Almost a decade ago, I bought a rough piece of neglected crop land and cut-over woods in southern Indiana to pursue a wild ideal—organic farming and sustainable homesteading. I knew such a choice might limit many other opportunities, and even though I hoped to be married and raise a family on my new plot of land, chances of that looked slim at the time. A local woman who cuts my hair (and knows the entire county) confirmed early on, with a sad sigh of finality, that my romantic situation was essentially hopeless: all the eligible local women my age had either already married or left the county or both.
In light of such bleak romantic prospects, I pursued a different sort of courtship, committing myself to making a home in this particular place. In a way, I began to see the farm itself as a sort of spouse. Granted, the union was more like an arranged marriage, since I had chosen and purchased the land without its consent. But as in a marriage contract, I’d bound our futures and fates together.
As I got to know the farm better, I felt a shift in my thinking from a sense of ownership and idealism to a deeper, more personal, even tender connection. I began truly to care about, not just to care for, this particular piece of land, and pledged fidelity to the relationship for better and for worse. Believing in what the farm could become with good work and devotion, and in what I could become by providing them, I believed that it could be a worthy though humble vocation simply to nurture this patch of ground back to health and to tend it well.
The Final Frontier
As anyone in a long-term commitment knows, fidelity to a particular place or person means saying no to a number of other choices and opportunities. Such willing self-limitation runs counter to my instincts and to American culture, where freedom seems to mean having a huge array of options and leaving all of them open; we think a new spouse, a new job, a new geography or a new gadget will finally bring us happiness and fulfillment. A frontier mentality resides deep in the American DNA, in mine as much as in that of the next person. Our temptation is to believe in the future as a panacea for the present. Why not keep moving, keep striving forward? Isn’t restlessness the root of creativity and discovery? Doesn’t staying put and settling down lead to lethargy, stagnation and parochial small-mindedness?
Perhaps. But while we might still have a frontier mentality, we have no more frontiers. We ran out of country in the 19th century, and in the 20th and 21st we’ve run out of world. Of late we have come to see the finitude and even smallness of our planet—through high-speed travel, communications technology and global commerce, but also through the pressures of population growth, strained agricultural systems, pollution and climate change and the economy’s voracious appetite for energy and raw materials. We cannot keep going west—or east, north, south, up or down.
With the closing of the external frontier, the human task becomes not one of seeking greener pastures, but learning to make green (and keep green) the pastures where we are. As the writer and farmer Wendell Berry has always insisted, this must ultimately be a concrete, local task: to inhabit fully the particular places we have chosen and to live with care within these borders. But how can we care about a place we do not love? How can we love a place we do not know? And how can we know a place except by sticking around long enough to make its acquaintance?
A Commitment to Place
The Rule of St. Benedict, a wise, 1,500-year-old document governing the life of monastic communities, stresses the importance of stability: monks make a commitment to spend their lives in one place, with one community. I am no monk, although I work daily around the Benedictine monks of Saint Meinrad Archabbey. I see how their vow of stability is really a simple invitation to truth: to work beyond surface impressions or pretensions to a truer, deeper sort of belonging to themselves and their community.
When one chooses a “vocation of location”—whether as monk or layperson, whether on a farm or in an urban neighborhood—notions of fancy soon fade against reality. As experience shifted my thinking from an abstract “field” and “woods” to this field and these woods, my farm revealed itself to me in wonderful and difficult ways. I learned where the soil is eroded and exhausted or deep and fertile, where it grows great melons or poor hay, where the sandy loam drains well and the heavy clay lies wet. In the woodlot, I discovered the black walnuts and their green-globed gifts in the fall; the shagbark and slickbark hickories, which split easy and burn hot in the wood stove—and the elms, which do not; the few old black cherry and tulip poplar trees that somehow escaped the chain saw and whose girth I cannot get my arms halfway around (though I have tried). And I am coming to know the unkindness of lightning strikes and strong winds, the slow-healing scars of poor logging, the valiant and doomed struggle of trees against disease or the life-choking shade of a closing forest canopy.
A commitment to a particular place means learning not just what it truly is, but who you are in relationship to it.
Like a good spouse, the land is a patient teacher, showing me what it needs, instructing me in the art of stewardship, accepting and encouraging my best efforts and my dreams of what the place could be. But also like a good spouse, it confronts my mistakes and missteps, reacting to my ignorance and carelessness and laziness: gullies where there should be grass, collapsed and unrepaired tile lines, ruts of compacted soil from tractors driven over too-wet fields, unattended weeds proliferating. It can also witness my better moments of nurture and care: well-tended, bountiful vegetable plots, planted trees reaching for the blue roof of the sky, an ordered comeliness of house, barn and pond.
Belonging to a place must also mean belonging among its people. When I first began getting to know my neighbors, I foolishly chose to “fit in,” a false form of belonging. Aware of being an outsider in a long-memoried place where second and third generations of people are often considered newcomers, I tried to conform myself to what I thought their expectations were of a neighbor. Amid practical people, I threw hay and fixed tractors, but didn’t let on to being a musician or a writer. Amid folks with deeply conservative outlooks, I kept my political and theological views to myself. Amid conventional row-crop farmers, I felt I had to apologize for refusing to use chemicals on my little organic farm.
As I got to know my neighbors, however, I learned a truer sort of belonging. I had seen them as the “salt of the earth” or, to borrow Flannery O’Connor’s phrase, “good country people,” which they are. Yet their saltiness and goodness includes a full gamut of struggles and idiosyncrasies, a mixture of darkness and light. In relief at this discovery, I let myself unfold: to become more vulnerable, honest and transparent, less apologetic about who I am and what I believe. Then I began to feel an acceptance in the community, not based on how well I conformed to a generic ideal of the “good neighbor,” but rather on the blessed quirks and contradictions of who I am. And while I still keep most of my political and religious views to myself, I found that many of the things about myself I thought I had to hide were actually the best gifts I can offer to my neighbors. These have become key anchors for belonging in this rural community: providing music at neighborhood gatherings, tilling neighbors’ gardens and offering advice about organic gardening, answering curious questions about the solar panels perched on the barn roof, even writing a poem upon a neighbor’s passing.
A tree bears fruit through its instinctive fidelity: by standing still and growing roots and branches. I believe that any human fidelity—attending to a place, a spouse, a vocation—brings a similar blessing of fecundity. Such fruit, however, does not come as a reward for jaw-clenched discipline and self-enforced misery. For at its core, the power of fidelity is not duty or principle or moral uprightness or even truth in the abstract sense, but love, which St. Paul knew to be the deepest truth of all: “the greatest of all these is love.”
By its divine nature, love is wildly, wonderfully generous. Out of love God made the world, and so the world reflects love’s generosity. As soon as the dry land appeared in the first chapter of Genesis, it brought forth seed- and fruit-bearing vegetation; the first command God gave the original couple was to be fruitful and multiply. In this we see a model for authentic human vocation: God invites us to love and belong in creation, and from our fidelity to places, relationships and good work within both will come the blessing of fecundity—whether it be children, a productive farm, a creative pursuit, a strong community, a healthy civic life or expansion of the “inner frontier” of personal growth and wisdom. God did not intend that we define ourselves as mere “consumers” of goods (hence, producers of waste and pollution), but rather as faithful lovers, whose love adds something precious and beautiful to the world.
In spite of my barber’s dire predictions, after standing still and putting down roots I eventually met and married a wonderful woman who shared similar values and hopes, and who was willing to live several counties away from the nearest Starbucks. And while I am far from a perfect partner, I would like to think that being a faithful husbandman helped prepare me to be a faithful husband. Caring for a piece of land had engendered in me, often painfully and always imperfectly, some degree of patience, nurture, attention and humility so crucial in our marriage. As I saw how another new loyalty came to complement my commitment to my—now our—place, I discovered that all fidelity is of a piece: faithfulness in one arena can beget or strengthen faithfulness in another.
Divine love calls us to fidelity and promises us fecundity. As we come to belong fully and freely and fruitfully to our farms or cities or towns, to the people in our lives, to the wider world, we taste the promise of that yet more beautiful belonging where all may find a home in God.