Monday, March 2, 2015

Back to the Future

A Verson of this essay with a different title and photo 
was published in the Concord Monitor 3/21/15
Photo collage: Collapsing barn in Epsom into big box store
CC Jean Stimmell: 2011
Back to the Future

I had an unusual dream recently about investing with my friends in a nonprofit farm which, rather than grow organic vegetables, celebrates entropy. We are all standing there together, surveying our grounds, happy with things just the way they are: Outbuildings settling comfortably into the earth, stonewalls falling down in artistic disarray, the old homestead clad in rich earthy tones like a majestic standing-dead, pine tree.

I think my dream was triggered by attending the opening of Susan Lirakis’s superb photography exhibit at the Epsom Library, giving me a chance to reconnect with many old friends from over the years, counterculture people who are now successful artists and craft people: A wonderfully mellowing community streaked with silvery gray, steeped now with the wisdom that comes with an appreciation of entropy that only comes from age.

Many of us, burned out from the political upheavals of the sixties, joined the back-to-the-land movement, retreating to the hills of NH, in search of something authentic and sustainable in a world  spinning wildly out of control. In the 1970s, I helped my friend and master woodworker, Neil English, build my small homesteader house. I grew big gardens, raised pigs and chickens; and earned my living building dry-laid stonewalls. At some point, early on, I started writing occasional columns for the Concord Monitor and taking black and white photographs I printed in my basement darkroom.

My passion in those early years was photographing old Yankee houses and barns. On most any back road, you could find some falling down. Part of me felt like an anthropologist documenting the demise of a vanishing tribe: those crusty old Yankees able to wrest a sustainable living from the rocky soil through an indigenous understanding of the land and the sacred rhythms of nature.

These magnificient post and beam buildings, falling into disarray, a totem to this bygone era, were now being overtaken by a seemingly unstoppable, spreading amoeba of  ricky ticky, suburban houses and flimsy, cookie cutter strip malls. A modern day Tocqueville traveling through America, Norwegian novelist, Karl Knausgaard, succinctly put his finger on what we, the Sixties Generation, were rebelling against:

“I had never really understood how a nation that so celebrated the individual could obliterate all differences the way this country did. In a system of mass production, the individual workers are replaceable and the products are identical. The identical cars are followed by identical gas stations, identical restaurants, identical motels and, as an extension of these, by identical TV screens, which hang everywhere in this country, broadcasting identical entertainment and identical dreams. Not even the Soviet Union at the height of its power had succeeded in creating such a unified, collective identity.”⁠1

Remarkably, as things turned out, despite monumental societal and economic dislocation, many of the old buildings I photographed survived. Although both the buildings and my generation are showing the inevitable infirmities of age, we have much to celebrate because the prevailing cultural winds in this country have started to shift from mass produced, mindless conformity to a  yearning for a return to a sustainable, mindful way of life where we can empower ourselves by acting locally within our community in concert with the dictates of mother nature. 

One recent wave of change came as consumers, wanting to eat healthier and more sustainably, began rejecting giant agribusiness’s hermetically sealed, bland fodder – grown who knows where – for fresh, real food, grown locally. This movement is growing geometrically, morphing into farmers’ markets, co-ops of all kinds, and moving toward a collective mandate to buy locally, green, and sustainably, whatever it is one needs to have.

The underlying vision” as Rebecca Solnit has written,  “is neither state socialist nor corporate capitalist, but something humane, local and accountable… as in direct democracy.”⁠2

We are now witnessing the next wave of this vision coming from the art world, where as with food, consumers are now starting to demand the real thing: authentic art steeped with a sense of place, created by a local artisans they can relate to.  

Of course, this paradigm shift is not without precedent: in fact, it is only going back to the way things used to be before the advent of mass media.

For instance, in Northwood we had our Grange Hall with regularly scheduled entertainment and music. Back then people weren’t couch potatoes watching sit-coms on TV but active participants: singing, playing instruments, dancing, telling stories… All that creative community involvement shriveled up to the vanishing point over time with the advent of radio, then TV and now the internet.

What comes around, goes around: the local art community has returned.

I thought of this at Susan’s open house in Epsom, standing next to Neil English who now is in great demand, restoring those old, once falling down, post and beam buildings while, in his spare time, he has morphed into an acclaimed poet and performer. His wife Leigh is a award-winning calligrapher. And the list goes on: there are scores of respected artists and craft people, over and above those at the exhibit opening, living within 15 miles from my secluded Northwood home.

The days of anonymous, collective conformity and mass produced widgets is on the wane.  I am proud of my generation for doing our small part to make this happen and even happier that I have managed to  live long enough to see that cultural entropy is not a straight, downhill slide but circular. 

With the wisdom of age, I see now that the winding down process I experienced in the 1970s after Vietnam is part of the universal cycle of existence. Yes, autumn inexorably descends into the still depths of winter, but after the solstice comes the return of the light, which, in turn, ushers in the return of Spring and resurrection. 
xxx

1 My Saga, Part I, by Karl Ove Knausgaard. NYT Magazine, 2/25/15

2 http://www.thenation.com/article/revolution-has-already-occurred
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