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New Orleans, Part 1

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K. did a work project when she was in New Orleans last week for a conference. The area she was in was once a solidly middle-class neighborhood. Today, three-and-a-half years after Katrina, only 25 percent of the houses are occupied. Thirty-five percent of the homes are being worked on. The other 40 percent are either abandoned or gone, swept away in successive waves of storm, floodwaters, and bulldozers. K. came back with a crazy plan to sell everything we own and move to New Orleans to start an intentional community.

We’ve been talking with friends for a couple years about “pushing the limits of community” through communal or semi-communal living. We talk about subverting the dominant social structures based on fear, competition, greed, and alienation by setting up an alternative community guided by charity, reconciliation, shared purpose, and eschatological hope. We talk about moving to the “abandoned places of empire.” Of course, it is the business of empire to create wasteland and there are plenty of places to choose from, but New Orleans is my generation’s tragic object lesson of how people on the margins can be abandoned by the centers of power in a time of need. In other words, K.’s plan was totally in line with everything we’ve been dreaming about. But I haven’t gotten excited about it yet for at least two reasons.

For one thing, my vision for our alternative community has always been agrarian. I see us living on fifty acres somewhere with several houses spread across the property, plus a commons building, and sheds and barns for tools, equipment, and animals. I also want to build a hermitage we can use as a spiritual and artistic retreat, along with an outdoor chapel in the middle of old-growth forest. Half the land will be for farming, the other half will stay wild. I wouldn’t do the farming myself; the bulk of that responsibility will fall on friends who are more interested than me in that particular vocation. My job will be to tend a garden, write, and chop firewood. My friends tease me, but there is a great literary tradition of wood-chopping. Solzhenitsyn and Faulkner both chopped wood. Henry James wrote this about Brook Farm, the great and influential utopian experiment of the New England Transcendentalists: “All this sounds delightfully Arcadian and innocent, and it is certain that there was something peculiar to the clime and race in some of the features of such a life; in the free, frank, and stainless companionship of young men and maidens, in the mixture of manual labour and intellectual flights – dish-washing and aesthetics, wood-chopping and philosophy. Wordsworth’s ‘plain living and high thinking’ were made actual.”

I always anticipated forging partnerships with urban faith- and community-based organizations, and relationships with the people they serve, but I haven’t thought seriously  about moving to the inner city.

Admittedly, my vision reflects my own perceived needs, especially room to walk, room to breathe, regular silence, and a view of the stars. After moving around so much as a kid, I assumed I was going to settle for good in my beloved Pacific Northwest. Plus, small towns all across the country are dying as government subsidies and farm consolidation kill jobs. There are half as many farmers in 2002 as in 1977. An entire generation of would-be farmers are looking for jobs in the city. The average age of the American farmer is 55. Just 8 percent of American farmers are under 35 years old. Plus, the crisis in rural farming communities can’t be (and has not been) confined there, as Wendell Berry has written. Corporate control of farming has led to dangerously high rates of soil erosion, increased pollution of our soils and streams, the loss of farmland to sprawling urban development, the death of local economies, the rise of bioengineered and patented monocultures that are profitable only to corporations, the replacement of “food democracy” with a “food dictatorship.” Berry has also resurrected Thomas Jefferson’s argument that democracy and civil liberties depend upon democratic ownership of the land. “[Jefferson] was already anticipating and fearing the division of our people into settlers, the people who wanted ‘a little portion of land’ as a home, and, virtually opposite to those, the consolidators and exploiters of the land and the land’s wealth, who would not be restrained by what Jefferson called ‘the natural affection of the human mind.’” What Jefferson feared, according to Berry, was “the idea that government exists to guarantee the right of the most wealthy to own or control the land without limit,” which is what we have today.

Inherent in the agrarian standard is the principle of voluntary limits. Wendell Berry again:

Agrarian farmers see, accept, and live within their limits. They understand and agree to the proposition that there is “this much and no more.” Everything that happens on an agrarian farm is determined or conditioned by the understanding that there is only so much land, so much water in the cistern, so much hay in the barn, so much corn in the crib, so much firewood in the shed, so much food in the cellar or freezer, so much strength in the back and arms—and no more. This is the understanding that induces thrift, family coherence, neighborliness, local economies. Within accepted limits, these become necessities. The agrarian sense of abundance comes from the experienced possibility of frugality and renewal within limits.

This is wholly consistent with what I’m finding in my study of the Benedictine theology of work. (It also stands in direct opposition to the basic principle of industrialism which is that abundance has its origins in the violation of limits, most often through the extractive power of science and technology.) I’m not saying we couldn’t try to implement some of the agrarian principles in a city setting. In fact, that sounds like an interesting experiment. It will just take me a while to adjust my expectations. I was already sharpening my axe.

I’ll try to write about my second reason tomorrow. It’s getting late.

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