I’ve just finished reading Wendell Berry’s Life is a Miracle: an essay against modern superstition. It was billed to me as “a book similar in importance to The Abolition of Man;” I trust you can understand why I then picked it up.
Dr. Schlueter’s “Love and Liberty in Literature” course at Hillsdale first introduced me to Wendell Berry, via his novel Hannah Coulter. This, Dr. Schlueter noted to us, is one of the few novels he could speak of which depicts the happiness of a human life. When Andrew Kern and a bibliomonger of Eighth Day Books were encouraging me to expand my Berry collection, they added that Hannah Coulter, uniquely, contains characters who act rightly, and whose actions thus contribute to their happiness. Instead of worrying about Tolstoy’s maxim that happy families are all alike, Berry portrays a particular family and the happiness its members live – due in no small part to their contentment with their place.
“Place” refers to so many concepts when Berry’s hands wield it. It means geographical location; social position; economic level; the refuge provided by loving relationships; one’s niche in the membership or neighborhood; and more besides, as one shade of meaning bleeds into the next, as one sense exists within the context of another sense.
Hannah and Nathan Coulter’s contentment with their place embodies several of the ideas Berry propounds in Life is a Miracle: that one could speak of people either as “boomers” or “stickers”; that, whereas “boomers” run off to all corners of the earth, eager to discover and conquer virgin territory (literally or figuratively), “stickers” stay in one place for a long time, long enough to know that place intimately. Their affection for the area allows them to know it more fully than those boomers who pass on to somewhere else; their knowledge increases their love of the place and the particular people, creatures, or landmarks in it.
These concepts strike me so forcefully, I suspect, because my experience is so far from Berry’s. My twenty-three years, ostensibly lived on the west side of Detroit, have in truth been lived in Dearborn, Westland, Livonia, Ann Arbor, Hillsdale – anywhere but the city where my house is located.
Technically mine is one of the better neighborhoods in Detroit, and yet there is always an undercurrent of fear, a threat of danger. Hence the rules I grew up with: Don’t go down the street by yourself; take your brothers. Close the gate, and lock it if the house is empty. Lock the back door and the bar door. Screw the air conditioner into the window so potential housebreakers can’t just pull it out. Park your car behind the house so thieves can’t see it. Don’t leave money lying about where it might be visible from a window. Don’t join the City Mission crew in Brightmoor; your car might get stolen and you might be abducted.
A lamp in our living room is always on to create the illusion that someone is present. There are locks not only on our door and gate, but on our shed, on a chain around Dad’s saw horses, and on the wooden structure housing our snow blower.
I do not know my neighbors, except for the man across the street, who once hired me to pick up the mail from his door while he was on vacation, lest passersby know by the buildup of fliers that he was not at home.
We used to decorate the evergreen tree outside our house with bulbs at Christmastime; we now stick to lights as the bulbs inevitably disappeared or were smashed.
But Detroit is not the only city full of fear and seemingly empty of neighbors. Some, if not all, of these rules are familiar to anyone in America, especially those with children, especially if their children are young.
What strikes me? The fact that though I don’t really know and love my neighborhood or my city the way Berry knows and loves his farm, I want to. I long to live in a neighborhood where I am not afraid of the people walking or driving by; furthermore, I wish I could watch my neighbor’s back instead of my own. The picture of neighbors (whence it came, I couldn’t say) shines in my mind as a sunset-lit haze of friendly chatting, trading recipes, pitching in to clean the boulevard, drinking tea or lemonade or maybe Arnold Palmers.
What else strikes me? Since the expressway, my normal route to work, has become a construction zone, I’ve taken Outer Drive through that contradictorily-named Brightmoor neighborhood; over bumpy pothole-laden roads; mid houses that are burnt out and falling down; past yards full of trash, boarded-over windows, and grown-over lawns, tramped down by the weight of wintertime.
Every day, I see this, and cannot ignore it, and wonder what can be done about it. I read Life is a Miracle and wonder whether I could find it in myself to be a sticker in Detroit. Am I simply a boomer, or is there a better response to such blight? There has been much talk about these problems, of empty houses and neighborhoods in flight. And all I can say is that every time I take Outer Drive, Tobacco Road runs through my head:
I’m gonna get me some dynamite
A big ol’ crane
Blow it up, tear it down,
and start all over again
I despise you ’cause you’re filthy
But I love you because you’re home
Talkin’ ’bout Tobacco Road