In a fantastic essay entitled “The Beauty of Place,” Ryan J. Lanier explains the importance of a rootedness in place and the ill effects that befall a person and society when that rootedness is lost. What Lanier did not explore, however, is the process by which many rediscover their attachment to place through their absence from it. While he correctly diagnoses the problem of many leaving their homes in search of career success far from their roots, over time, this process has served as the catalyst for those who have become separated from place to rediscover it. Although this link is not as strong as in the past, a rebuilt sense of place in this nation can be most easily accomplished through the exploration and elevation of this link. In this endeavor, an examination of the life and literary works of Wendell Berry, who Lanier quotes briefly in his article, proves useful.
In the autobiographical essay “A Native Hill,” Wendell Berry tells his own story of separation and rediscovery of place. Berry tells of his decision to leave his post as a professor at New York University to return to his native Kentucky. His colleagues could not understand his decision. To leave New York, they believed, would be to give up all the great opportunities New York had to offer to someone in the field of literature. Berry realized that there was something more important than career opportunities, however. He recognized that he “still had a deep love for the place I had been born in, and liked the idea of going back to be part of it again.” Another professor remarked critically in reply, “Don’t you know you can’t go home again.” In his reflection on the comment, he “knew perfectly well I could not return home and be a child or recover the secure pleasures of childhood. But I knew also that as the sentence was spoken to me it bore a self-dramatizing sentimentality that was absurd. Home—the place, the countryside—was still there, still pretty much as I left it, and there was no reason I could not go back to it if I wanted to.” Despite this realization, Berry still of course had doubts because of the things he was giving up. He found peace, however, in the realization that “I had made a significant change in my relation to place: before, it had been mine by coincidence or accident; now it was mine by choice.” It is this realization that is the vital rediscovery of place that leaving can create.
Berry further remarked on the inclusion of this theme in literature. In an essay entitled “The Work of Local Culture,” Berry explores how the discussion of place has changed throughout time in literature. “Throughout most of our literature,” he explains, “the normal thing was for the generations to succeed one another in place. The memorable stories occurred when this succession failed or became difficult or was somehow threatened.” He points to the Bible and works like The Odyssey as examples of this older ethos. Berry believes that the poem “Michael” by William Wordsworth was the inflection point in literature. In the poem, the prodigal son does not return home. Now, Berry says, “the transformation of the ancient story is nearly complete. Our society, on the whole, has forgotten or repudiated the theme of return. Young people still grow up in rural families and go off to cities, not to return. But now it is felt that this is what they should do. Now the norm is to leave and not return.”
Berry has written his own literature that examines both the idea of leaving and not returning and those who rediscover their sense of place after an absence. In the novel Hannah Coulter, the title character recounts her life growing old in Berry’s fictional town of Port William, Kentucky. Hannah loses her first husband in World War II and remarries another veteran from town. Berry writes, “Nathan plainly wasn’t trying to make it big in the ‘postwar world.’ He wasn’t going anywhere. He had come back home after the war because he wanted to.…Most people now are looking for ‘a better place,’ which means that a lot of them will end up in a worse one. I think this is what Nathan learned from his time in the army and the war. He saw a lot of places, and he came home.” Although Nathan learned the value of place in his absence, the same was not true for their children. All three of them went to college and their absence did not result in their return. Even their son Caleb, who expressed the most interest in farming growing up, chose to pursue a profession as a professor of agriculture instead of returning to the family farm. As Hannah explains, “The big idea of education, from first to last, is the idea of a better place. Not a better place where you are, because you want it to be better and have been in school and learned to make it better, but a better place somewhere else. In order to move up, you have got to move on.” The novel ends with a spark of hope, however, as her grandson Virgil, who had been for several years a troubled young man, shows up at the farm expressing an interest in living and working on the farm.
In Remembering, Andy Catlett wanders the streets of San Francisco after speaking at a conference on the future of agriculture. Feeling disillusioned by the conference and dealing with a number of pressures in his personal life, Andy reflects back across the generations of his family and how they shared the theme of leaving their place and thereby rediscovering their attachment to it. His grandfather, Mat, was sent away by his father to boarding school. After four years away, Mat wrote to his father (Andy’s great-grandfather) that when he returned from school he intended to stay. His father, the one who had sent him away in the first place, welcomed him back with open arms, stating, “You have grown to a man and a good one I think. I ask no more.” Mat’s father, in his wisdom, recognized that his son’s love and attachment to his place would be best cultivated through his absence, and that paid off. Andy’s father, Wheeler, also left Port William of his own accord. Wheeler attended college and upon graduation went to Washington, D.C., to work for a congressman and attend law school. With his graduation from law school looming, the congressman offered to set Wheeler up with a job in Chicago. Wheeler decided otherwise, saying, “I want to see good pastures and cattle coming to the spring in the evening to drink.…I’m going home.”
Andy Catlett followed in the family tradition of departure and return. He attended college, married, and moved to San Francisco to work as an agriculture journalist. He then moved to Chicago, where he took a job working for a farming magazine. Following an assignment in which he was tasked with interviewing a major farmer, he became disillusioned, and on his drive back he stopped and talked to an Amish farmer. The conversation settled it in his mind, and when his boss rejected an article on the Amish farmer instead of the one he was sent out to write, he quit his job and told his wife they were returning home to Port William. In his mind, this recurring process is simply a natural part of his nature. He muses that “it is as though, leaving, he has met himself already returning.” He also recognizes the place he left was “a membership that chose him, yet left him free until he should choose it.” This recognition is at the heart of why the absence allows for a rediscovery of place. In its absence, the heart is allowed to choose to reembrace place, a decision that allows for the semblance of preserving one’s natural desire for independence while at the same time reconnecting with roots.
There is some hope for a more widespread rediscovery of place. The COVID-19 pandemic has made densely populated urban areas less attractive. According to a survey by Gallup conducted in 2020, 48 percent of Americans stated they would most like to live in a small town or rural area. This is up 9 percent over the same survey conducted in 2018. While preference does not necessarily indicate action, this reveals at least a willingness to consider a place that for many will involve a rediscovery. Regardless, the lesson provided by Wendell Berry is that leaving does not have to be permanent, and sometimes the leaving is what draws one’s heart home.
About the Author
Connor Kaeb is the Managing Editor of American Discourse.