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The endless project of treating each other generously

By / January 25, 2001



Toward the end of "Hole in the Sky," his 1992 collection of autobiographical essays about growing up on a ranch in Oregon, William Kittredge writes: "Over the years I have tried to understand that love and not justice is the point of things."

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In "The Nature of Generosity," a sort of sequel to that sad, sweet remembrance of a way of life that had wrecked the environment, torn the family, and damaged his own psyche, Kittredge expands and expounds on that profound theme.

The author, who now lives in Montana, gathers ideas and observations from travel to Italy, France, Spain, Peru, and a raft trip down the Colorado River. He weaves in stories and characters from his buckaroo past.

He draws on scores of other writers and thinkers. He tackles the meaning of words, the history of civilization, the injustice of modern society, and the dangers of a globalized economy.

It's as if the Worldwatch Institute's annual "State of the World" report had been written as literary analysis or philosophical treatise. It's a lot to bite off, let alone chew and meaningfully digest in fewer than 300 pages. And yet Kittredge's latest work makes for compelling and provocative reading.

It's a deeply personal ramble that is neither self-indulgent nor dull, an intellectual exercise with many poetic moments, an ardently argued assertion that leaves plenty of room for discussion. We're along for the ride on one man's evolution of thought, and the trip is well worth it. Especially for the landscape we pass through and those he brings into the discussion - poets and scientists and historians, artists and philosophers and musicians.

Kittredge describes this work as "a travel book about combating despair by learning." What he sets out to learn (both in his literal as well as literary travels) is how humankind moved from its hunter-gatherer beginnings through the agricultural revolution to the modern era of "commodification."

"One long-lived result," he writes, "has been the progressive withering of our ability to care much about anybody but ourselves, which has led in turn to a harvest of anomie."

Here, as in his other writings, Kittredge sees the decline of the American "Old West" (its myths as well as its land-based economy - more feudalistic than ruggedly individual) as part of this picture.

By "generosity," Kittredge means "freely driven altruism." In the end, he believes, "we could manage to rethink our strategies, maybe even understand generosity as both an individual and societal route toward survival." In other words, not just for do-gooder reasons but as the expression of our own essence and wholeness - doing good as being well.

Although Kittredge is far from being a religious man in any formal or organized sense, he's expressing here what many of the world's great religions espouse.

"Taking care of life in the broadest sense is absolutely self-concerned," he asserts, and here he's talking about the essential requirement for spiritual as well as ecological sustainability. "We would profit by learning to think of progress as a movement toward sharing, rather than accumulating, and to consider our most central values in terms of our willingness to give."

I have never met William Kittredge. But having read many of his published works, I would not describe him as particularly optimistic. His worldview - obviously informed by his personal wrestlings - is often expressed in a melancholy tone. And yet, there is a hopefulness and expectation here that can be seen as uplifting.

"Generosity is the endless project," he writes. "We are not entirely programmed by drives coded into our genetic makeup and doomed to selfishness. We can turn our lives into gifts. Many have. We can live in accord with our desire to take care - if we want to. That's the simplest version of what I mean to say."

Brad Knickerbocker is on the Monitor staff. He writes from Ashland, Ore.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society