John de Graaf, A Conservative for Our Time
By all accounts, including his own, Stewart Lee Udall (1920-2010) was an unabashed liberal. And without doubt, he believed that government could improve lives, a philosophy that came from watching the New Deal transform his hometown of St. Johns, Arizona, bringing electricity and running water to scores of poor ranchers and farmers. This belief motivated his long public service as the Interior Secretary under Presidents Kennedy and Johnson, and in recognition of his influence, his name now adorns the Department of the Interior building in Washington D.C.
But after a year of research into Udall’s life and work to develop my upcoming documentary film, Stewart Udall and the Politics of Beauty, I have come to believe that Udall was actually in many ways, a conservative whose creative ideas may help point America’s way forward in a turbulent, polarized, and destructive time. Above all, Udall was devoted to conserving the land and the beauty of the American landscape. He believed they were fragile, endangered by so-called “progress.” Our future was dependent on their care and protection.
Beth Tilston, Literacy of the Fingers
The leaven is sour with me when I get it out of the fridge after its five month holiday. There is an inch of dark hooch on the top. I pour it off, confident that I know how to sweeten it up. For four days I get rid of half and feed what’s left with warm water and rye. It bubbles over the top of the jar in appreciation.
Back at my desk, starting to write this essay, I think back to my first sourdough loaf. It was dense, wholemeal, overly-acidic from being left to prove for days. It was made at the start of what I have come to think of as my ‘apprenticeship of the hands’. The apprenticeship started after I had emerged, idea-battered, from a master’s degree in English Literature. My degree certificate told me that I had a distinction, but all I felt qualified to do was to build castles in the air. This was 2008; the year that everything broke. I looked at myself and realised that I could write 20,000 words on the Derridean idea of the archive, but I couldn’t bake a loaf of bread. I was an expert in frame narratives but I felt completely unable to look after myself. Theory-sick, I turned my back on the world of ‘thinking’ and embraced the world of ‘doing’. And I found that I was terrible at it.
How did this happen? How had I reached the age of 28 without being forced to develop at least some practical skills? The short answer is, it was allowed to happen; in fact, it was encouraged. Despite gardening and cooking with my mum as a child, despite helping my dad to put the family’s collection of bikes in good order, I was given a strong message by the society I grew up in that the head ruled the hands. That the thinkers of the world were superior to the makers and the menders. Two millennia on from Aristotle, we had indeed made the architects more estimable than the artisans. It suited me fine: I was good at being a thinker.
This mind-body problem has a long philosophical heritage. René Descartes grappled with the idea in the seventeenth century and came up with the notion that we now know as Cartesian dualism. Descartes thought that the mind and the physical brain were two separate entities. In his view, it was the mind that was the seat of intelligence rather than the brain. It was the mind that was conscious and self-aware. He did concede though that whilst mind and matter are separate, they are irrevocably linked. The mind cannot exist outside of the body – and the body cannot think. This, I think, is the view that many of us hold of ourselves: disembodied, thinking minds encapsulated in dumb meat. It explains why it seems logical to raise the mind above the meat.
As the machine age has progressed, the number of things that we are required to do for ourselves has gradually shrunk. Thanks to machines, and – crucially – to abundant oil, 21st century Man (unlike any of his ancestors) is now able to blithely declare himself ‘not a practical person’. Unhandy Man has been born. We live in a culture which has turned us into children, unable to look after ourselves, unable to decipher even where to start. Practical skills are often spoken of now as if they possess some sort of magic that only a few salt-of-the-earth folk can master. Continue reading