Chapter 17 - Community Lost and Found

There can be no vulnerability without risk;
there can be no community without vulnerability;
there can be no peace, and ultimately no life, without community.
M. Scott Peck

We commonly think of community as a group of people who live near each other, have common interests and socialize. In truth, most think of community as simply a neighborhood or an area of political designation.

Community is much more. Community inherently includes the natural elements of its place, for those features shape all humans who live there. The features are climate, water, landform, trees and shrubs and grasses, animals domestic and wild, large and small, feathered, finned, furred. Features include the ground and those things within the ground, the soil, humus, minerals. Community includes all the parts of the place that comprise its economy, and in this all elements of a place contribute. Without all these parts community is incomplete, cannot thrive.

The qualities of the natural environment, a sense of place, common interests and values and shared experiences create the condition we call community. A community is composed of people who belong to one another and to their place. Community exists to receive membership and to give service. The commonality of the features and conditions of a place causes membership. The health of the individual—mental, physical, economical, is inextricably tied to the health of the community. A community is most healthy when it is self-sustaining.

Natural community is similar to bioregion, but bioregions exist independent and above political boundaries while community must sometimes consider those boundaries in matters of law, taxes, representation. Community is more similar to ecosystem, an interrelated system of parts that coexist in harmony.

In speaking of community, then, we are speaking of a complex connection
not only among human beings or between humans and their homeland
but also between the human economy and nature,
between forest or prairie and field or orchard, and between
troublesome creatures and pleasant ones. All neighbors are included.
Wendell Berry
“Conservation and Local Economy,” in Sex, Economy, Freedom & Community

When it exists freely, honestly and fully, community occupies that essential place between the individual and the public sector of society. There are certain critical human conditions that effectively can only be dealt with by community.

Community provides a sense of belonging. There is good reason to believe that much modern unhappiness—even mental illness—is the result of moving too often and with too little thought. A change in venue can improve our mental condition if it is well thought out—indeed, that is one of the premises of this book—but the modern nomad moves carelessly, with insufficient thought or commitment.

It’s hard to believe now,
but for a long time the loss of community
was considered to be liberating.
Amitai Etzioni
The Spirit of Community

A fundamental reason why city life is chaotic is because community functions have been usurped by public entities. A bureaucracy can never understand and be sensitive to an individual in the way that a community can. A public entity’s actions are often deadly to community, undermining its authority, stealing its purpose, destroying its soul. The current strong interest in renewing connection to community is the result of widespread recognition that urban areas have largely lost it. In poll after poll, a common reason given by urban refugees for moving to the country is a yearning for community.

The longing for community is one of the oldest themes
in our nation’s young history.
Osha Gray Davidson

Even those of us who cherish privacy, enjoy self-sufficiency and have a high level of independence need to be responsible to other people and know that we have others’ support. Ever since our ancient ancestors huddled in caves with others, community has been one of the strongest of human bonds. Lives have been lost defending it. Robert Wright explored the new field of “evolutionary psychology” in “The Evolution of Despair” (Time, 8-28-95). He noted that: “Because social cooperation improves the chances of survival, natural selection imbued our minds with an infrastructure for friendship, including affection, gratitude and trust.”

Examples of community

Community life is by definition a life of cooperation and responsibility.
Private life and public life, without the disciplines of community interest,
necessarily gravitate toward competition and exploitation.
As private life casts off all community restraints in the interest of
economic exploitation or ambition or self-realization or whatever,
the communal supports of public life also and by the same stroke
are undercut, and public life becomes simply
the arena of unrestrained private ambition and greed.
Wendell Berry
Essay: “Sex, Economy, Freedom & Community”

While most urban places have lost community because public entities have taken over its function, most rural areas still have well-established communities. Community is more common in low-density population areas because people depend on themselves and each other more than they depend on public entities. Indeed, the rugged independence of ruralites resists the intrusion of bureaucracy and its attendant high taxes.

Economic cooperation is evident where communities are healthy. In some places food growers interface with consumers to create local food systems. Organic growers’ organizations, buyers’ cooperatives, subscription gardening have resulted to the benefit of all. Indications of strong community also include viable volunteer fire departments, well-attended PTA meetings, strong voter turnout and rejection of tax-funded programs, low crime rates, thriving local economies. Community is evident by the attitude of people you meet on the street and in local stores. Common courtesies. Smiles and greetings to strangers. Genuine expressions. And service.

We lost our nearest neighbor recently. Mike was fifty-one, a wonderful man, an extraordinary neighbor—the eulogy was easy to write, hard to deliver. His wife was in California visiting her mother when Mike’s heart stopped beating as he slept. By the time his wife flew back, the house had been cleaned, clothes and bedding washed. A financial difficulty became known. There were small cash gifts. Two men began making a wooden coffin. Community members shuttled relatives from the airport two hours distant. Food was prepared and delivered.

The funeral and grave-site service were well-attended. In the handmade coffin, Mike lay on a patchwork quilt, also handmade. A rose-colored concrete “stone” cast in the shape of a heart was another handmade contribution.

Since that terrible but community-revealing time, kindnesses to Mike’s widow continue. Grocery and mail delivery. Firewood. Company. Hugs.

Little defines and exposes community so clearly as a perceived common threat. Rural Missourians rallied together to fight and defeat a misnamed Natural Streams Act which threatened to create unbearable police state conditions for those of us with flowing water on our land or living on a watershed—essentially all ruralites. Many of these people were residents of my county whom I had never before met. The threat to our freedom brought us together—it exposed and illuminated our larger community.

The old and the new

In some areas community appears to be divided between old-timers and newcomers. Newcomers commonly focus on the challenge of learning how to live in the new place. They would do well to remember that old-timers have lived and lasted in the place under all of man’s and nature’s conditions. It is wise to observe how they do things. With time, some from each group integrate the other.

Your strongest initial connection will be with those who have similar backgrounds, who share your values, who came to the place by a similar path. Finding, building, and preserving community is a vital part of our human condition but urbanites have largely lost the practice. Consider carefully your motivations to become absorbed into a strong existing community.

Fitting in

Every community demands conformity to its laws,
expects the acceptance of its customs and folkways,
and prefers to have none but native sons at its firesides.
Helen & Scott Nearing
Living the Good Life

Helen and Scott tried to persuade people in their adopted Vermont community to make some adjustments in their conduct. It didn’t work out very well and it frustrated the estimable Nearings, who took community very seriously in those challenging, early homesteading days. The lesson is well made: existing communities are resistant to change.

Most rural communities are gracious and welcoming to new residents. It is wise to accept early invitations even though you may be busy getting settled. If you wait until you “have time” you may find that the invitations have stopped. There likely will be ample opportunities for service work. Volunteer fire departments, PTAs, 4H clubs, recycling groups, food buyers’ co-ops, churches and service clubs are always looking for additional membership. This is an excellent way to show the community who you are and for you to understand it. Just don’t push your personal agenda and you’ll do fine. In Little Town Blues, Raye C. Ringholz writes of the different priorities of outsiders from locals in a small Utah town: “Not of the predominant Mormon faith, environmentalists and vegetarians as well, they still live comfortably and are accepted in the tight-knit community of ranchers because they don’t attempt to force their ways on longtime residents.”

Country folks are often poor but proud. Poor, that is, by urban definition. It will not do to push them or talk down to them. Restrain yourself from telling them how “we did it back in Metropolis.” They get all they want of Metropolis on television. And you did leave Metropolis for good reasons. If you are very lucky, one of the natives will take a liking to you. Most old-timers are proud of what they know and will share hard-won knowledge with someone who really listens. Listen carefully and you may avoid painful and costly mistakes. Give respect and you will be respected.

As for advancing your well-researched, well-thought-out, perfectly logical, totally irrefutable solutions for saving the natural world from destruction by ignorant and greedy people, keep them to yourself—or write a book. Show what you believe by how you conduct yourself. If it makes sense to the natives, why, in 20 or 30 years some of them may begin to follow your example. You will be there in 30 years, won’t you? They will.

A community identifies itself
by an understood mutuality of interests.
But it lives and acts by the common virtues of trust,
goodwill, forbearance, self-restraint, compassion, and forgiveness.
If it hopes to continue long as a community, it will wish to and will have to—
encourage respect for all its members, human and natural.
It will encourage respect for all stations and occupations.
Such a community has the power—not invariably but as a rule—
to enforce decency without litigation.
It has the power, that is, to influence behavior.
And it exercises this power not by coercion or violence
but by teaching the young and by preserving stories and songs
that tell (among other things)
what works and what does not work in a given place.
Wendell Berry

How to use community as a criterion

Find out where like-minded people are going. Read the following chapter on demographics and Chapter 22 on states (political, not mental). If strong community is a very high priority, you may wish to consider an intentional community (see Chapter 26).

Once you have targeted a specific county, make contact with people there. Ideally you will visit. Purposely get lost. Go into a likely looking homestead and explain your situation. Keep doing this until you find someone who will take the time to talk to you and show you their place. A few hours spent this way will tell you much about local conditions and attitudes. And you may begin a friendship that will continue after your move.

Place a small ad in the local newspaper asking for contacts by people who have recently moved there. Phone calls to the newspaper editor, banker, insurance agent, county clerk, school superintendent and chamber of commerce are additional ways to gain feelings and information about the community.

Recommended reading

Now we are all poor folks down here,
we live on fresh air and mountain scenery,
and we have so many ways
you’ve just got to like some of them.
John Conklin “Uncle Johnny” Harlin

Go back to Chapter 16 - Health 101.
Go on to Chapter 18 - Demographics and social conditions.
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