One of the peculiarities of the white race’s presence in America is how little intention has been applied to it. As a people, wherever we have been, we have never really intended to be. The continent is said to have been discovered by an Italian who was on his way to India. The earliest explorers were looking for gold, which as, after an early streak of luck in Mexico, always somewhere farther on. Consquests, and foundings were incidental to this search – which did not, and could not, end until the continent was finally laid open in a orgy of goldseekin in the middle of the last century. Once the unknown of goegraphy wasmapped, the industrial marketplace became the new frontier, and we continued, with largely the same motives and with increasing haste and anxiety, to displace ourselves – no longer with unity of direction, like a migrant flock, but like the refugees from a broken anthill. In our own time we have invaded foreign lands and the moon with the high toned patriotism of the conquistador and the same mix of fantasy and avarice.
That is too simply put. It is substantially true, however, as a description of the dominant tendency in American history. The temptation, once that has been said, is to ascend altogether into rhetoric and inveigh equally against all our forebears and all present holders of office. To be just, however, it is necessary to remember that there has been another tendency: the tendency to stay pu, to say ‘No farther, this is the place.’ So far, this has been the weaker tendency, less glamorous, certainly less successful.” – Wendell Berry “The Unsettling of America”
Most of us are here where we are without substantial ability to change our circumstances, at least in a deep material sense. I think this observation is true, but painful for many people – that is it is possible that we may move about, it is possible that we may change jobs. But we are on a gradual slide away from economic stability, away from a dream that growth could always continue or come back, away from the idea of giving our children better in the sense of material increase, and utimately, towards the realization that we are staying where we are in the largest sense – the possibility of new frontiers has been erased. We can no longer go to the always-already-imaginary unpopulated west. We will not live in space. There is no empty place – and never was.
For Americans, this may be the deepest of all psychological shifts. Wendell Berry wrote _The Unsettling of America_ before I was born, articulating the tension, as he has so many times since, between the impulse to stop and stay, and the impulse to always go on to the next thing. The slow and painful realization that we are here where we are, and that the next thing may not represent a substantial shift in our fortunes, that the next move may not be to a better life but away from rising seas or away from too dire a situation, or that there may not be any move – that we may have chosen without choosing to stay, because we can no longer sell, and no longer afford to move, and we are here.
I know that many of my readers are not where they plan to be – others are in places that have a short term future, but may not have a long one. There are many particulars of migration and movement in our future – in fact, I suspect many of these movements may, in some degree, track a backwards path past the frontiers of each stage in America, as the new call becomes “Go East, Young Man – at least there’s water!” We know that coastal land areas will be unsettled – or moved. And yet, I think there is a larger truth here – that what we have now may be the most we can ever hope to pass down, that preserving what we’ve managed to retain is a project worth doing.
Hence, of course, the idea of Adapting-in-Place for both those who have chosen something optimal and those who have had their place thrust upon them. The truth is that even those who build their dream houses move – the average stay in a “dream house” is only seven years in the US. So those who chose the perfect place and those who did not choose at all may have more in common than they think. Hence my current book and the emergence of “Adapting-in-Place Conferences and Workshop and regional projects” (the latter of which simply began to happen without me). The idea isn’t terribly novel – but it has legs. We must acknowledge that on some level, it is possible to organize people around the idea of staying here, wherever here may be, because we *are* here, slowly losing ground, but here, and the ground below us is at the root, what we have to sustain us.
Much of what I write about in terms of Adaptation, particularly for people living in densely populated areas, but really for all of us, involves enlisting the people around you. This is an enormously difficult job for most of us – partly because of the anomie of our culture, partly because we are not accustomed to community, partly simply because we have not had to. For several generations each of us could have a fossil fueled, private solution to needs once met collectively.
The tools we have to get our next door neighbors to work with us are not easy ones – some people do it, others find themselves saying “ok, I’m here, but I’m fundamentally alone, and I can only go so far that way.” Any hope of staying – and by this I mean in the largest sense of the word – of turning our homes and nations wherever they may be, into places where the dominant narrative is overturned and we are enlisted into the vast project of making here livable, must begin with other people. How do you get them together?
I’ve written thoughts and solutions on this. But still, I think more than any other preparation, how to begin to stay, how to move forward, how to get your neighbors, who may think climate change is bunk and have never heard of peak oil, to simply talk to you about what to do if the water stops flowing is hard, oh, hard. Taking on that problem, coming up with some kind of solution – and one that doesn’t require converting everyone to one perspective – this is big. Not, however, unimaginable. We have done like things in our past and have that draw upon.
Wendell Berry’s rightly insists that we do have in us, even here in America, a strain of thought to draw on that is about staying, about making the place you live in better, about committing to a piece of land and a set of people. Berry keeps reminding us of this, requiring that we see it in the overarching narrative of always moving for the better job, the bigger house, the next frontier, the final frontier. We do have a history to draw upon – and that matters. In _A Nation of Farmers_, Aaron and I wrote about the problem of choosing a history:
“The simple truth is that the glorification of our past makes us believe lies. Glorification of our State makes us accept unacceptable things. And yet, there is a United States worth believing in – moments in history in which competing forces of powerful and weak met and creating something decent, something worth treasuring and admiring. It never happened without resistance, but neither was the story always a narrative of good people and evil leaders – it sis far more complicated than that.
All of us were taught a state- and hero-centered history that erased too many ordinary contributions and focused our national pride on the wrong things. But we did have that teaching; we did learn that nationalism. Perhaps a large part of our projects is the unlearning of the untruths, but smashing idols isn’t enough – we need to give people who love their country a place to put that love, give those who derive hope and comfort from their sense of the past a past to attach themselves to.”
James H. Kunstler has articulated the dangers of the “psychology of previous investment” when applied to our driving culture – he observes that we become so attached to the things we have invested ourselves in that we go on preserving them long after such preservation has become destructive. Still, perhaps the psychology of previous investment can work for us, as well as against us, if we can articulate a past, a history, a something worth preserving and staying for that lays the ground for a liveable future.. That history of staying, thrust upon us now as it is, may be something to hold on to.
In tribute, then to Berry’s _Unsettling of America_, and his long call for re-settlement, I have come to think of my/our project in terms of Settlement. And this invokes something else worth invoking – the Settlement movement of the 19th and 20th century, conceived as a way to remediating class differences and integrating immigrants into a society,
The settlement movement called for ordinary people to go and live among the poor, like the poor, offering what they could to remediate their circumstances. Lillian Wald, Dorothy Day, Jane Addams – their focus on the idea of a settlement as a way to ease class conflict, to integrate rather than disintegrate, and at the most basic level, help people learn to stay where they were seems eminently relevant to us, as we move towards a world where most of us are poorer, less secure, moving off the frontier into a changing world.
We must do it in community, we must work with people we once did not need, we must adjust our way of life – we must, ultimately, settle – in the sense of finding a home in places we thought we were only resting momentarily in. We must settle, in the sense of finding a vision that accepts what is viable in a settled way of life, to shift our happiness and expectations to meet our new realities, rather than obsess about the lost and destructive dominant discourse. We must settle, in the sense of go out among people we did not choose, whose common ground is that they to, have entered the process of Settlement with us.
It is settlement that I think about when I think about how to survive the economic instability that has always been here but is newly acute again, it is settlement that I write about – and in the end, it will be settlement, if we can do it, that creates something worth having for our posterity. I’ve taken up my Adapting-In-Place book again, with an eye to finishing it this autumn, and wondering if I can articulate all the ways in which settling is not, in fact, a loss, but a gain.