I've been reading a delightful book by a Breton (last name Helias; can't remember his Christian name) about what it was like to grow up on that foggy, rainy peninsula, before the World War. He's writing in the 1970's, long after it has come to him with the weight of nostalgia that that way of life, or, more accurately, that distinctive Breton culture, had nearly disappeared. He mourns this impoverishment, not because he thought that the old ways were all wise and good, all sweetness and light. His chapter-long description of what happens when someone dies is a fascinating study in charity and pride, generosity and selfishness. Who comes to pay respects to the body? Where do the people sit, and who gets to sit where? If you are kin, but you live far away, and you can't afford to leave your farm, what do you do? Who cleans the corpse if it's a man, and who does it if it's a woman? Who's that odd fellow showing up before the priest, singing out prayers of his own half-wild devising? He mourns it, just as we'd mourn a particular friend -- this man here, this Ed with the big ears, or this Joe who never could turn down a bottle of gin; because it was a good thing to live at the same time and the same place where there was this Ed or this Joe, and now the poor slob is gone, and we're the poorer for it.
There's a lot of humor too in the book, some of it lost on the B-minus sociology student who evidently owned it before I did. When the author was a little boy, his grandfather, one of those big-shouldered shambling grandfatherly sorts who knows all things and says some of them, explained to him the difference between the sexes. "Girls are like broom, and boys are like gorse," he said. The broom, he explained, flowers all spring and summer, and has long slender delicate branches that sway in the wind. Girls are like that, he said, and that's why they sweep the broom in the house. Boys, he went on, are hard and spiny like the gorse bush. You can't easily grab them without getting a thorn in your hand. They don't bloom for long, but they're tough, and they stay outdoors, and they brave the elements. So, of course, when the lad and his sister were on the outs with one another, she would call him prickly-gorse, and he would call her finicky-broom, and each thought it was good to be gorse or broom and silly to be the other. Which was, when you think of it, healthy enough, and exactly right. My B-minus sociology student, misunderstanding the anecdote and evidently never having had to do any work to raise calluses all over the hands, wrote at the top of the page, "Gender dichotomy very strict."
Well, I doubt a Breton woman would have looked twice at a young man who said to her, "I'd like to spend most of the day in the house cooking and knitting. You can tend the animals, plow the fields, and chop down trees." The point is that a way of life comes to be what it is because it works, and more than that, because people fall in love with it. It becomes theirs, just as the land is theirs. It's important to assert that this way of life I'm talking about is not describable statistically; it isn't what a certain large number of people do, as if they could reasonably choose to do something completely different. It's a culture, embracing every single person living within it, and all of them together in their families and clans and parishes. Now it may be that the culture that Helias describes could not possibly survive the World War -- and cultures, like Ed and Joe, go the way of all flesh; they are born and they flower, they age and they die. But we ought to shed a tear for them when they die, as we'd shed a tear for Ed or Joe. And we'd hope that one culture would be replaced by another, just as, though Ed may no longer be with us, his grandson Matty is, and right now is standing on the fencepost teasing the dog with a bicycle horn.
What has happened, though, and what Helias could not really penetrate to the heart of, since it is a new thing in man's history, is that a thriving culture dies and is not replaced by anything at all. What comes to the fore instead is not some other thing that we love as if it were permanent, though it isn't, but another thing that we don't care a rat's tail about because it is essentially transient, and so are we. It isn't just that we move about a lot, though we do. It is that we have come to consider permanence of any sort to be an affront to our beings, to our sovereign "choice". Which means that "culture," such as it is, is demoted to a smorgasbord to meet Mike's taste in Bach and Marty's taste in jazz, with nothing really to unite everyone in acts of general love or worship or celebration. Divorce, as I've written in an old article for Crisis magazine, is the sacrament for this new anti-state of affairs.
I'm not the only one, not by far. Wendell Berry writes about it all the time -- writes about how you can't understand rootedness to a place you love and to the "membership" of people who live there without understanding what marriage is all about. In a sense, easy divorce is a function of the more general and heart-dampening transience. We don't tend the land with care; we treat animals as if they were no more than meat-making machines; we ship our children off to day-asylums and then to school, and when they are not at school we leave them in the care of Hollywood; we don't know our neighbors; and we, surprise, surprise, uphold no-fault divorce. That last is the stake in the community's heart. It is transience in the most intimate relation we know on earth. And we raise our children up for it: witness their "relationships," one after the other, ruin after ruin, or worse, lassitude of soul after lassitude of soul, and then they marry, and we expect them to live as if the vows they make really meant something. Somehow we still know that you can't have a coherent community if people are moving in and out of the apartments around you every nine months. Indeed, in that situation people often don't bother getting to know anyone, since transience breeds carelessness and even a kind of noonday sloth of heart. But divorce, and the expectations that common divorce must breed, infects the community at large with that same transience.
Berry calls for an ecology of man to match ecology for -- not the "environment," a mechanistic and neutral word he dislikes -- animals and trees and rivers and hills, and all the beautiful things we live among and usually ignore. As we now ignore one another, along with the tough rootedness of gorse and the elegant sprays of broom, and the orioles singing their unmistakeable measures as I write this. I wish I knew my neighbors as well as I know the orioles.