For the Love of Place (Dispatch from the Steinbeck Center)

Last month Chris humored me for a trip to the National Steinbeck Center, a quirky exhibit in the heart of Salinas, California. It’s densely packed, verbosely curated, and delightful. Museums are places of discovery and reflection for me, and I set upon this one with a question.

John Steinbeck is up there among my very favorite authors, and is certainly my favorite among the non-genre literary writers. My question was: why? What is it about Steinbeck that I love just so much?

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I love nearly all his books, but East of Eden has the distinction of being my second favorite novel (after Ursula LeGuin’s The Dispossessed of course). Unlike Liza Hamilton’s bible, the eye tracks in my copy of East of Eden are uneven. I’ve been toting around the same dog eared and pencil annotated Classics Edition since high school. The first few dozen pages are especially worn. When I was traveling most intensely for work, about five years ago, I would carry it with me as a cure for homesickness. Steinbeck’s ode to those dry hills, and the wet years when people forget the dry years, remains my perfect reminder of California.

As was quoted at least twice at the Steinbeck Center, Steinbeck wrote East of Eden,

“I am choosing to write this book to my sons. … I want them to know how it was, I want to tell them directly, and perhaps by speaking directly to them I shall speak directly to other people.”

It spoke to me. And that let Steinbeck, through the mostly student curators of his museum, answer my question.

East of Eden taught this nomadic child how to grow attached to places. To love places like the Californian hills and be “of” them, even though I could never be truly “from” them. I may have also gained some insight into wickedness and free will and the value of a good literary allusion. But those were side effects. The primary effect was codifying the way love of place interacts with the related tasks of caring for those places and the people who live (and may one day live) in those places.

Lots of influences in my young life reinforced this relationship between landscape and people. My mother taught a class, “Man in the Natural Environment,” every summer when I was small. It was a field school co-taught with a biologist and geologist, and ranged all over California, Nevada, Arizona, and northern Mexico. I was a three year old who knew what a glacial cirque was, that there were shell middens, and a few hypotheses about why people made shell middens.

But a scientific and humanist curiosity for the details of people and landscapes doesn’t capture a fraction of how I feel now. When the inestimable Lawrence Wilkinson posted this Atlas Obscura tidbit yesterday in his (Roughly) Daily feed, a piece clicked into place.

Acedia comes from Greek, and means “a lack of care.” It sounds a little like today’s sloth, and acedia is indeed considered a precursor to today’s sin of laziness. To Christian monks in the fourth century, however, acedia was more than just laziness or apathy. It was more like dejection that made it difficult to be spiritual, avoiding ascetic practices, boredom that led to falling asleep while reading, and frustration with life in a monastery—but the meaning is nuanced and has changed over time.

Polar opposite to those early Christian hermits, observing and reflecting on that interplay between people and landscapes is the antidote to acedia. It’s how to give a shit in a spiritually significant way. Steinbeck got that in a profound way. With that, I’m going to stop writing and go read My Travels with Charlie. Duly warned, I’m reading it as fiction.

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