The Nature of Generosity
By William Kittredge
276 pages, $25
William Kittredge grew up in the first half of the last century
in the Warner Valley of southeastern Oregon, a place of great cultural
isolation where, he writes, "The way in was the way out. Sagebrush
deserts on the high and mostly waterless plateaus to the east were
traced with wagon-track roads over rimrocks and salt-grass playas
from spring to spring, water hole to water hole, but nobody ever
headed in that direction with an idea of the future."
Kittredge's friend and longtime colleague in the creative writing
department at the University of Montana, the poet Richard Hugo,
once wrote in an essay: "Given our lean cultural holdings we grabbed
at almost anything that offered escape or amusement." For Kittredge
that meant books. He became a classic autodidact. Even when he was
looking after his family's ranch in his twenties and thirties, he
would wake each day at 4:30 a.m. and put in an hour with a book
before heading out to breakfast with the men who worked for him.
It was a beautiful life for awhile, something near paradise. He
lived in age-old intimacy
with other creatures, watched the huge flocks of waterbirds wheeling
overhead off the swamplands and helped sculpt the valley into a huge
playground garden. But as the ranch's intricate irrigation system
grew ever more complex, draining the swamps and flooding the fields,
the waterbirds ceased to come. Kittredge and the men he worked with
killed badgers with carrots dipped in strychnine; they poisoned coyotes,
and the rodent population exploded. They sprayed 2-4-D Ethyl and Malathion
and Parathion, and they shortened the lives of their fellow creatures
and their own. Family rifts developed. Desperation supplanted caregiving.
And, finally, half-crazy with confusion over how life in paradise
could go so wrong, Kittredge fled toward another dream of what he
could be. "The point of things, I was beginning to sense, was cherishing,
not owning," he wrote in the essay collection Who Owns the West?
In Hole in the Sky, a fine memoir written before the current
fixation with the genre, he put it this way:
Over something like three decades, my family played
out the entire melodrama of the nineteenth-century European novel.
It was another real-life run of that masterplot which drives so
many histories, domination of loved ones through a mixture of power
and affection; it is the story of ruling-class decadence ... that
we reenact over and over, our worst bad habit and our prime source
of our sadness about our society. We want to own everything, and
we demand love. We are like children; we are spoiled and throw tantrums.
Our wreckage is everywhere.
Coming to terms with that wreckage, for Kittredge, is serious
business. But he also has a knack for seeing to the heart of things
with a wry sense of humor. "A Redneck pounding a hippie in a dark
barroom is embarrassing because we see the cowardice," he wrote
in Owning It All. "What he wants to hit is a banker in broad
In his books, Kittredge has fashioned a highly personal and sophisticated
reckoning with the mythic story of the American West. Far from merely
charting the damage, he seems intent on altering the very vocabulary
of his culture. Certain words and phrases appear repeatedly in his
work: "complexity," "actual," "healing," "cherish," "taking care."
His tale is a cautionary one; his project, in essence, is the naming
of those things he has come, through hard-won experience, to value.
"We are what we can say or sing," he writes in The Nature of
Generosity, his most ambitious book to date. Composed as a kind
of montage, it moves across memories of his entire life, ruminations
on his visits to Venice and Machu Picchu and the caves at Lascaux,
and references to perhaps a hundred of the books he has read and
been moved by. Part travelogue, part armchair philosophy, it's an
exercise in what might be called anthropology of the self.
For instance, he quotes Simone Weil's "The Iliad, or the Poem of
Force": "To define force--it is the X that turns anybody who is
subject to it into a thing. The hero becomes a thing
dragged behind a chariot in the dust." He then recalls reading The
Iliad as a young man and tries to see his family's story through
the dual prisms of Weil and Homer. "The pleasures of reshaping the
world had led to betrayal and blood," he writes. "And families,
hired hands, livestock, waterbirds in great flights on a summer
morning--they also become things dragged in the dust behind
the chariot of our ambition to own the world."
Through a sophisticated juxtaposition of scene and quotation, memory
and dream, he advocates what he calls "extreme long-loop altruism,"
or "generosity toward strangers and ways of life we never expect
to encounter as a method of preserving both biological and cultural
Kittredge elsewhere has said that for many years he had little
use for politics. Even after escaping the ranch and beginning a
new life as a writer and teacher, he understood storytelling as
the main endeavor and politics as a dirty, far-off, unconnected
business. But he has come to believe that storytelling is politics,
insofar as stories help us name what we consider invaluable.
In The Nature of Generosity, he finds people spinning narratives
of hopefulness, in ways both practical and philosophical. A neighbor
in Missoula, Doug Bleecker, has transformed an untillable former
junkyard into an intricate garden by planting peppers, beans and
tomatoes in upturned steel drums filled with soil. "Ripening cantaloupe
were suspended high above the ground in old bras donated by women
friends, and blossoming flowers, including seventy-five varieties
of tulips, were interplanted with vegetables in abandoned urinals
At the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colorado,
he listens to a theologian named John Cobb, who believes Europeans
are entering a fourth societal revolution. First came Christianity,
then nationalism, then a widespread belief in capitalism and economic
growth as "a source of worldwide economic coherence." Now, Cobb
says, we're entering a period where "earthism" will become the dominant
ideology, one that puts each of us at the center of a project of
caretaking for the planet and one another.
This will come none too soon. As Kittredge points out--to choose
just one example of the forces arrayed against such a project--industrial
agriculture is precipitating an economic and ecological crisis.
Major food conglomerates now control almost every stage of the production
process, from the patented (and genetically altered) seeds that
grow crops to the finished product on the shelf. They've justified
this in the name of efficiency, yet "the miseries of starving people
around the world are to a great extent the result of inhumane choices
within the market system, while agricultural corporations pretend
this is the very tragedy they mean to prevent."
Here, for the first time, Kittredge writes very briefly about his
other career, teaching. He says that, for one assignment, he asked
his students to drive the commercial strip in Missoula, scrutinizing
billboards and listening to commercial radio. "Their job was to
count the number of times they thought they'd been lied to and tell
me what it meant to them. Most hated the assignment, and I couldn't
blame them. What comfort is found in the idea that we're incessantly
tricked by powerful entities?"
This illustrates what Kittredge does best in his writing, too,
forcing us to see the world through fresh eyes. But the places here
where he slips into a preacher's robe are the least satisfying;
he achieves his most powerful effects through juxtaposition, not
polemic. There's a lovely scene in the Cathedral of Santa Maria
Assunta in Venice, where he stands before several Byzantine mosaics
of Christ and the apostles:
These stern images demanded that I inhabit emotions
they didn't cause me to feel. Hard-edged and formal, they were news
from a world that I had never inhabited, so they remained, for me,
a set of vivid abstractions. Make of us, they said, what you can.
But they were news from someone else's reconciliation with death,
designed to honor a deity who seemed mostly oppressive and thus
emotionally useless to me.
So most of my time was spent at the other end of
the cathedral, studying a twelfth-century mosaic depicting the Last
Judgment ... which brought me to emotions more useful than dread.
Everything depicted there descended through Eve's flowing golden
hair, a cascade of significance reaching downward from Christ's
crucifixion to human dead yielded up from the burying earth and
the digestion of animals and sea creatures, the elect and the damned,
their souls attended to and placed in balance. This, I felt, is
how things actually are, interconnected by a fragile living tissue.
At heart, Kittredge is an optimist. He believes we have it in us
to shape a future where munificence without coercion becomes our
defining impulse. He made his escape from oppressive social structures.
Why can't all of us? "Generosity is the endless project," he believes,
and this lyrical work points the way.
Philip Connors is editor of the literary magazine Croonenberghs'
Fly, whose first issue will be published this spring.