Writer and editor Verlyn Klinkenborg comes from a family of Iowa farmers and lived for many years on a small farm in upstate New York in Columbia County. For nearly sixteen years in the pages of the New York Times, he sent dispatches from life on the farm, detailing his observations about rural life, politics, pigs, fences, and geography. He reminds us that we’re here, that we’re not yet tired of being human, that the land where we dwell is home. His luminous essays and editorial opinions have appeared in the New Yorker, Harper’s Magazine, Esquire, and Mother Jones. His writing is eloquent and transcendental, but avoids the predictable ideation of some political and nature writing. He trusts his precise observations to convey the moral undercurrent of his thinking. There is silence in his work, but also a beating heart. If we listen closely, it’s in us, too.
juliet patterson: So would you say home is more than a structure, that it’s tied to the landscape we knew as children and our psychic relationship to it?
verlyn klinkenborg: I used to think that I was a very homesick child. And in a way, I was. But now I see that this homesickness was tied to other things that I wasn’t aware of then, like my mom struggling with leukemia early in my childhood and then dying when I was nineteen. Obviously that created a dynamic that made leaving home fraught. It sounds like a negative definition, but you could say home is the place you feel homesick away from. If I feel homesick away from it, then that must be home.
conduit: And in this case it’s your new house.
klinkenborg: It is. But, you know, the essential question, in my opinion, is something much broader. “How at home in any landscape on this planet do I feel?” It’s something that we kind of take for granted, but for me it’s a huge question.
conduit: The philosopher Gaston Bachelard referred to house cleaning, the banality of taking care of the home, as a way of reconstructing the world. You suggested earlier that your chores, in a sense, have either disintegrated or changed quite radically. Do you perceive yourself as reconstructing the world by taking care of this new place?
klinkenborg: I actually have less to take care of now. I’ve gone from a place where I had to worry about the chickens, or the pigs, or the horses getting out to one where nobody can get out; there’s nowhere to get out from. And it’s not just the space, it’s how I inhabit the weather. You know, when you have horses, or pigs, or chickens, it doesn’t matter how bad the weather is, you have to go out, at least twice a day, you don’t have a choice. Now the weather is optional. I can choose to go out or not to go out. I find that strangely missing, that feeling of, “Oh I really must go out because someone else depends on me.” My world’s just not structured that way anymore. But your point is a good one. I’ll give you an example. When we started building our house, we dug a pond. It was just a big hole in the ground, kind of horrifying really. Now three years later, it’s filled with frogs that are prospering. Swallows are always dipping into it, and herons sometimes too. We have a swimming dock as well. So it’s a habitation now. It didn’t use to be; it used to be a bit of damp pasture. Now it’s a whole different set of life zones. The house looks down over the pond, and every day this spring I’d get up and see a different pair of ducks, or mergansers, or geese just stopping in to check it out, and it became very interesting to me to see how much that kind of habitation meant to me. How much it means to all of us. The needs of other creatures are so specific. Our own can seem more amorphous and hard to interpret, so that it becomes hard to imagine what human habitat looks like. But having that pond outside the window made me see how the animals in and around it inhabited the place. And my fascination with them made the pond part of my own habitat, a part that satisfied a deep need.
conduit: Do you think the way the landscape is being altered and commodified is increasing that need generally?
klinkenborg: I don’t know. I think a lot of people have never had the responsibility of caring for, say, farm animals, or land where food is produced, so they have no idea what it means not to have these things. Their engagement with them has been completely optional. So before we worry about what people are longing for or needing, we have to teach them what it is that they need to long for. Part of the complication is that our species is so adaptable. We easily find ourselves at home in many different environments. It’s wrong to assume there’s an innate bond between us and the natural world – it’s a cultural bond that one generation teaches to the next. Once you’ve broken that bond, it’s very complicated to recreate it. I think a lot of young people now are working very hard to recreate that bond, and that’s terrific, but I would never say that they’re doing so out of some primordial instinct. My own experience tells me that the bond has to be taught over and over again. We have to instruct people and we have to help them learn how to love the environment. If that love were as natural as we like to think it is, it wouldn’t be so complicated to protect landscapes and the species in them.