Sunday, January 01, 2012


There was something about this past year that brought what was near more into focus, and let the stunning faraways remain a pleasant blur for a while. What is this place called home, and what is our needful commitment to it as humans? Annie Dillard's words come to mind. We are here on earth to "explore the neighborhood, view the landscape, to discover at least where it is that have been so startlingly set down, if we can't learn why"(Pilgrim at Tinker Creek). Fill the earth and have dominion...and what about my particular corner of the world?

One of the ways to keep yourself to the neighborhood is to accept limits. This kind of discipline is unfashionable, but one wonders if an occasional fast from the frenzied travel so popular in our time might be good for the soul. The Amish seem to think so, not accepting any technology that pushes them beyond the reach of their own arms and feet. We are far from bonnets and hand plows in downtown Minneapolis (though horse-drawn carriages do meander through Loring Park at time). Still, our chosen means of transportation this year really did circumscribe our pathways to keep to the local. We exchanged international flights for buses and bikes, continental high-speed trains for the occasional car trip. We barely crossed state lines (thank you, Wisconsin) and what was the result?

A teensy bit of adjustment. "Oh my word, can you believe we haven't boarded a plane in six months?" Mild twinges of jealousy while eying passengers of the light rail with large suitcases, obviously headed for an airline terminal and some other magical place. Gratitude does not come easy to us humans, but practice does help. Once we quieted ourselves, took a deep breath, and looked 'round about for contentment - well.

There is a veritable feast of beauty in Minnesota and its environs. We climbed over rugged rocks, ruddy with ore lines along Superior's North Shore, striking color against that vast, wild stretch of tumultuous blue. That lake is never the same exact hue two glimpses in a row - you can swing around once, train your eyes upon it again, and it will have changed. (Try it next time. )

Everywhere you turn in this land there are mirror pools upon the tens of thousands, reflecting city and forest by turns, souvenirs from the glaciers' laborious, behemoth voyage over the earth so many millennia ago. And the southern edges of the state that were somehow missed by those massive patches of ancient ice, leaving dizzying river-bluff
drops. It was a lazy summer afternoon in July, floating in an inner tube on that winding, green strip of water, looking up for eagles and down for agates. Not far from there, vintners try to capture the cool, wild mineral flavor of our native homeland in bottles, with increasing (surprising!) success.

Maybe Minnesota has a sense of terroir after all.

I've been reading lately about how other people think about a sense of place. Wendell Berry, the farmer and essayist, manages to be sharply critical and warmly endearing all at once. He writes in Life is a Miracle: An Essay Against Modern Superstition (2000):

"The standards of our behavior must be derived, not from the capability of technology, but from the nature of places and and communities. We must shift the priority from production to local adaptation, from innovation to familiarity, from power to elegance, from costliness to thrift. We must learn to think about propriety in scale and design, as determined by human and ecological health. By such changes we might again make our work an answer to despair" (12, italics mine).

This is timely advice for a whole constellation of societies facing enormous odds economically. It is also timeless, I think. Technology is not a despicable thing by any means (bikes and books are technologies just as much as cars and Kindles are). But writers like Berry push us to carefully consider how the innovations presented to us might change our ways of thinking and dependence, and how they might cause us to reach beyond what is our proper realm and manner of dominion in God's world. I like that...even as I find his words massively challenging.

Another writer who has approached this question of limits from a culinary and personal point of view is Barbara Kingsolver, in Animal Vegetable, Miracle (2007), an enjoyable account of her family's adventure of eating only local for a year on their farm in Appalachia. She writes with conviction, but balanced with enough self-deprecation and realism to make her less preachy and than some (shrill organa-crusader Joan Gussow comes to mind). Kingsolver takes obvious, lavish delight in creating meals that are faithful to her specific patch of ground. It was a sorely-needed reminder for me to turn my attentions again to the significant gratification of making home, whether baking bread, selecting local squash for a soup, or carefully setting the table. The closer we are to the labor that we partake in ourselves, the less separated we feel from the product and the greater our satisfaction. (It's about the only thing Marx and I can agree on.) Moreover, it's all gifts from above: the ability to work, the pleasure in consuming, the sharing with our neighborhood, the wise rule of creation.

David wrote in the psalms to "trust in the Lord, and do good. Dwell in the land and feed on faithfulness." (37:3) I expect as long as we keep our eyes and mouths wide open, they'll be full to the brim, with everything from bread to beauty, abroad or in the backyard. Yum.

1 comment:

Robbie said...

What a wonderful bookend to your travel entries! "Further up and further in!"