Limitations, Faustian Economics, and a Goose Egg

May 4, 2023 | Heath farm | 1 comment

If the idea of appropriate limitation seems unacceptable to us, that may be because, like Marlowe’s Faust and Milton’s Satan, we confuse limits with confinement. But that, as I think Marlow and Milton and others were trying to tell us, is a great and potentially a fatal mistake. Satan’s fault, as Milton understood it and perhaps with some sympathy, was precisely that he could not tolerate his proper limitation; he could not subordinate himself to anything whatsoever. Fausts’ error was his unwillingness to remain “Faustus, and a man.” In our age of the world it is not rare to find writers, critics, and teachers of literature, as well as scientists and technicians, who regard Satan’s and Fausts’ defiance as salutary and heroic.

On the contrary, our human and earthly limits, properly understood, are not confinements, but rather are inducements to formal elaboration and elegance, to fullness of relationship and meaning. Perhaps our most serious cultural loss in recent centuries is the knowledge that some things, though limited, can be inexhaustible. For example, an ecosystem, even that of a working forest or farm, so long as it remains ecologically intact, is inexhaustible. A small place, as I know from my own experience, can provide opportunities of work and learning, and a fund of beauty, solace, and pleasure – in addition to its difficulties – that cannot be exhausted in a lifetime or in generations.

Faustian Economics, Wendell Berry 2006

I came across this essay back in January 2023 while sitting in a familiar corner of the pediatric surgery waiting room. My oldest daughter was undergoing a long awaited surgery that would, hopefully, improve her independence and quality of life. I earmarked the page because my frazzled brain knew that seeing the positive in limitations was important for me to chew on later when I had caught up on sleep, had more energy, and had finally renewed my mental reserves.

It has been a few months since that surgery and I’m sad to say the hoped for results have not been realized. Instead, we’ve had multiple trips to the children’s hospital hours away, an ER visit which included an unplanned surgery, and then another surgery to correct for the ER surgery. I’m sure it comes as no surprise for you to hear that my anticipated increased sleep, energy, and mental reserves are nowhere to be seen.

Meanwhile time marches on. Our pastor family has been preserved through the rigors of Lent despite constant illness. We are only a handful of weeks out from the our last frost date so indoor tomatoes, eggplants, and pepper seedlings need to be hardened off in order for us to fill the Zions Harvest basket shares. Meat chicks arrive today and a brooder needs to be set up. Broodina the duck will likely hatch out her first clutch later this week. Another order of chicks is due next week. The goats need to be rotated on pasture. Another garden bed, or two, or three, should be set up. A barn cat slipped in and had her kittens on my daughter’s bed. I can count the weeks that we’ve been puke-free this year on one hand. There is so much laundry.

Being faced with limitations seems to always loom large in the mundane tasks filled with child rearing, homeschooling, laundry, meals, cleaning, etc., and I can’t help but wish for unlimited resources. I began the practice of rereading the Faustian Economics article in full every week, hoping that the wholesome teaching would be inwardly digested. Yet at the same time I felt my limitations stronger than ever. Wouldn’t it be lovely to have unlimited patience? To have unlimited time! To be able to reach into unlimited funds, employ unlimited enthusiastic staff to fulfill endless possibilities! Here is where I catch myself thinking precisely as Berry warned against, seeing limitations as confinement instead of opportunities for formal elaboration and elegance.

A little farther on in the essay Berry claims “We must learn again to ask how we can make the most of what we are, what we have, what we have been given.” And later still he says “To deal with the problems, which after all are inescapable, of living with limited intelligence in a limited world, I suggest that we may have to remove some of the emphasis we have lately placed on science and technology and have a new look at the arts. For an art does not propose to enlarge itself by limitless extension, but rather to enrich itself within bounds that are acceptable prior to the work.” For a fleeting moment I thought I’d explore Berry’s concept by leaning into art in some way, but I quickly squashed that thought because where would I start? With what energy? With what time? I have no art experience or training, and just the thought of trying my hand at anything frivolous and artistic pulled my limitations back to the forefront of my mind. I dismissed the impulse out of hand and went to change the laundry.

Then our goose Gladwin laid her very first egg, and there was much rejoicing in the Heath household. Hooray. There was constant admiration for the shape, the sheer magnitude, the magnificence of this egg. What to do with it? Would it become a fleeting, though admittedly delicious, omelet, or could it be something more lasting, something enriching? Because the Berry article was fresh on my mind, I saw a small blank canvas, quite limited in size, but inexhaustible with possibility. Having such a small work surface gave me hope that here, perhaps, was a project that was just the right size for my season of life. A tiny work of art that could fit in the palm of my hand.

After a few practice attempts with some of our duck eggs, I blew out the goose egg to preserve it. I dug through the homeschool cabinet and uncovered a discarded sketch book with a few blank pages, a few old paint brushes, and a box of acrylic paints. I sketched out a few ideas and then put my hand to practice what Wendel Berry shared, and I discovered that he was quite right. Starting with who I am, with what I have, and with the tiny snippets of time tucked around the tasks of the day, I was able to make the most of what I have been given on our small place. Even our single acre of land, boasting two geese and a few goose eggs, supplies opportunities of work and learning, and a fund of beauty, solace, and pleasure that cannot be exhausted in a lifetime or in generations.

1 Comment

  1. Wendy Payton

    As Alvin would have said, your blog and your egg art are “very worthwhile” (a favorite word of this gentle man who used that word as a high compliment.)



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