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Hearing and Humility
Some thoughts on listening, economics, and agriculture
Humility is a kind of listening. It does not come to any person or place and assert its vision, its knowledge. Instead it waits, it observes, it listens. This requires an obedience to the one being listened to and also a patient generosity, a seeking to understand.
Humility begins with listening because it assumes something about our knowing. It assumes that we may well be wrong, that we may well misunderstand the one outside us speaking (be it a person or creature or place). So it is that we have to observe carefully and cautiously. As Richard Powers puts it in his novel The Overstory: “As certain as weather coming from the west, the things people know for sure will change. There is no knowing for a fact. The only dependable things are humility and looking.”
To pay attention to another is to accept that we are incomplete, that we do not in ourselves contain the whole of something. So we have to look elsewhere, we have to look outside ourselves to find our wholeness. The industrial model is that of the planner, the inventor, the factory. It moves from the mind to the draft table to the world. But there is another mode, the agrarian one, in which the good life is found by attending to a particular place, entering into a conversation that requires a back and forth. It is a conversation that begins by watching, looking, listening.
There is a truism circulated in permaculture circles that you should not plant or change anything on a piece of land until you have observed it for a year. In permaculturalist Ben Falk’s book The Resilient Farm and Homestead, he tells readers to go out when a torrential downpour comes or a snowstorm arrives or a drought hits. Watch, pay attention, see your place in different conditions at different times in different seasons. Then, only when you have begun to learn the place, you can begin to cultivate it and change what it was doing on its own.
I have not always followed that advice in my own yard, but I can see its truth and wisdom. There are many times when I rushed to do something, plant something, change my landscape, only to discover later that I hadn’t listened enough first. I often wish I’d paid more attention, watched longer. How much in our world or lives would be different if we’d paid more attention?
The economist Deidre McCloskey believes that the call to humility requires listening because it is a kind of respect for the other. “We should respect in other people what God, after all, has created,” she writes. And we might expand that beyond people to all creatures, all those made by God.
In exploring the nature of this listening, McCloskey appeals to a certain political and economic reality. She believes that capitalism, in its best form, is built on humility. It requires, she argues, a deep listening to the other: “A market depends, does it not, on an imaginative engagement with the customers and suppliers, to feel what they are thinking, to see the witness in them. No wonder the Quakers and the Hasidim have been such good businesspeople. No wonder the rigorously humble Amish are well known as brilliant farmers, within their self-imposed constraints of no tractors and no electricity. An alert businesswoman subjects herself to every neighbor…The business woman’s goods are difficult of achievement, requiring great-souldness, but depend also on listening, really listening, to what people want and the world will allow.”
There is truth here, though capitalism is a tricky word and not one that I would use to name such an attentive economics. An Amish farm has no shareholders other than the family that hopes to sustain itself for generations in a place. This is far from a publicly traded, multinational corporation whose value has become abstracted and whose customers are unknown beyond a set of preferences determined by algorithm. Listening for any human being, any person who is truly close to the ground, has to be carried out on a limited scale—a scale on which we can actually hear.
What McCloskey calls our attention to with the humble listening of capitalist life is perhaps better expressed not through the kind of capitalism commonly expressed on Wall Street, etc., but through the kind of small enterprise that is now typified by the local business and small farm.
For several years, at a time I was trying to make my living as a farmer, I operated a farmers market stand and provided meat to several local restaurants. My scale was small, and I didn’t always have the resources to answer whatever call the market demanded, but I was responsive and could participate in a real conversation with my customers. Over time a mutuality developed in which I listened to them and they listened to me, both of us linked in the interest of the other’s survival--their dinner table and my business.
My own interactions with small businesses in my city were sharpened during the COVID19 pandemic. When it came time to significantly reduce social interactions and many businesses were forced to shut down normal operations, my family asked the question--what do we want to sustain? There was a temptation to turn to Amazon, a company we have long avoided, or other large businesses that could provide fast shipping or even deliver groceries to our door. But guided by the question—what do we want to sustain?—we were able to find a way through. We wanted to sustain our conversation partners.
Another way in would be to ask what losses would we mourn? We found that we would shed no tears over the demise of Amazon or most national chain stores, but we would be sad for the loss of some local restaurants whose owners we knew or our local book store where we were known by name. We wanted to sustain these places because they made our life and the life of our community more pleasant, not only because of the goods they offered, but because of the relationships they fostered. The motto of one of the businesses we decided to buy from is “building community through local food.” That is a motto that all attentive business might have, but it only works if that is a community is a living possibility in the business model. Can community be built through this enterprise? This activity? If listening is a part of it, then I think the answer will always be yes. If not, then no, for no common life or common good can be had without hearing.
This applies, in a similar way, to really listening to the land. Industrial agriculture listens to the soil in a certain way. The agronomist spends a lot of time testing the land and using technologies for applying just the right fertilizers or irrigation or pesticides needed. But this is little better than algorithms or surveys, it is not real and authentic listening, a deep listening that never tries to close down the other. What industrial agriculture does is gather information. Listening is something else—it is seeking to hear.
When I walk around my yard, I know that I will never fully know it. I understand that there is a reality here that will always be more than me, will always be beyond me. And so I am ready for its surprises, I am able to turn my head toward it in wonder. And isn’t that always the best kind of listening? The kind of listening that is not preparing for a response, but is rather amazed to hear something. Who is speaking to us? What word is being offered that we haven’t been humble or quiet enough to hear?