Staying Put

This collection of essays by Scott Russell Sanders is called Staying Put: Making a Home in a Restless World. Sanders has lived in Bloomington, Indiana, in the same two-story house, on the same street, with the same wife, since 1974. In this rootless and restless country, he says, that’s come to be unusual. What effect does it have on a person’s mind, heart, and body simply to stay put, to be committed to one home, one neighborhood, one person, one landscape?

Sanders makes the case that lack of committment to a place can be damaging, both personally and environmentally, since he makes no great distinction between the geography of the land and the geography of the spirit. His account of the history of the Ohio River, in “The Force of Moving Water,” is a familiar-enough story of the brutal overharvesting of abundant natural resources; if people had intended to live on the banks of the Ohio, asks Sanders, and not use it simply as a means of transportation or food or fuel for the next destination, would they have behaved in the same way?

Sanders claims that belonging to a place, learning its animals and plants and soil, knowing its topography, its body, is as necessary to us as knowing our own body, or our partner’s. How should we go about that? His essays are a mix of memory and narrative about the work it takes to be committed, the rewards and dangers of the natural world, a new notion of neighborhood and citizenship that includes putting down real roots with land and people, and a sense of the encompassing order of the universe, to which he does not attempt to attach a name.

Nothing less than the undivided universe can be our true home. Yet how can one speak or even think about the whole of things? Language is of only modest help. Every sentence is a wispy net, capturing a few flecks of meaning. The sun shines without vocabulary. The salmon has no name for the urge that drives it upstream. The newborn groping for the nipple knows hunger long before it knows a single word. Even with an entire dictionary in one’s head, one eventually comes to the end of words. Then what? Then drink deep like the baby, swim like the salmon, burn like any brief star.

As I read, I was reminded at once of Wendell Berry and of Annie Dillard, but in the end, Sanders has his own tough and lovely voice. These essays are thoughtful, mingling vision and nature, managing to be as much about mind and spirit as they are about earth and sex. They are strong and calming. I plan to read more, and I recommend you do, too.

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15 Responses to Staying Put

  1. This sounds interesting, especially since I just recently picked up and moved a long distance for a job. I wonder if his experience — living in the same place for so long — is something people in my generation are going to be able to do, or if the economy and whatnot will make that impossible.

    • Jenny says:

      He makes the point that he moved around a lot as a kid, owing to several factors: his father’s job, the economy, the damming of the river he lived near to make a reservoir. It was a conscious decision as an adult to stay put, and one that he is aware takes sacrifice and that not everyone can do.

  2. This sounds like a thoughtful and thought-provoking book. I have always wanted to stay in one place, although life didn’t allow that…now I’ve been planted for 8 years with no plans to move – ever.

    But some people must move – and, for most of us, someone in our ancestry made HUGE moves, across the ocean, around the world. How would our lives have been different if THEY’D stayed put?

    Must read Sanders’ book and get his perspective.

    • Jenny says:

      Of course — but he points out that many of those ancestors had no choice, and might have preferred to stay put. (Refugees, slaves, Native Americans, people leaving their countries because of economic or political or religious persecution, etc.) The lack of a home is painful; staying put can be a virtue and a discipline if you have the luxury to make that choice.

  3. Sigrun says:

    A very interesting post! I must admit I’ve never heard of Sanders, but if you find it proper to compare him to Dillard, he must be someone worth reading.

    I have been living in the same house for almost 40 years, I moved abroad to study, but then moved back home after finishing my degree. Together with my husband, who also studied abroad, but in a different country from me, I moved into my childhood home.

    Recently we have been discussing the possibility of moving into a more modern flat, now that our own kids are about to move out. But after some negotiations we have agreed to stay on. It feels a bit like a commitment, but mainly in a positive way.

    A house like ours, a most ordinary Norwegian wooden house, built around 1930, contains the life of three generations of my family. Several houses in my neighborhood have similar histories, in my corner of the world staying put is still quite common.

    • Jenny says:

      His voice is different from Dillard’s, but they have some of the same sense of keen observation and the tie between earth and spirituality.

      I recently moved into a house that was built in the 1920s. For an American in the West, that’s a moderately old house; someone has stayed put there, even if it wasn’t me. Sometimes we have to take our staying put from our surroundings rather than from our lives.

      • Sigrun says:

        Lucy Lippard have written very well about how we produce the landscape, and how the landscape affects our lives in her book “The Lure of the Local”. If you haven’t already read it I strongly recommend it! She writes very thought-provoking about what it is to feel “at home” somewhere.

  4. Dorothy W. says:

    I’ve read a few essays by Sanders and admired them very much. I love the idea of getting to know the place you live being as necessary as knowing your own body, and I agree entirely that not being committed to a place can be dangerous to it. He seems like a very important writer, saying things our culture needs to hear.

    • Jenny says:

      It felt important to me, too, especially with his generous inclusion of mind and spirit with his ecology. He never felt didactic or smug, even when he was voicing his strongest opinions, and I think we need more voices like those.

  5. Jeanne says:

    This is something that’s been on my mind in the last few years, as I took my almost-18-year-old to a part of the country that looks and feels very different from the place she’s lived all her life, a place I never meant to end up and have never really liked.

    There’s a vacation place we go for a week every other year for the past two decades, and there are things I learn about it even from that degree of staying put.

    • Jenny says:

      I do think that by visiting, revisiting, and loving a place, we can enter into it in that way.

      I know what you mean about not loving the place you end up staying put. I lived for six years in central IL, and I was ready to stay there for a job I really did love, but I never loved the place itself. Now I have the same job I love in Spokane, a beautiful place I do love, and it does make a difference.

  6. Stefanie says:

    This sounds wonderful. I have been thinking a lot lately about staying put as the librarian job market in my area is terrible. I moved to MN 17 years ago and bought my house 12 years ago. I love it here and don’t want to leave. So I have a dilemma, move somewhere for a job I want or stay here and hope that eventually the job I want will come along. I imagine I am not the only one with thos dilemma!

    • Jenny says:

      My husband always says the same thing: you can choose your job or you can choose where you live, but not both. I have chosen my job, and I’ve lived in Virginia, upstate New York, central Illinois, and now I hope I’ve settled in eastern Washington state. It’s an all-too-common story.

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