Saturday, May 2, 2020

Homesickness, Rural Spaces, and why I love Wendell Berry's Writing

Wendell Berry at his writing desk
From Look and See documentary (press kit)
Of course, I'd heard of Wendell Berry in the way a name seems familiar. I knew he wrote poetry. That was it. Then, a year or two ago, I watched the documentary Look and See when it was on Netflix and learned not only about Berry, but also why the farming town I grew up in was the way it was. Finally, I was given the larger context of the relationship between agribusiness and the family farm. It felt great to understand finally why my childhood was a landscape of fields marked by abandoned farmhouses, sun-rotted barns, and a small handful--if that--of family names who owned the land where, clearly, there was evidence of many more farmers who had once lived there.

In not knowing Wendell Berry's work, I had not known how much of a key he would be not only to unlocking the missing puzzle pieces required for real insight into the decline of rural town populations, but also for unlocking all that I've needed to find beautiful the wild landscapes I once biked through, walked through, lived among and now miss with deep heartsickness--and those trails I walk now.

During the pandemic while our city has been sheltering in place, I've found myself drawn to old comforts. Long walks by myself. Eating doughnuts. Reading. And I've been reading mainly Wendell Berry. I'd bought The Peace of Wild Things a while ago, seems like, but picked it up now. And I experienced it like I experienced Sherwood Anderson's Winesburg, Ohio, in that it felt so familiar--so right--that I tried to slow down the reading to make it last. Though, with Berry, it would be difficult to read any of his work fast. I think that's one of the reasons I find his poetry so comforting. There's no rush. None. No rush to move through the poem, and no shove into the next poem. There is only the silence and open air of thought left. To read the poem again is the only decision the poem seems to ask of the reader--and even that feels without requirement.

To read a poem by Berry is, for me, to live fully inside it, and at its end, live within the space created by the poem.

A nest, perhaps.

Here. A few weeks ago, I purchased a field guide for my son and I to learn the wildflowers and plants we encounter on our walks. I didn't grow up in the Northwest, so everything about its landscape lacks a relationship to my knowledge--I don't see a plant and have any childhood memory connected to it, much less any knowledge of its name, habits, etc. Even after a day of using the field guide, every time I see lupine, I think lupine. When I see grape hyacinth, I think not lupine--grape hyacinth, and I think of my friend Crystal who gave me the right word on a recent walk.

Now that I've read Berry's poems, though only a selection, I can feel a change in my experience of walking down by the river, in how I see the trees around our house, and how I think of home. Berry's poems are a kind of field guide to thinking not only about the natural world, but also urban spaces, which I've felt more and more separated from. More short-tempered about the sound of traffic on a busy street that runs by our house. More irritable about not knowing any of the people I encounter in the grocery store. More confused about why we have created these spaces chocked full of so many houses and roofs and powerlines and things that interrupt every thought, that demand our attention but provide little return.

This winter, our favorite neighbors across the street moved across town. We don't really know the other neighbors. I'm working on building those relationships now, but I couldn't match names to more than two faces. But our favorite neighbors were wonderful. We talked to them regularly, waved, smiled, exchanged small gifts--from cookies to blackberries from our backyard. They came to our son's ballet recitals. Like the best neighbors, ever. When they put their house up for sale, we were definitely full of feelings about their departure. And while I didn't assume that the next people to live across the street would be fast friends, I still had some hope. Maybe it would be a family with a child or two near our son's age. Maybe, maybe, maybe.

But while the house sold within the day it was posted for sale, no neighbors moved in that month. Or the next month. Or the next month. From time to time a fancy black car would park across the street, but that was it as far as activity.

Then, we learned that the people who bought the house would never live there--no, they had bought it to become solely an Air BnB.

At least with a Bed and Breakfast, there would be the person or people who lived in the house whether there were guests or not.

But an Air BnB.

I've been bothered ever since I learned about it. But it wasn't until I finished The Peace of Wild Things and bought one of Wendell Berry's newer books, a collection of essays and other writing, The Art of Loading Brush, that I started to understand why I was so bothered by having good neighbors replaced by now-and-then strangers.

One thing Berry talks about in The Art of Loading Brush is how difficult, if not impossible, it is to start a farm these days. One of the reasons is that urban people are purchasing farmland for second homes at prices that are far above the cost of what a farm could return. The land's divided up, and sold as lots, so then you have the trouble of starting a farm with enough continuous acreage.
By increasing the wealth of urban investors and shoppers for "country places," it increases the price of farmland, making it impossible especially for small farmers, or would-be farmers, to compete on the land market. The free market lays down the rule: Good land for investors and escapists, poor land or none for farmers. Young people wishing to farm are crowded to the economic margins and to the poorest land, or to no land at all. Meanwhile overproduction of farm commodities always implies overuse and abuse of the land. (40)
He goes on to talk about the movement away from subsistence farming and toward commercial farming, and how commercial farming/big farming--with its reliance on economic supply and demand--leads to a way of thinking about the land that leads to its demise, basically:
In a natural ecosystem, even on a conservatively managed farm, the fertility cycle may turn from life to death to life again to no foreseeable limit. By opposing to this cycle the delusion of a limitlessness exclusively economic and industrial, the supposedly free market overthrows the limits of nature and land, thus imposing a mortal danger upon the land's capacity to produce. (41) 
This got me to thinking about urban zoning, and how different parts of a city will be designated for retail use or single-family homes, etc. And then, maybe it all came together when I was pulling weeds out front, and the stranger staying in the AirBnb that evening waved at me on his way to his truck. I waved back. Sure, a nice exchange, but I felt kind of like a person playing the role of neighbor. An actor-neighbor. Here to create the verisimilitude of neighbor in order to contribute to the AirBnb experience promised by the house's online ad.

I felt gross.
A kind of meta-neighbor.

When we lived in Texas, we lived in a house across the street from city housing, and so every duplex in the small lot had revolving doors of neighbors. Moving trucks came and went. Cars packed with boxes did too. Trucks from stores often visited to repossess refrigerators, couches, TVs. We watched the neighbors watch the men roll their belongings into a truck and drive away.

But even with ever-changing neighbors, there was still a longer time of having a neighbor before the pattern changed, one that feels different than the sense I'm getting off this AirBnb across the street.

I'm sure I'll get used to it. What pattern of life does a creature not eventually acclimate to, whether that's abuse or wealth or pandemic sheltering-in-place?

It seems, though, when whole houses are bought to be hotels in residential neighborhoods, that the hotel owner has made a decision for the whole neighborhood--has monetized the neighborhood and changed our agreement to living here. I know that the people who purchased the house are in real estate, that they paid quite a bit above the selling price of the house. In doing so, the surrounding houses have become more valuable, right? Which means higher taxes. Which means. And means. Of course, we couldn't afford our house were we to buy it on the market today. I suppose, in some respects, that someone would say that's a good problem to have. I don't know.

Maybe it's just that I've never lived in a city undergoing gentrification, and this is just part of the experience. Even in Texas, our town--caught between Austin and San Antonio--had not reached the levels of gentrification it is at now, ten years since living there. So we missed it. And now, to return to that city, is to miss the one we knew since it looks so different with its eight and ten-floor apartment buildings, its chain restaurants in places that had once been empty or used furniture stores, its new coffee shops that look so different than the one we used to write at every day.

I read somewhere that the neighborhoods where gay women live are often the first to raise in price and displace those same women.  I think about this. There are three queer/lesbian couples within two blocks. I think about this.

I know it's worse a few miles away where a whole swath of land between the river and one of the lowest-income neighborhoods has been developed into townhouses and an urban-chic retail space. There's even a clear dividing line between the affluent new neighborhood and the neighborhood that's existed far, far longer--I call it the Oz line, where you could stand in the street and one side is the green-green turf of the townhouse yards and on the other side, sits the dirt-showing, yellowing yards with their chain-link fences and houses with tired paint. Yards that sound dreary only because of the illusion of grass across the street.

As a kid, when I went to sleep-away camp, I never experienced the stomach-hurting homesickness that a few others would have. And this was supposed to be, or I interpreted this as, a sign of my strength, a kind of resilience in the face of loss. Or something positive.

But recently, I've begun having that feeling in my stomach, or what I assume to be that feeling. Of missing home. I miss thunderstorms with the steady rain going through the night. I miss quiet roads flanked by fields, even if those fields hold long-empty houses. I miss seeing the faces of neighbors and knowing their names, knowing who is the mother of who, whose children's faces match the faces of children I grew up with--to see the face of an old classmate peering out of her children's faces and to know, immediately, whose smile is running beneath that mouth. I see it on Facebook, but I miss being there. I do not miss being known by those who see me. That has always felt like the suffocating part of living in a small town. But more and more, I think I'd trade that for the sound of a train whose tracks I cross daily, for roads I know better than the back of my mother's hand.

Maybe nostalgia is what adults call homesickness. I don't know.

This is my trying to tell you why, right now, Wendell Berry's writing feels so vital to me. Why my throat has been lumping up. Why every day, I hurry to the river and its trees and lack of houses. Why I've started reading the village council meeting notes from Oblong, Illinois from 1978 and finding solace in the minutes.

I don't know if you'll love Wendell Berry as I do. You see, there might need to be something in you that already misses the land, misses what-was, knows what can't-be, and in that need is the voice of Wendell Berry saying, Yes, of course. Yes, but think of this. Yes, and this is what I was thinking the other day.

And it's a voice I'm glad for hearing.

The Plan (Wendell Berry, from The Peace of Wild Things)
My old friend, the owner
of a new boat, stops by
to ask me to fish with him,

and I say I will - both of us
knowing that we may never
get around to it, it may be

years before we're both
idle again on the same day.
But we make a plan, anyhow,

in honor of friendship
and the fine spring weather
and the new boat

and our sudden thought
of the water shining
under the morning fog.

Wendell Berry and daughter
From Look and See documentary (press kit)