I am fond of saying, whenever my wife and I are out driving and we pass some sort of building project that is invariably a hideous imposition on the land, “and it’s place knows it not.” My wife finally asked me yesterday what I meant by that, since that line comes from the 103rd Psalm, the whole verse being: “As for man, his days are like grass; he flourishes like a flower of the field; for the wind passes over it, and it is gone, and its place knows it not.” Of course the usual meaning of this verse is to highlight the mortality and fleeting nature of human life, so I don’t blame my wife for wondering how I can apply it to the building of an ugly, shoddy house or strip-mall.
One of the many diseases of the modern age is our refusal to acknowledge our mortality and our avoidance of dealing with our inevitable death. The interesting paradox here is that though eternal youthfulness and avoidance of the discomfort of aging makes up a lion’s share of the modern economy, we do not treat the world around us with the consideration of someone fated to live forever. Perhaps it would be more accurate to say that modern man doesn’t wish to live for many long years, he simply wishes NOW to last forever without consideration for the passage of time. This surrounds us with a child-like imbecility, unwilling to acknowledge the limitations of the passing years of our life, but at the same time treating the world around us with no regards for the future.
The Psalm verse tells us in clear terms that once we are gone, there will be no remembrance of us in the places we inhabit. Mat Feltner in Wendell Berry’s “A Place on Earth” meditates on this in the crisis of his grief over the death of his son, lost in action in WWII. He looks down into a patch of woods and sees the remnants of an old homestead, the ruined chimney and foundation being all that is left to mark where a family lived and worked. Mat’s realization that all that will ultimately remain of us in this life will be the bonds of love and fellowship we hand down to those around us is one of the culminating statements of the novel. That the works of our hands will not long outlive us ought to be a sobering reflection. Indeed author Alan Weisman, in his book “The World Without Us”, engages in an interesting thought experiment outlining just how long our built environments would last if every human was to suddenly to disappear from the face of the earth. It is in a way comforting to imagine suburban sprawl being erased by wind, water, and vegetative growth within a few centuries. I find myself in a way troubled by his conclusions though, because aside from some of our more gross industrial constructions like nuclear power plants and oil refineries, taking comfort in the power of nature to erase what man has built, seems to me an easy way for us to abdicate our responsibility towards our posterity.
While much of what we do will not long outlive is, there is much that we do that will. In my declaration that “It’s place knows it not”, I am less concerned with absence than I am with presence. Too much of what we do creates an imposition on the land and the environment around us that will outlast us, without creating anything but the most fleeting benefit. Down to road from where we live there is a crossroads with some businesses clustered around it. A few years a ago a new strip-mall was built on a vacant lot at the crossroads (and the whole light commercial/retail area sits in a long abandoned sand and gravel quarry). All the materials and energy and effort went into building this strip mall, and it has sat utterly empty for three or four years now. The vacant lot did not have much to recommend it to begin with, but it grew grass and the occasional wildflowers and dandelions. Now there is an empty building there and a paved parking lot, serving neither the environment nor any human use. Even were it to be filled with businesses, how many of the uses of that building would truly be worth the mining of the steel, the quarrying and kilning of cement, and the cutting of forests that went into its construction?
One of the great strengths of a local economy is that the consequences of our actions are always clearly before us (and if they are not clearly before us, they are certainly clearly seen by our friends and neighbors, who we hope will hold us accountable). This requires an affection and discipline that sets a heavy obligation on us, which is why we are such easy prey for the modern, globalized economy which seeks to present us with all the benefits, while externalizing the damages to far-off places or the invisible future. It would therefore be good for those of us who wish to know our place, to remember and honor the fact that one day our place will know us not.