I recently reread Wendell Berry’s essay, “A Native Hill,” a winding exploration of home, the importance of knowing a place deeply, and our collective responsibilities to the land. Born in 1934, Berry is a novelist, cultural critic, and a farmer who lives on his family’s land in Kentucky. Best known for his direct and eloquent critiques of so-called American progress, Berry uses his voice as a farmer to call attention to how readily we destroy communities, wilderness, even small-scale business in the name of money. To put it mildly, people adore Berry’s writings, often citing him as one of modern America’s bravest voices.
Near the beginning of the essay Berry traces his early thoughts on what it means to be connected to a place, either by choice or by memory. In writing about his years living in New York and his time on the NYU faculty, he describes Kentucky as a place forever permeating both his writing and the layers of his being. “Kentucky was my fate—not an altogether pleasant fate, though it had much pleasing in it, but one that I could not leave behind simply by going to another place,” he explains. His peers routinely suggested the only way he could carve out a life as a writer was to stay in New York, a place welcoming to the profession. Questioning these writers’ convictions, he returned to his boyhood home, seeking to understand why he felt so pulled toward this certain patch of land. “What could be the meaning or use of such love?” he writes.
It’s a recurring question in almost all of his writings. His love of place is not a naïve or wholly nostalgic concept or something born solely out of childhood memories and innocence. Rather, his love of home is complex and fearless. His essays always explore beauty and struggle head on, recognizing that a deep knowing of place is always informed by an honest combination of the two. For the reader, he provides us with new ways of talking about the regions from which we came, a language of love that embraces diversity of experience and emotion, digging into historical complexity and human responsibility. When he talks of his awakening to his own home he notes that when he’d lived other places he could look at the beauty and the struggles of those places from a distance, knowing he was only a traveler there. “But here,” Berry writes speaking of his return home, “now that I am both native and citizen, there is no immunity to what is wrong. It is impossible to escape the sense that I am involved in history. What I am has been to considerable extent determined by what my forbearers were, by how they chose to treat this place while they lived in it.”
Berry never focuses on the past at the expense of the present or spends an undue amount of time lamenting what can not be undone. It’s the next few sentences that get to the heart of his writing, speaking to decisions and actions we can take in the present day. “And every day I am confronted by the question of what inheritance I will leave,” writes Berry. “ What do I have that I am using up? For it has been our history that each generation in this place has been less welcome to it than the last.”
Concepts of home run deep in Arkansas, just as they do in Kentucky. Berry’s writing asks us to think more deeply about what it means to love a place and to leave it intact for coming generations. What’s your take on Berry’s words? How are your own feelings of home informed by both memories and a commitment to the future? And what do you think, as Berry asked, is the “meaning or use of such love?”
The Seed and the Story is a partnership with theCourier and Post Dispatch newspapers in Pope and Yell County, Arkansas. This weekly column explores folklife, oral history, and community in central Arkansas, particularly the Yell County area where the column originates. Columns are often written in partnership with the McElroy House: Organization for Folklife, Oral History, and Community Action and humbly attempt to bridge intergenerational themes in the region.