Peter would tell you in some ways I love my misery. I seem to be adept at finding the depressing antidote to most positive news. Peter will say, for example, “Isn’t it great that I managed to sell all the pigs?” to which I will respond, “Great, yeah, but on the other hand what will we do without the bacon?” Peter calls these my “Yes, but…” moments. Whenever I respond to a comment he makes with something other than “You’re right” or “I agree”, Peter will ask “Is that a “Yes, but….”? It almost always is.

I even interpose “yes, buts” in my internal dialogues. Just a couple of weeks ago, perusing the New York Times Science section, I came across a small article about how eating a handful of nuts a day is healthful and life-extending. “Ah,” I thought, “a good thing for me. I eat walnuts almost every morning with my breakfast fruit and yoghurt.” But as my eyes drifted up the page, they were naturally drawn to another article, about how being pessimistic shortens one’s lifespan. And I thought, right away, “Yes, the walnuts are great, but this is certainly a concern for me, the unremitting pessimist who always sees the empty half of the glass.” I concluded that it all is likely to average out to an average life span for me, my nut habit counteracted by my pessimism. The good and the bad in constant push and pull.

Indeed in reading the newspaper or hearing the radio news I quickly perceive the negative flip side of good news, sometimes wiping out any comfort I might take. This week’s New York Times Science section, focused to a significant extent on global warming, leads with an article about how soon to be President Trump can do little to stop the transition to renewable energies. The article points out that the forces of economics, which are powering a transition to renewable energy because of its increasingly competitive price, will inevitably triumph over the force of any mere ideology that seeks to return us to dirty coal.This surely is good news for those concerned about global warming.

But then came the “yes, buts”. Because contemplating the power of economic forces is hardly comforting in the big picture. Karl Marx long ago proved that unfettered capitalism on a macroeconomic level leads to overproduction, over-consumption of resources, and wars. The negative effects of market forces on individual actors were amply illustrated just a week ago in the Times food section, in an article about the struggles of small producers of high quality cheeses. http://www.nytimes.com/2016/12/27/dining/american-sheep-cheese.html?_r=0 It seems that small scale high quality cheese production is almost impossible in the American context, where we don’t really subsidize artisanal producers. You must expand your herd to several hundred head in order to break even — one of the most successful sheep cheese producers, the Old Chatham Sheepherding Company, had 1200 ewes in production when it was sold two years ago. Or you can do what some smaller producers are doing and embrace a hormonal technique” to make sheep breed year round, not just in their usual season, and thus to keep a year round supply of sheep milk. But those who do not adopt such strategies are going out of business at an alarming rate, even as more producers continually come into the market.

If fiddling with sheep’s hormonal patterns or transitioning toward mass production are the results of responding to market forces, then it is small comfort that sometimes market forces can have good effects. It’s a big “yes, but.”

In wondering how we will survive the dark times I think lie ahead, I have contemplated whether I can put to good use my instinct for seeing the other side of everything. In good times, while I thought things were on the right track, I most often looked for the negative. But now I’m thinking it’s time to flip the switch and to learn to see the good side of what’s dismal.

I start cautiously, with the political scene. Looking at the nominees for cabinet posts, for example, I see a prospective Education Secretary who does not believe in public schools, a Labor Secretary who does not believe in the minimum wage, and an Environmental Protection Agency chief who does not believe we need to address global warning. Yes, but let’s consider the bright side — there is still no nominee for Agriculture Secretary, and this must mean that the CEO of Monsanto has turned down the post.

Getting more ambitious, I take on bleakness in general, and try to see its positive side, the romantic beauty that lurks there. I am inspired in this effort by our farmhand, Kyle, who has recently taken to snapping nostalgic pictures of winter’s bleak scenes. This week, he shared with me a scene (picture above) of our sheep gathered around their hay manger down by the road, and scrounging for whatever grazing they could through a thin crust of snow. Gray skies, gray sheep, barrenness, and yet there was a certain bucolic beauty to it all. It brought to mind Thomas Hardy’s descriptions of the windswept moors of Wessex, or Van Gogh’s monochromatic pencil drawings of pollard birches in winter. I kept a reproduction of my favorite of this 1884 series on my wall through a good part of my higher education. It depicted rows of pollarded birches with a shepherd and flock walking on one side and a woman with a rake on the other. The trees are bare and dormant,with hardly any sign of life. .https://www.vangoghmuseum.nl/en/collection/d0364V1968 Yet according to the Van Gogh Museum website, the artist saw in these trees evidence that nature too has a soul.

There is a haunting quality to this image, and something even more compelling about its implicit “yes, but” — that in these apparently lifeless trees we can find a soul.

One needs to look through a particular lens to see the beauty and wonder of a bleak bare winter landscape. Contemplating the bleakness of the times we face, I’m working hard at finding and polishing a kind of rose colored lens through which to watch awful events unfold. Yes,But. That’s one alternative. But perhaps we should consider another option: Instead of accepting the bleakness, activate yourself to make beautiful things happen.

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