Place, Soul, and Wendell Berry: Being in Conscious Relationship

I find myself musing repeatedly on a sense of place these days. Perhaps ‘musing’ isn’t the optimal word; maybe it’s something more like ’steeping’ which implies a full-bodied, brewed, somatic sense of what I’m feeling. Or ’soaking,’ which also feels closer to the mark; a saturation of the bodysoul while absorbing the uniqueness of the ‘more-than-human’ world that enfolds me. Whatever the word, it’s a rooting down.

In my forthcoming book there is a chapter titled, “The Eros of Place” (author’s update: now moved to ‘Book 2’) that explores our relationship with location: from the locale where we reside and environment that surrounds us, down to the actual residence where we dwell and the idea of sanctuary. One of the ideas put forth in that chapter is that there exist places on the planet that beckon us and conspire in our soulful awakening; places where we ‘belong’ as part of the landscape & culture, or that facilitate our personal, evolutionary process. Certainly what is ’steeping,’ ‘soaking,’ and simmering for me lately is along those energetic lines of Eros of Place, yet there is something more, too.

Here on the Pacific mountainside where I live amid a mixed wood of eucalyptus and conifers, I find myself mulling the art (and skill) of living gracefully and soulfully… with senses open. Embodied. Ensouled. Though it still relies upon external resources, the funky redwood cottage where I reside seems part of the landscape (rather than something imposed upon it), nestled in the trees and viscerally connected to the elements. Through the massive windows and sliding glass doors that open into the green canopy, I am constantly immersed in the changing moods of light and weather, voices of wind and trees, and the energy and presence of the mountain, itself.

It’s a tranquil refuge and a delicious feast for the senses. As a soul-centered writer, I find myself observing the acts of daily living as I undertake them, the rituals that ground us in the timeless and the fleeting moment: tasks around the house, sitting on the deck and listening, preparing food, the act of eating, washing the dishes, stargazing. Like the soft breeze that constantly moves through the living tapestry of treetops, the perennial question hums: how do I deepen further into mindfulness and, simultaneously, conscious communion with the ‘more-than-human’ world.

The primary answer is always, through the body. Opening the senses. Following the breath. Listening. Yet there are other methods, too, such as being selective about our environment and what surrounds us, and learning to recognize our key distractions (television, radio, Internet, movies, etc) and patterns. Cultivating a capacity for wonder… and a delight in small things: a perfectly ripe peach (or mango), a gorgeous sunset, the cool shade of a tree on a hot afternoon, the touch of our lover’s hand, a stirring musical composition.

Paying attention to our surroundings, we come to know a place intimately through the passing seasons; actually inhabiting where we dwell, not merely spending disconnected time there. Walking the land (or neighborhood) with an observant eye. When we eat food with a connection to the place we dwell, grown locally, it not only reduces our carbon footprint but also guarantees that what we eat is the right time, right season… right here. Each of these simple methods begins to anchor us into a sense of place and belonging.

As a wandering gypsy spirit, I’ve resided many places on this life journey. Whether I’m living in the concrete hive of an urban metropolis, amid the fragrant piñon and junipers of Taos, in the green (and soggy) English countryside of Sussex, among the olive groves of Spain on the Mediterranean, or on a mountainside in ‘upcountry’ Maui, I seek to draw nourishment from what surrounds me and root down into the spirit of that place. Be here now.

Just as Georgia O’Keeffe has inspired me with her profound connection to place (namely her adobe house at Abiquiu, and the landscape and light of northern New Mexico), so too have I been influenced by Wendell Berry.

Born in 1934, Berry is the author of more than forty books of poetry, fiction and essays, and has farmed a hillside in his native Kentucky for over forty years. The winner of numerous awards, he is an eloquent spokesman for the environment, small-scale farming, and a more connected, sustainable way of living; one that is rooted in the wisdom of Nature. Whether it be his keen essays, lovely poetry, or engaging novels (most of which are set in an imaginary Kentucky township called Port William), reading anything by Mr Berry is a brilliant and valuable use of time.

Several of his novels have touched my heart but Jayber Crow, the life story of the Port William town barber, continues to be among my absolute favorite books ever read. It’s a beautiful testament to a simpler time and way of life (patient, agrarian, timely, cyclical) that is nearly extinct in America, an homage to integrity and the power of place. If I had to choose ten books to take to a desert island where I would be indefinitely stranded, Jayber Crow would be one of them.

Wendell Berry

Though I align with nearly everything that Mr. Berry writes about, one of the aspects that affects me most when I read his work is the clear sense of relationship to place and community. In our modern, movable, mobile and transient world, very few of us have any real roots; certainly not in the way that our grandparents or ancestors did. At no other time in history have we enjoyed such fluidity of movement and the ability to live where we choose and to telecommute… but at what price?

A modern lifestyle has severed our tangible ties to the land (though we are still totally dependent upon it) and largely robbed us of a sense of meaning in our lives. In our mostly unconscious relationship with place, we take a great deal in terms of resources… but what do we offer in return? The majority of individuals scarcely even offer the gift of their attention… let alone any sense of gratitude.

Thinking we can have everything, we’ve lost so much.

Essays that Berry wrote twenty years ago remain (sadly) relevant today… perhaps even more so. His novels are quiet, gentle and timeless. Everything from his pen has merit but a few suggested non-fiction titles include: Bringing It to the Table: On Farming and Food; The Unsettling of America: Culture and Agriculture; The Art of the Commonplace; and The Gift of Good Land. In his writings of place, community, sustainable farming and living, Mr. Berry is essentially writing about nourishment for body, mind and soul.

In many ways, it was largely a sense of place that inspired my writing of “Eros and the Sacred Masculine”; walks in the English (and later, Spanish) countryside evoked stories and essays which morphed into a much larger book. And it is relationship with place that continues to resonate deeply in my bodysoul, drawing me through opened senses into communion with the ‘more-than-human’ world. A desire to live deliberately and harmoniously, while offering forth something of value.

Even if I don’t yet have a garden at this cottage, there are other ways that I can give something of myself to where I live, small steps I can take – acts of sacred reciprocity and creative inspiration – towards building community, sustainability, and a less resource-hungry lifestyle. Trading my organic, hearth-baked bread for vegetables, farm fresh eggs, and cheese. Walking the land with gratitude and delight. Stewarding the honeybees. Writing about conscious living.

Berry, as a writer of both fiction and non-fiction, a conscious farmer deeply embedded in the place he dwells, gives me something to aspire to. I deeply long to live in a way nearly equally connected to this unique niche of the planet where I reside, and I dream of being able to write both non-fiction and visionary fiction that inspires and matters. The more I sink down daily into my essential connection with soul and soil, ever mindful of my bones and breath as I build conscious community (both human and ‘other’), the closer I may come to that ideal. Certainly my life will be immeasurably richer for it.