To begin the conversation about the importance of what I’m calling a sense of place, I’m going to lean on Wendell Berry. In his book Bringing it to the Table, Berry exposes – to the harsh light it deserves – the immeasurable offenses against the land at the hands of agribusiness, and the illusion of economic success driven by a politics of economic health which he calls a “paper economy”.
“If agriculture is to remain productive,” he writes, “it must preserve the land, and the fertility and ecological health of the land; the land, that is, must be used well. A further requirement, therefore, is that if the land is to be used well, the people who use it must know it well, must be highly motivated to use it well, must know how to use it well. The single standard of productivity has failed.”
For anyone who might have missed it, Wendell Berry was accorded the 2012, the National Endowment of the Humanities highest honor. Of real significance, I think, he titled his Jefferson Lecture acceptance talk, It All Turns on Affection.
This is my bottom line, not Berry’s. We can’t love a place until we know it, and we can’t know a place until we are willing to open ourselves to its mystery, its intricacies and complexities, its willingness to invite us into conversation, a conversation which require from us such ethical imperatives as paying attention (listening), responding with gratitude and compassion, and a receptiveness to our own roles as servants and conservators. What that requires of us is that we stay put for a good long time, no matter the context – urban or suburban or rural. It takes demographics to a new depth, not only the diverse (or not) human population, but the bio-diverse (sadly not) non-human constituency. It is a constituency, by the way – we all have a voice.
By way of full disclosure, I have come to this understanding of the importance of place as a former nomad, ready to flee for any of a number of provocations. Once I left an apartment by packing my belongings in green garbage bags (33 cubic feet), tossing them out my second floor apartment window, and retrieving them one by one only to stuff them into a Honda Civic that had less storage room than a single bag. Another time, I left a living situation, carrying my familiar garbage bags, but unable to distinguish those which contained my valuables from actual garbage. When my husband Jim and I moved to New Hampshire, now five years ago, we both said – at different moments – “we’ve come home.” Now, those relatively few years later, we are committed to the discovery of what, exactly, that might mean. Fortunately we share in the wisdom of others who know these mysteries far better than we.
I’d like to introduce you to my friend Carol Kortsch, and her own commitment to stay put. This particular effort – the particulars of creating a land held in commons – had to do with the rebuilding of a falling down (ancient) stone wall. During the process of dismantling what had become a fairly hazardous obstacle course, Carol handled each rock, wondering about the hands that had placed it with such care, wondering about the history and geology of the rock itself. She called it her soul work. At the time of this rebuilding, Carol was tired, even exhausted. She was bogged down by the editing of her book, by the physical work required to work her land, and, in particular, by the seeming enormity of the task of rebuilding the wall. Still, she kept on going, engaging in conversation with the rocks of the wall, kept on going until she was utterly confounded by a single rock – where was it to go, how was it to get in place and stay in place? It was clearly quitting time.
Time to sit down, pay attention, and try to learn what there was to learn about her lack of energy, her own fatigue, and her frustration with the project. “what do you have to teach me,” she asked, sitting on the broken down wall, staring at the large rocks in piles at her feet, particularly the one, and suddenly she knew what to do.
That rock was to be the back of a bench, built into the middle of the wall. A place to sit and rest, a place to renew heart and spirit.
I love this story. It speaks to the deep connection and engagement possible when one knows and loves a place. There might have been a time when the notion of being in conversation with a pile of rocks would seem fanciful, bizarre, maybe even alarming. But more and more of us are finding our places. More and more of us are staying put, coming into relationship with the land, water, and air. We can’t love a place until we know it, and it’s from that knowing and love that a new ethic has the chance to emerge.
Scott Russell Sanders, in his book Earth Works, raises the question, “What does it mean to be alive in an era when Earth is being devoured, and in a country which has set the pattern for that devouring?”
Clearly we the humans are the pillagers, and even those of us not taking active part in the removal of mountains, for example, or the drilling in the Arctic or the Gulf, or the bombing of lands far removed from us, or the leaks in the Tar Sands pipelines, or the water contamination from fracking, still benefit from these things. We still use fossil fuels, still pave over animal habitat, still protect our right to drive the cars of our choice.
What are we to do? I think all of us know that we’re called into the work of healing our planet. Some of us are coming to realize that there is no human health and well-being possible without the healing of Earth. Although the United Nations organization, in its Millennium Development goals, does not yet understand that environment justice is not separate and distinct from social justice, poverty, maternal and newborn health, but rather, the ground of all of it, some of us are coming to understand that the first work is that of healing the planet; when we are in right relationship with earth, we will be in right relationship with the denizens of earth, including each other.
Sanders writes, “We are called to the work of healing, both inner and outer: healing of the mind through a change in consciousness, healing of earth through a change in our lives. We can begin that work by learning how to abide in a place.”
We can begin that work by learning how to abide in a place. We can learn to stay put, to know our place, and to fall in love.