An agrarian view of derangement

Sacred Valley, Peru on a sunny day. There are many beauties of nature which must be preserved. Photo by Aaron Spaulding.

“What can cause people to destroy the places where they live, the humans and other creatures who are their neighbors, and ultimately themselves?” 

-Wendell Berry, “The Art of Loading Brush” 

In math, a permutation is a reordering of a set. For example, if Paige Bueckers, Evina Westbrook, Christyn Williams and Aaliyah Edwards were lined up in that order, a permutation of the players would be any re-arrangement of their order, such as if Westbrook and Edwards swapped places and the players were then lined up in the order Bueckers, Edwards, Williams, Westbrook.  

derangement is a special kind of reordering, where every single element in the original ordering has to be in a different position in the reordering. As a non-example, the permutation of the players above is not a derangement, because Bueckers and Williams remain in their original positions even after the reordering. 

The word “derangement” is used in the title of the UConn Reads book of the year “The Great Derangement.” The author, Amitav Ghosh, argues that the problem of climate change is one of wholesale derangement — a “broader imaginative and cultural failure” in our understandings of Nature and catastrophe. While of course Ghosh uses the word “derangement” in the conventional English way, the mathematical definition of derangement is interesting to me because it bridges some of Ghosh’s ideas with Wendell Berry’s ideas. A derangement of a set relocates every single element of that set to a new position; no elements remain in the same position.  In the mathematical sense, a derangement is a complete and total dis-ordering.  

Berry, whose work I wrote about last week and the week before, includes ideas of order as fundamental to his discussions on Nature and environmental degradation. As I wrote about last week, Berry defines order as “the formal integrity by which a kind of creature or workmanship maintains its identity and remains recognizable even as it varies through time, adapting to difference and to change.” He later writes that the integrity of Nature and the integrity of humanity are interdependent. Order in the natural world and in our communities depends on our own personal, cultural and communal integrity — and in turn, integrity in our own cultures and communities is proved by a truthful understanding and preservation of Nature’s order and integrity. 

While they use different language and contexts to do so, both Berry and Ghosh describe a gradual yet significant shift in our cultural view of Nature as a kind of dis-ordering that has justified excessive waste and fragmentation. In one of his essays, Berry follows the work of Western writers over centuries as they move away from viewing Nature with what he refers to as a “practical reverence” to sentimentalizing it and discarding a belief in its, and our own, limits. Ghosh follows this shift in his discussions of the modern novel, and similarly points to “a deification of the human that gave [Nature] an illusory apartness from ourselves.” 

It’s striking that the two writers are so similar in their arguments, because the writers themselves are remarkably different. Berry has lived in rural Kentucky as a farmer for most of his life. He writes from his perspective as a witness to the rapid ecological and economic decline of local ecosystems and communities. Ghosh has lived in numerous cities over the course of his life, and writes from his perspective as a witness to the consequences of reckless urban planning on human life. From both perspectives, calamity is a result of a collective dis-ordering of thought, perspective and imagination.   

I sometimes wonder if we think more in words or in images. I remember wondering this from the backseat of a car while driving through the Andes in Peru two summers ago as I was trying to absorb as much of the natural landscape as possible. Even as I did, I remember realizing that there were still images in my own head of other places I’d been or imagined that were associated with the thoughts in my head at the moment and that were different from the images I was seeing through the car window. Both the external images that I was trying to capture and the internal ones were existing at the same time. Moreover, they were interdependent. My own perceptions of the unfamiliar landscapes were no doubt dependent on my thoughts and frame of mind. Yet the topography of my own thoughts and perspectives was also being altered by those sights — of eucalyptus trees clustered along the road, of the facade of clouds before an upside-down Southern hemisphere moon, of triangular glaciers capping the peaks of mountains you’d have to crane your neck to see the tops of through the car window.  

Ghosh writes in “The Great Derangement” that “To think like a forest … is … to think in images.” Thinking in images can be thought of as thinking of interdependencies — to consider Nature’s order and our collective integrity as being interdependent, and then to act and live accordingly. 

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