“Perhaps even more important, I still had a deep love for the place I had been born in, and liked the idea of going back to be a part of it again. And that, too, I felt obligated to try and understand. Why should I love any one place so much more than any other? What could be the meaning or use of such love?”
– Wendell Berry, from A Native Hill
The love of place. What does it mean? What is its use?
I have often said, “I love my apartment.” But, what does that mean? Perhaps I enjoy the space – the way the light comes through the curtains in the afternoon, the amount of counter space in the kitchen, the color and shapes of the parquet floor. Perhaps I enjoy the things I have put in the apartment – the cozy couches, the familiar books, the paintings on the wall, the potted plants on the balcony. Perhaps I appreciate the location – convenience of daily necessities, proximity to friends. Yet, when I say “I love my apartment,” what I usually mean is, “I like how I feel when I’m in my apartment.” I mean that I feel calm and safe in a space that is fully known by me. I mean that in this space, I feel freed to live in a way that suits me. All these meanings, however, place me as the receiver; and though I am using an active verb, there is no action implied by it. That I “love” my apartment is understood in the passive sense – the sense of the happy, fuzzy feelings I get by occupying the space that it designates.
The same meaning makes its way into statements like “I love Miami,” or Seattle, or London, or Cape Town. When I say that I love a specific town or city, I usually mean that I enjoy the feeling of being in that city; I like the weather, the sights, the food, the nightlife, or art scene. The geographical place pleases me in some way strong enough for me to want to stay. Still, the only action implied on my part is that of the consumer – I experience, appreciate, take in, enjoy what the place has to offer. It is a love that takes much and gives little. Where then is the action of loving?
This question becomes even louder when I am not in the place that I profess to love. If I say “I love London” but live in Seattle, then I’m not referring to any action in the present tense at all. I am most likely referring to a previous time in that place – some intensely positive experience that has left me with warm and meaningful memories. Not only is there no action implied by this type of love, there is also nothing received. If I am not present in the place that I love, I cannot enjoy any of the benefits of being there. I can only linger on the memories. Many would call this nostalgia.
There are, however, moments in talking about the love of a place in which the meaning is overtly and necessarily active. If I say, “I love my garden,” I am talking about a new level of involvement. Personal pleasure and fulfillment are still present: I may like the way I feel when I am spending time in my garden. It may be a place of peace and joy. However, work is also assumed. A garden grows, changes, and is capable of dying. In order to love the place, I have to do something to keep it alive. The love is naturally and by definition, active. I make sure that the soil is healthy and the plants are nurtured. I clear the path that leads to it, and remove any stones that would choke the life that is there. To the best of my ability, I make sure that nothing toxic enters the system and, in due time, I eat the fruit of my care and effort. In my garden, the love sown in action reaps a harvest that that is always tangible and often edible.
Such a love is useful. There is a substance and fruit to it. Something outside of me lives and is nurtured by it. But is this not in fact the real nature of love? By saying anything else, have we not somehow begun to divorce the cause from the result? It has become somehow easy to believe that love exists where there are warm-fuzzy feelings regardless of whether or not there is any action involved. And yet, you would most probably look at me funny if I said “I love this book” and then show you a volume that has pages torn or missing, mud stains all through it, and doodles in all the blank spots; or if I said “I love my apartment,” but I leave trash and rotting food everywhere, never change the bulbs, and do nothing to fix the things that break. If the action of love always cares for its object, then it is a lie to say that I love something I do not actively care for. It is far more truthful to say simply that I enjoy it.
So then what of the love of a more general place? “I love this neighborhood.” Or town. Or school. Yet, if I stay uninvolved, offer nothing to the other people there, care nothing for the physical space, consume and never invest, it is not love. It’s only warm fuzzies – a statement that reflects nothing other than how the place makes me feel. Narcissism.
A love of a place is meaningful and useful insofar as an active relationship with that place exists. When I nurture, protect, build, and invest in the place – the people and the environment – I am doing love. It has substance. In the doing, there is also reward: the deepening of identity and widening of purpose, the harvest of labor, the simple contentment of being and enjoying a thing that is well tended.
In short, if love is not an action, it is narcissism or nostalgia. If it is none of the three, then it is dead and can only be spoken of in the past tense. Love is a verb. Present and active.