Imagination in Place

By Heitman, Danny | The Christian Science Monitor, February 9, 2010 | Go to article overview

Imagination in Place


Heitman, Danny, The Christian Science Monitor


Berry's latest collection of essays celebrates the power of place.

In 50 books of poetry, essays, and fiction, Wendell Berry has argued

for the value of small-scale farming and against unbridled

development. As the local-foods movement grows and skepticism about

suburban sprawl increases, Berry's long-held ideas ring with

renewed urgency. Even so, readers might wonder what sustained

Berry's singular vision in all those years when he was writing

against the tide.

In Imagination in Place, his latest collection of essays, Berry

points to two major sources of inspiration for his literary work: the

family farm he's tended for many years in his native Kentucky and a

circle of other writers across the country who share his attachment

to place.

For Berry, farming and writing are mutually enriching enterprises

that both depend on a grasp of complexity, an eye for instructive

detail, and an insistence on the particular and concrete, not the

abstract and ephemeral.

Berry bristles at any suggestion of farming as a pastoral embrace of

simplicity because, as he sees it, there's nothing at all simple

about a farm: "It is the complexity of the life of a place

uncompromisingly itself, which is at the same time the life of the

world, of all Creation. One meets not only the weather and the

wildness of the world, but also the limitations of one's knowledge,

intelligence, character, and bodily strength. To do this, of course,

is to accept the place as an influence."

Berry's point is not that everyone should become farmers, but that

we should all learn to live more intimately and knowledgeably within

local landscapes. "If that ground is not in a great cultural

center, but only in a New Jersey suburb, so be it," Berry writes.

"Imagination is as urgently necessary in Rutherford, New Jersey, or

in Knott County, Kentucky, or in Point Coupee Parish, Louisiana, as

it is in San Francisco or New York."

In living more attentively in local places, we can come to

appreciate their unique gifts, which is the "power that can save us

from the prevailing insinuation that our place, our house, our

spouse, and our automobile are not good enough," he adds.

The title of "Imagination in Place" carries a double meaning,

celebrating the life of the mind within local terrains, as well as

the value of thinking deeply while standing in place and looking

around.

Berry knows that an exhortation to stay put runs contrary to the

contemporary culture, which favors mobility. …

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