Reclaiming the Commons : Community Farms and Forests in a New England Town, by Brian Donahue

I wrote this book review in 2005, and I am reproducing it here straight-up. In part because the “essential pagan books” lists that have been kicking around the pagan blogosphere have made me kind of want to compile one of my own, and it would be nice to have a detailed review or two to link when I do.

But also, this book was really quite subtly and powerfully influential on my religious approach and practice.

    Reclaiming the Commons : Community Farms and Forests in a New England Town, by Brian Donahue. Published by Yale University Press, ISBN 0300076738 (Hardcover), 0300089120 (Paperback).

One of the reviewers of this book on describes it as “radically conservative”, and I think they struck the heart of it in a weird sort of way. Reclaiming the Commons deals with the layers of history and the ways “the old days” actually worked — and in which they worked better than the present day. Donahue portrays himself as a radical environmentalist who was, to put it bluntly, shocked into actually dealing with the needs to adapt modern life to ecological responsibility realistically, addressing the needs of modern humans and the consequences and responsibilities of modern technology.

Like many environmentalists, I learned to hate chainsaws young. They epitomized everything that was wrong with our approach to nature, brought down to the personal level: the snarling machine, obnoxiously noisy and dangerous, all too easily and thoughtlessly used to destroy noble living things. I wanted to have a woodsman’s connection to the forest, one that relied on mastery of hand tools and the healthy limitations that such tools impose. This principle sounded good, and it seemed to hold up perfectly in the case of the splitting maul. I set out to fell trees and buck firewood with a sharp ax and a well-filed crosscut saw and to enjoy my work. After all, these simple tools were sufficient to all but wipe out the forests of North America before chainsaws were even dreamed of–surely they should be adequate for more restrained, selective cutting. I soon reached a conclusion: splitting wood by hand is reasonably fast and efficient, felling trees and cutting wood by hand is unremittingly slow, grueling toil. After watching Nat in action for a year, I conceded that the chainsaw is a good hand tool. –page 220, “The Town Forest”

He begins, as any good reconstructionist would appreciate, by learning his subject. He is writing about the land of New England, and learning how to treat it well; this requires delving through history to see how it developed, what its influences were, and how various ways of treating the land failed — and why. He deals with this subject without romanticising New England before the arrival of European colonists — he is firm on the fact that the local tribes were engaged in resource management in the area from approximately the end of the last glacial period.

Our task, then, is not to try to restore the forest to its original condition–that is impossible. Our task is to come to grips with our part in this ongoing drama of natural and human interaction, to determine where our ecological responsibilities lie and how we can finally become culturally mature enough to face up to them, to learn from our predecessors and do better if we can. The point of studying the history of the forest is not to rediscover the state of nature we have lost–it is to come to a better understanding of the world that has been created by nature and people before us. It is to develop a deeper affinity and aptitude for the land we inhabit. –page 231, “The Town Forest”

Knowing the land is not merely a labor of love for him (though it is clearly, from his writing, also that), but a matter of basic human survival. He is deeply concerned with the effects of extensive fossil fuel burning on the environment, and considers the transportation system built on that backbone doomed to fail in the long run. Running through the work is a deep distrust of the effects of market capitalism left unchecked (“The restoration of active farmland should be a matter of broad community values, not narrow economics. Left to its own sharp logic, the market will always skin the land.” –page 137, “Livestock and Grass”), and a feeling that the prices we currently pay for food and materials do not truly reflect the environmental and other costs of our lifestyles.

His solution is to delve into knowledge of the land, to learn what it is naturally suited for, to learn how people lived there historically, and, having done so, to resurrect the best practices and integrate them into the local community. He did this in the town of Weston, on publically owned land (hence his focus on the commons) and with largely volunteer labor. The results are, today, a farm that produces, in addition to flower crops for sale, fresh locally grown vegetables, maple syrup, and fresh-pressed cider, as well as sending some of its crop to inner-city Boston; a forestry program that maintains Weston’s publically held woodlands and supplies firewood to the town; and an extensive education program that has produced other small farmers and brought a generation and a half or so of Weston’s children into a greater awareness of the cycles of the seasons, the origins of their food, and the value of their labor. He writes also about his failures — such as his inability to maintain a flock of sheep long-term, though with useful tips about raising sheep in suburbia (like “if they run away, herd them into a tennis court”); his inabiltiy to successfully start an apple orchard due to various blights and the loss of adapted local apple stocklines; other attempts by the organisation to reach beyond its grasp, some of which they returned to, others not.

It was this couple of sentences that really struck me, had me start reading the book as a pagan rather than just as someone who thought the subject looked interesting:

Is this aspiration just syrupy nostalgia for a bygone agrarian age? Every age has its golden moments, its dark despair. What I wanted to restore as far as possible was not the admittedly imperfect flesh of the past, but something of the physical skeleton, the hard bones of it. The automotive-driven residential and commercial sprawl of suburbia is monstrous compared to the human-scale order that once prevailed. –page 49, “Green Power and Land’s Sake”

This sense of restoring the skeleton strikes me as my approach to reconstructionism. He has the same impulse to want look at what has been done and find the critical bones that make it work that I think make for the best of reconstructionism, and the same queerly conservative streak that I think is fairly common among that branch of paganism — see the above quoted paragraph about adapting to the chainsaw as an acceptable hand tool. The stuff that rots away with time, the “admittedly imperfect flesh”, he acknowledges on occasion, and then goes about trying to figure out, often through trial and error, what muscles he needs to make those old bones move now.

At the same time, his work with the commons brings in some of the best components of many ancient societies: the sense of some sort of commonality, some sort of community, of mutual support and interlacing. I can see in his primary dedication to education (he left work on the community farm to start teaching at Brandeis) a dedication to the sense of underlying ma’at, that social urge that binds people together into communities, a hope of bringing the unifying structure of the polis in to combat the dissociation and depersonalisation of suburbia. His hope that other New England towns will take his work and run with it hearkens to the interlacings of neighbouring tribes. And at the same time, it recalls the early European settlers in the region, who brought the idea of the commons with them and traded skills and labor within their communities–and before them the native tribes with their slowly cycling agriculture and controlled burns, likewise shaping the land.

He says, “When we go to work in a community we make ourselves responsible for things we may not even have been aware of when we started.” (page 280, “Reclaiming the Commons”) I get the impression that his work is as much a response to this ancient truth as anything else — that he thinks that the distancing and not-knowing-one’s-neighbours and similar things is a way of ducking that responsibility. And he is not shy about declarations of responsibility — he holds that those people who flee the cities to live places with “rural character” have an obligation to take actions to preserve that character. In other words, to farm and support farming.

While having no patience for unbridled capitalism and no trust for the market depending on fossil fuels, he also has little tolerance for environmental hypocrisy. He devotes essentially an entire chapter to tackling a sacred cow of environmentalism — the question of forestry and whether it is ever acceptable to cut down a tree. While acknowledging that there is essentially no history of responsible forestry in the modern world, and that logging companies are prone to using the same facts to suit their cultivation of fast-growing monocultures for maximum profit, he lays out an argument, rooted in historical usage, for responsible use of local forest resources. He holds that the trick to responsible forest usage is to look at the patterns that nature would produce naturally and imitate them, creating a variegated woodland with a variety of species and ages of tree — something that strikes me as an eminently reasonable notion.

At the same time as he lays out his autobiography as an environmentalist and a loving biography of the New England land, with occasional references to and quotations of Thoreau, the work is full of little hints of whimsy:

We could plant the best-yielding varieties of these species and eat more nuts. We would presumably need to eat more squirrels, too–if our Disneyfied society can stomach it. We currently kill these creatures profligately with Jeep Cherokees, why not kill them judiciously for meat? I understand they are delicious stewed. –page 207, “Tree Crops”

There is certainly meat to be had here for your “earth-centered” pagan types as well, especially those who live in the New England area and can thus take advantage of the depth of knowledge of the intimate intricacies of this land. One of his major desires in this work is to bring people into an awareness of the rhythms of the year and the land, and he makes occasional comments that make it clear that he is at least familiar with the existence of neopagans and their concerns. To a New England pagan who wants to incorporate the local seasons into their practices, this book will be an invaluable portrait of the land they live in; I think that applies to neopagan and reconstructionist who is interested in adapting to their locale alike. To someone who wants to seek that knowledge but is in a different area, the book will be less directly useful, but its appendix includes a step by step introduction to the sorts of resources that are readily available for doing the same sorts of developing in-depth knowledge, from geological surveys to local history.

I am a semi-urban pagan; I grew up on the fringes of a city, and I am a servant of urban gods. At the same time, though, the cities that my gods watched over were integrated with the surrounding land, and there were none of these strange suburb things dominating the landscape. I think most of us are, these days, and many are at a loss as to how to bring that sense of the city growing in and among the natural world back into play in reality, no matter how spiritually meaningful or ecologically necessary it may be. I think that this book may give ideas on where to start with that, and for that reason I value my chance decision to pick it up quite highly.

Even if my husband is worried by the fact that reading it seems to have inspired in me a strange urge to raise goats.

Wilderness was beautiful but misleading. The idea of going to the wilderness to get back in touch with nature was all wrong. The places where we needed to form close connections with nature were not in the wilderness but where we grew our food, heated our hourses, took our daily pleasures. That was the place for me. The cities and suburbs, and the farms and forests that supported them, were the heart of the matter. Deal with that, and wild nature would more or less look after itself. Fail to deal with that, and wilderness would be left the long task of reestablishing itself over our ruins. –page 8, “Introduction: Wilderness and Suburbia”


3 thoughts on “Reclaiming the Commons : Community Farms and Forests in a New England Town, by Brian Donahue

  1. Thene says:

    Have you read The Death And Life Of Great American Cities by Jane Jacobs? It’s definitely something you should look at if you want an urban equivalent to this kind of work, though it’s very old now (mid-1950s, I think).

    • kiya_nicoll says:

      I really should do some more reading around this subject, because it’s so very structurally useful. I’ll put that on the list. :} (Because I totally need more things on my booklist.)

  2. Polarity says:

    I think I’ve come to understand the merits of what you’re saying, a lot better than I did in 2005. :) This is part of what’s motivating me to want to move back to Syracuse. We thought long and hard about Baltimore, but it started to look (for price, parking issues coupled with disability) like it was going to be a townhouse in a house-machine faceless development in yet another suburb. And I can completely identify with the idea that suburbs are depersonalizing, I’ve felt that in my gut for the whole time I’ve lived in this house.

    Compare to the way my mother-in-law lives in Syracuse– family oriented, community centered, devoted to her garden and more rooted and conscious of the change in seasons than I have ever been. I barely feel them, it’s just different scenery through the window and how does the temperature affect my pain levels. I felt shamed as a Pagan to realize that this very Christian woman was living a more Pagan life than I could ever conceive of, and I haven’t known since whether to embrace it or run from it.

    I think that moving there would be conducive to practicing Heathenry. I hear so much about the need for community from Heathens, and I feel… nothing… about mine. I know no one, I have no concern for it, I have nothing but hatred for the politics of the state as a whole. But Syracuse has been the home of most of my ancestors since they came to the US. It’s where they’re buried, it’s where my parents grew up, where my husband grew up, where I visited throughout my childhood. It’s intensely local-focused, roots mean something there. I feel like I could practice something of which you speak here if i lived there, in a way I can’t if I live here. Community connection can’t be manufactured on a whim, and an HOA isn’t a connected community, it’s a community that cares more for property values and the color you paint your door than it does for the welfare of the people who live there.

    Sorry for the personal ranting, Kiya. You just write a timely post, that’s all. :)

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