Know Thy Place

As I’m here writing about neighborhoods, community engagement, place, I have been diving back into some of Wendell Berry’s works. He speaks with such authority about the land and the people who care for it that I take him as somewhat of an expert.

I was recently caught by this quote from his essay Damage in which he talks about unintentionally harming some property on his own land. He hired someone to bulldoze a small new pond so that he could pasture his little herd of livestock, but the land folded in on itself following a particularly wet fall and winter. This is what Berry says about it:

The trouble was a familiar one: too much power, too little knowledge. The fault was mine.

I was careful to get advice. But this only exemplifies what I already knew. No expert knows everything about every place, not even everything about any place. If one's knowledge on one's whereabouts is insufficient, if one's judgment is unsound, then expert advice is of little use.

Berry laments that, although he’d consulted an expert (the bulldozer man, we can assume), said expert didn’t know peanuts about Berry’s land. And neither did Berry know enough about his own land. If he did, if he had waited until he’d been there longer and observed a few more falls and winters, he would have known that that patch of ground would get too wet and heavy to sustain a manmade lake. His intentions were virtuous; his knowledge was insufficient. What he recommends, essentially, is know thy place.

Berry goes on, in Damage, to quote one of William Blake’s famous proverbs: 

No bird soars too high, if he soars with his own wings.

With this, Berry sets appropriate limits for how to care for one’s place: can I do it with my own two hands?

I’ve recently completed an arduous amount of labor on our new house. To call it a fixer-upper would be an undeserved compliment, but now it’s downright homey. I painted every last baseboard and upper cornice myself. In doing so, I’ve learned an awful lot about this place, and I can use that knowledge going forward. We have spiders. Lots of big spiders. We had water damage, but not anymore. The floors in the basement tilt down in the middle like a slight smile, but with some shimming of the furniture no one will know. But I do. 

Know thy place.

Now, I did hire out some help. I didn’t tile the shower or place supportive I-beams in the basement (I’m not that handy). But I do have a right triceps twice the size of my left and an inordinate amount of lower back pain to prove that I did put my fair share of effort into this house. And, more to the point, I know this place well.

During the process of coming in and out of our new house day after day, I had the pleasure of meeting some of our neighbors. Like us they’re young families. We’re all psyched out of our minds that we could finally, finally move our children into real houses in a real neighborhood. 

Susie told me that her family has been here for four years and that all the houses in this neighborhood have brown recluse spiders (the poisonous kind that freak us out here in the Midwest). Kate told me that all the houses in this neighborhood have asbestos in the floors or siding, so we’d have to be careful with that during our renovations. Joy, next door, told me that the house across the street is going up for sale soon, but they probably won’t get as much for it as it deserves because our house only has one garage and it’s bringing down the value of the neighboring houses. It’s funny and it’s terrible and it’s good to know. 

Know thy place.

Going forward, I can combine the information I’ve ascertained from straining in awkward positions under the staircase with the information that I’ve gathered at late-afternoon backyard hangouts to put together a surprisingly prolific manual on our new home. It’s imperfect. It’s a spider-infested, once-leaky, forever one-garaged, and slightly tilted house, but it’s ours. And I know it.

What experiences have you had with your home or neighborhood that taught you a lot about your place? Have you, like Berry, ever done anything to unintentionally harm your place due to lack of knowledge (or a surplus of power)? Have your neighbors taught you more about your home than you could have learned on your own? Do you feel that you truly know your place?

(Excerpts for this blog from the 1975 essay Damage from the book What Are People For? by Wendell Berry, Counterpoint Press, 1990.)

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