I spent the last few days at a remote ranch not far above California’s huge Central Valley, one of the most productive agricultural regions in the world. Being there made me think about people’s relationship to the land, a subject that was fed by weekend conversations with old friends and reading Wendell Berry’s Jefferson Lecture, “It All Turns on Affection,” and Isabel Wilkerson’s book, The Warmth of Other Suns. Berry is the poet of the simple rural life in which people are connected to the land. He is heir to both Jefferson and Thoreau, and the student of Wallace Stegner, who taught him that Americans can be divided into “boomers,” who “pillage and run,” and “stickers,” who have “such love for a place and its life that they want to preserve it and remain in it.” Wilkerson traces the Great Migration of 1915-1970, when six million people left the Jim Crow South for the urban north – and in so doing, transformed both the landscape and the history of America.
Berry long ago came home to the Kentucky hills – where his family has farmed since before the Civil War – to live the values he espouses. It’s a story I want to embrace – but Wilkerson reminds me that this is the same rural South from which millions of Black sharecroppers fled an unimaginable system of oppression that bound them to the land.
The migrants’ story is unique; their message is universal. As Berry writes, “land and people have suffered together, as invariably they must.” To me, those courageous enough to leave were neither boomers nor stickers. They were, like so many of us, seekers.