Plough My Account Sign Out
My Account
    View Cart

    Subtotal: $

    blue castle and farmland

    Hannah Coulter, the Green Lady, and Me

    What is rootedness to those of us who never had a family farm? Is the Christian called to put down roots, or pull them up?

    By Emily G. Wenneborg

    April 11, 2023
    • Julia Smucker

      As a fellow nomad who has lived in and felt deeply connected with multiple places, I strongly share this writer's appreciation of Wendell Berry and C.S. Lewis, AND her critique of Berry's "boomer/sticker" dichotomy, which categorically favors sedentaries over nomads. For me, it comes down to this sentence: "I believe that Jesus, our wandering Lord, calls us to live as both settlers and exiles wherever we find ourselves." And (paraphrasing Tolkien): "not all who wander are boomers." Amen, sister!

    • David Ballenger

      Thank you for this article and the insights into to this subject, which has been a concern of mine for a couple of decades now. Berry’s work influenced me to settle in the place my family has lived for the past sixteen years. One essential part of our decision to adopt the Hannah Coulter side of this issue is seeing the effects that several moves had on our children. While we wanted them to have the rootedness of community, we ultimately want them to be rooted in Christ and take that wherever they go, which for my son and his family has been China. Even though they are on the other side of the world in a city of over 15 million people, I see those “sticker” values in the way they have integrated themselves into the life of their community.

    • David

      Some really helpful insights here. Thank you so much.

    • Paula

      This article comforts my soul, as one who has had the rootedness of farm and community removed. My Lord is where I am rooted, and hopefully that gift will be given to and accepted by my grown children.

    My husband and I recently bought our first house. Owning our own home has been a dream for almost as long as we’ve been married, but the uncertainty of the academic job search deferred that dream until I had completed my PhD. As it turned out, I found a job in the same town we met and married in, where we’d lived and worshipped for many years. We could stay in the community where we first fell in love.

    In choosing to stay in the same place for so many pivotal life events, our lives seem to be fitting into the pattern recommended by the poet, writer, and cultural critic Wendell Berry. Across his writing, Berry celebrates the virtues of remaining in a single community and a single place for an extended period of time, even a lifetime. This concern for rootedness in place, for being a “sticker” rather than a “boomer,” permeates his nonfiction, his poetry, and especially his fiction.

    One key fictional example of a “sticker” is Hannah Coulter, the eponymous narrator of Berry’s fourth novel. Near the end of a long life, Hannah reflects on her two marriages (one short, one long), the children she raised, and the investments she and her neighbors have made in their homes, their farms, and one another. She treasures the way her life has intertwined with both the community and the land. At the same time, she mourns her fading hope that her rooted way of life will be passed on to the next generation. She worries what will happen after her death to the farm she and her husband Nathan have tended: none of her children or grandchildren cares for it as she does. Watching the world change around her, she observes the emergence of a “boomer” sensibility and expresses her own “sticker” values: “Most people now are looking for ‘a better place,’ which means that a lot of them will end up in a worse one. … There is no ‘better place’ than this, not in this world. And it is by the place we’ve got, and our love for it and our keeping of it, that this world is joined to Heaven.”

    Many of Berry’s readers see this vision of lifelong commitment to a single place as the ideal path for Christians, even if it’s not absolutely mandatory. Echoing Hannah, they complain that young people today, much like Hannah’s children, are too transient, too quick to leave their hometowns in search of bigger and better opportunities. This, they say, leaves communities fraying and fragmented. Physical spaces and institutions decay when no one continues to love them enough to invest time and energy in them. Jake Meador, for instance, remarks in In Search of the Common Good (2019), “A simple life of work and prayer in a particular place among a beloved people is all that God’s people need aspire to. And when we aspire to something beyond this hidden fidelity, it doesn’t take long for things to go sideways.”

    In this light, the decision my husband and I made to remain in the community that shaped our faith and our marriage appears laudably countercultural and uniquely virtuous. But I believe this interpretation of our choice to stay – as an act of Christian faithfulness in the midst of a rootless culture – is deeply mistaken.

    As I read Hannah Coulter, I find myself most closely identifying not with Hannah and Nathan, nor even with her children, but with her grandchildren. Like them, I “grew up without any idea what it is to live in a place and think about it and do its work and worry about it and love it and admire it every day the year around.” For all that I recognize the value in Hannah’s rootedness, it’s her descendants’ lack of a clear “home” that I connect with most. It’s not hard to see why. Through choices not my own, by the time I was ten years old I had lived in three countries on three continents. For me, like many people today, questions about whether to remain or leave are beside the point. There was no family farm in the first place. The first time I truly felt at home in a particular place wasn’t in childhood, but during graduate school.

    Watching the decisions and life outcomes of her family and others in her community, Hannah formulates an axiom: “The way of education leads away from home.” Hannah reflects on the parenting decisions she and Nathan made almost without realizing:

    We wanted them to have all the education they needed or wanted, and yet hovering over that thought always was the possibility that once they were educated they would go away, which, as it turned out, they did. We owed them that choice, and we gave it to them, and it might be hard to argue that we were wrong. But I wonder now, and I wonder it many a time, if the other choice, the choice of coming home, might not have been made clearer.

    I believe that Jesus, our wandering Lord, calls us to live as both settlers and exiles wherever we find ourselves.

    In my own life this axiom is reversed. In one sense it’s true that after completing my education I didn’t come “home” – since I didn’t have one. Yet it was my educational journey that led me to the home I’d never known before. My graduate studies in philosophy, sociology, history, education, and religious studies gave me an in-depth appreciation of how valuable communities are and how hard they are to sustain over time.

    Unfortunately, for many graduates, the same education that helps them understand the importance of healthy, long-term community makes it nearly impossible for them to put what they know to good use. As I was finishing my PhD, I applied for jobs all around the United States, knowing that – as is typical for academics – it was much more likely that I would find a job someplace other than the town where I went to school. If I hadn’t been offered my current role, I would have happily accepted a position elsewhere. So when I describe the place I live as a chosen hometown, I’m not being entirely accurate. My love for this community wouldn’t have prevented me from moving if I’d found the right job somewhere else. The right description of how I found my hometown in adulthood isn’t “choice,” but “gift.”

    I realize more clearly the limitedness of interpreting Berry’s vision of rootedness as a Christian virtue when I compare Hannah Coulter with another fictional female, written by another male author beloved of American Christians. Although there are interesting parallels between Wendell Berry and C. S. Lewis as writers, Lewis’s novel Perelandra offers a very different picture of a faithful Christian relationship with place.

    One of Perelandra’s main characters is the “Green Lady,” queen of the planet Venus – the Perelandra of the book’s title. The Green Lady, a reimagined version of Eve in Genesis, receives each moment of life as a wave to be ridden for as long as it lasts, then freely relinquished for the next wave to come. Like Eve, the Green Lady has received one supreme command from God. She is not forbidden to eat the fruit of a certain tree, as Eve was, but is told not to spend the night on the “Fixed Land.” Instead, she is to return to the floating islands that move about unpredictably on Perelandra’s sea-covered surface. The Green Lady has no desire to disobey God’s command, nor does she see the point of the houses and possessions that tie Earth’s people to a single piece of land. She is, to put it starkly, the anti–Hannah Coulter.

    But although the Green Lady refuses to be a “sticker,” she is no “boomer” either. In fact, as the course of her temptation unfolds, Lewis strongly suggests that acquiring a settled habitation may in fact arise from a desire to amass wealth and control, to have a place to hoard material possessions and use them at will. As a character trying to tempt the Green Lady into staying on the Fixed Land explains, “I had forgotten that you would not live on the Fixed Land nor build a house nor in any way become mistress of your own days. Keeping means putting a thing where you know you can always find it again, and where rain, and beasts, and other people cannot reach it.” Here, refusing to settle in a single place reflects faithfulness to God’s will regarding property and possessions. To paraphrase a famous line from Lewis’s colleague and friend J. R. R. Tolkien: “not all who wander are boomers.”

    Once again, my own life story has shown me that people do not always fit neatly into the categories of “boomer” or “sticker.” When I was growing up, career demands led my family to move to a new place five times in fourteen years. But I wouldn’t consider my parents “boomers” any more than I would the Green Lady. Their way of life wasn’t motivated by profit, prestige, or career; rather, in place after place they quickly found and committed themselves to a local church. In just a year or two, they would become more connected to their local community than many people who live in one place for decades. In whatever part of the world they found themselves, they taught me the anti-parochial lesson of learning to adapt to new and different cultures, and some deep spiritual wisdom along the way. As one of my mom’s favorite adages puts it: “God has his people everywhere.”

    So, in these two fictional characters, Hannah Coulter and the Green Lady, we have two visions of Christian faithfulness: one praises rootedness as among the highest virtues; the other suggests that rootedness can draw us away from God, leading us to place our hope in material stability rather than in his providence. What are we to make of this?

    Rather than choosing between these two pictures of Christian faithfulness – the rootedness of Berry’s Hannah Coulter and the detachment of Lewis’s Green Lady – we can learn from both; indeed, each is most illuminating in light of the other. I believe that Jesus, our wandering Lord, calls us to live as both settlers and exiles wherever we find ourselves. Some of us may find ourselves leaving our home country and journeying through the world as pilgrims. We may, like the apostle Paul, be called to bring the gospel to people who have not yet heard it, or we may, like Abram setting out from Ur in Genesis 12, simply follow wherever God leads, without knowing why. In both cases, our obligation is the same one the prophet Jeremiah placed upon the Jewish people: to seek the welfare of the city of exile (Jer. 42). Others of us may be tasked with a kind of exile-in-place, learning to live as pilgrims in the very place that seems like home, as Peter’s first epistle encourages the early Christians to do.

    As we follow in the footsteps of our Teacher, this double vocation – settler and exile – will require all of us to learn and grow beyond our natural inclinations. For my parents, repeatedly moving across the world meant learning to recognize what truly matters in a worshipping community, beyond our own cultural tastes and habits. For me, having grown up with no single home, remaining in one place for nearly a decade has meant learning to let myself become part of a community larger than myself, with no impending move to act as an escape from the demands of living together, the need for conflict resolution, or the journey toward mutual vulnerability.

    Even Hannah Coulter learns to ride the waves that life sends her. The first time I read Berry’s novel, I took Hannah for a nostalgic and a complainer, an old woman who couldn’t accept that her children and grandchildren didn’t care for the same things she did. But when I returned to Hannah’s story to write this essay, I discovered that her character grows and changes across the book – subtly shifting closer to the Green Lady’s detachment from the things of this world. Late in Hannah’s life, her grandson Virgie returns to his grandparents’ farm in an attempt to make a new life for himself. As Hannah expresses her hopes for what might come of this, I was struck by the similarity between the metaphor she uses and life on Perelandra: “Now and then the thought drifts into my mind that Virgie might actually prove himself a farmer and become worthy of the Feltner place and live there, and that Margaret, by his good favor, might end her days there, and all come somehow right at last. And then I let it drift on by. I let it come and go like a leaf floating on the river.”

    Waves will come. Whether you spend your whole life in the same place as your parents and grandparents before you, or follow in the wandering footsteps of Abram, Jesus, and Paul, the waves of life will come. May you meet them all with eyes firmly fixed on the one who walks on the waves.

    Contributed By EmilyGWenneborg Emily G. Wenneborg

    Emily G. Wenneborg is the director of Pascal Study Center and an assistant professor at Urbana Theological Seminary.

    Learn More
    You have ${x} free ${w} remaining. This is your last free article this month. We hope you've enjoyed your free articles. This article is reserved for subscribers.

      Already a subscriber? Sign in

    Try 3 months of unlimited access. Start your FREE TRIAL today. Cancel anytime.

    Start free trial now