I had an unsettling experience last week. On Monday night I found myself in the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., listening to the National Endowment for the Humanities’ Jefferson Lecture delivered by Wendell Berry. Berry is a poet, essayist, farmer, conservationist and activist from Kentucky. The lecture, “It All Turns on Affection”, was a wake-up call to America to desist from damaging the earth and to return to life with a greater emphasis on ecological conservation, community and love of place. The broader themes of the talk were book-ended by personal tales of Berry’s own family, small tobacco farmers in Henry County, and their struggles to both make a living from their crop and to hang on to their “home place”, the family farm.
The experience was unsettling because, while I agree with his environmental stance, his concerns about the price we pay for industrialization, mechanization and technology, and his message about the importance of community in an increasingly global world I felt myself and my family’s experiences starkly absent from the perspective from which he spoke. He framed his lecture around the differences between “boomers” and “stickers”, terms borrowed from Wallace Stegner, into which two groups he said that Americans have always tended to fall. In Berry’s words, “The boomer is motivated by greed, the desire for money, property and therefore power. Stickers on the contrary are motivated by affection, by such love for a place and its life that they want to preserve it and remain in it.”
He revisited the juxtaposition between “boomers” and “stickers” several times during the course of the talk, the difference between them illustrated by the experience of his small-holding grandfather and James B. Duke, the industrialist and “big tobacco” monopolist whose price gauging nearly cost Berry’s grandparents their farm. His is the third generation of his family to farm in Henry County and it is clear that he, his grandparents and parents, and his children feel a close attachment and deep love for their “home place”. It is understandable, and laudable, that he should feel called upon to take the American industrial complex to task, and he was courageous to do so. Nonetheless, as the people around me rose in a standing ovation at the end of the lecture, I found myself curiously unmoved. This was not a sudden finding. I had felt myself personally untouched by the lecture almost from the beginning and part of my mind was occupied for much of the talk trying to tease out why I felt so absent emotionally from a message with which, on the surface, I fervently agree. The simplest form of this answer to myself was that Berry is not “my guy”, and that I was not really the intended audience of his lecture. The ideological audience, perhaps, but not the “bred in the bone” one, and that is important because, for the personal anecdote to succeed it must touch an answering emotional chord in its hearers and draw them into the tale. I felt no answering echo to the personal stories, in fact I felt the jarring disconnect of complete absence of recognition.
At a point quite early in the lecture, Berry sought to highlight the many differences between his grandfather and Duke, the industrialist. One such difference lay in the kinds of things in which each took pleasure. While speculating that James B. Duke only took pleasure in the prospect of acquisition which, Berry says, “excludes affection as a motive”, Berry said that his grandfather:
[…] despite his life’s persistent theme of hardship, took a great and present delight in the modest good that was at hand: in his place and his affection for it, in its pastures, animals, and crops, in favorable weather.
He did not participate in the least in what we call “mobility.” He died, after eighty-two years, in the same spot he was born in. He was probably in his sixties when he made the one longish trip of his life. He went with my father southward across Kentucky and into Tennessee. On their return, my father asked him what he thought of their journey. He replied: “Well, sir, I’ve looked with all the eyes I’ve got, and I wouldn’t trade the field behind my barn for every inch I’ve seen.”
In such modest joy in a modest holding is the promise of a stable, democratic society, a promise not to be found in “mobility”: our forlorn modern progress toward something indefinitely, and often unrealizably, better. A principled dissatisfaction with whatever one has promises nothing or worse.
It was at this point in the lecture that my feeling of alienation began. Where, in this description of “modest holdings” – and, by extension, a “stable, democratic society” – is the experience of rootlessness (or uprootedness) and dispossession of a refugee or migrant? Where is the experience of those who are forced to leave their “home place” by war or genocide? Where is the experience of the nomad? Although this was not Berry’s stated argument I have too often heard that those who feel unconnected to place should just try harder, try to belong – but what happens when that attempt is rejected by people already there, or the act of “belonging” requires too great a sacrifice of self or cultural identity? I can illustrate this with a personal anecdote of my own. My family, in the early 1970’s, wanted to leave the city. My parents, after much thought, bought a piece of land in a rural part of New England to which my mother had had ties for nearly 30 years. Our plan was to move there, support the local school system, bring my parents’ professional expertise (doctor and teacher) to the local community and, yes, form an attachment to the land by planting a large garden to feed ourselves. What this plan did not factor in was the community’s latent (or not so) anti-Semitism. We “stuck” for five years, and through numerous examples of harassment, before arson claimed our house and we moved back to the city. In the city my family focused on what they called raising “global citizens”: multi-lingual, culturally aware, curious about and unafraid of difference – none of them things that are contained in Berry’s description of a “modest holding” undisturbed by “mobility”.
As the evening progressed I found my thoughts returning to Day of Honey by Annia Ciezadlo, a book I read several months ago and with which I felt such resonance that her words and ideas have haunted me ever since. Ms. Ciezadlo is a free-lance journalist who followed her Lebanese-born journalist husband to the Middle East in 2003 to report on the situations in Iraq and, later, Lebanon. The product of a peripatetic American childhood, Ms. Ciezadlo’s sense of place is closely tied to food, as is her sense of home: wherever they were, however they were living throughout her childhood, her mother always made sure to prepare and serve a proper dinner. As an explanation of why her book about her experiences as a foreign correspondent has the subtitle “A Memoir of Food, Love, and War”, she writes:
We all carry maps of the world in our heads. Mine, if you could see it, would resemble a gigantic dinner table, full of dishes from every place I’ve been. Spanish Harlem is a cubano. Tucson is avocado chicken. Chicago is yaprakis; Beirut is makdous; and Baghdad – well, Baghdad is another story. (p. 7)
The book which follows is part travelogue, part cookery book and part political commentary – but more than all of these it is a story of people who live in war-torn places that appear all too often on the nightly news in scenes of unutterable devastation, often with a voice-over detailing the numbers of casualties, the vastness of the destruction. Berry commented on that, too, noting that the industrialized West has become a nation driven by statistics, and that these statistics, posing as “objective knowledge”, are overwhelming:
The fact is that we humans are not much to be trusted with what I am calling statistical knowledge, and the larger the statistical quantities the less we are to be trusted. We don’t learn much from big numbers. We don’t understand them very well, and we aren’t much affected by them. The reality that is responsibly manageable by human intelligence is much nearer in scale to a small rural community or urban neighborhood than to the “globe.”
Again, I do not disagree with Berry’s point that an endless list of statistics deadens the reality of a situation, but the way he ties the range of compassion to geographic boundaries of a certain size does not reflect my personal experience, nor that of others I know. The notion of a wider Jewish community with connections throughout the world, the Muslim concept of ummah, the solidarity of people in diaspora or of expats, these create communities and bonds – of duty or affection – partially or completely removed from geography. There is a folktale that says that when the Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed a shard of it entered the heart of every Jew and the pain and anguish this caused will only be assuaged when the Temple is rebuilt. Regardless of my personal antipathy for the modern political uses to which this folktale has been put, there is no denying that as a young child I learned to carry my sense of home and my love of place with me. Maybe what we need, rather than a limiting of our scope, is a face to put on the people who live in the “globe”, maybe more people need to read Day of Honey and books like it; maybe more people could find beauty and value in difference.
A section of the Epilogue to Day of Honey struck me with such lasting force that I have reproduced most of it here:
My return to the homeland did not go well. It was late 2009, winter was coming, and everyone I knew was getting laid off. Mohamad [her husband] and millions of other people were sick with swine flu. Our government was still spending hundreds of billions of dollars and uncountable lives on two wars, both of which had been grinding on for years, yet all anyone seemed to talk about was movie stars or sports. If they did talk about the war in Iraq, it was in neatly packaged, microwavable soundbites that bore no relation to Roaa, Abu Rifaat, Dr. Salama, Abdullah, or any of the other Iraqis I knew. New Yorkers were so busy fondling their smartphones they seemed to have forgotten basic skills like how to walk. Friends required me to schedule appointments weeks in advance, claiming they were “booked,” as if they were hotel rooms. People seemed afraid to express strong opinions in person, yet the Internet was crawling with them. Bedbugs were back too.
I called my friend Cara. She and Mohamad had lured me back here, and I was miserable, and it was her fault.
She laughed. “Did I ever tell you what happened when I moved back here with Amiram? We were back from Israel for about a week. And then one day he came to me, and he said: ‘I don’t understand. Why don’t the neighbors come over and drink coffee with us in the morning?’”
They do that in Lebanon too. It is called a subhieh, from subuh, morning. […] Not so much a time and place as a communion, a moment when people conspire to put the world back in its place. We don’t have that here, I reflected bitterly. We have Starbucks.
“Listen, Annia,” she said. “People like us are never going to feel at home anywhere. Ever. We’re never going to have that comfortable feeling of belonging.” (p. 316-7)
What I find interesting about this, apart from the fact that I felt as though I could have written it, so well did it capture the feeling of alienation I often feel when “at home”, is how closely it mirrors some of Wendell Berry’s opinions (on the importance of people, the detrimental nature of technology to human existence and interaction, the role of affection) while broadening the scope from a rural community or urban neighborhood to a series of connections on a global scale. I do not think it is realistic to expect us all to become world travelers, forming personal connections with the people who make up the statistics we read in the paper or hear on the news. But neither do I think it is realistic to strive for an agrarian utopia of small farms – for one thing, we would not all make good farmers and for another there is not enough land. I think Wendell Berry is right, we need to foster affection in our society: for the land, for people, for our neighbors, for those different from us. And it is in this last point that I differ most strongly from Mr. Berry, or at least from my understanding of the contents of his lecture. For if we are to reject “mobility” how are we to meet, perceive and understand difference? And if we have no experience with difference, how stable a democracy can we truly have?
The full text of Berry’s lecture is available here.
Day of Honey: a memoir of food, love, and war was written by Annia Ciezadlo and published by Free Press of Simon & Schuster (2011).
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