The Spiritual Vitality of Place

What does it mean to “be” somewhere?

We all live someplace; we are all from someplace. It could be a place or a nonplace, pleasant or otherwise. So long as life continues, this much is inescapable, but is location-location-location really a determining factor for anything beyond property value?

In 1910, English novelist E. M. Forster published Howard’s End, which explores questions of class, culture, and the future of his country in the face of a fading status quo. At one point in the book, Forster’s narrator laments the mobility inherent in modernity: “London was but a foretaste of this nomadic civilization which is altering human nature so profoundly, and throws upon personal relations a stress greater than they have ever borne before. Under cosmopolitanism, if it comes, we shall receive no help from the earth. Trees and meadows and mountains will only be a spectacle, and the binding force that they once exercised on character must be entrusted to Love alone. May Love be equal to the task!”

What Forster hints at in this passage is a sort of spiritual vitality to place. We tend to think of communities in terms of the people who live there, which is good and right. What if there is something in the interplay of people and place, however, that goes deeper than either one can alone? A house or hill, sight or smell, can fix in our memory a summary of human experience that would not be possible without such markers. There is a “there” there, after all

In my own life, this was embodied by my maternal grandfather. At his funeral in 2011, I wrote, “He came home to Pine Mountain, and more or less stayed put for the rest of his life. In that, he taught me what a community was and why it was worth putting up with the bad and the ugly to be a part of the good.” The life he inherited and invested in that corner of West Georgia is a part of me even now because of him, though I never “lived” there a day in my life.

Perhaps to truly bind us to one another, we must love both a place and the people who find their homes there. Places (like people) are not all easy to love, but if we are willing to withhold love from anywhere, we effectively hate everywhere. Caring for God’s creation (and the spaces His image-bearers have carved within it) is part of what it means to love our neighbors as ourselves.

Such care needs to encompass the full spectrum of our world. To borrow an idea from Wendell Berry, protecting only the majestic, “ecologically sensitive”, or quirky places without a similar regard for more mundane locales is less than true conservation. To be sure, regionality gets a lot of play these days—whether in food, language, music, or scenery. Most commentary on the subject, though, comes at a sort of cosmopolitan remove. The only people who talk about place in this way are those of us who are relatively detached from anywhere in particular. To know a place primarily in terms of terroir, I’d submit, is not to know it at all.

Geography itself has certainly played in the fortunes of men. Few major cities (at least prior to the advent of railroads and airplanes) are found away from seaports or navigable rivers and lakes. The rise of Western Europe surely owes as much to its relatively flat, arable land and moderate, Gulf-Stream-influenced climate as to any of the other cultural factors at play. In the other direction, the struggles of low-income communities in the U.S. and elsewhere are often a result of governmental and cultural segregation that located them in flood plains, cut off from commerce by uncrossable freeways and rail lines, and/or atop industrial wastelands.

Forster’s fear has long since become reality. Cosmopolitanism is king. Mobility has become the key indicator of success in the modern West. Even the average non-jet-setter is relatively capable of pulling up stakes and heading elsewhere when the opportunity arises, thanks largely to that “old Chev-ro-let.” Only the very poor seem to stay put anywhere, and their rootedness often looks less like loyalty and more like being trapped.

These divergent senses of place may be unavoidable consequences of specialization and globalization. Wealth, talent, and ambition slosh about from London to New York to Shanghai (and hundreds of other cities), creating a global “gated community” that admits comparatively few newcomers. Those who lack opportunity and access to enter the stream languish in cramped urban ghettoes or decaying company towns. Perhaps more is lost in the transaction than we realize. Berry writes, “The world has room for many people who are content to live as humans, but only for a relative few intent upon living as giants or as gods” (The Unsettling of America).

The world is increasingly stratified into the stuck-by-default and the nomads-by-choice, with less and less middle ground. A lack of shared place helps drive us to come apart in other ways. Rediscovering a way to share that space (even, as Chris Arnade observes, at McDonalds) will be key to bringing us back together. Proximity matters, and proximity happens somewhere. Can we truly love someone without being willing to be present with them? Can real relationship exist without shared sights and sounds and smells and tastes and textures?

Just as, by God’s grace, a great falling away is often followed by a great awakening, perhaps a great coming apart will be followed by a great reconciliation. There is, and has been, movement in this direction in the midst of the steady opposing current. Re-neighboring is becoming a hot topic, and the Christian Community Development Association’s plea for relocating to neighborhoods of concentrated poverty has been echoing for decades.

Perhaps, in answer to Forster’s plea, love is the only thing equal to the task of keeping us together. It was for love that God made the world, and then formed Adam from its dust. Love is what bound us to the spectacle of the earth to begin with. Recovering our love for people and their places, we may well recover our own roots and find a place called home.

“We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
Through the unknown, remembered gate.”

– T. S. Eliot, “Little Gidding”

Further Thoughts
Weaving a Future: The Chalmers Option?
Theological Poverty: More on “The Chalmers Option”
Talking Past Each Other: Class and Culture in the Church

Photo: Bridges, Chattanooga, Tenn., October 2014.

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Twin Tail

Having a twin is a fearful business, sharing so much for so long.

He and his sister were precluded from the usual mischief of identicals, so their bond and boldness brought new imaginings of misbehavior. They were without guile, merely sharing together the last of five births. Two surviving elder siblings, likewise sister and brother, already carved roles as dutiful firstborn and budding black sheep. To the twins in those early days, then, fell blind love and none-too-watchful parents. The farm meant work, and neither keeping up nor getting in the way was open to them.

They had adventures lavished on them by the land. Tadpoles needed snatching, blood-red clay needed molding, dogs needed chasing. Someone invariably wound up locked in the smokehouse, stuck on the sandbar inHay! the creek, or dangling from that lowest pecan limb just high enough to make the ground too far away. Getting caught meant a wink and playful smack; a switching and dinnerless bedtime awaited discovery of more grievous transgression. Most of these were concealed by the unspoken pact between them to which all children subscribe, that the silence of both was to be preferred to the punishment of either. Eighty years hence, hints of those mutual secrets (embarrassingly innocuous) were ever visible in the mirth of their meetings.

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Wisdom of the Ages (and the Aged)

This was originally written as a eulogy for my grandfather, Errol Grant Myhand (1924-2011). I spent a week or two with him on the family land in Pine Mountain, Georgia, almost every summer from age 4-21 (and plenty of other times as well), so writing this a day after his passing left it very sentimental. Nearly four years hence, I wouldn’t change a thing. I’m reposting it here a) because you’ll know me better through this, and b) in honor of my grandmother’s 89th birthday next week.

I’ve heard it said that the chain of wisdom always skips a generation; that the lessons of lives long lived are instilled in grandchildren by their grandparents while their parents are working to make ends meet.

That’s not to say that our parents are not wise, rather that our ability to absorb their wisdom as children is clouded by familiarity, authority, and selfishness–we’re predisposed to doubt what they tell us until we grow up to realize they knew exactly whereof they spoke. In the time between birth and that epiphany of maturity, God interposes grandparents.

Family portrait, 1929

Family portrait, 1929. He and Aunt Edna (his twin sister) were almost 5 here.

Maybe we listen to them because they’re a curiosity–we don’t see them daily as we do our parents, gray hair and glasses make them seem softer, their habits and customs from an earlier time are both confusing and inviting. Maybe we let them teach us because they offer us love with an infinite patience bolstered by the peace and quiet of living somewhere else (without kids) most of the time.

Whatever the reasons, this cross-generational transfer of wisdom seems to be part of the design of life. Thinking of this after losing Papaw, It’s hard to look at my life and values without seeing his fingerprints everywhere.

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