On the roots of community

small townRoss Douthat recently linked the rise of suicide rates in the United States with the erosion of small communities and traditional institutions. Douthat went on to cite Rod Dreher’s recent book The Little Way of Ruthie Leming as a picture of how community can instill hope and purpose in a person when they are being beaten down by one difficulty or another. In a follow-up post, Douthat honed in on one particular question, which is how fidelity to a place relates to our identity in a local community:

As a sympathetic but also sometimes skeptical observer of the “Front Porch Republic” style of conservatism, I think the distinction suggested here — between a philosophy of rootedness and a philosophy that just stresses “place” in general or idolizes the rural life in particular — is central to Porcherism’s ability to offer a realistic response to the ills of contemporary American life. A communitarianism that just suggests that everyone should find their own St. Francisville is obviously unresponsive to the reality of a post-agrarian society, but a communitarianism that just tells people to “stay put!” more generally, whether in cities or suburbs or exurbs, is likewise insufficient … because to a surprising extent, Americans are already doing just that. …

So  they/we need a story of what’s going on here. Is it that people are staying in place in an attempt to compensate for turmoil in their personal lives — divorced dads sticking near their kids, single mothers relying on grandparents for childcare — and our communities would be in even worse shape if Americans were moving around at the rate they did in 1980? Is it that strong communities ultimately depend on jobs and rising wages, and so we actually need people to move a little more in order to boost their economic prospects? (And is mass homeownership, in particular, a case where the desire for rootedness has had perverse effects, anchoring people to bad investments and creating stresses that no amount of neighborliness can solve?) Or is it that the flawed design of many of our communities — particularly the suburban and exurban sprawl that James Howard Kunstler famously dubbed the “geography of nowhere” — simply makes it impossible for people to put down real roots no matter how long they stay?

One of the difficulties with much of the rhetoric surrounding place and localism is that it assumes a certain cultural understanding of community without often explicitly addressing the point. This is the problem you run into, for instance, with people who have read nothing by Wendell Berry except his essays. If the only thing you read is The Unsettling of America Berry may well come off as an angry white environmentalist with a shocking streak of naivete. But if you read Jayber CrowA Place on Earth, or Fidelity, you begin to become acquainted with the entire world associated with the place of Port William and you begin to understand that the place is more than just a physical place, but an entire world and culture marked by certain long-held-and-now-forgotten beliefs. Because localists fail to make these cultural characteristics more explicit, they can come off as saying “If people just moved back home, everything would be better,” but that isn’t quite the claim being made. (There is a further problem here, of course, with a younger set of localists who arrive at the position for purely ecological reasons and have no actual first-hand experience with the culture of localism.)

The problem is that the social realities that have led to the erosion of community are not some sort of parasite that invades from the outside, stays separate from the host, and that can simply be removed to restore the host to normal. The social changes that have eroded community are not cosmetic. Rather, these social realities are essentially destructive in that they permanently eradicate a certain kind of community. So reinvigorating small communities in America is not so simple as removing this thing called “mobility” or “rural brain drain,” and then watching everything return to its previous equilibrium. A lack of roots creates a host of other social ills that will persist even if we attempt to reestablish roots in the future.

Walter Brueggemann said it well:

That promise concerned human persons who could lead detached, unrooted lives of endless choice and no commitment. It was glamorized around the virtues of mobility and anonymity that seemed so full or promise for freedom and self-actualization. But it has failed…. It is now clear that a sense of place is a human hunger that urban promise has not met…. It is rootlessness and not meaninglessness that characterizes the current crisis. There are no meanings apart from roots.

That final sentence gets to the issue. Rootedness is essential for meaning, and when you strip away the roots the meaning is lost. The difficulty is that it cannot be recovered by simply moving back to the farm. Both roots and meaning have been lost and you have to recover both. There was an entire network of relationships marked by a mutual knowledge, affection, and hope that has also been lost. Consequently, attempting to restore society’s little platoons by simply moving back home or staying in one place for years and doing nothing more is rather like trying to reinvigorate the worship of the Greek gods by lighting a candle in the Parthenon. The point isn’t exclusively about the place, but the entire web of relationships and affections that existed in the place. The roots of community matter, but you need what grows from the roots too.

One way to sum up the problem is to say we need both a return to place and a return to virtue. Virtue removed from a physical place and physical community will wither away under the pressure of modernity, as Christopher Lasch demonstrated in his Haven in a Heartless World. When you grant the fact of a “heartless world” there can be no haven. But on the other hand, if we simply return to our home places but know nothing of virtue and the good life, our act may be little more than a token gesture to the land made by, more often than not, a privileged white person wracked by guilt.

photo credit: ViaMoi via photopin cc
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  • Matthew Loftus

    THIS.

    Although I’m surprised that you didn’t mention church? Churches are ideal bastions of localism because they often have to learn the peculiarities and history of a place. Too many, though, seem to be getting away with circling the wagons and doing their best “hide it under a bushel” impression (or just imposing a top-down megachurch on the community.)

  • http://bookwi.se/ Adam Shields

    Personally I have moved a lot and do not have ties to the land. My parents, even though they have moved a lot as well still always feel tied to where my Dad grew up (even buying the house and land for them to retire to.)

    But I do not feel attachment to the area where I grew up. And as an young adult I live in Chicago where there was constant movement, especially in Hyde Park where so many were moving in and out because of the University of Chicago. (My wife and I were in small groups through out church. In five years there were 27 different couples that we were in a small group with and all but one had moved by the end of the five years.)

    Eventually we moved to live close to my wife’s family. And baring something unforeseen, we will probably live here the rest of our lives. But it is not the place, it is the people. I could care less about living in suburban Atlanta. I have always enjoyed living in the city more than in the suburbs. But the place where I would like to live would not have the people I would like to share life with, so I live where the people I love are.

  • Gluten Free Jesus Freak

    Well written, Jake. A few years ago my husband and I moved to a small community where I am a pastor. It’s been interesting relearning how to live in a small town (I grew up in one, but that was 12+ years ago).

    The nature of pastoring is often very transitory, though both the church and I hope that our relationship is long-lived. Still, it’s been harder than I’ve expected to settle my soul into a place after being “trained” for so many years to move regularly. I’ve developed a lot of bad habits in a transient lifestyle (college to grad school, grad school to seminary, seminary internships across the country, etc.) that are hard to unlearn.

    I’m grateful for the lessons of place, though. The regularity. The slowness. The necessity to work through conflict and problems because I’m not moving again next year. The joy of planting a garden and waiting two years to taste the first asparagus.

    You’ve also inspired me to go back and read some of Berry’s novels, not just his essays. Thanks!