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Dangerous Knowledge Part 3: Nurturing Roots

Friday, December 9th, 2011: Dangerous Knowledge, Philosophy.

The insights of Pictures of Knowledge accumulated with the force of a powerful revelation. But what could I do with them? I was living in a vast metropolitan area where food-producing habitat had long been replaced by buildings and streets and parking lots, and society had been segregated into slums, working-class ghettos, middle-class suburbs, yuppie neighborhoods, and affluent enclaves. It was clear that I couldn’t just go out and create the kind of community I’ve just described, and I didn’t know anyone else who was either interested or prepared to try. Was it possible to find a subsistence community of people who took good care of each other, and somehow join it?

Joining a traditional culture like the Amish or the Hopi was clearly not an option for a mature, overeducated white man. I spent some time looking into “intentional communities,” but the few that seemed attractive were still young and unstable, dependent on the consumer economy, lacking institutions that would continue nourishing them through the cycle of the generations.

I searched for years, and eventually found this compromise: a rural county with abundant natural resources and a long prehistoric heritage of both farming and sophisticated art, a place with small family farms and ranches and idealistic young people going into farming while they try to raise kids outside the mainstream culture. A remote Western town that surprises urbanites with its openness, tolerance, and community activism. A place with a small, historic downtown where country folks mix with townies and gather frequently for festivals and celebrations. A working town that’s not pretty, not restored or gentrified, but affordable and egalitarian, with dark skies, no traffic jams, and a vast mountain wilderness at our doorstep.

Working with new friends, I started a harvest festival to celebrate local agriculture. I dreamed of starting my own farm and raising livestock, but instead, I ended up in town. Now, for the first time since childhood, I live in a place where literally all of life’s basic resources – from food to health care to building materials – are available within walking distance, from people I know personally and see regularly.

Poor Max, never satisfied! As good as it is, it’s still not my dream village. It’s still an American town, too big for everyone to know everyone else and make decisions by consensus. Although it’s socially unstratified and far less segregated than any community I knew in California, it’s still divided into Anglo and Latino, liberal and conservative. I’m also 1500 miles from my family and my childhood roots, and my heart is torn.

Moving here enabled me to rediscover myself as an artist, but that was both a blessing and a curse, because although I reserve my highest respect for traditional cultures, my own work connects more with what’s going on in the cities, and I feel culturally isolated. There’s a lesson there, but it’s a hard one.

I started out as a child in a rural environment, with a loving family, eating local food, surrounded by remnants and fragments of a healthy, sustainable way of life, but since I was a talented child of talented, educated parents, the damage was already done. The seductive glamour of the arts, sciences and technology, loved by my parents and promoted by the media and the educational system, drove me relentlessly toward the big city and the great university and the cutting edge of art and science and a habitual craving for intellectual challenges and urban sophistication. An exciting but fundamentally destructive culture has uprooted me and shaped me into a misfit, a mass of contradictions.

As reluctant products of a dysfunctional society, what can we do to live a more meaningful life?

At the most fundamental level, we can stop thinking of ourselves as part of a global population, a nation, or any society that’s so big that the members can’t know each other personally and be accountable to each other. Caring, cooperation, and consensus only work face to face, and that’s where we should be focusing, close to home.

We can certainly avoid the national media – that’s a no-brainer – and, instead of taking inspiration from celebrities and media pundits, work to build the kind of local community that will nurture and sustain inspiring people. Getting out of the imperial city – whether it’s rooftop-garden Brooklyn or the Ninth Ward of New Orleans – will dramatically reduce the pressure to consume. Avoid affluence and social stratification and get close to food, family farms, places where young people are getting into farming instead of technology.

Our kids are a tougher question. But it might help to stop thinking of them as individuals with unlimited potential for advancement, and more as an integral part of our immediate community, a new generation to carry on the roles of the aging generation, caring for our habitat and caring for their neighbors. Give them an inspiring community to belong to, instead of sending them off to college and saddling them with huge loans in hopes of a “promising career” where they actually have to start over in a distant place, losing the context and support systems of their family and neighborhood, losing their roots. That’s one way the destructive market economy thrives: luring us away from our roots, our families, our social support, isolating us so we’re forced to pay for everything we need.

The mobility of our society is really a killer, from the consumption of non-renewable resources to pollution and climate change, from the rapid spread of disease and invasive species to the more gradual breakdown of families and communities. So many of my urban friends are currently just “parking” in a job-related location until such time as they can retire to the small community of their dreams. Then, like me, their children won’t even have a childhood home and neighborhood to go back to, and this will become accepted as normal. Roots are worth nurturing, for a lot of vital reasons.

  1. Steve Nienhaus says:

    It’s always a pleasure to read the thoughts of people who have entered the debates which concern people who see another way in the midst of this on going whirlpool into want, gratifications and imagined necessity. I haven’t ever found what you describe Max and don’t expect at this point, to ever see that. I was labelled incorrigible at a young age when it occurred to me that there was more to do outside of schooling than within it. I skipped grade school and high school and then came back for some HIGHER education much later after some life shaping events which helped me to have some focus on interests. But even then I missed the mark apparently after graduation to find that i really had no interest mental health or than my own. I went to the bush in my late 20’s in and attempt to get away from ‘it all’, an lived in remote places with few population. I think I came as close as is possible to small (band) community living with 12-20 others most of the year on an island in British Columbia which is where we were before moving here. I know how complicated living a simple life is. lol. I agree with your points and see it in my life. We lived in a land and housing cooperative community. But mostly in name only, It was really difunctional in meetings and the little drama’s of Outport living captured too much of people attention. I guess what I’m trying to say is that things only work for a time and then regress some how. lol. It may be the cumulative nature of people in all different stages of development that sets the rate of chaos. I don’t know. Personally I don’t want to live in a world of ever increasing regulation and demands on individuals to conform to whatever the serving of political correctness in vogue at the moment is. I think what we do is try to find a comfort zone to live within. I have also lived in a major metropolitan area, did the freeway tripping and dodged from one air conditioned structure to the next, at least until i came out of it. I like DARK. I like beauty in nature and in people. I like this place for its seeming backwardness and at the same time am part of more change here. It is a confusing thing, life. Do no harm. Ha! Like your blog.

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