Pieter the Elder
The Return of the Herd, 1565
Oil on panel
In March of this year, lawyer and memoirist J.D. Vance announced that he would be returning home. Vance, the author of the best-selling Hillbilly Elegy, has some practical reasons he’s returning to Ohio, of course — he’s starting a nonprofit to address the opioid epidemic — but there are also some, as he calls them, civic reasons too. In his article from The New York Times, Vance writes:
I realized that we often frame civic responsibility in terms of government taxes and transfer payments, so that our society’s least fortunate families are able to provide basic necessities. But this focus can miss something important: that what many communities need most is not just financial support, but talent and energy and committed citizens to build viable businesses and other civic institutions.
As one professor tells Vance, the modern American structure of “go to college, then find work” often leads to the uprooting of rural America’s “best and brightest” and the re-planting of them in the cities and suburbs. Vance is one of these, born and raised in the Appalachian end of Ohio (Middletown, OH), but later educated at Yale and up until recently living in California; he is the “best and brightest” of his hometown, and his talent, he recognizes, is largely used to support a different community than the one that raised him.
Recently, another Midwest native felt a homeward calling. Musician Josh Garrels, lately of Portland, has decided to return with his family to the state of Indiana. And I too have recently added myself to this list, having spent the last two years in Chicago and now recently returned to my home region of south-central Illinois. Once we’re finally settled in our new place (we’ve been in a transition for two months), I will live less than a half-hour from the town I was raised in for the first time in eight years.
Thoughts on locality have been on my mind a lot lately, quite possibly because I have been reading a lot of Wendell Berry. Berry, too, returned home after a time away, first as a student at the University of Kentucky, and then as a teacher in New York City and abroad. Eventually, he bought a farm in Lane’s Landing, not too far from Port Royal, where his parents grew up.
For Berry, writing is an outgrowth of a place. And while he does not insist that fiction has to emerge in the form of a fictional version of the author’s community (as his Port William reflects his Port Royal), he does make the claim that fictional localities are always related to an author’s actual locality, as he does in the essay “Imagination in Place”:
One accepts the place, that is, not just as a circumstance, but as a part of the informing ambience of one’s mind and imagination.
This, of course, flows from Berry’s reflections on farming too. In farming, he observes, the soil is always particular, always local, always specific, and never generalized. A good farmer recognizes the uniqueness of every hill and every valley of his land, just as an effective small business owner needs to recognize the uniqueness of every community. This principle of locality (as it were) functions for more than just farming and writing, it functions for good governance, for effective education, and for pastoral ministry.
And for those three matters (government, education, ministry) our society has so often viewed matters from a “top-down” perspective, starting with ideology, philosophy, and theology and proceeding on down to practice. This “top-down” approach, as Walter Brueggemann observes in The Prophetic Imagination, only serves to establish the royal “status quo,” rather than the empowerment of prophetic voices.
Following Vance, Berry, and Brueggemann (odd bedfellows), the prophetic answer, then, to our social climate is to pursue the local, to invest in the community…
… and to return home.