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  • Writer's pictureKenneth Asher

Starting with Quiet

I’m writing from Sedona, Arizona this month, where I’ve been lucky enough to escape to for a few days.

This landscape is one of those places that you know even if you’ve never been. Desert mesas, striated burnt orange and grey, stretch and jut under a giant blue sky. It’s a geology riot here; you can literally see the epochs recorded in the color banding on these rock formations, even if you can’t imagine the oceanic forces that created them. I’m not sure if through television or film, or maybe via antiquated media like postcards or picture books, but somewhere along the way, like all Americans, I’ve been shown this place before.

And being here is something else entirely. Of course it is. The fun of traveling is actually seeing the place -- not too unlike the thrill of seeing someone famous in person. Especially in these screen-saturated times, things can be entirely familiar and abstract all at once. Our first-person encounters with celebrities give us a buzz, I think, because of how, in an almost magical reversal, an image can incarnate. It’s not seeing a famous person that thrills as much as seeing a famous person.

As any online dater will attest, only when up close do we really apprehend a person anyhow, and the same goes for places. I’ve been continually frustrated with my camera phone here because it’s doing such a terrible job of recording the texture and detail of this landscape. Granted, it’s an old phone, but even the highest resolution imagery wouldn’t convey the truth of this place – or of any place for that matter. A beauty queen like Sedona just happens to make the point more obvious. Every time my wife and I happened upon another magnificent view, we were spellbound – despite having seen these scenes before in pictures and online video. The American west in particular has this effect. It refuses the frame like no place I’ve known.

Beneath the truism I’m observing – that synecdoche fails when applied to people and places -- rests a far more important and less well acknowledged truth: we can never understand the places we visit. In truth, we barely see them. As tourists, we skim these places like skipping stones, touching down in spots, and never long enough to know anything more than the surface. It’s the nature of tourism. Places are complex and time is short, particularly when traveling.

Which isn’t to knock tourism. I think it’s great that it takes so little to content us. A change of scenery, a few famous sights and some flirting with another culture makes for a reliably successful getaway. Tourism isn’t the problem. The problem is at the other end of the spectrum.

Accomplished as we Americans are as tourists, we are about that hopeless as homesteaders. We know how to travel; we don’t know how to stay put.

In Speech After Long Silence from Imagination in Place, Wendell Berry reminisces about John Haines and his poetry. I hadn’t heard of this Mr. Haines before and the reason became apparent pretty quickly. Haines’ chosen post was the state of Alaska where he spent 50 years “listening to water, birds in their sleep, the tremor in old men’s voices.” He is another of the small clan of Berryist poets and influences – writers permanently anchored to a place. When Wendell first heard him read his poems at Stanford, it seems a couple of important truths crashed into Berry’s consciousness: first, that the words of a poem reveal the condition of the mind of poet, and second, that, in the case of Haines, these words, and this poet, could have only been formed from a mind that had taught itself to be quiet for a long time.

It’s this idea of being quiet that I’d like to riff on in this blog post. Why be quiet? What comes from the quiet? And why is there so little of it?

One of my constant challenges in Walking With Wendell is figuring out how to relate the wisdom of a farmer/poet/agrarian to my life and to my readers, when we are not farmers, poets or agrarians. I continue to wonder if, lacking all of these credentials, any of us would pass a Wendell Berry Entrance Exam, if such a thing existed.

But that is exactly the point of walking out here with him. If Wendell Berry’s worldview is correct, then it must be so for people in all circumstances and not just the few who by fate or choice, live lives exceptionally close to the land. Can we love the land and honor it by our myriad life choices without actually tilling it? I want to believe the answer is yes and that his wisdom can be universally applicable. I’ve not found many (any?) others who believe this. What I’ve found has led me to think that most people misread Berry, believing him to mean that everyone should saddle a horse, plant a crop and buy a Penguin edition of William Blake and a compost bin.

All of that aims in the right direction, but is still too many trees and not enough forest. Let’s become more responsible eaters and readers, yes. That in itself would hoist us to an as yet unrealized level of Berryism. But let’s not confuse “agricultural acts,” as he’s famous for calling them, with the ground plane of change itself. In its most basic form, Berry is describing an inverted way of living that can be summed up pretty simply. Listen more and talk less. Find pleasure in staying put instead of traveling about. Live your politics rather than arguing them. These inversions are available to most of us, the un-farmed, whose poetry and agrarianism begin and end with Mary Had a Little Lamb.

It starts with quiet. Because that’s the state in which listening occurs. And the ability to listen, carefully, patiently and constantly, is the thing that differentiates Wendell Berry and his ilk. What derives from listening? Knowledge. Sensitivity. Curiosity. Discernment. Nuance appears, followed by appreciation for nuance. The music of sound, including language, becomes knowable. People and places are revealed to the extent we are able to listen to them. This is 101 level information when it comes to personal relationships. As for places, it’s an idea that doesn’t even make it on to the syllabus.

I don’t mean to say that we can fix everything by opening our ears. But I do want to emphasize how easily we overlook (interesting verb, considering the point) this critical aspect of Berryism. Before running out to do anything, the first order of business is to just learn how to be quiet and pay attention. Having done a fair share of silent meditation, I can attest to the trick that happens – a kind of figure/ground reversal (another inversion), between the self and the world. Slowly but surely, the chattering, monkey-mind self makes way, really gives way, for the not-self to appear. The not-self is everything that’s not you, by the way – an obvious but tenuous fact to hold.

In praising John Haines’ poetry, Berry expresses appreciation for this very process, and the words it produces. So different from modern styles of poetry that obsess over “voice,” and self-expression, in Haines “one felt that the words had come down onto the page one at a time, like slow drops from a dripping eave.” The meaning of Haines’ Alaska, and Haines’ poetry, according to Berry, is given up only “within the condition of a long-accepted silence, (with) each line acutely listened for, and then acutely listened to.” This is the poet as journalist on a very, very long assignment. The poet hardly in the poetry at all.

We are, by now, leery of the perfomative excesses engendered by platforms like Facebook and Snapchat, which stimulate people to display themselves in return for cheap affirmations. But versions of this me-centrism have long held sway, and with growing force, in university classrooms, sales campaigns, personal betterment industries, and pretty much everywhere you look. Just that one word – “voice,” carries so much heavily freighted meaning within it. It can be the entire problem, as Berry is making it out to be in this essay, or, as in the #MeToo and #BLM voice-giving movements, it can be the essential solution. Understood politically, voice is an important idea and not one to be discounted too quickly. It is perhaps from a position of privilege then, that poets like Berry and Haines can write not to express their own identities but only what they hear -- from their places, from their elders, from story, from memory.

To make “place” the subject of one’s life and life’s work, raises plenty of social and political questions. The first might be whether listening of this kind can even happen for people whose bodies, because of gender or race, are repeatedly imperiled or at risk of violation. This is the kind of larger social and political question that Collette Shade must be referring to in her “What Wendell Berry Wants” review of the collection of Berry essays from The World-Ending Fire, in which she mildly pans Berry for eschewing positions on systemic political change.

But Ms. Shade, I feel, misses the mark also, by slipping from the accuracy with which she summarizes what Mr. Berry wants (i.e. a “well-ordered life”) into the wishful but mistaken admonishment that Berry’s wisdom should somehow leap, flea-like, out of the personal and into the political.

A well-ordered life, for those of us lucky enough to even consider what that might mean, is by definition personal, and only political in its effect. And it must include quietude, constancy and a commitment to staying put. Then might we become clear of mind, and participants in the nature of our places and in our own interdependent lives. It won’t happen if we keep leaving town. It requires a kind of patience that Haines captures beautifully –

The land gave up its meaning slowly,

As the sun finds day by day,

A deeper place in the mountain.

Few could have written those lines, but for the many of us who understand what they mean, they begin to suggest the inverted way that Wendell Berry sees the world, and “what Wendell Berry wants.”

  • If we want to understand what’s happening in the world, and where we are, we would rely on literature and poetry rather than the news.

  • We would not aspire to originality, but to an authenticity defined not by novelty and interest, but by consilience with one’s place and time.

  • We would be patriotic, but only in the truest sense of the word.

This, of course, comes of an unabashed love of country – an authentic patriotism -- which opens a way beyond our superficial doctrines of self-liberation, self-expression, the modern and the new. Once a place and its spirit have become not just subjects but standards of a writer’s work, then the standards between art and community, art and tradition, art and thought, become necessary and clear…

In this inverted world, art is the core curriculum; how else will we teach our children the value of community, tradition, and thought? How else will we ourselves learn to listen carefully, with patience? And I submit, how else will we ever get around to the essential questions of political privilege, social equity and institutional racism?

Because we are not a settled people, the love we hold for places is the tourist’s love. I saw camera-phones galore in Sedona, and selfie-sticks, and women vogueing for their Instagram accounts at the peak of Brin’s Mesa. We think we’re making memories with these images. But Wendell Berry and John Haines aren’t fooled.

They know we don’t make memories. Memories make us, if only we would sit still long enough. And listen for them.


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