On Land and Its Marks

Cross posted at Notes from a Small Place.

This fall, I’m hoping to receive a visit from my good friend Mashley. (I wrote about their wedding earlier this week.) I’m hoping they’ll come up here for a Broken Social Scene show in October and I’ll get a chance to show them the Twin Cities that I’m slowly trying to adopt as my own.

Matt is an up-and-coming Religious Studies scholar of the first order. He’s already published a paper in a journal about American utopian communities. He has a better knowledge of Hebrew than most of my seminarian friends. Of course, that’s not all there is to know about Matt. He’s a Pittsburgh Steelers fan (I’ve chosen to forgive him for this serious character flaw) and loves bands like Stars, Arcade Fire, and the aforementoned, Broken Social Scene. And he hates it when I hack his Pandora (which he always left logged in) and add things like dc talk, Van Halen, or Hillsong Praise to his carefully-tailored stations. That’s a little about my friend Matt.

But armed with those specific pieces of information, you still don’t know the first thing about Matt. I could even give you more random and disparate pieces of information about him and you still wouldn’t really know him. To know someone in the way I’m describing, you have to live with them. But even living with them may not be enough because we’re different people at different points in life. If you lived with Matt for two years when he was in high-school, you wouldn’t know him as well as I do having spent two years living with him in college.

Knowing a place is something like that. My fellow Mere O guest blogger, Christopher Benson, asked for my reflections on being someone who loves a place and who chooses to leave it. And as I thought about it, I couldn’t escape the whole concept of knowing. English is, unfortunately, rather impoverished in this area of vocabulary. We have one word: know. That makes it harder to talk about the issue intelligently because there are, of course, a great many kinds of knowing. Spanish does a little better, they have two different words: conocer, which connotes a lived knowledge, something you acquire slowly by living it out over time. Their other word is saber, which connotes familiarity. I know where to take out of town guests to eat – the Blue Door Pub on Selby and Fairview in St. Paul. I know where to go when I need quiet, calm, and rest – the St. Paul Cathedral near downtown. I know where to go if I want to watch a soccer match with a bunch of people that actually know their futbol – Brit’s Pub on Niccolet Mall in downtown Minneapolis. But the conocer knowledge I don’t yet possess and probably never will in the way I do with Nebraska.

It’s not hard to find quick facts about my home state. Any sports fan knows we’re rabid lunatics for our college football team, the Nebraska Cornhuskers. Our athletic department sells tickets to the annual spring scrimmage for $10. And 80,000 people show up. You’ll also learn, relatively quickly, that our two major state landmarks – the state capitol and chimney rock – both have an unfortunately-phallic shape to them. You can find that we grow a lot of corn, wheat, and soybeans and that roughly half the state’s population lives in the southeast corner in Lincoln and Omaha. (We have an old saying about Memorial Stadium – which seats 85,000 – being the third largest city in Nebraska on Husker game days.) If you dig a little deeper you’ll find that we have a damn fine university with some impressive alumni – Willa Cather and Johnny Carson among them. You’ll also find that we’re the birthplace to Gerald Ford and the home to William Jennings Bryan. All of the above things are true of Nebraska but, as was the case with Matt, you can know those things and still not know the first thing about Nebraska.

For those of us who know it well, Nebraska is a lot like the Shire. We’re largely agrarian, hospitable but cautious toward strangers, and believe strongly in the value of simplicity. We’re extremely private, but also are incredibly close to the people we do let into our lives. You know how in Lord of the Rings you spend the first 200 pages of Fellowship… thinking that Pippin and Merry are simply clowns intended for comic relief, but then at the council they show their loyalty and prove it repeatedly over the next 800 pages? But theirs is not an abstract, unlanded courage. It’s a courage growing out of their love for their land and their people. That’s most Nebraskans. Quiet, unassuming, easily-dismissed as rubes. But when their meddle is tested, they almost always come through.

A story: I have a wealthy relative who grew up in Lincoln, but moved away to become an architect about 40 years ago. In time he became wildly successful, earning his millions and developing a reputation as one of the best architects in the area. He started his own firm and has employed plenty of other architects as well – until the recession hit a few years ago. All the work in his area dried up almost overnight. All the local firms panicked and began to release all their employees. But not my relative. He’s kept all his employees on for as long as he could, paying their salaries out of his own savings. This is the sort of thing Nebraskans do – we keep our people close and when one of them is in trouble, we help them.

Of course, such a rapturous paean to my home state begs the question: Why leave? I’m not sure I know the answer. Ostensibly, I moved to the Twin Cities to help a friend plant a church and to get away from the fundamentalist church I grew up in, but I’m not sure that answers the question. I guess the simplest answer is that I prayed about it for years and the Twin Cities was God’s answer. But, like the adventuresome Hobbits of Tolkien’s world, I do my best to love my land even when I’m taken away from it. And someday, I hope, I’ll return. As Bilbo wrote, “The road goes ever on and on, down from the door where it began. Now far ahead the road goes on and I must follow if I can…”

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  • Christopher Benson

    JAKE: I was the one who nudged you to write this blog post, so I’m compelled to offer a few remarks. I like how you compare knowing a place to knowing a person. For a post entitled “On Land and Its Marks,” I’m surprised by the marginal presence of the land in the “paean to [your] home state.” Yes, any place we call “home” consists largely of the people who inhabit that land, but what about the land itself? Are you reconciled to it like Alexandra Bergson in O Pioneers? Or should I conclude, based on its near invisibility in this post, that you’re alienated from the land like her father? And if you aren’t as reconciled to the land as you want to be, what can be done about it? Forgive me for shamelessly plugging my latest blog post and the questions I ask Mere O readers at the end. :-)

  • http://www.mereorthodoxy.com Jake Meador

    Christopher – I guess in writing about it I realized one of the almost unavoidable contradictions of being an urbanite localist in the 21st century: The way I relate to the land is mediated through the people and the city around me. I hope that doesn’t mean I’m alienated from the land, but I think it does mean that I can’t help relating to it differently than Alexandra.

    That’s the innate difficulty in most of our writing on these sorts of issues though, be it land, the body, Christendom, how we use technology… in all of it we’re speaking out of a different context and so our response to the issue can’t help but be different than the response of those in history that we look to as teachers. So I think approaching the issue takes a great deal of careful thought because as much as I might want to, I can’t relate to the land like Alexandra Bergson or push for a unified Christendom like Martin Bucer. I admire those people and desperately want to learn from them, but I have to figure out how to apply the lessons of their lives to the story I’m in today. And that gets really, really difficult as my struggle with this post demonstrates. I love the land in Nebraska, it feels like home in a way nothing else ever will. But the primary way I’ve always related to it has been walking city streets, sitting on patios at coffee shops, or driving down the interstate with the windows down, trying to take all of it in.

    Sorry for the delayed response!

    peace

    • http://www.mereorthodoxy.com Christopher Benson

      JAKE: I understand that neither of us can become late 19th century or early 20th century pioneer-farmers like Alexandra Bergson, but why can’t we relate to the land like her? In my blog posts – “Her eyes drank in the breadth of it”: a phenomenology of receiving the land, Crazy Ivar: Walking Gently on the Earth, and Why We Need the Dark – I’m trying to develop a relation to the land through the narrative imagination. Alexandra helps urbanite localists like us to receive the land with aesthetic eyes and romantic ambition. She helps us to glorify God in the night sky by reflecting upon the great operations of nature. And Crazy Ivar helps us read creation in nature, so that our Bibles seem truer to us there.