Poetry Inspired Thoughts on Place, Academia, and the Spirit of the Law

MooseSLC.jpgAmong my many other vices, I sometimes read poetry. Of late, I have been reading Wendell Berry. For those that don’t know him, Berry is one of those fascinating figures in whom reactionary ideas become so extreme as fade quite comfortably into various forms of radicalism (in Berry’s case ecological radicalism). What attracts me to Berry’s poetry, however, is not his politics (much of which strikes me as pernicious nonsense), but rather the way in which he invokes the power of being rooted in place, of being possessed by a geographically limited and located community and history. It strikes me that this is not a longing that law professors have the luxury of acting on.

I love Berry’s poetry because it captures some of my own longing. I have spent much of my adult life on the East coast. I love where I live. Yet there is some part of me that remains forever rooted in the Intermoutain West where I grew up and where my ancestors are buried. My home is in Virginia, but there is a sense in which I am always a stranger in a strange land. To the extent that one is afflicted with these longings for place, however, the choice to become a law professor is almost necessarily a choice to forego generational roots. The Meat Market is a brutally national affair, and one of the best ways of insuring unemployment is to place geographic restrictions on where one is willing to work. I remember talking with my wife as the first interview invitations began rolling in. “Hmm…” we would say, “I wonder what it would be like to live in…” It was fun and exciting, but it is hardly an attitude that is conducive to a filial piety of place. Nor for many, will the rootlessness end with the Meat Market in an academic world in which professors shuffle laterally from school to school. Not that I (or any other law prof) can complain. We have the greatest job in the world, and I am perfectly willing to sacrifice a home by the graves of my ancestors in return for the joys of the academy (and the Virginia Tidewater).


In the end, this may all be for the best. After all, we live in a global economy, with global markets, global deals, and global legal issues. There is some justice in having the Convention on the International Sale of Goods taught by a person who has willingly sacrificed roots and place for a market that transcends them. In this sense, I suspect that the rootlessness of the junior professoriate probably nicely captures the zeitgeist of an important part of our legal world. We are, in this sense, spiritually suited for what we teach. Furthermore, I would balk at translating my own longings (set going by reading poetry no less!) into law. While I love his poetry, I do find Berry’s politics on the whole unpalatable. I like globalization, the falling of barriers, the speed of modern markets, and innovative power of freedom.

And yet I suspect that there are some pedagogical costs to the spirit that the Meat Market imposes on professors. After all, law is also about place. It is the norms and rules of this community or that community. It is as much the story of a single court’s conversation with the problems of society as it is the Restatement or Unidroit. There is a reason that the national and international firms hire local counsel, and I suspect that most young law professors do not connect to the spirit of local law in the same way that they do the national or international corpus juris in which they live their intellectual lives.

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3 Responses

  1. Rick Garnett says:

    Great post, Nate. On the one hand, there’s the “rootedness” that Berry celebrates and that is, no question, a good (even, perhaps, a near-necessary condition for real human happiness). On the other, there’s mobility, globalization, competition, and options. A great book about this tension, for what it’s worth, is “The Lost City,” by Alan Ehrenhalt (about Chicago).

  2. Frank says:

    I think Berry’s reflections on the local, and community, are very inspiring. I found the distinction between “settlers and colonizers” in The Unsettling of America quite compelling: the former try to build up a place, while the latter take all they can from it, in hope of leveraging that plunder into a better life elsewhere.

    The only defense of the meat mkt I can offer is that it diversifies the group of (potential) settlers at law schools. Ideally, the law professor finds some way of enriching the community he or she is situated in. And the kaleidoscopic, centrifugal force of AALS gets people to places they’d perhaps never even considered living in. I had never heard of the city I live in now b4 that process.