Ryan J. Lanier
Our place possesses a certain beauty that cannot be found anywhere else. It contains a particular element that makes it distinct from any other place in the world. It has a familiarity that nonetheless brings surprises when you carefully consider it. As with anything familiar, our place in life brings a certain comfort that nowhere else can provide. Our place provides our connection to family, friends, community, and our jobs. While place is never perfect, it shapes us like nothing else in the world.
Place is more than the physical location that we inhabit at any particular time. Rather, it is where our roots are found. Place provides the foundation for who we are as individuals. Indeed, place provides the communities that shape us. Attempts to abstract the person from their particular circumstances serve only to divorce the individual from what makes them unique. When separated from place, the person no longer holds the same connection to others. The removal of the primacy of place opens the door to the separation of the individual from the community and the entertainment of our base appetites.
Ultimately, our connection to place and home forms a fundamental part of a person’s identity. Where we grow up and choose to live shapes who we are and who we will become. These fundamental aspects of human life cannot be separated or discarded. They remain with us always.
The concept of place does not have a simple and easy definition. Rather, place consists of the particular elements that surround us in our daily lives, including the essential institutions of family, friends, home, jobs, and churches. Each of these elements shapes each person in a unique way, forming our habits, interests, and desires.
At its foundation, the beauty of place arises from its familiarity to those who live there. Unlike any other location in the world, one’s particular place holds a certain draw that other locations do not. Whether it be one’s town, city, or state, that place contains the culture that shapes the development of the individual. For many people, such an attachment to a particular place becomes a source of pride. Many Americans, for example, proudly trace their heritage back to the original settlers on the Mayflower or the Jamestown settlement. Likewise, immigrant groups in the United States bond together through their common heritages and shared cultures. Even as people assimilate to an American culture distinct from their own, they maintain an affection for their own culture and roots.
As Wendell Berry writes in his essay “It All Turns on Affection,” much of the beauty in places arises from affection. Someone who recognized their place and maintained an affection for it, he writes, was a “sticker.” The “sticker,” he explains, is motivated “by such love for a place and its life that they want to preserve in it.” These are the people who remain committed to the place in which they live, who acknowledge their roots and choose to continue to cultivate them. With this attachment to place, man developed a recognition that “our intelligence, like our world, is limited.” Indeed, attachment to the familiar reminds us of the limits to human action. It provides a sense of recognition of our own humanity.
Central to this appreciation of place is the development of imagination. Imagination, Berry writes, allows us to “recognize the fellow members, human and nonhuman, with whom we share our place.” From imagination, we gain a greater appreciation for those around us and enter into “a neighborly, kind, and conserving economy.” It is indeed place that shapes what Edmund Burke titles the “moral imagination.” As he writes in Reflections on the Revolution in France, the moral imagination provides a sense of beauty to the world around us. To remove man from his place would see “all the decent drapery of life…rudely torn off.” Thus, this imagination shaped by place forms a fundamental element of our lives.
In today’s modern mobile society, home holds no special place or attachment. As culture pushes the individual to look for what is next, the sense of attachment to place decreases until it no longer exists. In fact, the need for constant upward movement destroys the ability to build a home or form an attachment to place. Careers move at a rapid pace and thus disconnect the person from place. In order to make money or gain a promotion, the individual must be ready to uproot everything you have and move to the next location. Consequently, affection for place is inherently antithetical to consumerist culture. To climb the next rung of the ladder, one must be ready to move at a moment’s notice.
This constant drive for upward mobility has wreaked havoc upon human life. The ability and necessity of movement prevents the development of strong roots. In fact, modern society’s lust for advancement destroys any desire to hold onto the places long held dear. To find success in life, society proclaims, a person must be willing to detach from his roots. An attachment to place runs directly counter to the message of materialist society.
Indeed, the adoption of what Berry calls the “boomer” mentality accompanies a lost appreciation for one’s place. Unlike the “sticker,” who commits to the familiar, the “boomer” “is motivated by greed, the desire for money, property, and therefore power.” Indeed, the “boomer” is the embodiment of the type of person today’s society seeks to promote. Today, societal norms cast scorn on those who seek to remain committed to one place and locality. The “boomer” mentality calls on the individual to cast off their social connections and achieve great wealth and prestige. Thus, all appreciation for the elements that shaped a person growing up are cast off. This lost appreciation for the familiar fuels a failure to see the beauty in the familiar and simple.
Our lost recognition of the beauty of place further manifests itself in the throwaway culture that dominates human relations. With the rejection of the family as an institution comes a lost appreciation for human life. Marriage and stable relationships have been replaced by temporary relationships designed to fill our base desires while providing for an easy escape when it feels right to move on. These disposable relationships become even easier with access to contraception. Thus, the meaning of relationships further erodes as the life-creating aspect of human relationships is erased and a culture of use becomes further entrenched. The idea that relationships ought to focus exclusively on the use of another for one’s own selfish gain comes as a natural result of our culture’s call for easy mobility. Anything that holds man back must be cast aside, while opportunities to fulfill base passions without consequences must be firmly established.
Thus, a society that focuses on mobility brings about the destruction of our most important institutions: those of the family, the church, and the local community. As Yuval Levin writes in A Time to Build, these “institutions can provide for the forbearance and patience that are so lacking in our common life.” A detachment from familiar institutions fuels a social crisis that alienates individuals from each other. As institutions decline, so does the society that surrounds them. Without these fundamental elements of society, societal health cannot last long.
Just as our material culture has alienated individuals from each other to create a society of loners bent on earthly gain and satisfaction, so too has it destroyed our sense of place. The loss of respect for the dignity of others arises from the greater problem of alienation of place. Calls to remain upwardly mobile and career focused accompany a detachment from heritage. The localities in which people were raised begin to lose their purpose. As a job opportunity calls one away from their small town community to one of the nation’s largest cities, they lose a sense of attachment to the place where they grew up. For them, that former home becomes nothing more than a place to visit their parents before they themselves move elsewhere to enjoy a quiet retirement in a place with better weather. Thus, material culture pushes the individual to abandon one’s familiar geographic place.
Among the consequences of this physical move to another place lies a loss of heritage and experiences that come from prior homes. The decision to take up everything and travel to a new place tends to sever the connection that a person has with the past. Indeed, the movement from the heartland to the East Coast takes the individual out of the world they knew and away from their relatives. As families thus become spread out, the connection between them only continues to decline. Even with technological advancements such as Facebook and Zoom, the inability for families to truly connect remains. As anyone who has had in-person classes or work replaced by virtual means knows, images on a screen provide no real substitute for genuine human interaction.
All of this comes as a result of a loss of place and a desire to dominate nature. When man forgets his limits and attempts to transcend place, he loses any attachment to what Russell Kirk titled “the Permanent Things.” With the abstraction of the person from place comes a lost appreciation for the beauty of what surrounds us. Thus, the desire to maintain places of beauty declines. Among the consequences of this culture of destruction is the development of cities into steel and concrete behemoths surrounded by cookie-cutter suburbs with no uniqueness. Similarly, this destructive impulse has given us the churches of the 1960s and ‘70s that do nothing to call the soul to God. With the whitewashing of the great churches and their replacement with empty shells, is it any surprise at all that younger generations continue to lose an affection for the greatest community of all?
At the same time, however, we need not always remain committed to the place in which we live. For some people at some times, a time to pick up what we have and move elsewhere arises. Indeed, a departure from home becomes a necessity under some circumstances. New opportunities or unconquerable challenges at home have always driven man to travel to a new place and establish new roots.
Such a journey should not be taken lightly. Even when one leaves their ancestral home, leaving behind their families, friends, and community must not mean a complete separation from a person’s roots. Departure is not the individual’s opportunity to cast off their heritage and enter into a sort of state of nature. Likewise, change is not an opportunity to escape prior obligations and indulge base appetites. Rather, it calls on the person to plant new roots in a new location. These roots grow from the seeds produced by the tree of a person’s heritage. Upon entering a new community, the individual both integrates into a new community and brings their own culture with them. This new community becomes a person’s new home, their new place. From here they may raise a family of their own and instill a love for the particular in children of their own. As Berry writes, “the cultural cycle turns on affection” as the “local memory” is passed down from one generation to another.
With a journey away from home and to a new location, the individual leaves behind the community that shaped their upbringing. Journeys that take the individual far from the community bring the risk of severing all bonds with the society that they once knew. Even with the ease of travel in the modern world, the distance created between the person and the broader family is difficult to overcome. For this reason, a decision to move far away from one’s roots must be made with great prudence.
The decision to leave one’s home in search of new opportunities does not necessarily make one a “boomer,” however. Whether it is difficulties at home or an opportunity to plant new roots elsewhere, there are times when the “sticker” may be called to travel away from home. These journeys require the person to be ready to stay in their new home and develop new roots.
Thus, appreciation for the beauty of place forms a central element of the response against the social crises of modernity. This loss of the beauty of place plays a fundamental role in what C.S. Lewis titled the “abolition of Man.” A society committed to the conquest of nature sets itself on the path of its own destruction. As Lewis writes, “the being who stood to gain and the being who has been sacrificed are one and the same.” In order to escape the path society has set for itself, the individuals who make up society must gain a renewed appreciation for the beauty of place.
Only through a return to place can the downward spiral of society be reversed. The consequences of a loss of a sense of belonging to place, as expressed in our casual approach to relationships, declining birth rates, destruction of natural beauty, and the construction of soul-crushing architecture can be reversed only through a concentrated and determined attempt to return to our roots.
Unlike anything else, place plays a fundamental role in the shaping of the human person. In order to truly understand ourselves and be the best people possible, we must cultivate the institutions and environments that make us who we are. Such a shift will not be easy. Indeed, a return to the sanctity of place will require the sacrifice of career opportunities and the careful control of human desire. The results of this difficult process, however, will pay dividends for generations to come. It starts with a renewed affection for place and the cultivation of the society in which we live. As the particular reaches the closest thing to perfection we can achieve, the broader world will soon follow.
About the Author
Ryan Lanier is the Editor-in-Chief of American Discourse.