Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 11, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 411

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“Where” is a mythic poem about a “paradise lost” and the possibility of regaining that lost Eden. It is a parable of the American frontier and an indictment of the cultural habits and attitudes that resulted in massive environmental destruction. It is an exploration of the cultural mind-set that heedlessly exploited and wasted the natural resources of the land. The history of the narrator’s farmland has been one of neglect and misuse. Yet there is some reason for hope. The narrator has chosen to return here, he has laid his claim to this land, and he is in a position to benefit from the mistakes of the past. The knowledge he carries with him is reason for song. Like the clear song of the redbird—“Even/ so. Even so.”—there is reason for hope in the narrator’s stubborn loyalty to his native land.

Elsewhere, in the autobiographical essay “The Long-Legged House,” Berry has written about how hard it is to acquire a genuine sense of place. “Where” describes in part the process of assimilation to a place, an important theme in Berry’s work. The poem chronicles his return to the region where he was born and where both sides of his family had lived for generations. For him, buying the Lane’s Landing farm meant establishing himself in the region where he could be in touch with the “profound and mysterious knowledge that is inherited, handed down in memories and names and gestures and feelings, and in tones and inflections of voice.”

According to Berry, one learns to belong to a particular place through the power of silence—the silence that permits one to be present as if absent—and through the attentive observation through which a place begins to reveal its life in moments of deep intimacy and beauty. This kind of attentiveness permits people to live in the world almost as though they were not in it, so that they will not harm it in any way. It also permits people to view human life as only a small and superficial part of the larger life around them. Thus “Where” is both a personal credo and a contemporary ecological statement of what needs to be done—of people’s responsibility to leave a particular place in better condition than they found it. It offers a new vision, a promise of wise husbandry and conservation practices, based upon a sense of permanent allegiance to a particular place.