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Live Local, Live Small: Striving to create utopia

There are days when the weight of the world starts to wear me down. Too many things feel broken, immoral, unfair, or wrong. My ideals are at best utopian in nature. I wish for a perfect world and for myself to be a perfect person—that I am so far from that it is depressing.

utopia sign

Graphic by Kyle Peeler

I know I am not alone in this. Utopian aspirations are not just a constant theme but even the underpinning of this country. Early European settlement of America was driven by people who wanted the space and opportunity to create a new world with their own ideals as the guidelines. For some—the Puritans and the Quakers—those ideals were religious.  For others those ideals were economic.

As the realities of life set in, a rise of aspirational communities with utopian mindsets sprang up in the early 1800s. The Brook Farm experiment of the transcendentalists was probably the most famous. In the early 1840s George Ripley and his wife, Sophia, set up Brook Farm in Massachusetts with a labor experiment that sounds an awful lot like Marx in the “everyone should do what they can to the best of their ability” notion. Even women were paid for domestic work, which bordered on heresy at that time. A school and its tuition was their main source of outside income, but it floundered. It achieved immortality, however, in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s satire, “The Blithedale Romance.” (Hawthorne was involved early on before he married his wife, Sophia.)  They disbanded because their financial needs could not be met.

Perhaps one the more interesting and lasting legacies of failed utopian communities in the U.S. is the Oneida community. If you like flatware—knives, forks, etc.—that name might sound familiar. The community, founded in 1848, practiced free love before there was such a phrase. They explored communal parenting and eugenics. The fascinating group sailed against the wind in almost every way during the straight-laced Victorian Era. Eventually they folded after their leader fled the country just before an arrest for statutory rape. The couples living together then married each other, figured out parentage for the children, and converted the community’s industries into a joint-stock company scenario.

At the time, they had several industries going, including canning, making game traps and working with silk. In the early 20th century they sold their other businesses and focused on the flatware, creating a brand that was respected throughout the world.  At one point in the 1980s, it was estimated that half of all the flatware sold in the U.S. came from Oneida. The company continued to be mostly private held, and still employed many descendants of the community until it was acquired by an equity firm in 2011.

Though the transcendentalists aren’t clustering New England and trying to build utopias, the search for a better, more centered communal way of life still appeals to many people in this increasingly fragmented world. The Communit Directory lists 1,674 intentional communities in the United States presently. North Carolina appears to have 64.

The Farm community in Summertown, Tennessee, is probably one of the most well-known, longest-lasting intentional communities in the 20th century. Founded in 1971, it has grown to be a center for midwifery and natural childbirth, a training center for permaculture, and they make some of the best tempeh around. Slightly older is the Twin Oaks Community in Virginia, which started in 1967 and has now spawned the communities of Acorn and Living Energy Farm.

What all of these successful 20th century communities have in common are viable products they sell to support themselves. Frequently they hold classes and training, as well as host events at their facilities. Twin Oaks makes hammocks and tofu, and Acorn produces and sells non-GMO seeds, as does Living Energy Farm. As any economist worth their salt would note: They all own their own means of production and are not dependent upon an outside source for something that can easily disappear.

Of course, utopia looks different to different people. For example, The Free State Project embodies a movement designed to re-engineer an existing political structure. Rather than acquiring a piece of land and attracting a group of people to share values and life, they seek 20,000 Libertarians to commit to moving to New Hampshire. Essentially, it grew as a response to the realization that Libertarians are too diffused across the U.S. to garner political pull. A couple thousand people have already begun the migration to New Hampshire, and so far The Free States claims the election of 12 candidates.

One of the best decisions I ever made was moving to an intentional community in the form of a permaculture farm in the Appalachian Mountains. I showed up in the last two years of K&K Farm, which had been around for more than 15 years at that point. Though it was an incredible experience, it is also one of the hardest things I have ever done. The level of honesty and compromise one must engage in with many other people is really tough. We didn’t have a collective financial project, which was part of our ultimate demise—though, the story delves much deeper than that.  If anything, I think our legacy comprised what we learned about ourselves, each other and our responsibility to the world. Rather than confine the experiences to some acreage with great food, it’s best to honor the exploration by dispensing its wisdom to the world.

I would say that my Live Local journey is a direct outgrowth of those experiences, and my constant search for my own utopia. I feel like a lot of my life for the last few years has centered around death and mourning. I have lost many people who were important to me, like my mother, as well as people throughout our community who touched my life in many gentle and different ways on a daily basis. Donn Ansell, Paco Strickland, and Jim Bath leap to mind. Then there’s the ongoing saga of local missing lady Shannon Rippy Vannewkirk, which reminds me to value, love and protect those around me.

At the risk of sounding morbid, part of coming to terms with your own mortality is the question of what you want to leave behind. For many people, it’s a matter of real estate and money, or big foundations with their names on them. I struggle so much with my own ambition—writing. I hope that before I die, I have a chance to create a body of work that will outlive me. More so, I hope I will be able to look back and feel that I lived by a decent set of principles and in turn imparted them to others. The Live Local thing is part of that. I can’t change what everyone does, but I can chose whether or not to participate. I can be part of something I find immoral, or I can choose a harder path and take a stand. Beyond that, I’d like to leave behind some friends who hopefully will remember me as person with a big laugh, a big, loud, loving personality that encouraged and supported their dreams. That’s the best utopian vision I can come up with for the little world inside my head.

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