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Longing for our Lost HomeLonging for our Lost Home

Longing for our Lost Home

Doug Sikkema discovers that prophets of the past can help make us whole

Doug Sikkema
8 minute read

If you've read Robert Putnam's Bowling Alone or something along those lines, you're most likely aware that community life in North America is in a bad way. Part — part — of the problem is that the past century has seen the slow death of numerous small townships as people have migrated into larger urban centres. The ongoing migration of so many into urban centres, usually defended as essential to a strong economy, has meant that the once-sustainable small towns and the communities they contained have slowly been shrivelling up and dying over the course of the 20th century and onward into the 21st.

One author who's staked a career on bemoaning this unsettling of North America is Wendell Berry, a man who has farmed and written prodigiously for nearly 50 years in one such township: Port Royal, Kentucky. Almost all of Berry's novels take place in a fictionalized version of Port Royal that becomes an archetype of all such townships in their life and their death. In Jayber Crow, the novel's title character, an unlikely member of the Port William community, becomes witness to the town's untimely death. Jayber tells us:

"When I say that Port William suffered a new run of hard times, I mean that it began to suffer its own death, which it has not yet completed, from which it may or may not revive. You may say that I am just another outdated old man complaining about progress and the changes of time. But, you see, I have well considered that possibility myself, and am prepared to submit to correction by anybody who cares about a community, who can show me how the world is improved by that community's dying."

Jayber continues to provide a litany of the young men and women who have left, never to return; the old who have died with no descendants to inherit the land; businesses that have closed, never to reopen. As the domino effect of the town's death starts to pick up pace, it's not hard to draw parallels with the actual ongoing death of Berry's own Port Royal (a death, if you're interested, that Berry deals with at length in his essay "Conservation and Local Economy").

With the inevitable demise of Port William on its way, Jayber's ability to remember the town in all its particulars becomes increasingly significant. Really, if he can't, who can? In a recent (and highly recommended!) agrarian reading of the Bible titled Scripture, Culture, and Agriculture, Ellen Davis argues that the prophetic "tragic imagination reaches back into memory in order to recall the beloved community to itself." This is really as much the role of Jeremiah as it is of Jayber.

As Port William's barber, Jayber becomes not only the purveyor of the community's stories and repository of the township's collective memory but also a prophet whose ecstatic visions provide revelatory glimpses of just what the Port William community is all about. After one such vision, Jayber recalls:

"[I had] a vision of the gathered community. What I saw now was the community imperfect and irresolute but held together by the frayed and always fraying, incomplete and yet ever holding bonds of the various sorts of affection. There had maybe never been anybody who had not been loved by somebody, who had been loved by somebody else, and so on and on.... It was a community always disappointed in itself, disappointing its members, always trying to contain its divisions and gentle its meanness, always failing and yet always preserving a sort of will towards goodwill. I knew that, in the midst of all the ignorance and error, this was a membership; it was the membership of Port William and of no other place on Earth."

There are a few things to note here. First, the community exists in a particular place, in a particular time. As such, the idiosyncrasy of Port William is set up to resist the oncoming forces of the Industrial Economy, which will both displace the members within and establish a consumerist monoculture of interstate strip malls, fast food chains and big-box stores without. Even as an archetype of the small town, Port William is really like no other place on Earth. Second, the bond holding these people together is affection or love. It is not a relationship of consumption and production, of employer and employee; rather it is a relationship of neighbours who work together and mutually help each other, who hurt each other but also forgive each other. It is a group of people who know each other and, what's more, are bound to one another and responsible to and for one another. It's no wonder, then, that Jayber wonders how the world can be improved by the death of such a place.

Yet various questions remain: What does the death of a community cost its members? And what does it cost the country? Is it plausible, or even desirable, to attempt a return to ways of living that may be forever lost to us?

Many might argue that the country's gross domestic product increases when such places are extinguished, and they may be correct if we grant them their reductionist calculus of good economics. The problem is, it's hard to precisely quantify the loss of a good community in strictly monetary terms. Yet in Berry's accounting, the loss is invaluable for a variety of reasons.

First, the community is a necessary mediating structure between the freedom of the individual and the interests of the public, whether that is the State or the economy. The term "mediating structure" comes from an earlier study by Peter Berger and Richard John Neuhaus, who, in the early 1960s, were examining the rapidly fraying North American social fabric and determined that "mediating structures are those institutions standing between the individual in his [or her] private life and the larger institutions of public life." Families, schools and churches are a few examples of specific mediating structures, but all of these can be encapsulated within the larger mediating structure of the local community or neighbourhood. According to Berger and Neuhaus, mediating structures are necessarily "people-sized institutions [that] are the value-generating and value-maintaining agencies in society. Without them, values become another function of the megastructures, notably of the State [or what today we might call the economy], and this is a hallmark of totalitarianism."

In his essay "Sex, Economy, Freedom, and Community," Berry affirms Berger and Neuhaus' premise by arguing that "we need to interpose between the public and the private interests a third interest: that of the community. When there is no forcible assertion of the interest of community, public freedom becomes a sort of refuge for escapees of the moral law...."

Yet how, exactly, does the community do this?

For starters, economy — from oikos (house) and nomos (law) — is rooted in an understanding of household management. In terms of community-based economics, then, Berry asserts: a healthy community "is also like a household; it is the household of its place, and it includes the households of many families, human and non-human." Far from simply being a transaction of goods or a cycle of consumption and production, the very idea of economics is rooted in local community, devotion to place, and the long labour of properly caring for a home that is passed down for future generations.

Further, the consumerist monoculture makes an ideal of unrestricted human autonomy. We are told that we can do whatever we want, buy whatever we want, and this is freedom. Yet the community, in its ideal form, curbs such individualistic notions of freedom by imposing certain limits. According to Berry, the community aspires to "stability" by highly valuing "neighbourly love, marital fidelity, local loyalty, the integrity and continuity of family life, respect for the old and the instruction of the young." The community, then, binds people together in shared responsibility to particular places and particular people. The community is necessarily a place where individuals can exercise their autonomy within the limits circumscribed by their responsibilities to others (both human and non-human) with whom they share it.

But this is the ideal, of course, and perhaps is never fully met in reality. True enough, but Berry would argue that it's all the more reason such stories need to be remembered and told. Really, we tell such stories because we know our present world is always going to be broken in one way or another. Communities will always fail to live up to the idealized standards we hold for them, yet we continue to long for a community that just might not. But if we hope for future improvement, we can't help but look back at those good things we had before and would like to see again. For this reason, nostalgia, a word that is more important than it might appear at first glance, is perhaps the narrative mode needed to help us re-imagine the importance of community.

Nostalgia — a Greek compound of nostos (homecoming) and algos (ache) — did not originally connote naïveté or childishness as we might assume; rather, the word recognized the longing for the lost home place and the aching desire to return to it. Such nostalgia is really the driving force of Odysseus, the archetype of a man dis-membered from his home and community, seeking to return and be re-membered once more. It's the same idea that Church Fathers such as Augustine would allegorize, recognizing that our hearts are restless as we wait, in exile, to return to a home that will be somewhat like it was in Eden. The truth is as metaphysical as it is physical: we ache to return but the only way to do so is to continue moving forward.

Yet when you hear an apologetic like Berry's for the renewal of community life, sometimes it's difficult to resist the urge to roll the eyes and resign oneself to hearing a long-winded jeremiad about today's awful state of affairs and how glorious things once were.

I'm sure we've all heard someone from an older, wiser generation wax eloquent about the "good ole days" when real communities existed. Days when prices were lower, work was harder, and people were just plain happier. Those days where candies and mortgages were mere nickels. Days when the mailman carried handwritten letters to your door just as the milkman did with the milk and the shoe shiner did with his shoeshine kit. Everybody walked to work, and they most likely whistled on their way. Just picture Andy Griffith's Mayberry, Stephen Leacock's Mariposa or, really, Berry's Port William and you get what I'm talking about.

I'm not in the older, wiser demographic just yet, but I know that when I see a group of kids glued to their cellphones rather than talking with one another, I'm just about ready to tell them how much more wholesome the world was before the omnipresence of smartphones. Even I can't escape it. And my guess is that we'll all proffer eulogies for a lost, utopian past at some point in our lives. But if we can't go back, the question remains: why do we do this?

Perhaps the easy answer is "we shouldn't." And we'll write off the whimsical stories Wendell Berry tells of quiet agrarian communities in the past because, well, they're so obviously whimsical. They come to us mediated through a rosy-hued vision that projects images of the past that are as selective as they are distorted.

But I don't think such stories should ever be so easily dismissed. Even with their distortions and exaggerations, they offer those who tell them and those who will listen something quite important: wholeness. Not wholesomeness, mind you, but wholeness, integrity, completion.

Our persistent desire to remember is quite literally a desire to re-member: to grant our past a membership with our present, particularly in a world where technologies rapidly change and our ways of living and interacting with each other transform. One can quickly become dis-membered from the community of the living, embodied present. By passing down our stories, we can preserve the integrity (or wholeness) of a culture, a truth basic to most oral cultures.

Of course, these stories must be told not simply as an escape to a past that is forever dead to us but as a journey fixed on returning in order to speak old truths to the living. The work, then, becomes finding ways to recover the "home place" by re-membering the past and employing these community ideals in suburban or urban or whatever new contexts in which we might find ourselve.

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