It has been said that Sappho wrote “What cannot be said will be wept.”
Like Pablo Neruda, I could write the saddest lines tonight. “Who can say what happens between us and the stars? They give their light, and many years later, we receive it. The city lights bleach the stars, but their lights are there, always part of our glory.” Who can say what happens between two people in love? I gave him my love, and many years from now, perhaps he will receive it. I no longer love him as I loved him, but I love him, and that love travels down into his darkness tonight, where many years from now, it might someday find his heart. I have not lost love, though I have lost my love for him. Love’s fullness is like the moon, always there, even when shadowed. I have not lost my love.
What cannot be said will be wept.
I marvel at how one decision can change a landscape. A man decides to dig a canal. He diverts a river and contaminates the sea. A man builds a wall in front of his house, and down the coast, the beach erodes. A man gets angry and shoves his girlfriend onto the couch, grabs her by the sweater and the seams tear at the neck; their lives are changed forever. For years you insinuate that you’ll cut down the tree, and then one day, you bring out the saw and slice the outer bark. You can change your mind about cutting down the tree, but the evidence of the damage never goes away.“My people’s errors have become the features of my country,” writes Wendell Berry in “A Native Hill.”
I cannot look over the landscape of Waikiki, the place I call home, without seeing errors written in water. There is the error of the Ala Wai Canal, which was created in haste to drain the taro fields of Waikiki, transforming farmland into resorts. Where the Ala Wai drains into the ocean, the water is contaminated, making the water almost un-swimmable after a rain, the coral reefs invisible in the murk. City planners warn of a hundred-year flood coming from Manoa Valley that could destroy lives and property, but there is little talk of what it would do to the ocean, fish, birds, and plants. Then, there are the errors of the sea walls on Waikiki beach. Ironically, sea walls have the opposite effect of their intended purpose. They cause more erosion than they prevent. Every few years, workers scoop up sand from the bottom of the sea and tractor it upon the beach, but the effort is futile. Waikiki is surrounded by sea walls. All it takes is one good summer swell to sweep most of their labor back into the sea.
The errors I’ve made in my life are also written upon the landscape. I chose not to see certain things in my personal life and paid dearly for choosing not to see. You build a wall around your heart and your self-respect erodes. You divert your pain into writing, but the pain drains into a deeper part of you and you wake up one day to find your soul contaminated with it.
I walk the beach with my dog, heartbroken. Wendell Berry writes that a path is more a habit of mind than a habit of feet, and two lives woven together form a kind of habit, a path through a personal landscape. But now, the paths are gone, the habits thrown onto the floor like a glass cup hurled across the room; the beautiful tea makes the floorboards rot. What cannot be said will be wept. I have lost my love.
Florence Williams, in her stunning new book, Heartbreak, writes that when researchers scan the brains of the heartbroken, their brain activity is “closely related to the parts that fire after receiving a burn or electrical shock.” What about abuse? Would that brain look closer to that of a person drowning, hot with the panic that comes when one is finally out of oxygen and about to pass out?
I walked through Waikiki suffering from my own internal hundred-year flood. Everything murky, contaminated.
In “A Native Hill” Berry writes: “We have lived by the assumption that what was good for us would be good for the world. And this has been based on the even flimsier assumption that we could know with any certainty what was good even for us.”
Until recently, I thought I knew what was good for me. I assumed that what was good for me would be good for the man I loved. What cannot be said will be wept.
To be responsible for a place means you must get to know it, and care for it. Maybe it’s that way with people, too. There are natural places on this planet so sacred we cannot walk upon them. I think of Kilauea Crater, glowing red with white heat, but untouchable. Sometimes the best thing to do is to leave the mountain to smolder.
What does it mean to love a place above any other? What does it mean to love a person above any other?
I was born in Miami, and spent my childhood in a place called Sweetwater, a land of easy and cheap construction interrupted by canals occasionally inhabited by an alligator that had lost his way from the Everglades.
I have lost my way.
I’ve moved to another Sweetwater. In the Hawaiian language, Waikiki means “sweet water.”
To be at home in a place is to set down roots and to feel a responsibility for its well-being, for its people, for its animals, to walk its paths. What does it mean that I love Waikiki more than the expansive skies of Sweetwater, Florida where I grew up? What does it mean that I make my path through the ocean every morning, a pathless place? My own personal answer is that it means I have a responsibility to the place, to the ocean, and to the kind of roots I set down. I have sometimes failed. What cannot be said will be wept.
To get to know a person or place is to have a responsibility for their well-being. It is not a responsibility I take lightly. It means knowing when my presence is helping or hurting. We are told to appreciate the sea turtles here from a distance, and to look at the coral reefs but never touch them. What cannot be said will be wept.
And so, I sit alone in my little condo in Waikiki, surrounded by its still sweet water. And I think of the expansive skies of my childhood while I stare into the expansive sea.
Today, there is no “native hill” for much of anything. It is expected that the promising student will leave home to study elsewhere while her ideas permeate cyberspace like a Platonic ideal. Indeed, books don’t need to really go anywhere to find themselves everywhere. The publishing world is no longer located in a glossy office where men sit behind tall desks and make cultural decisions, but it can be found in a desktop, or even on Instagram, where a single click can publish a piece and make it “go viral.” And while I celebrate the democratization of literature, I also worry about the noise. You don’t need to leave home anymore to go to the workshop.
So much has changed since Wendell Berry wrote “A Native Hill.” Berry writes about the difficulty and conflicted emotions he felt when he chose to leave behind the literary world in New York City. A writer leaving behind New York City today is less likely to feel such conflicting emotions. I know this from personal experience. I lived in New York City before I moved to Hawai’i. The literary world is no longer located in just New York, or Paris, or anywhere, for that matter. It has transcended time and space to find its home online where authors engage in an ongoing virtual conversation. The meeting places, like book shops and libraries are all but extinct, replaced with the Cheops of a well-lit warehouse or data center, where every piece of literature ever created is available instantly or almost-instantly at the push of a button. Wendell Berry’s “A Native Hill” was written in a time when social activity of any kind was dependent on place. I have left so many places and people in my short life that leaving has become something of a habit.
A writer can live anywhere without worrying about intellectual death. It is easier than ever to take your laptop to the Caribbean and write your thesis or book over a sunset and mojito. As the planet boils and burns away, the intellectuals of the metropolis have come to long more for the realities of the natural world. We have come to understand the price of the metropolis and the value of woods, rivers, and oceans. But we bring our digital shackles with us wherever we go.
Wendell Berry writes that European settlers were a placeless people because no place in America was truly home. Now, we are more placeless than ever, attached to our digital devices, no native hill on which to stand. We are responsible for no place, and every place suffers as a result. In a world where we can be anywhere and still do our work, and access the wealth of human intellectual history from any place, what does it mean to “love one place so much more than any other?” What does it mean, to live as Berry did, sending his “mind into the place like a live root system?”
We live today as if everything can be replaced. Tired of this home? Move to another. Tired of this relationship? Go online and find another. But there is no other home but the home we make ourselves.
Where is my “somewhere” that I want to protect? Where is my “native hill?”
Wendell Berry makes the distinction between a path and a road. Berry writes, “A path is a little more than a habit that comes with knowledge of a place. It is a sort of ritual of familiarity… A road on the other hand, even the most primitive road, embodies a resistance against the landscapes… Its form is the form of speed, dissatisfaction, and anxiety.” A road’s goal is to serve “commerce and expensive pleasure” while a path arises out of intimate knowledge. To know a place is more than just knowledge. It is responsibility.
I paddle into the sea and make a path that leaves no trail. It is appropriate. I am a writer. I leave my marks elsewhere.
In “A Native Hill” Berry writes that in making a path through a landscape, “there is a sort of mystery in the establishment of these ways.” We go from being strangers to knowing one another. A strange landscape might someday be home. Those we think we know may someday be estranged from us. What we think we know we don’t always know. What cannot be said will be wept.
I have been displaced from myself, but I am still here. My native hill is here, in Waikiki, in a place called sweet water. Everything and everyone I have ever loved is with me and close. Everything breaks, but everything heals. The world is sacred beyond my understanding. My native hill is caring for me, just as I have cared for it. What cannot be said will be wept.
About the Writer
Janice Greenwood is a writer, surfer, and poet. She holds an M.F.A. in poetry and creative writing from Columbia University.