Monday, November 24, 2008


In Asheville, there's this community phenomenon known as contra dancing. It's somewhere between a square dance and a line dance, but faster and sweatier and waaaay more fun. Contra-dancers are die-hards. For instance, this Thursday, Thanksgiving, the contra-dance will not be cancelled, and I can assure you that it will be packed as usual. Once you start contra dancing you can't stop. It's an incredibly fun addiction.

Lately, I've re-discovered contra-dancing after a semester-long hiatus induced by work-related reasons. Going back to the dance was probably the best thing I could have done in these last weeks before Christmas break, this last semester before I go to France where I am pretty certain they do not have contra-dancing. Tonight was a dance night, and I find myself being hooked all over again. I danced with some good friends and dance partners who are always at contra, and there was one particularly inspired waltzer that I had the privilege of dancing multiple times with. The music was great, the body odor was something special (I find that I like that smell, although I think most civilized people would disagree), and I had the privilege of experiencing my community. My community.

And that's what this post is about. Community. In light of the challenges we are all facing and the challenges which are yet to come, community will be increasingly important. I think one of the things, one of the most important things we have lost in our modern society, is a sense of and pride in community. I grew up in a small, fairly rural to suburban town, and I do not feel that I am a part of that community. This probably says less about the people there than it says about me. I never fit in there, and so I never had the experience of a community that I could call my own. But all that is changing, and fast.

Over the summer, working at the farm, I had the wonderful opportunity of getting to know a gaggle of local farmers and artisans that, much to my amazement (silencieuse as I am), I could hold long conversations with. I found myself looking forward to talking to people, whereas I used to be really, truly antisocial. And what I've found is you don't have to agree with people to be their friend. I used to think I could never be friendly with a person with different political beliefs than me. I was mistaken. Things like that tend to fall to the wayside when you live in a community that you are proud of and that you love.

I find that I fit here. It didn't happen overnight, and I had to put myself in new, sometimes awkward situations to become a part of this community (first time contra dancing with a bunch of really experienced dancers, for instance), but now that I've been around a few times, I really do fit.

Community will be indispensable in the years to come. Whether or not we have a major breakdown of our society, another depression, or uncertainty caused by the oil crisis, climate change, etc., hard times are ahead. I say this being completely convinced. I do not think, however, that we need panic, buy lots of guns and ammo, and hole ourselves up in our newly dug root cellars waiting for the nuclear winter. I think we need to reestablish our communities, and I don't mean cocktail parties for suburban moms. I mean real community involvement. Just think of what one human being can do. It's really amazing. Humans are not beings to be trifled with. In spite of our shortcomings, we are really quite resilient animals. Then multiply what that human can do by how many humans are in your community. Imagine all the people with special skills and interests. Imagine how those skills and interests could be harnessed to benefit the community and the individual.

Lest I be accused of being a communist or a socialist (I could think of worse things, quite frankly, and to be honest our government is looking more and more authoritarian all the time), let me say that I think government and individualism and, to a certain extent, the market economy (but certainly not in its current state) have their places. But I think that instead of relying on the government to do things for us, and instead of allowing the government to regulate us, we should team up in our communities and do for ourselves. I am reminded of Hurricane Katrina. I believe I wrote some pretty acerbic posts on that issue. The government proved its lack of responsibility and its incompetence, and so I took that as a symbol that Americans need to band together and do for themselves. However, when it comes to regulations (I'm thinking specifically small farm and small business regulations), the government wants us by a leash.

We need to send our officials the message that either they join us or they get left behind. Here, I must insist that you read Joel Salatin's book, Everything I Want to do is Illegal. If you've heard of Joel Salatin it's because he was written about extensively in The Omnivore's Dilemma by Michael Pollan. Salatin's book is all about the government overlooking the transgressions of big business while it gives small farmers and businesspeople the run-around with ever more stringent regs and guidelines. Think the raw milk debate. Why should the government be able to tell us that we cannot have raw milk because it is bad for us? Why should we not be encouraged to explore the issue ourselves and make an informed decision? Well, if you really want the answer, it's because the government (I say the government as if it were a single person, but you get the idea) thinks we, the citizens, are stupid. Yes. They think we're stupid and that, like sheep, we need to be led.

Well, my friends (in the words of the late John McCain), if you've ever spent time around sheep you will know how utterly dumb they are, and if you are offended that the government thinks of you as a sheep, you must still have a pulse. This brings us back to community. In a community with all its farms and businesses and such, not only can more and better goods be offered (and, if the community model were to be enacted, the goods would be cheaper as the Wal-Marts of the world would no longer be so important), but transparency can be offered as well. How transparent is the place you buy your milk from now? Can you go to the barn where they milk the cows (or maybe it's not a barn; maybe it's a factory)? Can you see how and where the milk travels? How it is pasteurized? Can you ask the owner of the cows what happens to older cows that no longer produce or that get sick? Can you vouch for the sanitation and humaneness of the process? If you do not buy your milk locally, you can bet your bottom dollar that you will not be welcomed with open arms by the people who are responsible for the milk you put on your cereal every morning.

However, in a community setting, farmers have to be transparent. It's pretty hard to be clandestine when your cows graze in open fields and when you milk them in a small parlor that people can, and do, visit. You have to be transparent. And why not? Small farmers tend to care a lot more about the quality of their product than the quantity, and as a result of that, I have never met a farmer who would not welcome me onto their property and answer any questions that I might have. At our farm, we have regular farm tours and we invite all who are interested to come see what we do. We have nothing to hide.

And to think that this post was spurred by contra-dancing! I'm almost as long-winded as Sharon today. I think you get it. Community--awesome. Government--back off.

P.S. I should make a note that my political leanings are leftist in that I think the government should make provision for the health, safety, and happiness of its citizens (i.e. socialized medicine and healthcare and even telephone companies for all I care--we might as well do this as we pretty much have a conglomeration of monopolies anyways). However, I think that the most noble government in the meilleur des mondes would leave its citizens alone so long as they weren't compromising the health and happiness of others. So, I sort of have a two-headed approach to what I think government should be. Smaller in some cases, bigger in others.

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