Are we becoming islands, after all? Or not?

Scott and Helen Nearing, in their book, The Good Life, make a pretty good case for living off the grid (although they did not, in fact, live off the grid but rather ‘out of the system’). Still, off-the-grid and out-of-the-system are pretty much the same thing in many ways. Scott and Helen were islands-in-their-time.

They lived near a small town in Vermont and later, another village in Maine.  And  they were minimalists in the extreme.  Social isolationsists.  But the Nearings did this crazy, organic, self-sustenace, healthy-living thing in the two decades leading up to WW2 and then for thirty or more years after. They became the poster parents for the back-to-the landers in the 70’s.  They were way ahead of their time.  And they made this big leap when they were in their forties and found themselves not liking living in New York city.  Scott died at 100.  Other than being dead, he was as healthy as a horse at the time.

I am surprised by how little this way of living has changed, really.  Their story is our story except, of course, they had a much harder time of it, worked ten times harder and became so much more adept, skilled and capable in the process. Plus they seem dedicated to doing things the hard way.  We are spoiled-brat baby-boomers by comparison to their austere, Depression era roots.  Not only that but they were vegetarians and didn’t drink wine or scotch.  No wonder Scott died young!

But there are considerable similarities, too.  They worked only 4 hours a day at projects.  They worked with found materials as much as possible.  They grew most of their own food and they ‘harvested’ from the wildness when in season.  Scott and Helen also had a generous open-door and open table policy and honoured it faithfully despite preferring to be alone.  Only Scott would ‘hide out’ now and then when people came and – even then – only in the later years.

The loved their life.

What struck me as surprising, though, was the comparable disfunction of their community – as a community.  We are similarly afflicted.  I think.  I am still trying to figure it out. 

Now don’t get me wrong – I am not unhappy with our community.  It’s fine.  And it does pull together now and again. In the community in Vermont, the Nearings experienced a stubborn tendency for their neighbours to ‘go-it-alone’.  Generally speaking, the community did not cooperate.  They chose to be separate from one another even if they were doing the same work in the same way and needing the same help.  They remained independent.  Each aspired to be an island.  It seemed the only time the community came together was for entertainment (potlucks, etc.) and when the war happened and everyone did their part.

We are like that.  We tend to unite against things like some government or corporate initiative to rape or poison the land or ship oil down the coast.  We may cooperate on a community building or something but those efforts are short and frought with petty clashes.  And we will all stand around and eat burgers and drink beer at the drop of a hat.  But community cooperation initiatives are hard.  Too much ego.  Too much history.  Too much difference of opinion.  All that and busy at-home schedules makes most neighbours opt out of the co-op.  Co-ops just don’t seem to work.

Everyone, it seems, wants to be an island unto themselves but, at the same time part of a community.  It is a conflict of the spirit.   Maybe.

I mention it only because most of us go through the same such cognitive dissonance as did the Nearings.  We come to a new place, we establish and we connect with others. We work hard around the home to get it all together. Then, in an altruistic manner, we offer to help out, add to the community, do our part to make the larger community better.

Cooperation.  It turns out that it is – even in Vermont and Maine – a surprisingly difficult thing to do.  The Nearings blame the way society is ordered.  They blame mostly the cash economy (money based values and comparisons) and the fact that specialists are rare in rural areas.  They blame the erosion of the rural population causing less investment all around.  Whatever.

It is all true today even more so, I think.

Part of the reason, of course, is that technology has allowed us to remain independent.  We have better tools, more access to information and the materials we work with are better, more durable and effective.  Even foodstuffs are more easily and cheaply accessed.  I guess we just need each other less.  Like urban condo dwellers who don’t know their neighbours because there is no reason to, we are running out of reasons to know our own.

There will always be some reasons to cooperate.  Survival is one of them.  Sometimes you just need help out here.  There is bookclub.  There is the odd- work-crew-job that requires others.  And there are the smaller community building efforts as difficult as they are.  That will all continue.  And, of course, beer and burgers will always draw a crowd.  So we are still a community and likley one that is more cohesive than most.

But make no mistake, modern life and benefits has a ying and yang for everyone and one of the social downsides is less traditional community.  And we are getting more modern all the time.  Computers and smartphones isolate – we know that.  But so does a cash economy.  So does income disparity.  So does rural/urban differences.

It was true for the Nearings back in the day (well, not the computers) and it is true for us as well.  We came out here to be islands living on islands and we may just get our wish.  On the other hand I am reaching out to a different community by way of the blog.  And the Nearings became extremely well known because of their book and subsequent speaking tours.

So are we becoming more isolated or becoming more connected?  I dunno……

3 thoughts on “Are we becoming islands, after all? Or not?

  1. I guess the Nearling’s main frustration is embedded in the the Yankee spirit of doing and not joining. The Nearlings wanted to form and join cooperatives but New Englanders are not joiners. They should have gone to Saskatchewan where hard work and socialism are shared values. In looking at why B.C. communes mostly failed examine the worker bees and the helpless drones. The bees got tired of all the heavy lifting.


    • That may be it. I don’t know. There are a lot of human dynamics involved, actually. I don’t think there is one factor except that out here being almost weirdly independent is a very, very common trait. Plus, I think, everyone has been disappointed by someone and the older you get, the more of those ‘let-downs’ you have experienced. Faith in your fellow man diminishes with age for many. Or maybe better put, one learns to lower expectations to the point that cooperation is ruled out. But….I dunno, really.


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