Storytelling & Practices of Habitation (Pt. II)

Last summer I rode 2,500 miles across the country, interviewing people about “the sacred” and our human connection to land and place. This is the second of two posts about my experiences–if you want to start with the first one click here.

Wes Jackson’s ‘Becoming Native’

“The wilderness of the Sierra will disappear unless little pieces of nonwilderness become intensely loved by lots of people.” – Wes Jackson, Becoming Native to This Place

A challenging aspect of my bicycle ride from Minneapolis to Seattle this summer was the growing awareness that many of the small towns of the plains that we cycled through and past — towns like Malta, Montana, which I discussed in Part I — are places whose better days, economically speaking, are far behind them and receding ever further. They are places where grain elevators are silent gray giants, or places that were once sites of booming industry, but which are now made up of abandoned store-fronts and aging populations. They are places that you encounter and can’t help but think, “I’m glad I don’t live here.” And can’t help but ask, “Why do people stay?”

Indeed, what does it mean to inhabit an increasingly forgotten place? To live in a place where habitation first and foremost involves simply choosing not to leave?

In his book, Becoming Native to This Place (Counterpoint, 1996), Wes Jackson speaks of the need for the return to local, integrated, and agricultural modes of living and inhabiting. We must, he argues, “search for a less extractive and polluting economic order, so that we may fit agriculture into the economy of a sustainable culture, [where] community becomes the locus and metaphor for both agriculture and culture” (p. 103).

For Jackson, the Anthropocene is replete with practices of consumption driven by the desire for wealth and economic growth. What’s more, we’re entrenched in practices of a removed, scientific logic which yields an objectified understanding of the world in order to more precisely deconstruct it–intellectually and physically. As Aldo Leopold said: “Everybody knows…that the autumn landscape in the north woods is the land, plus a red maple, plus a ruffed grouse. In terms of conventional physics, the grouse represents only a millionth of either the mass or the energy of an acre. Yet subtract the grouse and the whole thing is dead…there has been an ecological death, the significance of which is inexpressible in term of contemporary science.” (A Sand County Almanac, Oxford University Press, 1949.)

The teeny (and getting teenier) town of Steinauer, Nebraska, where my family is originally from.

The teeny (and getting teenier) town of Steinauer, Nebraska, where my family is originally from.

As human activity continues to impact our earth and impinge on its habitability, these economic and scientific practices continue to fundamentally and dangerously alienate us from nature. We have forgotten the “ecological arrangements that shaped us” (Jackson, p. 60), and instead “have sent our topsoil, our fossil water, our oil, our gas, our coal, and our children into that black hole called the economy” (p. 12).

And so, Jackson writes, our alienation is a call to a transformation of consciousness, to a fundamental change in our current practices of habitation. We must return to our native practices of integration and interpenetration with our earth and its ecosystems. A cadre of “homecomers” and “new pioneers” must re-inhabit these rural, forgotten places and tend the land, because “we cannot avoid participating in the creation, and it is in agriculture, far and away our largest and most basic artifact, that human culture and the creation totally interpenetrate” (p. 103).

Whether or not Jackson’s call for a great reverse-migration from urban population centers back to the countryside is a viable one is a question for another essay. Jackson does, however, raise important insights about the ways in which transformations in our perception of place can transform our practices of habitation. As he says, “either all the earth is holy or none is. Either every square foot of it deserves our respect or none does” (p. 67). If we are able to see all land as holy, as something to be respected — in sum, as sacred — we will be more inclined to treat it with respect.

Storytelling as a Deliberate Practice of Habitation

A necessary part of our intelligence is on the line as the oral tradition becomes less and less important. There was a time throughout our land when it was common for stories to be told and retold, a most valuable exercise, for the story retold is the story reexamined over and over again at different levels of intellectual and emotional growth. – Wes Jackson

I witnessed small instances of the ethos Jackson articulates along my route. Places like Garfield County, Montana, which initially seemed undesirable in my (unfair) judgment, were — as the result of even a brief conversation and interview — made more desirable, given greater value. All it took was having people who lived there tell me a story that conveyed their relationship to that place.

John and Margaret, ages 90 and 87 — “the oldest couple walkin’ around Napoleon, North Dakota” — refused to answer any of my questions until they had sung me 20 minutes worth of German songs from their childhood. They both grew up on farms outside of Napoleon, speaking only German until they entered school, part of a cultural group in North Dakota now referred to as “the Germans from Russia.” Father John Odero, who moved from his home in Kenya to the tiny town of Bolwus, Minnesota, where he is a missioner in the St. Cloud Diocese, gave me a tour of the large garden he tends behind his church where he has planted many of his native Kenyan crops. “Back at home we try as much as we can to share whatever we have with people. People might be poor in other ways but the little they have they will have to share with other people. They will not let somebody go hungry, but they will see that they share and that’s their happiness, that’s their joy.”
Lisa Cline-Person talked at length about growing up on her family’s ranch. “The elevation was such that I could climb up there and I could see forever. I could see the Big Horn mountains and I could watch the sunset and I could look down on the buildings. And it was a really strange feeling because I felt separate up there from people, but I felt very connected to everything around me. My dad died when I was 15 years old and if I wanted to go connect with him I wouldn’t go to the cemetery, I would go there.” She wept when she told me that when her family lost that ranch, she felt it “like a death.”



These small moments, these snatches of memory, these transfers of imagination were simple and real and powerful. They brought the places they were told about to life, certainly in the minds of those who were telling these stories, but in my mind as well.

Narratives of Change, Choice & Imagination

So back to our foundational questions: How do perceptions and knowledge of a place affect the habitability of that place? If we transform how we perceive and imagine a place, how will that affect our lived practices of habitation there?

In the moments I just shared with you I understood why people choose to stay, choose to continue to inhabit these places which, at first glance, might appear to lack culture, lack pizazz, lack things to do. Perceptions of a place as loved, cared for, as a place to be rooted in – have a profound role in making those places habitable, even if from outside perspectives they do not seem to offer much of a life.

Sometimes, of course, people stay because they do not have the means to go elsewhere. Habitability in the Anthropocene rings strongly of privilege. The walls close in more slowly and less dramatically when you can easily make the choice to inhabit elsewhere. We’ve long known that the poorest among us will fare the worst in the face of our changing climate.

prairie grass smallBut habitability can also ring of love and relationship. People stay often because of this deep bond that has grown strong because their ancestors and then they and then their children farmed the land. Because the skies and the grass and the way the air smells like sage in the rain are old and dear friends.

We live in a time when our perceptions of place will change whether we want them to or not; when we will have to find new practices of habitation whether through ‘becoming native’ or otherwise; when the stories we have and tell about where and how we live will take on new plot twists and less predictable endings.

Inhabiting the Anthropocene will mean that we will be continually faced with choices which will continue to affect the habitability of our planet. As we come to grips with that fact, what can we learn from those who approach their homes first with an attitude of love and care, of tending the land, of staying put? What can we learn from the practice of telling others our stories about the places we live in and love? What can we learn from listening to these stories?

3 thoughts on “Storytelling & Practices of Habitation (Pt. II)

  1. Pingback: Storytelling Pt. II | Practicing Vicariously

  2. Thanks, Chelsea, for this–what a nice addition to our blog! There were two things that this second part pointed out that I think really resonate with ideas we’ve explored in the blog . . . and they add up to what for me is a new realization (though I think it is actually pretty old news).

    The first thing comes out of your discussion of Wes Jackson. I love his line “we cannot avoid participating in the creation;” I think he pointing right at the idea of niche construction, which has been a recurring theme for many of the contributors here. I take him to agree with a point reiterated often here–it is inevitable that we will transform the environment; the challenge is to transform it well rather than badly.

    The second thing was something I’ve not focused on before–and that is the role that meaning plays in habitability. That idea emerged from your discussion of place, and the meaningfulness of the places you visited to their inhabitants. In thinking about habitability I’ve focused on the way habitat supports metabolic needs–that is, I’ve focused mostly on the physical dimension of habitability. A number of posts here have observed that habitability has a cultural dimension. I had thought of that in terms of cultural choices about what physical resources are important. But reading your post helped me see that the meaning of a place is itself part of what makes it habitable. That is, the meaning a place has for its inhabitants is an important part of what suits that location to the kind of life those people seek to lead–it is an element in their understanding of what is involved in a good life.

    These two things go together. Part of the idea of habitability I’m trying to articulate in my contributions here is that habitability is not a given feature of a location, but is an accomplishment of its inhabitants. In the physical sense I just alluded to, people have to transform the landscape in order to render the physical resources they need to live accessible. Agriculture is certainly a prime (maybe the core) example of this. But that transformation is, obviously, accomplished through labor–and, also obviously, in laboring in and on a place people invest it with meaning–at bottom, I guess, the meaning that this is the place I have put myself into (and thereby supported my family and community) through my labor. I think the deep appeal of the agrarian ideal Jackson invokes is that it brings together these two aspects of labor (gaining resources from the environment, creating meaning) into a conception of habitability that is addressed both to the body and to the soul.

    I say this combination (i.e. that the idea of labor combines environmental transformation and the creation of meaning) is old news because I take it that is is what Hegel is getting at in his analysis of labor and property, and what Marx picks up on, especially in his early writings on alienation. I guess I should find the right texts and do a post! In any event, this is an aspect of the idea of habitability I’m eager to explore further.

  3. Zev – thank you so much for the opportunity to contribute to Inhabiting the Anthropocene and for helping me to explore these ideas further. Your comment is wonderful. I’m eager to hear your continued reflections on how interactions with the environment and the creation of meaning inform each other and would be very interested in exploring some of this “old news” in the writings of Hegel, Marx, etc. (I’ll soon be asking you for some specific pointers on that front!)

    Your comment raises several questions for me: I wonder where and how academia – and this deeper, philosophical plunge into notions of meaning and place – can interact with what is often an intuitive sense of connection to place for the inhabitants themselves, one that is not often articulated – verbally or even consciously.

    In other words, in the current example of rural/agricultural places, where and how do the academic and the farmer find each other? What would a conversation between them look like and result in? Must/should these conversations take place in order to achieve a truer, more robust view of the Anthropocene and of the ways in which inhabitants accomplish habitability?

    Meaning, of course, is created both in institutions and in the context of living in a place. Is there a common language between them? Does there need to be?

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