Pull and push

One book that often washes up at the edge of my nightstand is Locales, a poetry anthology by members of the Fellowship of Southern Writers. Locales introduced me to Wendell Berry and his poem “Stay Home.” I can’t get over it right now.

The speaker is at home “In the labor of the fields / longer than a man’s life…”

I want to be at home that way. I want to wait with Berry “…here in the fields / to see how well the rain / brings on the grass.” Berry gazes quietly, his Jeffersonian face resting on his hands that cap his hoe, and I hop up and down beside him, tugging on a turned-up cuff.

Berry’s poetic voice is deep and resonant, like the voices that read Lincoln’s words in the documentaries. Berry’s poetry is also deceptively simple, like Lincoln’s best lines.

Part of Berry’s resonance comes from his decision to live his lines. In the early 1960’s, Berry gave up his teaching position at New York University to farm and teach in Henry County, Kentucky, where his family had farmed for over 150 years. His discussion of environmental issues in Christian terms makes him a forerunner of the Evangelical Church’s nascent environmental movement. In 1999, Berry won the Thomas Merton Award, which is given annually to “national and international individuals struggling for justice.” He has written over forty books from his farm, and he has won several awards for his poetry.

Much of Berry’s life and work is an argument for something like an agrarian society, and he is a leader in the environmental movement in his own way. He is not one to mobilize or to run a movement, though. Berry is more comfortable instructing through his poetry, essays, and fiction and leading by example. Berry has a penchant for personal acts of resistance that has frustrated allies over the years who prefer more traditional and robust leadership. For example, in “February 2, 1968,” a poem about the Vietnam War, Berry writes: “…war spreading, families dying, the world in danger, / I walk the rocky hillside, sowing clover.” Like Hardy’s nameless farmer in time of “The Breaking of Nations,” Berry is “Only a man harrowing clods / In a slow silent walk…”

“Stay Home” pulls me into the fields and woods that Berry values so highly. It also led me to find out more about him. In turn, finding out more about him made me want to make a pilgrimage to Kentucky to tug on Berry’s cuffs – to meet a man who answered a call.

I didn’t do it. The poem is called “Stay Home,” right? And as much as “Stay Home” pulls me, it also pushes me away. Both of the poem’s stanzas end with “Don’t come with me. / You stay home too.” Berry’s lines suggest that, as important as Berry’s work may seem to me, something like mental assent – or membership in a movement – isn’t much of a response. I also have to stay home in some sense.

A writer is a host. I may share her beliefs and aspire to her sensibilities, but I may not call her imagination my home. By the end of the book, if not sooner, the pull always turns into a push.

Good writers of place – people that write about their home or out of the context of their home – are also travel writers in a sense. If they are home, they are home from an interesting journey, and the journey never seems to stop even when they’re home. I guess mine won’t, either. Much like Odysseus back home in Ithaca, I must dislodge old dreams and beliefs that I have permitted into my idea of home – suitors for my affections who have worn out their welcome.

When I had an identity crisis at the age of forty, my therapist suggested that I was beginning a spiritual journey. As corny as the phrase must sound to most people, I had never heard of it, and I found it exciting. I still do, even though I’m more at home with myself eight years later. I like the idea that any of my more comfortable sins may lead me to discover a new part of home.

Does “Stay Home” leave me at home, as it suggests? It may lead me nowhere, or, more hopefully, it may lead me to find myself nowhere. If I am not this at home – as home as Berry’s pleasingly simple lines suggest is possible – then I am not at home. I must shove off with thousands in literature and life who have come to grips with their poor moorings. I must not insist on seeing the voyage as a pilgrimage, since I seek myself first of all, or as a flight to a conference with an expense account. Like Odysseus, I must be willing to lose my ships and stores and my companions on my journey. I must be willing to spend years going just a few miles. I must let the voyage overtake me and drag me in its wake.

I must take every push and remember the pull. As Odysseus says on the eve of his homecoming:

Where shall a man find sweetness to surpass
his own home and his parents? In far lands
he shall not, though he find a house of gold.

But don’t come to Ithaca. You stay home too.

[For more about Wendell Berry, check out this
in grist magazine and this
in Via Negativa.]