Last week I had to leave the farm—for four days and three nights. It was my choice to go. I had applied to give a paper at this conference. I had made the plans. I would see friends and colleagues, share ideas, and catalyze my own. I was even going to hear Wendell Berry speak! Yet as the date approached, my whole bodily self screamed in protest. I felt sick, anxious, and worried, and I did not know why. Why was it so hard to leave home?
As I drove away from the farm, I felt like an astronaut leaving earth. In order to wrench my tiny capsule free of the farm’s gravitational pull, I needed multiple, massive rocket boosters—igniting in a series, with each falling away as its fuel was used up. My bodily self was shaking, my heart pounding; I felt light-headed and woozy.
When I arrived at the airport and thought I had left my suitcase behind, I nearly turned around. When I learned that my flight was delayed, I nearly turned around again. What is the big deal?! I asked myself for the thousandth time. Why the drama? While waiting for the plane, I found a quiet corner to do some yoga stretches; then bought myself a cup of milk and poured it into a cup of granola I had brought from home.
Five hours later, by the time I finally arrived at the conference center, I felt weightless, bodiless. I was floating in a foreign world, a vast industrial expanse. Indoors, my senses were squared in by carpeted concrete, shiny glass, metal forms rough and smooth. Outdoors, my senses hit hard, flat, unforgiving surfaces, that trapped and amplified the engine noise and diesel fumes from buses, cars, and trucks. Trash was strewn along asphalt corridors. Grit and grime gathered in every crease and corner. The water of the harbor took on a steely cast, reflecting the facades of surrounding buildings. Seagulls circled, looking for scraps. I was in a city—a small, normal, and rather pleasant city.
I missed the farm. Why? What difference does it make to be some place else?
In the talk of his I attended, Wendell Berry talked about place. He noted that so many people in our culture grow up without knowing where they are, or from where they come. We assume that wherever we go, we can find the food and shelter we need; the opportunities to challenge ourselves and grow. We even learn to privilege a freedom to travel anywhere as proof of our self-sufficient maturity, as the key to knowledge about the world.
I missed the farm. But what had I lost?
Was it the people? Yes, I missed my partner and our kids. I missed the hugs and the conversations, the convenience and comfort of being close. At the same time, I knew that they would survive just fine without me. In fact, they would thrive. With me gone, they would have the pleasure of discovering new patterns of cooperation. I would miss them, they would miss me, and we’d come to appreciate one another even more.
Was I missing the familiarity of home? Yes, home is a familiar place. There is a comfort in knowing its rhythms and routines, its shapes and spaces. Yet, the farm is a great challenge as well. The daily chores require a tremendous amount of work! So too, every day is different, offering a unique array of problems that need solving, tools that need fixing, and emotions that need tending. It wasn’t the familiar I was missing.
Was I missing a rural setting? Yes, in part. On the farm, I move in a completely different sensory space, defined by vast stretches of green earth, rolling hills, huge horizons, fresh air, and the chaotic, ever-changing beauty of field and forest. On the farm I am steeped in a textured wildness of the land. I have access to the sun and the moon, to light and dark, to trees and grass, to furry and feathered creatures. It is a sensory space that releases me into joy. But couldn't I find that joy other places too? I went for a run along the harbor and danced with some sea gulls. I found a small field of grass and an open vista. I missed the farm. Why?
Walking through the conference corridors, it occurred to me. What I was missing when I was away from the farm was the ability to make bodily movements that mattered to me—movements that would touch and tap the heart of my existence. I was missing the visceral reciprocity of making movements that take care of a place that takes care of me.
I was free from responsibility, able to move any way I wanted, and felt as if I were in a straight jacket, unable to move at all. I was able to select from a wide range of choices in the conference program and every restaurant menu, and felt unable to choose what would nourish me most precisely. I was seeing lots of people—and enjoying each conversation—and finding it hard to be a bodily self.
I was missing the movements of taking care—taking care of my kids, my partner, our animals, the farm house, the barns, and the land, for sure, but also the movements I have discovered that enable me to take care of my bodily self—movements that honor the earth in me and around me.
In restaurant, hotel room, or conference hall, there was nothing about the place that required my care, nothing that connected me to earth, and thus, nothing to love. Nothing to love me.
In the question and answer session with Wendell Berry, someone asked how you can get people to care about the earth. He said you can’t. The assumption, of course, is that if you care for the earth, then you will act in ways that honor its ongoing vitality.
The reverse may be as true. When you take care of something, you come to love it. And you love it for how the act of taking care of it helps you discover something new about yourself.
When we take care of bodily selves, our own included, we not only come to love that for which we care, we open within ourselves a sensory matrix through which creativity—our own life energy—can flow.
We exercise the patterns of movement that relate us to others in life enabling ways. We learn what those patterns are, and ideally we practice the ones that best align with our greatest health and well being. When we do, what flows through us and from us is love.
What I was missing, then, when I left the farm, was the ability to be in a place where I have learned to make movements that enable me to care for myself and for others in ways that nourish my ongoing creativity and compassion. I was missing a dimension of my creative, moving bodily self—without which I am not quite complete.
When someone asked Wendell Berry what to do if they had no place, had never found a place, and didn’t know where to go, he responded with a quotation from Gary Snyder: “Stop somewhere.” It doesn't matter where. City or town. Suburb or country. Desert, mountains, plains, or beach. Stop. Move in place. Connect.
Being on the farm, I appreciate these words more than ever. To give oneself the freedom not to move—the freedom to stop somewhere and learn from the movements of a place how to move in ways that enable your own ongoing movement—is a pleasure. It is a privilege. It is what we humans are uniquely primed to do. We can learn to be at home everywhere because we have the capacity to attach deeply, in rhythms of mutual care and becoming, wherever we are. And when we do, we feel love. Love for earth. Love for ourselves.
To be in a place is to move with it, and be moved by it. It is to discover who we can be in this place, because of this place, by virtue of what it requires from us. And if we like what that place enables, if we like who we become by moving with it, then we grow more and more able to claim for ourselves the freedom to stay.
On the way back from the conference I was stuck in an airport for three hours, waiting for my flight home. I turned my attention inwards and recreated for myself the visceral sense of being on the farm. I pulled to mind the feeling of making those movements of caring for myself and others that living on it requires.
My phone rang. Geoff and our five kids were sitting around the dining room table, about to have dinner. They wanted me to be a part of their circle. As they sang, I pressed my ear firmly to the phone and closed my eyes, willing myself home, receiving back the energy and attention I have devoted to creating our life there. When the call ended, the notes of the song hummed through my consciousness—a beacon guiding me home.