Map of life expectancy at birth from Global Education Project.

Sunday, July 23, 2006

Simple Gifts

The Boston Globe Magazine this week has an article by Stacey Chase on the four remaining Shakers, who live in the last Shaker community in Sabbathday Lake, Maine.

The Shakers, formally the United Society of Believers in Christ's Second Appearing, happily adopted the nickname after it was used about them pejoratively. This is very characteristic of their philosophy, which is built on pacifism, community, simplicity and equality.

As it happens, the Shakers were very important in my life. I attended the Darrow School in New Lebanon, New York, which occupies part of what was at one time the largest Shaker community and the center of Shaker spiritual life. The Meetinghouse at Mount Lebanon was the first Shaker meetinghouse in America.

The second meetinghouse, shown here, is now the Darrow School library.

Although the last of the Shakers had departed Mt. Lebanon in 1947, their spirit was palpable in the buildings and the land when I was there. The school -- which is still one of the finest independent high schools in the United States -- made a serious effort to preserve the Shaker heritage in its educational model. Every Wednesday, instead of attending class, we participated in Hands to Work, named for the Shaker motto Hands to Work, Hearts to God. We maintained an apple orchard, and cidermaking operation; a flock of sheep; and made maple syrup. We cared for the historic buildings and grounds.

Ah yes, the grounds. The community is on a plateau well up the west side of Mt. Lebanon, with long views across woodland and farm country toward the Hudson River valley. The campus is surrounded by woodlands where the ancient Shaker waterworks and remains of abandoned pasture walls and outbuildings still speak of old ways of life. The Shaker workshops are now dormitories and classrooms, and new buildings, not very comfortable with the old style, serve as art center, science center, and dining hall. The chapel, however, which is actually in what used to be the Shaker tannery, resonates powerfully of lost time. It makes sense, actually, that the Shaker meetinghouse is now a library, and a Shaker workshop now a chapel, because to the Shakers, work was worship, while for a school, of course, learning is the central sacrament.

I still have dreams about the land, often with no people in the dreams, just the land telling me its story, which is partly a story about nature, and partly a story about people. It breaks my heart every day that I am not there. The Shakers were farmers and artisans, obviously not hunters and gatherers, but they respected the land and stayed close to it. They maintained much of their property as woodland, as do the Sabbathday Lake Shakers today, and their artisanry depended heavily on locally available materials, local markets, and low technology methods. They shaped nature to their needs, through extensive waterworks and land management, but in a manner that was efficient, and minimally disruptive. They left he smallest footprint they could. They eschewed luxury, pretension, and ambition. The esthetic that grew from their way of life has become iconic, and pieces of their bare, basic furniture are now worth tens of thousands of dollars to people whose philosophy and way of life is approximately the opposite of the Shakers'.

They lived sustainably. Except for one small problem. They were celibate. The Shakers were probably the first substantial group of European origin to practice strict equality of the sexes. They abandoned individualism, marriage, even family, for a greater ideal of community. But alas, they could not reproduce. Their communities grew at a time when there was no social safety net and no state-sponsored orphanages or foster care system. They operated an orphanage at Mt. Lebanon, and man of their charges elected to remain upon reaching adulthood. Other lost souls or economically displaced people joined them, along with spiritual seekers. But in the modern era, there is no longer the same need for the sort of sanctuary they offer, and celibacy is just too high a price for very many people to pay, even those who are drawn to them for the sake of equality, peace, and community.

So that's one great question that remains from the Shaker experiment. Can we have utopia, and still have sex? Or do the explosive forces of sexual passion, jealousy, and possesion, along with the iron bonds and unforgiving hatreds of family, bar us forever from the garden?

No comments: