Rod Dreher’s new book, The Little Way of Ruthie Leming, seems to have struck a chord among both sympathizers and critics of Wendell Berry.  Ross Douthat, Alan Jacobs, Jake Meador, Peter Lawler, FPR’s Mark Mitchell and Russell Arben Fox, and others have weighed in on how Dreher’s book might challenge or clarify some of Berry’s ideas.  What I find missing so far from this discussion, though, is a clear articulation of the multidimensional nature of Berry’s understanding of “place.”  Without this, his pronouncement that “to be in place is good and to be out of place is evil” seems ludicrous.  Once we realize that Berry doesn’t understand place merely as a geographical term, though, Dreher’s narrative can be seen as another illustration of the complex interworkings of Berry’s notion of place along dimensions that include the geographical, chronological, communal, and hierarchical.

Alan Jacobs’s response is clarifying in its rather harsh critique of Berry.  Jacobs quotes part of Berry’s recent lecture “It All Turns on Affection” where he draws on Wallace Stegner to identify two types of people, boomers and stickers.  Boomers are motivated by greed and are always on the lookout for better opportunities elsewhere, while stickers are motivated by affection and stay faithfully in their places, working through the problems they encounter.  Jacobs sees this as a “simplistic and uncharitable” binary, arguing, “There are many reasons why people stay home, and many why they leave; and probably no single person is driven by one reason only.”  As an example he cites Dreher’s narrative to indicate the personal and complex nature of these choices.  Jacobs does praise Berry’s essays effusively, but he concludes that “about some of these matters pertaining to place — which is absolutely central to his concerns — his thinking is simplistic and Manichean and insufficiently aware of the real choices that many real people face.”

Jacobs’s one-dimensional understanding of boomers and stickers also informs his follow-up post where he questions whether Berry’s notion of place is compatible with Christianity.  Since Jesus and Paul and the missionaries that followed did not remain in one place, Jacobs argues, the spread of Christianity depends on boomers.  Yet the fuller meaning that Berry attributes to place, and the coincidence of this with the life of Jesus, can be glimpsed in Jayber Crow, when Jayber learns to submit to his place before God by praying the prayer of submission and obedience that Jesus prays in the Garden of Gethsemane.  Jesus was acutely aware of his place in time and in community, and while Jacobs is right to claim that Jesus lived a peripatetic life, what seems more remarkable given his mission to save the world is that he spent most of his life within a radius of about seventy miles.  He had a very placed ministry.

Yet while I’ve critiqued Jacobs’s overly-narrow reading of Berry’s conception of place, such an understanding of Berry’s work is quite common and has some justification.  The lecture that Jacobs cites, “It All Turns on Affection,” is more binary and simplistic than other essays where Berry addresses boomers and stickers.  In an earlier essay, “The Conservation of Nature and the Preservation of Humanity,” Berry is more careful to define the terms “boomer” and “sticker” as conflicting internal desires.  He warns against seeing these as categories of people, arguing instead that they differentiate between parts of individuals.  As Berry writes, “All of us, I think, are in some manner torn between caring and not caring, staying and going.”   The choice to root ourselves in place is not a clear-cut, one-time choice.  Rather, it is a long process of refining and ordering our affections, of choosing to submit to the limits of our place rather than to fulfill our individual desires.

The larger problem underlying this sort of misreading of place in Berry’s work stems from a lack of engagement with his fiction.  As Jake Meador observes, Berry’s essays are incomplete without his fiction: “If the only thing you read is The Unsettling of America Berry may well come off as an angry white environmentalist with a shocking streak of naiveté. But if you read Jayber CrowA Place on Earth, or Fidelity, you begin to become acquainted with the entire world associated with the place of Port William and you begin to understand that the place is more than just a physical place, but an entire world and culture marked by certain long-held-and-now-forgotten beliefs.”  I know for myself that if I had not first read Berry’s fiction, his essays would have seemed incorrigibly grumpy; they are occasional, contrarian, prophetic, and provocative and aren’t meant to offer his full vision.  It is in his fiction that Berry imagines in more complete ways the complex choices that individuals face as they struggle to work out what it means to be placed.  Rod Dreher has responded with a similar defense of the power of imaginative stories to those who wished that he would have provided a clearer theoretical articulation of the value of place.  Dreher sees merit in such work, but he writes that he didn’t want to make normative pronouncements about how other people should lead their lives; what we need isn’t more arguments about place but more stories, or to use the title of his post, “more cowbell!”

Ross Douthat’s recent critique of an agrarianism overly focused on geography perceptively points out the limitations of such a localism: “a communitarianism that just tells people to “stay put!” more generally, whether in cities or suburbs or exurbs, is likewise insufficient … because to a surprising extent, Americans are already doing just that.”  Douthat thus concludes, rightly, that “place alone is not enough.”  As indicated by Douthat’s observations about the loneliness contemporary Americans experience, Americans may be sticking to their geographical places, but they aren’t placed in the full sense of the word because they aren’t sticking to their communal, temporal, and hierarchical places.  Many people are stuck in a place without being rooted to it in all its dimensions.  The pettiness that can define small town life is the paradigmatic example of this.  Yet as Dreher discovered, the solution is not necessarily to leave such rural places and never come back; rather, it is to work out one’s place more deeply, in all its complex interconnections.

Mitchell agrees in his response when he writes that “Douthat is exactly right that simply extolling the virtues of place or idealizing the rural life is simply inadequate. While the embodied nature of human existence suggests that particular places matter, place is not a sufficient condition for healthy communities.”  The core issue, according to Mitchell, is limits: “As many FPR writers have argued, a central pathology of our day is a denigration of every sort of limit.”  These are the limits that we violate when we act as if we are not creatures who are placed in space, in time, in community, and in creation.

The fully imagined place that Berry’s fiction ushers us into is not simply a geographical location.  Rather, it’s a rich tapestry whose strands include geography, time, community, and God, and in which individual characters must carefully learn to trace their own thread.

This is the context of Berry’s bold claim that “to be in place is good and to be out of place is evil.”  His sentence continues, “for where we are with respect to our place both in the order of things and on earth is the definition of our whereabouts with respect to God and our fellow creatures” (“Poetry and Place” 192).  The key phrase here is “the order of things”; this is an order with many dimensions.  In this essay, Berry describes this order with reference to the medieval chain of being, and elsewhere he defines it as “the Great Economy” or the biblical “Kingdom of God.”  These orders place individuals within a complex harmony or pattern.

The same pride that leads some people to disregard the limits of their physical place leads others to deny their spiritual or communal place.  As Berry explains, “humans are so placed in the Chain—between angels and animals, partaking of both ‘natures,’ tempted toward both—as to endanger it.  What threatens the integrity or wholeness or health of Creation is human pride; this goes to the roots of both the Greek and the Judaic lineages of Western culture” (“Poetry and Place” 146).  So the humility cultivated by sticking in our physical place also helps us to remain in our proper hierarchical and communal place.  This is why Berry returns often to The Odyssey and Paradise Lost: these stories narrate home in this holistic sense and so illustrate the interconnections between the different dimensions of place.

In a parallel way, the title of Berry’s latest collection of short stories, A Place in Time, suggests his concern with how we locate ourselves within our traditions.  In fact, he’s made an explicit comparison between his choice to stick it out on a “marginal” farm and his identification as a “marginal” member of the Christian tradition (Conversations with Wendell Berry 192).  Many of us treat the past as we treat the earth: we extract what resources we can easily get from it and then move on.  Berry’s decision to tend and care for his abused tradition, however, parallels his decision to nurture a “marginal” farm whose previous owners exploited and damaged it.

Berry’s call is for our culture to work out more complex forms of belonging, forms adapted to our physical place, but also to the other aspects of our creaturely status.  Berry’s writings consistently remind us that we are contingent beings who find liberty and health only when we observe limits, and hence whose posture should be one not of pride and greed, but of affection and gratitude.  This posture is what differentiates boomers and stickers.

The affections and virtues that are cultivated by sticking in a geographical place are also those that help us to find our place with respect to time, to our fellow humans, to the rest of creation, and to God.  Belonging to place in a healthy way requires a complex negotiation of all these dimensions, so yes, physical place is vital to Berry’s thought, but it can’t be separated from the other ways in which he thinks humans ought to be placed.

It’s too easy to dismiss Berry’s thought by saying that since we can’t all move back to some idyllic, rural home, we don’t need to pay attention to him.  Berry doesn’t believe in some idyllic past, and he doesn’t think everyone should live on a farm.  He’s arguing something much more radical, in the literal sense of that word, when he claims that “to be in place is good and to be out of place is evil.”  Fortunately for us, we can acknowledge our creaturely limits and express proper gratitude even when we’re geographically placeless.  Indeed, if we could not, how could we ever find our way back home?

Jeffrey Bilbro teaches English at Spring Arbor University in Spring Arbor, Michigan.

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  1. Jeff, just two thoughts here.

    First, I have read almost all of Berry’s fiction and I can’t remember a single character or scene that in any way addresses the issues I raise in my post, especially my core issue: Berry’s lack of generosity and charity towards people who leave their home town or region. If you can think of such a character or such a scene, seriously, do please let me know. My memory is not exactly faultless.

    (To be sure, I wouldn’t blame Berry if his fiction didn’t cover that territory, because there he is chiefly concerned to draw an extended portrait of a community, and as a result does not concern himself with those who are outside the community, whether because they never belonged to it or because they have come in from the outside — usually not very far outside. To trace the fate of outsiders is just not what those stories are about, as far as I can tell.)

    Second point: You cite the essay “The Conservation of Nature and the Preservation of Humanity” as one that gives a more balanced and nuanced picture of these issues. I have to say that I can’t see that at all. We may all have “conflicting desires,” but for Berry what matters is which desires we choose to act on, because those define us. Look for instance at this passage: “If enough of us were to choose caring over not caring, staying over going, then the culture would change, the theme of exploitation would become subordinate to the theme of settlement, and then the choice to be a sticker would become easier.” Caring over not caring, staying over going: those who stay, the stickers, care; those who don’t stay, the boomers, don’t care. I don’t see any room in Berry’s simplistic opposition for inquiry into the various reasons why people choose to leave their native landscape, or how it might be that for some of them the departure is costly precisely because they care.

    I understand why Berry paints his picture in such stark terms: in modern America sticking is under terrible and ceaseless assault. He rightly wants to celebrate it and reward people for doing it. But he doesn’t have to denigrate everyone who leaves as a greedy, selfish “boomer” in order to achieve that. And I wish he would consider the possibility that there are, for some people, legitimately higher claims upon them than those of their local habitation.

  2. Perhaps Mr. Berry could be invited to FPR to clarify his thinking.

    I do know that Wendell Berry has read and assimilated much of the thought of John Ruskin, and one might reasonably speculate that Ruskin’s “Law of Help” offers a clue to Berry’s thought on this in its meaning in a greater sense transcendent of geographical place that more people might be receptive to. Ruskin’s idea is similarly binary, but not unreasonably so, and suggestive of the harm of separation of which geographical rootlessness is the most real form. It certainly echoes Berry’s religious understanding.

    “Life and consistency…both expressing one character (namely, helpfulness of a higher or lower order), the Maker of all creatures and things, ‘by whom all creatures live, and all things consist,’ is essentially and for ever the Helpful One, or in softer Saxon, the ‘Holy’ One….The word has no other ultimate meaning: Helpful, harmless, undefiled : ‘living’ or ‘Lord of life.’ A pure or holy state of anything, therefore, is that in which all its parts are helpful or consistent. They may or may not be homogeneous. The highest of organic purities are composed of many elements in an entirely helpful state. THE HIGHEST AND FIRST LAW OF THE UNIVERSE—AND THE OTHER NAME OF LIFE IS, THEREFORE ‘HELP.’ THE OTHER NAME OF DEATH IS ‘SEPARATION’ [my emphasis]. Government and co-operation are in all things and eternally the laws of life. Anarchy and competition, eternally, and in all things, the laws of death.”

    Cooperation vs competition, as a choice between fundamental operating principles for living with others and for society in general, as well as with the land (from which we can never separate ourselves and go on living), is clearly part of Berry’s (and Stegner’s) sticker vs boomer construct. In any case, whether one fully accepts the strict geographical intent that might or might not be intended, surely there is beyond that question profound truth here that should not be dismissed.

  3. Alan Jacobs:
    Burley Coulter in Hannah Coulter, and–I think–in Jayber Crow and a few short stories is made to sympathize with those who left. Reflecting on how things changed after the war he recalls his observing the young ones leaving and not coming back, being replaced by machines, etc. After sharing his pain at their absence and abandonment he defends them by acknowledging that they had nothing to come back to, that things had been changed by forces beyond their power or decision.

  4. Dear Alan Jacobs:

    I write as a friend and colleague of Jeff Bilbro, with whom I’ve spent a good deal of time trying to suss out the nuances and implications of education, place, and affection. So know that I have a lot of ideas swirling around in my head right now. I’ll try to respond to a few points you make in your comment above as well as the piece with The American Conservative.

    It strikes me as odd that you would be critiquing Berry for denigrating “everyone who leaves as a greedy, selfish ‘boomer’.” Such a line feels like a straw man to me. I don’t know of any place in his writing where he says any such thing. In fact, as you note in your piece with The American Conservative, the direct quote of Berry’s Jefferson Lecture begins “The boomer is motivated by greed, the desire for money, property, and therefore power.” Berry doesn’t say “everyone who leaves” is “a greedy, selfish ‘boomer’.” I think you are missing the operative phrase in his sentence: “motivated by.” In Berry’s lecture, he is careful to note that our affections are never without consequences. Thus, the individual _motivated_ by “greed, the desire for money, property, and therefore power,” is certainly not the individual who moves to the only state hiring assistant professors of English, leaving loved ones half a nation away. Nor is the boomer the individual who leaves his small town where his entire family lives because he has suffered abuse at their hands. Instead, the boomer is the individual who is guided by wrongheaded affections–affections for power, for wealth at whatever cost, for an iron crown. We must be clear that “boomer” is a way of thinking–a way of thinking that leads to a way of living characterized by disinterest in place and consequence–not a person who leaves a place. So perhaps an important distinction is that a boomer’s motivation is volitional–not obligatory.

    Much like the boomer, a “sticker” is also a person motivated by certain affections, many of which turn upon limits, humility, and community. So I agree with you wholeheartedly that staying in one’s place is “under terrible and ceaseless assault.” Part of the problem, as it seems to me, is that we live in a society that values the peripatetic ladder climber whose success is in large part attributable to his ability to cut and run as soon as the getting is better elsewhere. We have made leaving a place the great indicator of one’s success in the world. If you seek an education, leave home, it’s somewhere else. If you seek a good paying job, leave home, it’s somewhere else. If you seek to make something meaningful of your life, leave home, it’s somewhere else.

    Thus, I believe Berry’s fiction is a much needed antidote to such cultural poison. What is more, I don’t see how it’s possible to read what he does in both his fiction and non-fiction as a “simplistic opposition.” If Berry has taught me anything, it is that things are rarely simplistic. For example, in the final line of your penultimate paragraph you state that you can’t see any room in his view of things for “how it might be that for some of them the departure is costly precisely _because_ they care.” I couldn’t help but think of his short story, “Making It Home,” in which Art Rowanberry returns form the destruction of war to the familiar geography of his homeland. In the story, Art recounts the death and destruction he encountered away from home, in some geography that was someone else’s homeland. At one point, he admits that (and I’m paraphrasing here) he got to a point that when he looked at a man he couldn’t help but think of how little it would take to kill him. In the midst of his walk home, he comes to realize how costly was his departure because he cares so much about his Port William and its people. As he walks to his family’s farm, he returns to himself, no longer the soldier surrounded by death. When he comes into the presence of his brother and his father, the elder Rowanberry is able only to utter “Well now!”, over and over again. Collecting himself enough to turn to Art’s nephew, his father tells the boy to run to the house and have his granny set another plate, “For we have our own that was gone and has come again.”

    I realize that you are referring specifically to those who depart, never to return. To this I would say that wherever one lands, cultivating a home in that place is essential to begin cultivating healthy affections for that place and its people. To quote Berry’s barber-philosopher, Jayber Crow: “To feel at home in a place, you have to have some prospect of staying there.”

    I agree with your parenthetical statement about Berry’s fiction. From a strictly narratological sense, it would make little sense for a series of stories about the ever shrinking Port William community to follow the lives of people who have left that community. Nevertheless, certainly not all of the characters who leave that place are boomers. In fact, one who stays in his place his entire life, Troy Chatham, is the textbook definition of a boomer–boomers aren’t always outsiders, and they aren’t always leaving (even when we sometimes wish they would leave).

    In the end, I just don’t read Berry as “denigrating everyone who leaves as a greedy, selfish “boomer.”” I think his ideas are much more nuanced than that.

    Jack Baker

  5. Thank you for this discussion, as it brings to light other ways of understanding “place.” As a former military brat, I have never lived in one location for more than three years and have never identified any particular place as “home.” Military brats often claim that “home” isn’t a place at all, it’s a state of mind or a connection to certain people, and I think that notion is very relevant to this essay. Community isn’t automatically forged because we stay in one location all our lives, but because of certain commitments and choices. Interestingly, those who live the military lifestyle have the opportunity to live out many communal commitments despite their rootlessness, as it is a life full of limits, hierarchies, history, and traditions, where the family is held in high esteem, relationships are forged quickly and often go deep quickly, and an intense devotion to one’s community is expected of everyone. Perhaps this is an idealized vision of military life (and I’ve been out of it for a decade and have heard of many changes that have made it less family oriented), but I know my family experienced a greater sense of community in the military than we ever have in the civilian world. It also struck me that this mobile lifestyle shared many of values that might motivate a person to stay in one place.

  6. Are we not ignoring the fact that Berry himself did, in fact, “leave,” at least for a while? Surely he would concede that that season of his life was somewhat purposeful?

  7. Upon reading this, as well as some of the comments on this site, I have began to reflect upon my own sense of “place” and how I myself am part of that culture that left it’s home, though I must confess that I don’t consider myself as a “boomer”. Allow me to explain. I grew up in a small, rural community in North Eastern Kentucky, but that town, and the surrounding areas have been ravaged by rampant drug abuse and the many problems this leads to. I cannot say that I know of one person from my home-town who isn’t either an addict, a recovering addict, or is very close (married, parent of, ect.) to someone who is. In my own family, of three children, I am the only one who has remained drug free (this is not something I am proud of, however, I just feel that I was lucky) It is for this reason that I left home promptly following graduation, and have never moved back. I’m often asked by friends and relatives to move back home, but of course, I couldn’t possibly go back there, no matter how much I’d like to. On top of this, I met and married a wonderful Welshman, and he and I, after spending the first couple of years of our marriage in America, decided to make the move across the pond, and settle in Wales. We did this for a few reasons….some, people would find distasteful and “bigoted”, and other reasons people find more acceptable. Violence, greed, dysfunction, and an unhealthy lifestyle are all major problems in modern America. I say this not to be mean, but to be honest. Of course, Wales, just like any other place, has it’s issues as well, and sometimes I wonder if the sheer size and scope of America is one of it’s biggest challenges, and that smaller, more manageable places are better off simply because they are much smaller and have a more homogenous community. I realize I’m rambling here and my thoughts are a bit incoherent but I guess what I’m trying to say is, sometimes people have a legitimate reason for leaving. Sometimes people like me see their home’s crumble around them to the point where they can no longer recognize them (to me, this has happened not only on a local scale, but a national one, too) and so they leave to try and find someplace that, even though technically is not their home, still feels more like home than the actual homeland they left. My husband and I, we aren’t hateful people…indeed, I think you would be hard pressed to find a more friendly couple, but everyone likes to feel “at home” and in my opinion, everyone is entitled to a place to call home.

  8. I’ve always read Berry as not being opposed to “leaving” as such, but rather to the mindset that refuses to settle and is always in search of greener pastures. Obviously some folks “leave” out of necessity, but many times they leave with hopes of finding another place to “stick.” Many of the pioneers went west with exactly that in mind — finding a good place, putting down roots and staying there. As Mr. Baker said above, what’s important is the motivation. It seems to me to be uncharitable to Berry and his work to read him as some unnuanced dichotomist of place.

    • Worth reading Berry’s words from “It All Turns on Affection.” The language of inclination and motivation seem to me to say something much broader and nuanced than the strict binary interpretation being objected to.

      Stegner, writes Berry, “thought rightly that we Americans, by inclination at least, have been divided into two kinds: ‘boomers’ and ‘stickers.’ Boomers, he said, are ‘those who pillage and run,’ who want ‘to make a killing and end up on Easy Street,’ whereas stickers are ‘those who settle, and love the life they have made and the place they have made it in.’ ‘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.”

  9. Alan,

    It sounds to me like we agree on the attitude toward place that is needed in today’s culture, and our disagreement is just whether Berry articulates this attitude with the appropriate nuance. Others have already responded to your thoughts better than I could, so I’ll just point to one additional example from Berry’s fiction. Given your all-important caveat about his focus on Port William, I think one of the most sympathetic portrayals of a character who leaves home might be Hannah Coulter. When she graduates from high school Hannah remembers that she “was wanting to leave home” but didn’t know how to do so or where to go. So she is grateful when her grandmother says to her, “Child, dear Hannah, you’re grown up now. You have graduated from school. You’re a valedictorian. You’re smart, and you can do things. This is not the right place for you. You need to go.” Her grandmother recognizes that Hannah’s home is no longer her place. After Hannah’s mother died and her father remarried, Hannah never really felt that she belonged at home, and while she doesn’t move that far away, she does move to a separate community and rarely sees her father or grandmother again. Yet after her marriage to Virgil and then to Nathan, she becomes an exemplary practitioner of the art of sticking.

    Of course, one of the predominant themes of Hannah’s reflections is whether she and Nathan raised their children in such a way that the choice to come home was a clear and desirable possibility. She wanted her children to go to college, but she didn’t realize the strength of its boomer narrative: “The big idea of education, from first to last, is the idea of a better place. Not a better place where you are, because you want it to be better and have been to school and learned to make it better, but a better place somewhere else. In order to move up, you have got to move on.” To be a sticker means that you want to make where you are a better place. Many of us leave our natal homes for any number of reasons, but like Hannah we can still work toward the health of the place to which we’ve come.

  10. Berry’s “That Distant Land” collects stories of Port William through time and several of his generations, and it has helped me understand him (and the people of Port William) much more than I did before. If we’re talking about how actually to live in a place, in its sameness and change. So I wd mention that volume to help with the discussion — how people can *do* it.

    Also, I understand “A Place on Earth” as more vignettes and excerpts, than always full stories, with the focus of the material being place. Just a note; I may be mistaken.

  11. Doesn’t “Place” for Berry not only entail limits, but also work? Much of rural America has been turned into a meth lab, as Christina points out, or into a suburb, about which, one imagines, Berry has had strong views (although I can’t recall any specific comments at the moment.) But work is important, and one characteristic of the American suburb is that someone else does the work. And one of the characteristics of poorer rural America is that there isn’t any work–not just “jobs,” but the work that would be economically and culturally sustaining for households and communities. Work is important to Berry–it’s part of what adds meaning to place, and what has been lost in so many places. Work is what you do to invest in a place, both economically and spiritually. I’m reminded of a line from Berry’s friend Guy Davenport, something along the lines of how many of our problems simply derive from the fact that no one has anything to do any more. And if there’s nothing to do, and you think there’s no way you can add value to others or yourself by staying, why stay?

    Christina–I live in London, but spend a lot of time out there in England, and I understand completely about Wales. It’s a place. There’s a lot to be said for living on a small island in the North Atlantic. Scale, for one thing.

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