Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Dubuque
October 21, 2018
— James Salter, from Light Years
I talk about America frequently. We read the newspapers and watch media, after all. I’m moreor less obsessed with the idea of your country which has, after all, meant so much to the entire world. I find it very disturbing now to see what ‘s happening. It’s like the sun going out.
A place and a history as vast as America cannot disappear, but it can become dark. And it seems to be slipping toward that. I mean, the utterly blind passions, the lack of moderation—these things are like a fever. Perhaps we’re alarmed over something which has always existed, but I don’t think so quite – a sense that American life for all its surface generosity requires selfishness and isolation, a sense of distance from the rest of the world, a certain life of privilege.
― Peter Matthiessen, from The Snow Leopard
“I grow into these mountains like a moss. I am bewitched. The blinding snow peaks and the clarion air, the sound of earth and heaven in the silence, the requiem birds, the mythic beasts, the flags, great horns, and old carved stones, the silver ice in the black river, the Kang, the Crystal Mountain. Also, I love the common miracles-the murmur of my friends at evening, the clay fires of smudgy juniper, the coarse dull food, the hardship and simplicity, the contentment of doing one thing at a time… gradually my mind has cleared itself, and wind and sun pour through my head, as through a bell. Though we talk little here, I am never lonely; I am returned into myself. …This isn’t what I know, but how I feel- these mountains were my home; there is a rising of forgotten knowledge, like a spring from hidden aquifers under the earth. To glimpse one’s own true nature is a kind of homegoing, to a place …that turns to mist before touching the earth and rises once again to the sky.”
Then, this from a poem by William Riley:
The Earth is alive
With the ecstasy of those
Who dwell forever in a place our spirit knows as HOME
Home is the membrane
That envelopes spirit in the face of character
For only within limits is the infinite real
And only within boundaries is the Earth whole.
Boundary marks the gateway between here and there
Without which PLACE is only SPACE ungrounded
And one space is the same as any other
In a world without PLACES
There is no responsibility for yesterday and tomorrow
If you don’t know where you are, says Wendell Berry, you don’t know WHO you are. Berry is a writer, one of our best, who after some circling has settled on the bank of the Kentucky River, where he grew up and where his family has lived for many generations. He conducts his literary explorations inward, toward the core of what supports him physically and spiritually, by going outward drawn by the earth’s rhythms, landscapes, the earth’s heart that summons the walker and makes him at home: the hills, the colors, the trees all confirm it. The charm of a twisting path among hills, the beauty of vine fields in autumn, like purple and gold scarves, the silvery glitter of olive leaves against a defining summer sky, the immensity of perfectly sliced boulders. He belongs to an honorable tradition, one that even in America includes some great names: Thoreau, Frost, Faulkner, Steinbeck….lovers of the known earth, known weathers, and known neighbors, both human and non-human. He calls himself a “placed” person.
If every American is several people…as some say we are…one of them is or would like to be a placed person, BUT another is the opposite, the displaced person, cousin not to Thoreau but to…say…Daniel Boone, dreamer not of Walden Pond but of far horizons, traveler not to Concord but in weld unsettled places, explorer not inward but outward. Adventurous, restless, seeking, asocial or anti-social. The displaced American…Iowan Wisconsiner…persists by the million long after the frontier has vanished. He…she… exists to some extent in all of us, the inevitable by-product of our history…the New World transient.
He is more common in the newer parts of America…the West, Alaska…than in the older parts, but he occurs everywhere, always in motion.
To the placed person, he seems hasty, shallow and restless. S/He has a current like the Wisconsin River in late summer—wide, yes, but an inch deep. Acquainted with many places, she is rooted in none.
Migratoriness has its dangers, unless it is the traditional, seasonal, social migratoriness of shepherd tribes or of the academic tribes who every June leave Madison or New Haven for summer places in Hayward or Vermont and every September return to their winter range (Or the reverse for our Dubuque and Milwaukee migrants and their WINTER sojourn in the deserts of Arizona.)
Complete independence, absolute freedom of movement, is exhilarating for a time but may not wear well. That romantic we sometimes dream of being, who lives alone in the western or arctic wilderness, listening to the loons and living on moose meat and moving on if people come within a hundred miles, is a very American figure, but not, I think, a full human being.
S/He has many relatives who are organized as families…migrant families that once might have followed the frontier but now follow construction booms from Dallas to Kansas City and then to Verona, or pursue the hope of better times from Michigan to Texas, or retire from a farm in Decorah to St. Petersburg or Sun City, or still hunt for heaven in Sedona, Telluride or Big Sur. These migrants drag their exposed roots and have trouble putting them down in new places. Some don’t want to put them down but at retirement climb into their RV’s and move with the seasons from national park to national park, creating a roadside society out of perpetual motion. The American home is often a mobile home.
I know about this. I was born of such people, people who knew that Indiana could no longer be home and that the creating of a new, fresh, original start in a brash, bold, unknown place was the only way for them. I know about the excitement of newness and possibility, but I also know the dissatisfaction and hunger that result from having no family, no cousins, no enduring, valued sense of place. My parents went to one place and stayed, but their mobile disposition cast a long shadow.
I’ve calculated that in the period of 1958-1973, I lived in 18 different places…not always towns to be sure but different, individual places. And, since then, in perhaps another dozen. For years I never had an attic that proved I had lived anywhere.
The “deep” ecologists warn us not to be anthropocentric, but I know no way to look at the world, settled or wild except through my own human eyes. I know that the world was not created especially for my use, and I share the guilt for what members of my species…especially the migratory ones…have done to it. But I am the only instrument that I have access to by which I can enjoy the world and try to understand it. So I must believe that, at least in perception, a place is not a place until people have been born in it, have grown up in it, known it, died in it…experienced and shaped it…as individuals, families, neighborhoods, and communities…over more than one generation. Some are born in their place…some find it . Some realize after searching that the place the left is the one they have been searching for. But whatever their relations to it, it is made a PLACE by slow accrual, like a coral reef.
Once, as George Stewart reminded us in Names of the Land, the country had no places in it until people had named them…and worn the names smooth with use. The fact, he says, that Daniel Boone killed a bear at a certain spot in KY did not make it a place. It began to be one, though, when they remembered the spot as Bear Run and other people picked up the name and called the settlement by it and when the settlement became a landmark of destination for travelers and when children wore paths through its woods to the schoolhouse or swimming hole. The very fact that people remembered Boone’s bear-killing and told about it, created something of placeness.
NO place, I want to say… is a place until things that happen in it are remembered in history, ballads, yarns, legends or monuments. And fictions serve as well as facts.
Changing everywhere, America changed fastest…I think we’ll all agree…west of the 100th meridian. Mining booms, oil booms, irrigation booms, tourist booms, culture booms such as Aspen and Scottsdale and Santa Fe, crowded out older populations and moved in new ones. Communities lost…still losing… their memory along with their character. For some the memory will be reinstated. For many the memory, too, will be transient…for agribusiness in California and Arizona and Idaho has now created a whole permanent underclass of migrant of dispossessed, totally placeless people who will never have chance to settle anywhere, who will know a place briefly only during the potato or cantaloupe or grape harvest…and then move on.
As with life, so with literature. The “west” has never had a real literary outpouring…a flowering of the sort that marks the Northeast, the Midwest and the South. Much of what has been written is a literature of motion, not of place. [Think of Kerouac’s On the Road.] Oh, yes, we have loving place-oriented books such as Ivan Doig’s This House of Sky where “Time is a strange season, all mist and dusk and half-seen silhouettes, half-heard cries. There is nothing like it in the sortings of .. memory;” and Norman Macleans’ A River Runs Through It, …The river running over rocks from the “basement of time”.
But even while we applaud them and empathize with the sadness, loneliness and anxiety of frontier men and women on the grass-blown hillsides of Montana, overlooking cottonwoods and willows along the Little Big Horn River that Annick Smith describes, they are memorials to places that used to be…not celebrations of ongoing places. They are nostalgic…legends…and when legends fail, we must rely on other stories that tell the truth.
That’s is a curious phenomenon, isn’t it…that nostalgia has marked American writing since Washington Irving and Cooper. From our very beginnings and in the midst of our perpetual motion, we have been homesick for the old folks at home and the old oaken bucket. We have been forever bidding farewell to the last of the Mohicans or the last of the old-time cattle men or the vanishing wilderness. Just…at random…read Willa Cather’s A lost Lady or Conrad Richter’s The sea of Grass, or Larry McMurtrry’s Horseman Pass By. We have made a tradition out of mourning the passing of things we never had time to know…out of movement without a place.
Freedom, especially free land, has been largely responsible. Nothing in our history has bound us to any single piece of and. In Ireland, for example, Yeats tells us “There is no river or mountain that is not associated in the memory with some event or legend…Irishmen even if they have gone thousands of miles away would still be in their own country” places J.M. Synge visited – perches of limestone over the Atlantic, the people and the wind and sea battered Inishmaan.
America is too big, too new for that kind of universal recognition, so perhaps we accept local color, the picturesque…and then lament its passing. Robert, the anti-hero of Liam Callanan’s Paris by the Book says “I got as close as I could to the bubble of being in place without popping it…and then [when] it seemed like some sort of fixed equation, I left, and writing, art, LIFE became possible again. I wasn’t looking to drown [all by myself], but I wasn’t looking to stay or come back either…..”
No, indifferent to or afraid to commit ourselves to our physical and social surroundings, always hopeful of something better, hooked on change, a lot of us have never stayed in one place long enough to learn it, or have learned it only to leave it.
Back, then, to Wendell Berry and his belief that if you don’t know where you are, you don’t know who you are.
He is not talking about the kind of location that can be determined by looking at a map or a street sign. He is talking about the kind of knowing that involves the senses, the memory, the history of a family or tribe. He is talking about the knowledge of place that comes from working in it in all weathers, making a living from it, suffering from its catastrophes, loving its mornings or evenings or hot summer noons….or ice and snow, valuing it for the profound investment of time and labor and feeling that you, your parents, your children…your all but unknown ancestors…have put into it.
I doubt that we will ever get the motion out of the American, for everything in our culture of opportunity and abundance has, up to now, urged motion on us. Our tradition of restlessness will not be outgrown in a generation or two, even if the motives for restlessness are withdrawn. Still, it is probably time we settle down. It is probably time we looked around instead of looking ahead. We have no business, any longer…despite the imperial and messianic impulses of those whom we’ve elected to lead us…to being impatient with history. We need to know our history in greater depth.
Earlier this summer, four books came out in rapid succession: The Splintering of the American Mind: Identity Politics, Inequality and Community on Today’s College Campuses by William Egginton; The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good intentions and Bad Ideas Are Setting Up a Generation for Failure by Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt; Identity: The Demand for Dignity and the Politics of Resentment by Francis Fukuyama, a Japanese-America, and The Lies That Bind: Rethinking Identity – Creed, Country, Color, Class, Culture by the Ghanaian-British-American philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah.
Each asked the same questions albeit in very different ways: Who Do We Think We Are? Who Am I? To What Do I Belong? And all asserted that we’re battling over the answer because we keep answering in the same (mistaken) ways exaggerating our differences with others and our similarity with others of our own kind. We still think of ourselves as part of monolithic tribes lined up against other tribes, promoting the interests of a variety of groups, each one of which perceives itself as marginalized and dismissed and each redefining itself as patriots who seek to protect the true national identity, each clutching, with no little rage and suffering, a piece of the whole, a place on which to stand firm.
Even at that, I’m not, nor are you, beyond the world shaken by the depth and duration of suffering of our time: The “human flow,” as Chinese artist Ai Weiwei, describes the grim circumstances and future hopes of the more than 65 million refugees worldwide, driven from their homes by starvation, war and ethnic oppression, their very journey a test of the soul’s resilience, rearranging life, every inch forward a reminder of life’s uncertainty, impermanence, of the frailty of the present , the mutability the moment.
You can sometimes look at a stranger and recognize yourself reflected in that other life, impossibly alive, walking through the splash of a splendid sun while trying to spin free of a lingering darkness.
I thought of this a week back.
I had been at a philosophical/theological, epistemological/political (whe!) conference on the theologian Bernard Lonergan across town at Marquette University. It was a challenging mixup of paradigms and strategems. I was totally beyond my depth. My head throbbed. I thought I was breaking apart. I stumbled out of the hall and headed to the one place I knew I would be welcomed: Starbucks. I order the usual steaming bitter-bold brew of the day. The place began to empty and a new set of patrons, students mostly, streamed in. A hand-held DJ near me started to spin his Spotify against the slowly clouding sky outside. From my table next to a large window, I gazed through my own reflection to the flow of pedestrians and motorists
I saw a young man getting ready to cross a busy intersection. The glow of a late afternoon drapes him in an orange sheet, lying across his shoulders and accenting his face. East African, Eritrean or Ethiopian with slender frame, delicate features, large eyes. His gait is a series of cautious, jagged steps forward. He appears frightened, overly sensitive to those around him, as if he is trying to coil inside himself, shrink enough to avoid being touched.
Pedestrians amble past on the narrow sidewalk, casting long shadows in the golden light of early dusk, caught up in their private conversations, lost in the steady rhythm of their exchanges, unaware of the young man I watch.
They do not realize that he is picking up speed behind them, his body stiffening with each step. He bends forward at the chest, slightly at first, then as if he might tip from his own momentum, then suddenly he is a wild wayward figure careening carelessly, distracted. As abruptly, he stops, stands immobile, slightly stunned as cars screech to a hold and motorcyclists slow. Traffic waits for him to move. Instead, he begins to gesture, a conductor leading an invisible orchestra. His bony arms bend and extend propelled by an energy, each sweep of his hand pulls the rest of him upward then twists him in an awkward circle. Observors pause, shake their heads, walk on by, angle around him, no more than another urban disturbance, unremarkable.
There is a strange rhythm beginning in his gesture, an erratic dance that leaves him desperate to keep pace. He spins, flings his arms, throws up a hand and snaps his wrist, closes a palm over one ear, listens to his own whispers, frowns, smiles, laughs alone, twirls and catches a stranger’s stare. There is anger in his spastic energy, sorrow in his eyes. He is breaking up I say to myself, doing all he can to keep himself together.
I have come to the café to escape the day’s barrage of cognitive/conceptual complexity , to find a space where I can unhindered, alone, in solitude, free from noise. I put my head down and in my notebook I write. “You did not leave home like this.”
I look up. He young man has gone and yet I am tethered to him Without his looking at me, our lives unfold and in front of us are the many roads we have taken to get to this intersection Wisconsin and 17th Street, downtown Milwaukee and we are what we are: a “displaced” old man, an immigrant man, black, white, both strangers in a strange land, not entirely of our making, a place uncertain, silent in the face of mystery.
It has been said that history was part of the baggage we threw overboard when we launched ourselves into the New World. We threw it away because it recalled old tyrannies, old limitations, galling obligations, bloody memories. Plunging into the future, however, through a landscape that had no history for us, we did both the country and ourselves some harm along with the good.
“The land was ours before we were the land’s” says Robert Frost’s poem. Only in the act of submission is the sense of place realized and a sustainable relationship between people and earth established.
Two places- one outside the self, the other within. The external space, the one we see-not only the line and color of the land and its shading at different times of the day, but its plants and animals in season. Perhaps a black-throated sparrow on a Joe Pye bush… the smell of the creosote bush….all elements of the land, its weather, its geology… that tangible evidence by which we sense the place
The second place, an interior one, a kind of projection within a person of a part of the exterior: Relationships that are named and discernible, a sequence of vaction spots, owned autos, mortgaged homes on Grandview, perhaps; others uncodified or ineffable, winter light falling on pavement, or the frequency of a cardinal’s burst of song….the tone and character of each deeply influenced by where on this earth one goes, what one touches, the patterns one observes around, the intricate history of one’s life in the land, even life in the city shaped by tire-screech and siren and the twisting spine African man..
Thoughts arranged, further, according to the thread of one’s moral, intellectual, and spiritual development.
The interior landscape responding to the character and subtlety of an exterior landscape; the frame of the mind, affected as by land as by genes.
Each of us order his interior landscape according to the exterior landscape, in part, a spiritual invocation of the order of the exterior universe, that irreducible, holy complexity that manifests itself as all things changing through time.
The young man I saw earlier is gone now, and in his place, routine and repetition have stepped in. Still, I know, that neither the country nor the society we built around us can be healthy until we stop raiding- running-tormenting-judging and learn to be quiet…simple…(part of the time, at least)…and acquire the sense not of control but of belonging.
I have neither time nor the inclination to tell you where my place-finding journey has taken me. Enough to say that all too often over the unnerving years, I have felt slow-witted and tongue tied and hopelessly square in comparison with the bright and articulate and quick on their feet. All too rarely, I regret to say, has my search taken me to a sacred and profoundly silent place inside myself where it is less that I pray than that, to paraphrase St. Paul, the Spirit itself prays with me and for me “with signs too deep for words.” (Romans 8:26)
I cannot claim that I have found the place…the wholeness… I long for every day of my life, not by a long shot. I do not arrive the same at day’s end as when I left morning coffee on the counter…nor do you, I suspect.
To be out of place, the way people like you and me are apt to be, is to have potential places all over the place but not to be really at home in any of them. But, I believe that, in my heart, many of us have found, and have maybe always known, the way that leads to it.
There is a truth that underlies not just the evening news of the world but the news of every one of our days. There is a place which exists both within us and among us as we wend our prodigal ways through the world in search of it, a place alive with the ecstasy of those who dwell forever in a place our spirit knows, a membrane…that envelopes spirit… within the infinite real… within boundaries of this Earth made whole.
May each of us and all of us find it to be so.