On Monday night, Jonathan, some friends, and I went to see Wendell Berry––one of my favorite writers––give the Jefferson Lecture at the National Endowment for the Humanities. I’ve been reading Berry since college, when I wrote my International Development senior thesis on his views of development. A farmer-poet-essayist with an uncompromising belief in the importance of “place,” he’s always read like a prophet in our industrial, overly digitized age.
The speech’s title: it all turns on affection. He began by citing Wallace Stegner, who said that Americans can be divided into two kinds: boomers and stickers. Boomers motivated by greed, power, money; stickers motivated by affection for the life of a particular place.
For an hour and a half, I sat on the edge of my seat as he railed against the “incomplete accounting” of our economy (ie. economics that ignore what is lost in the pursuit of wealth and gain); as he pointed out the increasing remoteness of our world (remote control, remote entertainment, remote war); as he cited our increasingly statistical knowledge, as opposed to knowledge gained through relationship and story; as he implored the audience to pursue things on not a global scale, but a human scale (quoting E.M. Forster, he said, “It is the vice of a vulgar mind to be thrilled by bigness.”)
I love Wendell Berry, and I align with most all of this––but there’s a nagging thought I can’t shake when confronted with such a severe view of place. Where in this worldview is there space for travel, for encountering other peoples and cultures, for being stretched outside familiarity? Perhaps not being “thrilled” by bigness, but at least confronting the bigness of the world so as to recognize our own smallness. It’s something I need to reconcile, as someone living in a city that is not my place who also believes in the importance of travel. I think back to the some of the places I’ve been––how those places, in some way, became a part of my place, my story. Not my place or home, but certainly places I have a deep affection for.
The National Cathedral from my rooftop in DC
“Imagination,” Berry said, “thrives on contact, on tangible connection” and we must imagine being able to live in a place without destroying it. Maybe it’s that contact––that tangible connection with the world––that builds an appreciation for the world, a desire to preserve rather than destroy. And ultimately that gives us an appreciation for our place, no matter how small, that knows us and that we know: home.
Read Wendell Berry’s whole lecture here.
Read “Manifesto: The Mad Farmer’s Liberation Front,” by favorite Wendell Berry poem.
Question: What’s your place? What does “place” mean to you?