Here’s the sad thing about daily life. There’s no “there” there anymore.
Americans now come of age in “a vague landscape sculpted in part by corporations,” says the Kentucky poet, philosopher and essayist, Wendell Berry. And we are suffering from a loss of identity as well as a loss of place. “Part of manners used to be to say to somebody you just met, Where you from?” Berry adds. “And I quit asking it, because so many people say they’re from everywhere or nowhere.”
The architecture critic Ada Louise Huxtable described the changes in our towns in the 1960s with a single phrase: “Hello, Hamburger, Goodbye History.” In the 90s, NPR’s Prairie Home Companion fed our longing for steady and unchanging home with Lake Wobegone Days, a fictional place where things happen at a nearly hypnotizing pace: Florian Krebsbach drives a ’66 Chevy with only 42,00 miles on it. Each turn of his life is taken in slow motion. This deliberate pace seems to satisfy him for when he looks at Main Street and at his wife, “he sees them brand-new like his car.” Life doesn’t come in fits and starts, it flows like an underground stream. It’s not just place, but pace, that’s different.
Berry is the bard of rural America, of the disappearing fields and furrows, of the kind of farming that was done by hand with an almost arcane knowledge of the local soil. “In the old days you didn’t go to school to study agriculture,” he says. “You knew that every nook and cranny of a field was different, and so you spent a lifetime trying to get to know a single farm.”
But it’s not just the farmland that’s disappearing. It’s our understanding of each other. “Where are you from?” is just like asking “Who do you love and what do you value?” It’s a question that tells us a lot about who you are and what you care about.
“Where are you from?” is a question that makes you consider your youth, your first love, your sense of home, your deep affection for some portion of this world.
The problem is that America became a nation long before it had the change to know itself as a land. Even so, Berry reminds that every town or region once has its own unique spirit—and we’ve lost so much of that by turning our open spaces into strip malls and parking lots.
In a recent interview with Amanda Petrusich for The New Yorker, Berry tells us we can go back home again. How? Unplug your devices, look around, and get to know your neighbors. Learn the history of your region and find out what grows there.
This heartfelt conversation is a primer in how to reclaim our sense of home. Print it out and keep it by your bedside so you’ll wake up each morning, appreciating where you live. For an extended elegy on our relation to the land, read Berry’s Collected Poems. “The way I go/is marriage to this place/grace beyond chance,/love’s braided dance/covering the world.”
Deep Dive: If you care about the food your region produces, read about The Berry Center’s Whole Horse approach to farming that “takes nature as its measure, consults the genius of the place, and accepts no harm to the ecosphere.”