The Wisdom of Place

My 4-year-old grandson is now following his father and me over some
of the same countryside that I followed my father and grandfather
over. When his time comes, my grandson will choose as he must, but
so far all of us have been farmers. I know from my grandfather that
when he was a child he too followed his father in this way, hearing
and seeing, not knowing yet that the most essential part of his
education had begun.

And so in this familiar spectacle of a small boy tagging along
behind his father across the fields we are part of a long
procession, five generations of which I have seen, issuing out of
generations lost to memory, going back, for all I know, across
previous landscapes and the whole history of farming.

Modern humans tend to believe that whatever is known can be
recorded in books or on tapes or on computer disks and then again
learned by those artificial means.

But it is increasingly plain to me that the meaning, the
cultural significance, even the practical value of this sort of
family procession across a landscape can be known but not told.
These things, though they have a public value, do not have a public
meaning; they are too specific to a particular small place and its
history. This is exactly the tragedy in the modern displacement of
people and cultures.

That such things can be known but not told can be shown by
answering a simple question: Who knows the meaning, the cultural
significance, and the practical value of this rural family’s
generational procession across its native landscape? The answer is
not so simple as the question: No one person ever will know all the
answer. My grandson certainly does not know it. And my son does
not, though he has positioned himself to learn some of it, should
he be so blessed.

I am the one who (to some extent) knows, though I know also that
I cannot tell it to anyone living. I am in the middle now between
my grandfather and my father, who are alive in my memory, and my
son and my grandson, who are alive in my sight.

If my son, after 30 more years pass, has the good pleasure of
seeing his own child and grandchild in that procession, then he
will know something like what I now know.

This living procession through time in a place is the record by
which such knowledge survives and is conveyed. When the procession
ends, so does the knowledge.

–Wendell Berry

Excerpted from Life Is a Miracle
(Counterpoint, 2000).

In-depth coverage of eye-opening issues that affect your life.