Tag Archives: Wendell Berry

If You Don’t Know Where You Are, You Probably Don’t Know Who You Are

Wendell Berry? Wallace Stegner? Ralph Ellison? Dorothy Noyes?

Dear Quote Investigator: The nature writer and activist Wendell Berry has been credited with a statement about knowing one’s place in the world:

If you don’t know where you are, you don’t know who you are.

Yet, this saying has also been ascribed to the novelist and critic Ralph Ellison. Would you please help clarify this situation?

Quote Investigator: In 1952 Ralph Ellison published the landmark novel “Invisible Man”. During one key episode in the book an old gentleman approaches the narrator to ask directions. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI: 1

Perhaps to lose a sense of where you are implies the danger of losing a sense of who you are. That must be it, I thought—to lose your direction is to lose your face. So here he comes to ask his direction from the lost, the invisible. Very well, I’ve learned to live without direction. Let him ask.

As the forgetful gentleman approaches, the narrator recognizes him as Mr. Norton who has asked for directions in the past, and the two converse:

“Because, Mr. Norton, if you don’t know where you are, you probably don’t know who you are. So you came to me out of shame. You are ashamed, now aren’t you?”

“Young man, I’ve lived too long in this world to be ashamed of anything. Are you light-headed from hunger? How do you know my name?”

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

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Notes:

  1. 1982 (Copyright 1952), Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison, Quote Page 564, Vintage Books: A Division of Random House, New York. (Verified with scans)

We Do Not Inherit the Earth from Our Ancestors; We Borrow It from Our Children

Amish Saying? Ralph Waldo Emerson? Native American Proverb? Wendell Berry? Chief Seattle? Moses Henry Cass? Dennis J. Hall? Helen Caldicott? Lester Brown? David R. Brower? Taghi Farvar? Anonymous?earthrise11Dear Quote Investigator: In my opinion the most thoughtful and poignant quotation about the environment is the following:

We do not inherit the earth from our ancestors; we borrow it from our children

No one seems to know the origin of this saying. Perhaps it was constructed in recent decades, or perhaps it encapsulates the wisdom of previous centuries. Could you attempt to trace this quotation?

Quote Investigator: In 1971 the influential environmental activist Wendell Berry published a book titled “The Unforeseen Wilderness: An Essay on Kentucky’s Red River Gorge”. Berry emphasized the desirability of preserving natural areas and adapting a long-range perspective about the environment. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 1

We can learn about it from exceptional people of our own culture, and from other cultures less destructive than ours. I am speaking of the life of a man who knows that the world is not given by his fathers, but borrowed from his children; who has undertaken to cherish it and do it no damage, not because he is duty-bound, but because he loves the world and loves his children…

The wording in the passage above did not exactly match the modern instance of the saying, but this citation was the earliest evidence known to QI. Later expressions may have been derived directly or indirectly from the words above.

In May 1971 Berry published an essay in “Audubon” magazine titled “The One-Inch Journey” which was based on chapter 2 of the book mentioned above. The excerpt above was reprinted in the essay, and thus it achieved wider dissemination. This appearance also linked the saying to the Audubon Society. 2

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

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Notes:

  1. 1971, The Unforeseen Wilderness: An Essay on Kentucky’s Red River Gorge by Wendell Berry, Photographs by Gene Meatyard, Chapter 2: The One-Inch Journey, Start Page 11, Quote Page 26, The University Press of Kentucky, Lexington, Kentucky. (Verified on paper)
  2. 1971 May, Audubon, The One-Inch Journey by Wendell Berry, Start Page 4, Quote Page 9, Column 1, National Audubon Society, New York. (Verified in paper)