Loving Your Place – Dr. Jane Olmsted’s reflections on the Honors Salon conversation on Wendell Berry, affection, and resilience

jane olmsted

These are Dr. Jane Olmsted‘s wise reflections on the last Honors Salon conversation this fall on Wendell Berry’s ideas on the relationship between affection and resilience. They are also a very fitting conclusion to this fall’s series of conversations: Going Global – Life, Love & Work in the 21st Century. She kindly permitted me to cross-post them below.

Dr. Jane Olmsted is the head of the Department of Diversity and Community Studies, director of the Gender & Women’s Studies Program, and coordinator of the MA in Social Responsibility & Sustainable Communities.

The second series of the Honors Salon was again very successful, as it brought together dozens of students, faculty and staff, and engaged them in important conversations, including Elizabeth Gish, Wolfgang Brauner, Jane Olmsted, Christian Ryan-Downing, Terry Elliott, and Paola Mannarelli, among others.

Tonight I went to a conversation hosted for Honors students at WKU by my colleagues Wolfang and Elizabeth, and the reason I went was because I wanted to think more about what Wendell Berry argues is crucial–for sustainability or resilience, or whatever term you want to use–for what needs to happen with regard to the happiness or livelihood of this place we call home. What does it mean, I wanted to hear others reflect on, to love your place?

The students offered some insights that I think are worth noting–that a place is tied up with the people we know there. This is true–how to disentangle the people that we know in the place we have come to love? (Why would we want to?) But I don’t think that our sense of place is limited to the people, and if it is, that seems to be a problem. Some of the students spoke about their time here in Bowling Green as temporary–they’re only here for four years or so and they anticipate leaving, so they feel no need to establish the kind of affection for a place that comes with time. I, too, spoke this way when I was an undergrad about my home in the other Bowling Green, in Ohio, where I lived for a short time knowing that it was not where I would “land.” I was a visitor, no need to invest myself in anything but the tasks at hand. (Or is that what I told myself while unconsciously I sent out tentacles of caring? I wrote some poems about the place, breathed in the air of the place, took from it. And 40 years later still store somewhere within the feel of that old farm house in the middle of the soy and corn fields where I lived.)

I told them, I speak as an old person, one who has come to understand that loving a place is an act of resistance. If we don’t care for the place we are now, then we more easily become a pawn. Loving a place is an act of resistance against corporate mentality, against the notion of disposability. If we say, “I’m only here for 4 years,” all those hours become one more disposable thing. Unimportant, unremarkable, unlovable. But if we can say instead, it matters, where I am, then we are enacting something that our throw-away, unsustainable, corporatized world has told us is no longer necessary to a modern way of being.

How do you love your place, not in an easy, packaged way, but in a real, deep way that locates you in the here and now, not in some fantasy of tomorrow? The past couple of nights I’ve stood outside my back door until the cold drove me in, watching white and gray clouds race across a nearly full moon. I listened to the wind. Is this what I love, these full bodied trees, now bare of leaves? The smell of wet leaves dense across the yard?

Berry casts us as either “stickers” or “boomers”: “’Boomer’ names a kind of person and a kind of ambition that is the major theme, so far, of the history of the European races in our country. ‘Sticker’ names a kind of person and also a desire that is, so far, a minor theme of that history, but a theme persistent enough to remain significant and to offer, still, a significant hope.

“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.”

I don’t know that the world divides so neatly into two kinds of people, but Berry’s point is well taken. I think about the pressure we face–those of us who are educators in public institutions (and maybe the private ones too)–to ensure that our students get jobs, preferably right out of college, and preferably with benefits, a salary . . . pipeline to the American dream. How this leads to bottom line thinking, short term results, slippery ethics, corporatization, students as clients, fast-tracks, and hollowed out psyches. I think about how the drive to get a credential and screw the examined life translates into devaluing the humanities, political numbing, greater separation between classes, loss of self. Far smarter people than I have written books on this (Martha Nussbaum, David Orr, and Wendell Berry, to name three from very different pathways).

The very worst thing that happens is a failure of imagination, a closing off of the mind.

I like what David Orr says about the imagination, how crucial it is, and I believe what Paul Bogard says in his book The End of Night about the loss of night to increasing artificial lighting: “The aesthetic sense–the power to enjoy through the eye, and the ear, and the imagination–is just as important a factor in the scheme of human happiness as the corporeal sense of eating and drinking; but there has never been a time when the world would admit it” (214).

Doesn’t that sound like what Orr is getting at when he writes, “We have good reason to believe that human intelligence could not have evolved on the moon—a landscape devoid of biological diversity. We also have good reason to believe that the sense of awe toward the creation had a great deal to do with the origin of language and why early humans wanted to talk, sing, and write poetry in the first place” (reprinted in Hope Is An Imperative: The Essential David Orr, 249).

When we erase the humanities–in our education and in our daily lives–we surrender to the speed-up-and-make-a-buck mentality that flips a bird at what really matters, calling it irrelevant, dreamy, a luxury.

Here again is Wendell Berry on the notion of “stickers”–those who invest their lives in a certain place: “I will say, from my own belief and experience, that imagination thrives on contact, on tangible connection. For humans to have a responsible relationship to the world, they must imagine their places in it. To have a place, to live and belong in a place, to live from a place without destroying it, we must imagine it. By imagination we see it illuminated by its own unique character and by our love for it.” http://www.neh.gov/about/awards/jefferson-lecture/wendell-e-berry-lecture

This is no soft focus, no optional discourse on love. When the money’s gone, the world we knew swept away by super storms and mega corporations, we’re going to have to look across the landscape and decide wherein we see ourselves.

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