Recently, as I reread Wendell Berry’s novel, Hannah Coulter, I was transported once again to a place I feel like I know–though it exists only in the imagination of the writer. If you asked me to describe Port William, Kentucky, the fictional town not only of Hannah Coulter but all of Berry’s fiction, I could describe it as though I had been there. In fact, I could probably describe it as though you had been there. It’s that kind of place, sort of cozy and familiar, with all of the quirks of the place you call home.
What would not surprise you, however, was that my description of this place would be rife with descriptions of the people who inhabit it not just its landmarks. The names wouldn’t be familiar, but the people might. At least the kind of people. They are the ones that live in every place and time. You would describe them yourself if you were telling me about a place you had lived.
I love this symbiosis between people and places, at least the ones that matter. Berry is a master at creating the strong bonds of relationships between people and places when he writes. Within the first couple of pages of Hannah Coulter, he writes from the perspective of the title character, “Our story is the story of our place.”
My little place in Indianapolis is increasingly taking on the identity of me, and I of it. You would know a few things about me immediately just by stepping onto my property. You would see that I like to garden, and that I am a tidy person. My compost pile might reveal that I care about the environment; the gravel drive would hint that I am not wealthy. My apple trees in the front yard and blueberry bushes in the landscaping might tell you I am industrious; the smiling face in the tree would clue you in that I am creative.
And You might also correctly assume that I am a person with tree faces and neat raised bed gardens and compost piles on my place if you met me at the store or talked with me in another location away from this place. We are taking on each others qualities, for sure.
But beyond the work I put into this place or the essence of me it acquires, this place grows dearer because of the memories I am building here with people. Gradually, my immediate neighbors are becoming more familiar, but so are my friends who live in the area. They see me mowing when they pass by, I share herbs and lettuce from my garden, we grill out together and sit on the back porch. They notice when I change things and give suggestions when I don’t. They share my interest in this place because it’s part of their lives, too.
As Berry writes later on in Hannah Coulter, “Love in this world doesn’t come out of thin air. It is not something thought up. Like ourselves, it grows out of the ground. It has a body and a place.”
Understanding this sensibility of place tied closely to the people of the place helps me understand better the culture shock I experienced when I was in East Asia recently. Aside from the fact that I am a foreigner to that place and was there only briefly, I felt a sense of estrangement that I had not experienced before. I clearly didn’t belong.
Though with a little time I could have learned to drive in the traffic and adapt to the temperature and shop with the currency, I still wouldn’t have felt like a part of that place. It was more than that.
It was also more than just the spicy food and the awkward toilets and the indecipherable language. More, too, than just my large size, pale skin, and blue eyes. It was the sum of all these things separating me so distinctly from the people that left me feeling like I really didn’t know the place.
If I could have stayed there long enough so that people no longer stared at me and I could speak to them in their own language and have drank a cup of tea with them while they told me about their family, then no amount of garbage in the street or bean curd on my plate could have made me feel a stranger.