For years I served as a visiting pastor in a summer chapel on the south coast of Massachusetts. The houses along the beach were enormous, their inhabitants young and wealthy, second houses for most of them.
Although I am not particularly proud of this story, I’ll tell it anyway. I was walking my dog along the beach, staying close to the water, fairly confident that there were a certain number of feet of beach owned not by the residents but by the state. My dog was very interested in the ducks who were hanging out by a pier, shielded from the wind by rocks and concrete. Suddenly a woman began to yell from her porch, “Stay away from my ducks.” I told her they were not likely her ducks, and the experience only went downhill from there, involving an increasing number of property owners on one side, and I and my dog on the other. My dog and I were thoroughly beaten. After some ridiculously childish last retort thrown back over my shoulder, we slunk off. I am even less proud of this: the following summer, as that same sweet dog and I went down to the beach, it was with immeasurable satisfaction that I saw firsthand the tempest of the winter, for all the sand from the beach had disappeared. No more beach. Just a vast expanse of water nearly up to the porches of the houses.
It’s against the backdrop of this story that I want to introduce Wendell Berry’s new novel, A Place in Time. It’s a stunning, tender compilation of twenty stories describing the lives of the many generations of the Port William Membership, a small farming village in Kentucky. Wendell Berry was awarded the National Endowment of the Humanities 2012 award, and his acceptance speech was entitled It All Hangs on Affection. Berry’s premise is simple: if you love the land, you won’t destroy it.
In the story Misery, Andy Catlett, one of the Port William membership narrator of this particular glimpse into the farming life, explains things for us:
Grandpa belonged to the farm, the barns and fields, the pastures and crops, the animals. The farm had been his life, his passion and his trial. The economy of the farm, depending as it did on markets and the money economy, had been during most of his life far less stable and secure than the household economy that depended almost entirely on the place itself . . . But insecurely as the farm had belonged to him, he had belonged absolutely to it.
In the telling of this story, sharing of the story of his Grandpa Catlett, his grandson Andy offers an accounting of the only time his grandpa – in a desperate attempt to make the money he needed to keep the farm going –
planted a field to all corn, plowing more than he knew he should, and it washed badly in a hard rain. He put it back in grass and never plowed it again, and he grieved to the end of his life over the hurt he had given it.
In contemporary culture we speak of belonging in a way utterly antithetical to Grandpa Catlett’s knowing. We say, “I own this land.” “This land belongs to me.” My grandfather owned it before me.” Or, like the above, “This is my beach.” “These are my ducks.”
What would it be like, I wonder, to know ourselves as belonging to earth? How might our behavior be turned on its very head? What would be required of us? How might we come to understand the nature of our role as human participant in earth’s eco-systems?
To belong to the land requires us to be mindful, attentive, observant. This past summer, yellow bush beans were prolific in one section of the garden and not in another other. What was the message? Different soil? Too much nitrogen? Too little? Did I deplete essential nutrients the previous year without thought to replacing them?
Will a newly planted dogwood give me the message next spring that it hasn’t appreciated Carson the rescue dog using its roots in the same way city dogs use fire plugs? And how will I respond with ingenuity? Why didn’t the milkweed blossom this year? Is it true that the butterflies are moving northward? Are there any healthy bats in this part of New Hampshire? Will they inhabit the house we built for them?
The grass, trees, vernal pools, wildlife of all kinds are all giving us messages all the time. Our role is to pay attention and respond appropriately.
So far I’m just scratching the surface.
What might it mean to belong to the land? It means to go out into the woods, walking through the trees, touching, smelling, noticing who has found a home in the bark, who is hiding under this rotted branch, or under this rock. And how old is this rock? What history does this rock boast? It requires being grateful. It requires making friends by name. Have I taken the time to learn to identify Trillium, and to know that to pick one does real harm in the production of its next year’s food? Having made the endangered list, a dubious distinction, I am grateful to find some in the woods to which I belong. Who is this insect?
To begin to know one’s fellow residents and their habitat, to learn of their purpose, their essential contributions to the health of a particular eco-system is to learn to appreciate the complexity and interconnectedness, interdependence of the habitat to which we belong. I believe that to know oneself as belonging to earth – no matter where we live, or move, or travel – is to live thoughtfully and gratefully. Mindfulness, gratitude – marks of the role of servant. We can do no better, in the words of Wendell Berry, than to live with affection.
What might it mean to belong to the land? There is a deeper level still, and it has to do with the completion of the soul, not just mine, or yours, not just the soul of the land, but the soul of all being. A couple springs ago I was standing in my kitchen chopping vegetables for that night’s supper. It was a full moon evening, although the cloud cover would eclipse any lunar sighting. A diffuse mist rose from the earth. The sky had turned lavender, with merest hints of yellow and pink. The white pines and still-naked oaks and maples were stark black against the sky, every bough, every branch distinct. My sense of longing was palpable. I walked out into the evening and knew myself in deep union with the trees, the sky, the mist. I walked in the center of the road, my head thrown back onto my shoulders, the trees directly above me forming a canopy that seemed to grow increasingly protective as the evening darkened. I could hear their song, a deep bass hum, their energy adding resonance to the song of the universe. The universe was alive and in conversation, wondrous and amazing. This is mystery that cannot help but change us, calling to us tenderly and insistently, you belong . . . you belong.
There are other moments, many of them, that my sense of longing for the kind of belonging I just described, equally palpable, cannot find a home within me. I have too much work. I’m on deadline. I am tired. I have to pay bills. The evening sky or the morning sky calls, and I am afraid to go out. I am afraid that I will not come back. If I truly belong to the land, then my life as I’ve built it will have to change.
Here’s what I know, though. Humans have a place of belonging within the universe. It’s just that we haven’t discovered it. In fact, we seem to do pretty much everything we can to ensure that we don’t discover it. If we were mindful of our footfalls, grateful for sun and wind, water and earth, creatures and habitat, trees and insects and the bacteria and fungi which makes everything possible, we couldn’t have the lives we are living. We would have to love from our place within the earth community, not as caretakers or stewards, but as those who belong. From our love would emerge a deep understanding – a soul understanding – of our role and purpose.
It all hangs on affection.