July 6, 2015 / Praxis
A college intern interviews torture survivors for the United Nations in a refugee camp and finds herself struggling with secondary trauma.
December 8, 2014
We say we cultivate the land. Perhaps it’s truer to say the land cultivates us. The land—her contours, curved or flat; her foliage, lush or sparse; her soil, flinty or rich; the air she walks in, warm like wool or crisp like clean cotton—shapes us. It forms our customs and food, our bodies and voices, our beliefs and postures. Our ways emerge from the ways of the land. The places we inhabit have a way of inhabiting us.
I have dwelled in the lands of both North and South. Both North and South dwell in me. These places have helped shape the terrain of my body and my soul. “If ‘the environment’ surrounds us,” Wendell Berry ponders, “how does it wind up inside us?” I don’t know how that happens. I only know that it does, that a land like the one in which I was born, at the jagged edge of the nation, fashions a roughhewn people.
Maine is a cold place. It’s so cold for so long that its official epithet, “The Pine Tree State,” evokes an image of an eternal Christmas. Evergreen spears jut out from the land, harsh but beautiful, Mother Nature’s apology for winter’s long chill.
On the old Maine farmsteads, dwellings for people and animals are connected like an architectural accordion, barns attached to the home as a defense against nature, allowing farmers to tend their livestock without stepping outside. My childhood home was a magical maze of a playground, the house more than doubled in size by its series of attached barns and sheds.
One winter it got so cold for so long that the well froze. The only water we had we fetched in jugs from a nearby spring, enough only for cooking and drinking and washing. That winter, the horses and chickens drank snow we melted in buckets by the woodstove. I went to school with greasy hair until the thaw came.
That kind of cold gets into your bones.
The people of Maine—my people—might seem a little standoffish and stiff-necked to some. Northerners are not a warm, touchy-feely people. The cold breeds a necessary kind of hop-to-it-ness, reflected in the dropped r’s of that instantly recognizable Maine accent. Or perhaps the accent comes from so much mixing with the French—because of the state’s proximity to Canada and the French ancestry of its first European settlers, French is like an official second language, the one most school kids, including me, study after English.
Along with that down east accent, ruggedness has been passed on to the people of this land over years of hard winters that turn its many lakes into giant ice skating arenas, the woods and fields into highways for snowmobiles, and the hills into slopes for sledding and skiing. Fun in Maine exacts a price. In summer, it’s blackflies. In winter, it’s frostbite. Once frostbitten, the extremities remain ever sensitive to the cold, and the ache returns eagerly and easily.
My family put our clothes out on the line to dry all year long. In winter, the clothes would swing like stiff cadavers in the bitter wind. When my mother brought them in off the line and I helped her fold them, it was like bending sheets of cardboard. The poem “Afternoon in February” by Maine native Henry Wadsworth Longfellow captures the bleakness of these winter days:
The day is ending,
The night is descending;
The marsh is frozen,
The river dead.
Through clouds like ashes
The red sun flashes
On village windows
That glimmer red.
The snow recommences;
The buried fences
Mark no longer
The road o’er the plain;
While through the meadows,
Like fearful shadows,
A funeral train.
. . . . . . . . . . . .
Shadows are trailing,
My heart is bewailing
And tolling within
Like a funeral bell.
To outwit the funeral bell in these Northern lands, generation after generation learned to survive by perpetually moving: chopping wood, swatting blackflies, sowing seeds, reaping vegetables, repeating. It’s where the so-called Puritan work ethic took hold, as did the self-reliance that characterizes the people. “Nature suffers nothing to remain in her kingdom which cannot help itself,” wrote the transcendentalist Ralph Waldo Emerson, a fellow New Englander, in his famous essay on that topic. Such dogged independence cultivates circumspection, skepticism, and stoicism. Emerson again: “Let a stoic open the resources of man, and tell men they are not leaning willows, but can and must detach themselves; that with the exercise of self-trust, new powers shall appear.”
Maine summers are tentative, like an awkward side hug from an acquaintance you haven’t seen in a while and didn’t miss. Such timidity emboldens the tourists who stream in, clogging up Route 1 along the coast from June through August. Despite the faintness of our summers, I learned in Maine to love the water. I swam in lakes and creeks and ponds. I swam with snapping turtles, water snakes, and leeches. I swam in water so cold it took my breath away. At the ocean, even on the hottest days, just walking in the water sends sharp pains through your legs. Even during a July heat wave, the air is cold and sharp along the coast and the waters of the ocean never warm. If you managed to immerse yourself completely in the waves and you could last twenty minutes, your body would go numb and fool you into thinking the water wasn’t cold after all. Once, after I’d grown and moved to New York, I had an earache and visited a doctor. After looking inside, she asked if I’d spent a lot of time as a kid swimming in a cold climate. She saw exostosis: a bony growth in the ear canal that comes from spending a lot of time immersed in icy water.
The cold gets inside you that way.
To dwell in the land is to dwell within certain boundaries—and not just the political boundaries that mark the borders of states and countries, but natural boundaries of soil and water, mountain and valley, grass and rock. To abide in a place is to establish and be established by such boundaries. In “Renascence,” the poem that launched her career as a poet, Edna St. Vincent Millay, also born in Maine, describes the way the boundedness of the land establishes the boundedness of the self:
ALL I could see from where I stood
Was three long mountains and a wood;
I turned and looked the other way,
And saw three islands in a bay.
So with my eyes I traced the line
Of the horizon, thin and fine,
Straight around till I was come
Back to where I’d started from;
And all I saw from where I stood
Was three long mountains and a wood.
Over these things I could not see:
These were the things that bounded me.
These were the things that bounded me, growing up in Maine. The pines, the rocks, the cold, the harshness, the isolation—I love these things the land of Maine instilled in me. I credit the land of the North and the people cultivated by that land for all in me that is rugged, independent, strong, and strange. But just beyond the boundary of strength lies a weakness—beyond virtue, vice.
I began to see this this when I learned the ways of another land and its people after a job took me from North to South. The slow marriage between North and South in me that has followed has, I think, made me more whole.
Wendell Berry points out, in the same speech I quoted earlier, that the word health “comes from the same Indo-European root as ‘heal,’ ‘whole,’ and ‘holy.’ To be healthy is literally to be whole; to heal is to make whole.” Both North and South—connected by an umbilical cord coastline—dwell in me, not in an internal kind of civil war but rather in a kind of hummed harmony, making me more balanced, healthier, and whole than I might otherwise be.
Here in the South, in the swelling foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, veils of green kudzu drape softly over the trees, smoothing sharp ridges of land that slowly give way to rolling slopes and fields. Even the so-called mountains are more like gentle hills. “Heaven’s Virginia when the year’s at its Spring,” wrote the Harlem Renaissance poet Anne Spencer, who made her home not far from where I now live in Central Virginia. “Here,” she wrote, in “Life-long, Poor Browning,”
. . . canopied reaches of dogwood and hazel,
Beech tree and redbud fine-laced in vines,
Fleet clapping rills by lush fern and basil,
Drain blue hills to lowlands scented with pines.
If spring in Virginia is heaven, then summer is the face of God—too much to look at and live. Summer in the South sends natives scurrying for air-conditioned shelter. Even horses go in during the day and roam free at night. Here, summer wraps its clammy arms around you like an uncomfortably long embrace. But I don’t try to escape. It’s taken all these years to warm the northern chill in my bones. I bask in this heat. Run in it. Walk. Sit. Lie prostrate in it. Sweat sweet drops of sweat until all the water has seeped out of me. And swim in waters warmer than I dared dream of while dashing under the icy waterfall flowing over the little country dam in Maine.
I carried with me from North to South the habit of drying clothes on the line all year round, a task much easier in the South. In summer, the clothes on the line bake dry like the red clay that formed the bricks that made my house and many houses here. The South’s architectural answer to sweltering heat is big porches on brick homes built under billowy oaks. Here on the porches we sit and wait for breezes. Reading remains my favorite sport here in the South as it was in the North, but now the fireside and its smoke have been replaced by the porch swing and the cigars savored there.
Survival in such a land requires slowing down. No task goes unpunctuated by leisurely small talk. Speech pours out like thick honey from the jar. Southernisms—“sweetie,” “sugar,” “ma’am,” “bless your heart”—ooze out of the vernacular. Impatience is as useless here as a long leash on a turtle. Southern gallants saunter up to doors ahead of ladies, and my body has learned to pause in allowance for such gestures. Hospitality isn’t often efficient. It’s taken time to tame my body from the tyranny of that beast of hurry.
Here, heaven’s tears are those of joy, not sorrow. Shy rain—when she comes, laden with soothing caresses—is no cause for gloom as in the North. In “Renascence,” rain is the source of the speaker’s rebirth:
The rain, I said, is kind to come
And speak to me in my new home.
Even winter here is a gentleman, tinged with white, cautious, polite, unassuming, and careful not to overstay his welcome.
Slowly, the warmth of the South has unstiffened my body.
My arms have loosened and learned to hug—awkwardly at first, like I was in junior high again, slow dancing uneasily to awful music in the school gym. But it has come to feel more natural after some years here. Despite my valiant resistance, I sense my speech slowing and, too, my formerly scurrying ways. My hands have almost mastered the two-finger wave that drivers on back roads in the South exchange in greeting anyone they meet, as if to say there are no tourists here; no one is a stranger. My sleek northern hair has grown wild and unruly, from almost the instant I stepped out of the car upon arriving at my new home one mid-July day. My skin, once ghostly white, bears now the stigmata of many outdoor hours: tawny freckles and red scratches, welts, and bites: the South has made me into a middle-aged tomboy. The ache of my frostbitten toes is melting.
 Berry, “Health Is Membership” (lecture, Spirituality and Healing Conference, Louisville, KY, October 17, 1994), http://home2.btconnect.com/tipiglen/berryhealth.html.
 Emerson, “Self-Reliance,” Self-Reliance and Other Essays (Mineola, NY: Dover, 1993), 30 and 32.
 Berry, “Health Is Membership.”
 Spencer, “Lifelong, Poor Browning,” http://www.aaregistry.org/poetry/view/life-long-poor-browning-anne-spencer.
 Millay, “Renascence.”
Karen Swallow Prior
Karen Swallow Prior is a professor of English at Liberty University, a research fellow with the Ethics and Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, and a member of the Faith Advisory Council of the Humane Society of the United States. She is the author of Booked: Literature in the Soul of Me and Fierce Convictions—The Extraordinary Life of Hannah More: Poet, Reformer, Abolitionist.