Thursday, April 26, 2012

"It All Turns On Affection"

Most readers of this blog have probably heard about the Building Healthy Communities work happening in Del Norte and the Adjacent Tribal Lands (DNATL). The BHC initiative is a project of The California Endowment, a private foundation dedicated to improving health in California. After many years of funding clinic initiatives and other one-time investments in many communities across the state, The California Endowment decided to try something different. What if, they asked, we invested heavily in a place for ten years? What if we worked with people living in that place to help them take ownership and view their place in a new way? What if a healthy community was built from the bottom up? What if, in other words, health became part of daily life in this place: of the people, by the people, and for the people? That is what Building Healthy Communities is all about: creating healthy places and healthy people.

One of the longtime champions of healthy people and places is the poet and essayist, Wendell Berry. In his essays extolling the love of a place and the people who care for it, Wendell Berry follows the path of one of his mentors, the writer Wallace Stegner. While Stegner created iconic works of the American West peopled by ranchers, miners, and pioneers, Berry's place is rural Kentucky and the people closest to his heart are small farmers tied to land for generations stretching back through time. His writings about the effects on community when small farmers are put out of business have affected my own understanding of farm communities for a couple of decades.

This is a very long way of saying that my heart skipped a beat this morning when I saw a headline that read, "Wendell Berry, American Hero". It sounded too much like a headline for an obituary. I'm not ready for Wendell Berry to die and, luckily, it was not the title of an obituary, but an article praising his ideas, his body of work, and the man himself.

In reading it, I learned that Wendell Berry was recently honored by being named the 2012 Jefferson Lecturer by the National Endowment of the Humanities. His lecture, entitled It All Turns on Affection, was delivered earlier this month. I have been reading it in between other tasks this morning and am in awe of his ability to weave so many ideas, literary and ecological works, and histories into a single, coherent argument for the need for more affection in our lives.
In arguing for more affection, Berry does not just mean affection between people, although he does argue that we will more readily solve our community's problems when we have genuine empathy and caring for our neighbors. But he also means affection for our place and the trees, rocks, animals, and soil that create our place. In his Jefferson Lecture, he writes:

"For humans to have a responsible relationship to the world, they must imagine their places in it. To have a place, to live and belong in a place, to live from a place without destroying it, we must imagine it. By imagination we see it illuminated by its own unique character and by our love for it. By imagination we recognize with sympathy the fellow members, human and nonhuman, with whom we share our place. By that local experience we see the need to grant a sort of preemptive sympathy to all the fellow members, the neighbors, with whom we share the world. As imagination enables sympathy, sympathy enables affection. And it is in affection that we find the possibility of a neighborly, kind, and conserving economy."

No-one could argue that DNATL doesn't have a unique character. How many places in the world bring together our beautiful rocky coast, redwood forests, wild rivers, and the spaces that live in between these habitats? For many decades, the economy in DNATL did, in part, survive by destroying a part of its unique character: the cutting down of the redwood forests. Through the Building Healthy Communities work, will we be able to imagine a new way of making a living from this place without destroying it?
Wendell Berry consistently makes a case for long-term caretaking of the earth, one small place at a time. His generations-old family farm tenure no doubt informs this view and he speaks in his lecture about the difference between "boomers" and "stickers". Boomers, in his view, are people who are always looking for the next prospect, always on the move, always searching for profit for the bottom line. Stickers, in contrast, "are motivated by affection, by such love for a place and its life that they want to preserve it and remain in it."

I have only been in DNATL for about two and a half years, but I have met a lot of stickers here. People who smile at the ceaseless rain. People who can tuna, smoke salmon, gather and dry or freeze wild mushrooms. People who fight to keep Point St. George lighthouse from crumbling into the sea. People who work to make this place better for themselves and for their children. Some people are stickers because they have chosen this life because of their love of this place and the life it offers. I have met many others who are stickers because they have no escape; people who have lived in poverty for so long that leaving the county is financially unimaginable.

Our community will be stronger, better, and healthier when all the "stickers" are stickers by choice. If we can build a healthy community that offers opportunities for all residents, then our young people can stay here because they want to live HERE. Health can happen here, but "it all turns on affection". Can we, as a community, come together with enough affection for each other, for this place, and for our communities that we can build a local economy that honors that affection and creates a place for everyone?

That is the challenge of Building Healthy Communities. For decades, Wendell Berry has written about what healthy communities are and need and provide. As he nears the end of his eighth decade, if he has decided that affection is the key, I will walk down that path with him. In his lecture, he quotes his mentor Wallace Stegner to define stickers as "those who settle, and love the life they have made and the place they have made it in." That is surely what we want here: that everyone loves the life the make and love that their life is made in DNATL.

May it be many more years before I really do see a headline for Wendell Berry's obituary.

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