Tag Archives: Wendell Berry

The Paradox of Place


Sunrise from Gregory Bald

Soon, I will finish the work by Belden C. Lane: Landscapes of the Sacred.  I was introduced to him by finding his book, Backpacking with the Saints by accident.  Dr. Lane has trod the path I am on and has engaged in a scholarly quest to understand place in American Spirituality.  I am blessed to follow his footprints.

Lane introduced the “tension between the idealistic celebration of placelessness and the materialist’s attention to the concrete demands of placement.”  Lane recalled the lives of Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin whose lives both contributed to a theology of place.  On the one hand, we pursue a Creator who transcends space, revealing himself when He chooses.  Those who were sent to guide us were travelers, itinerants, humble humans to whom material possessions held no value.    On the other, we are creatures defined by our spaces and places.  It is easy to dismiss this all in anti-materialist idealism but Dorothy Day put a more human connection to our need for place. In her work with inner city women and young families in New York, she found that family needs a sense of place.  Humans derive dignity from having a place of their own to nurture their families and provide a safe home.  Home is defined by place.  Maurin and his more contemporary prophet/poet, Wendell Berry, believed that human dignity is derived from hard work tied to honest care and tending of the earth from which we came and to where we will return.  The earth, the land is embodied physically in place.

Whether your place is a small flat in New York City or a farm in rural Kentucky, place is integral in human existence.  But with place, then comes stuff; and the continuous accumulation of more stuff, requiring more space until we exceed our ability to put stuff.  It turns out it is easier to save our stuff than get rid of it so we rent more space, buy bigger homes with bigger closets and bigger garages.  We build bigger barns and buy more land.  And so then the struggle for each person to decide when they have enough  ensues.

In my own journey, more and more, I am adopting the simplicity of Thoreau as a guide but I am finding it difficult to balance my need to save what is valuable to me and realizing the implications of keeping it.  It is a work in progress that often requires compromise with my wife who has her own sense of place and the accumulation of stuff.

But one thing is certain, wilderness is the doorway to encounters with Creation and The Creator.  Wilderness is where sense of place changes.  There, we are the visitors.  Boundaries are obscured and the idea of ownership of place has no meaning.  Wendell Berry taught me that the only legitimate way to experience Creation is to do so on foot.  John Muir knew this.  Edward Abbey knew this.  Any assistance offered by machinery of any kind requires accommodations and has ramifications, all of which diminish the point of entering the wilderness in the first place.  Wilderness requires a Sabbath of sorts from our technology and our sense of place.  We get to leave our stuff behind and for a time, experience the joy of being.  We take only what we can carry and the less of it, the better.  Careful choices are made for survival and less for comfort and convenience.  But the rewards are rich and the benefits life changing.

HikerHead 2  Strider Out!