Community and Place: Wendell Berry

I have been contemplating the significant coupling of community and place as of late. One of the least examined – and probably the most significant – aspects of daily life for both individuals and communities is how their locales form them.

A great myth of modernism have been the universalizing tendencies to push local community life and practice into a monoculture. Under the guise of the universal we’ve lost the nuances of the local. Within this thought, we can and should expect life to be similar in Denver as it is in Syracuse. Or perhaps even within closer proximity, life to be the same in Nedrow (just south of the city of Syracuse) and Liverpool (a northern suburb of Syracuse).

The diminishing of the local gets carried out when we lose the differentiating nuances of particular communities through top-down practices. Instead of finding the shades and tints produced by a place’s cultural artwork which can only be only known from the ground-up, we supplant this patient-inducing work for the ease of assuming. We assume we know what works without knowing the people or the place. In my experience, this is most evident in ventures of “church planting.” Instead of asking how place and community live symbiotically, we rush in never taking notice of the subtleties the answers to that question raise. Not listening only leads to assuming.

Enter Wendell Berry.

I read this today and it stopped me in my tracks. Instead of commenting further, I’ll let you read and soak it in.

For an authentic community is made less in reference to who we are than to where we are. I cannot farm my farm as a European American – or as an American, or as a Kentuckian – but only as a person belonging to the place itself. If I am to use it well and live on it authentically, I cannot do so by knowing where my ancestors came from (which, except for one great-grandfather, I do not know and probably can never know); I can do so only by knowing where I am, what the nature of the place permits me to do here, and who and what are here with me. To know these things, I must ask the place. A knowledge of foreign cultures is useful, perhaps indispensable, to me in my effort to settle here, but it cannot tell me where I am.




7 thoughts on “Community and Place: Wendell Berry

  1. Your thoughts on the lost nuances of local places reminds me of James’ Scotts work, “Seeing Like a State: How Schemes to Improve the Human Condition have Failed.” You might find it a great read alongside Craig Bartholomew’s recent book, “Where Mortals Dwell: A Christian View of Place for Today.” Great post.

    • Thanks for stopping by.
      I’ve been picking away at Where Mortals Dwell for awhile now and so far, so good. I will look into Scotts’ work as I haven’t heard of it before. Thanks for the heads up.

  2. And to carry the thought further, Mr. Berry says you can’t know who you are unless you know where you are.

    Or, as it puts it elsewhere, “What I stand for is what I stand on.”

  3. There is a difference between the intellectual use of labels as opposed to knowing the assumptions one operates from based on the embedded knowledge of folkways and morés within one’s own culture. In other words, one’s approach to the land is culturally, socially, and familially embedded prior to taking up a direct relationship with the land. This does not mean one’s relationship with the land cannot inform or alter one’s cultural understanding, only that differing cultures have different perspectives and they are not all the same. For example, how would an Western farmer fare in an Eastern land?

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