As a child growing up in Virginia, Ashfield writer Preston Browning accompanied his mother often on charitable visits to the poor.
“It was her Christian values that prompted her to visit the neglected and poverty-stricken people of our county, bringing them sometimes food, sometimes clothing, sometimes a little money,” Browning says, adding that another of his mother’s important contributions to those she visited was, “Simply a reminder that they were not forgotten.”
These experiences, combined with the sermons he heard on Sundays, led Browning to develop early on the passion for social justice that pulses through his new book of essays, “Struggling for the Soul of Our Country.”
Recently published by WIPF & Stock of Eugene, Ore., Browning’s book gathers together 10 essays that address social injustice, the connection between capitalism and climate change, the corruption of American politics by money, America’s culture of violence, the addiction of consumerism and other topics.
Guided by his Christian ethics, Browning synthesizes diverse scholarly research in these essays, expressing the love and rage he feels toward America, a country he unhappily feels does not often live up to its professed values of freedom and democracy.
I sat down with Browning at Wellspring House, a retreat for writers and artists in Ashfield, just days before his 87th birthday. He and his wife, Ann Hutt Browning, founded it in the late 1990s.
Ann Hutt Browning was the subject of my first poetry column in 2010, so there’s a satisfying symmetry to the coincidence that Preston Browning should be the subject of this first Local Writer Spotlight.
In a soft yet insistent tone, inflected with the manners and accent of his Virginia upbringing, Browning delivers a harsh critique of American culture.
“I’m very concerned about, and write about, the lack of genuine meaning in this ‘consumer’s paradise,’” Browning says.
In one essay Browning writes, “The capitalist marketplace, which in its present form can not exist without manufacturing endless, insatiable desire, inevitably leads to an addictive society.”
Like any addict, the addicted consumer ends up feeling what Browning calls a “spiritual emptiness.”
And America’s form of rampant, “relentless” capitalism — putting individual and corporate profit over the needs of the people — has led us directly to the environmental crisis we now face, Browning believes.
“The fossil fuel industries are simply destroying the future, and the future of our grandchildren,” Browning says.
“The seas are rising,” he says. “And they’re going to rise a heck of a lot more, not just by feet, but by yards. Already inhabitants on South Sea Islands are having to leave their ancestral homes because their islands are being covered by the ocean.”
Some of the world’s poorest peoples will be affected the most, Browning says, as migrations brought on by flooding, drought and other environmental disasters create conflicts between people competing for dwindling resources.
The situation is dire, but Browning takes heart in Pope Francis’ call to action, agreeing with the pontiff that the climate change crisis can provide a rallying point for millions to find significant meaning for their lives, working toward what Browning calls, “an economy of grace,” in which the sanctity of the earth is respected and all of its inhabitants provided for.
In the book’s fourth chapter, Browning departs from the usual essay form and writes a moving “Letter to My Grandchildren,” in which he apologizes for his generation’s part in the environmental destruction we’re now facing and urges his five grandchildren to join the campaign to save the planet for future generations.
“If they are able to commit themselves to the struggle for economic justice and for climate justice, then they can discover meaning in their lives and they can be transformed,” Browning says, speaking not just of his own grandchildren, but anyone willing to take on the struggle for what he sees as nothing less than our country’s soul.
A launch for Browning’s book, postponed in order to coincide with an annual Browning family reunion, will be held Friday, Aug. 12, at St. John’s Episcopal Church, Main and South streets in Ashfield.
In the meantime, the book is available at Elmer’s Store and Ashfield Hardware and Supply, or by contacting Browning at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The cost is $25 plus $3 shipping.
Trish Crapo is a writer and photographer who lives in Leyden. She is always looking for Pioneer Valley poets and writers, or books published by a Pioneer Valley press, to feature in her columns. Crapo can be reached at email@example.com.