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Readings

Reviewed by Mark Busby, March 2, 2001, Books

The Nature of Generosity

by William Kittredge

Knopf, 276 pp., $25

Toward the end of his new, eclectic book The Nature of Generosity, Montana writer William Kittredge considers the death of artist Piet Mondrian and concludes: "Facing death, we can feel about to be cut out and excluded from the feast of being, and angrily eager to defeat loss in an effort to heal ourselves, or else we can enjoy having been included, suffering the fate of being part of everything." So this new book also seems to be a wide-ranging gift to the world of the fruits of Kittredge's lifelong journey toward celebrating the joy of being part of the commons of life. Part travel book, part memoir, part literary analysis, part jeremiad, The Nature of Generosity is mainly a philosophical journey through the world that the vastly curious Kittredge has inhabited in an attempt to tell his story about how he reached his ultimate conclusions about the human need to recognize biological diversity and natural interconnectedness.

To get there, Kittredge, usually with his wife, writer Annick Smith, ranges from his family's vast ranch in Oregon to Venice to the Andalusian hills of García Lorca to the caves at Lascaux (which provide the cover image) to Peru's Machu Picchu. Over the years in a series of memoirs (Hole in the Sky and Owning It All), Kittredge told how his family, committed to a view of the natural world as space to be used for human aggrandizement, drained the swamp and became wealthy but in the process destroyed an ecosystem and exploited workers. There in the Warner Valley, the young Kittredge learned to value the deep human cooperation that his father's cowboys taught and, later, to question his family's treatment of the world. Those same stories are here too, but now Kittredge uses them mainly as a springboard into large, universal questions of human selfishness.

Organized into four large sections -- "The Old Animal," "Agriculture," "Commodification," and "Generosity" -- this book moves from prehistory to the future with the central focus on how humans confront the old question of how to use nature without using it up. Kittredge concludes that humankind must develop what he calls "extreme long loop altruism," a belief in a form of generosity without the immediate pragmatic sense of personal benefits. To achieve this goal, Kittredge believes, we must develop new stories that dramatize this value. To that end, Kittredge tells the stories of diverse people and places, touching upon theories of the formation of ancient societies, tracing the change from hunter-gathering to agricultural societies, speculating of the reasons for cave art, and more.

Kittredge moves easily from his background in Oregon to his experience teaching at the University of Montana to his travels around the world and his wide-ranging reading. He quotes such diverse writers and thinkers as E. O. Wilson, J. M. G. Le Clezio, Richard Dawkins, and Terry Jordan, which suggests that Kittredge, approaching age 70, wants to wrap up all that he has learned and present it to his readers. His special heroes are writers who have committed to human generosity, writers such as Walt Whitman, who wrote of democracy and cared for wounded soldiers during the Civil War; Federico García Lorca, who was executed during the Spanish Civil War; and Pablo Neruda, who, influenced by the death of Lorca, returned to his native Chile and wrote for the masses.

But Kittredge does not always stay in the realm of philosophy. In the "Commodification" chapter, he takes out after international conglomerates with an attack that rivals the World Bank protesters lining the streets of Seattle last year. For some, these chidings will sound tedious. Kittredge's voice is surest when he uses his own specific stories to make his large points. Ultimately, it is not his cautionary finger-pointings that compel this book; rather, it is the largeness of his spirit. Calling for new "cautionary" or "celebratory" stories that stress the need to suppress self-interest and embrace altruism, Kittredge offers this book with its stories that provide clear examples of the nature of generosity.

In these early days of George W. Bush's "compassionate conservatism," Kittredge's book presents a large-hearted look at something well beyond political sloganeering. He makes a call for a human commitment to forgo selfishness and pursue generosity toward one another and towards the earth, and he makes a strong case for believing that without it, humankind will not survive.


Mark Busby is the director of the Center for the Study of the Southwest at Southwest Texas State University. His first novel, Fort Benning Blues, will be published in April.

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