The Commons of World, Experience, and Identity

The commons, sadly, have become less common. Mark Vernon writes that, “in the Middle Ages, fifty per cent or more of the land was commons, accessible to everybody” (Spiritual Commons). The Charter of the Forest formally established the commons within English law and it lasted from 1217 to 1971. That isn’t some ancient tradition but survived far into modernity, well within still living memory. The beginning of the end was the enclosure movement that was first seen not long after the Charter was signed into law, but the mass evictions of peasants from their land wouldn’t happen until many centuries later with sheep herding, coal mining, and industrialization.

It’s hard for us to imagine what was the commons. It wasn’t merely about land and resources, about the customs and laws about rights and responsibilities, about who had access to what and in what ways. The commons was a total social order, a way of being. The physical commons was secondary to the spiritual commons as community, home and sense of place (“First came the temple, then the city.”) — “Landscape is memory, and memory in turn compresses to become the rich black seam that underlies our territory” (Alan Moore, “Coal Country”, from Spirits of Place); “…haunted places are the only ones people can live in” (Michel de Certeau, The Practice of Everyday Life). The commons also was a living force, at a time when Christianity permeated every aspect of life and when the felt experience of Paganism continued in local traditions and stories, often incorporated into Church rituals and holy days. Within the commons, there was a shared world where everyone was accountable to everyone else. Even a chicken or a wagon could be brought to court, according to the English common law of doedands (Self, Other, & World).

The parish was an expression of the commons, embodying local community and identity that was reinforced by the annual beating of the bounds, a practice that goes back to ancient Rome, a faint memory of what once was likely akin to the Aboriginal songlines in invoking a spiritual reality. It was within the parish that life revolved and the community was maintained, such as determining disputes and taking care of the sick, crippled, elderly, widowed, and orphaned. We can’t genuinely care about what we feel disconnected from. Community is fellowship, kinship and neighborliness, is intimate relationship and familiarity. This relates to why Germanic ‘freedom’ meant to be part of a free people and etymologically was related to ‘friendship’, as opposed to Latin ‘liberty’ that merely indicated one wasn’t enslaved while surrounded by those who were (Liberty, Freedom, and Fairness).

“It is the non-material aspects of life,” Vernon suggests, “that, more often than not, are crucial for finding meaning and purpose, particularly when life involves suffering.” He states that a crucial element is to re-imagine, and that makes me think of he living imagination or what some call the imaginal as described by William Blake, Henry Cobin, James Hillman, Patrick Harpur, and many others. And to re-imagine would mean to re-experience in new light. He goes onto speak of the ancient Greek view of time. John Demos, in Circles and Lines, explains how cyclical time remained central to American experience late into the colonial era and, as the United States wasn’t fully urbanized until the 20th century, surely persisted in rural eras for much longer. Cyclical time was about a sense of recurrence and return, central to the astrological worldview that gave us the word ‘revolution’, that is to revolve. The American Revolutionaries were hoping for a return and the sense of the commons was still strong among them, even as it was disappearing quickly.

Instead of time as abundance, the modern world feels like time is always running out and closing in on us. We have no sense of openness to the world, as we’ve become insulated within egoic consciousness and hyper-individualism. As with beating the bounds of the parish, cyclical time contains the world into a familiar landscape of the larger world of weather patterns and seasons, of the sun, moon and stars — the North Wind is a force and a being, shaping the world around us; the river that floods the valley is the bringer of life. The world was vitally and viscerally alive in a way few moderns have ever experienced. Our urban yards and our rural farms are ecological deserts. City lights and smog hide the heavens from our view. Let us share a longer excerpt from Vernon’s insightful piece:

“Spiritual commons are often manifest in and through the loveliness of the material world, so that matters as well. It’s another area, alongside education, where spiritual commons has practical implications. That was spotted early by John Ruskin.

“Consider his 1884 lecture, The Storm-Cloud of the Nineteenth Century, in which he noted that “one of the last pure sunsets I ever saw” was in 1876, almost a decade previously. The colours back then were “prismatic”, he said, the sun going into “gold and vermillion”. “The brightest pigments we have would look dim beside the truth,” he continued. He had attempted to reflect that glorious manifestation of the spiritual commons in paint.

“He also knew that his experience of its beauty was lost because the atmosphere was becoming polluted. As a keen observer of nature, he noted how dust and smoke muddied and thinned the sky’s brilliance. In short, it would be crucial to clean up the environment if the vivid, natural displays were to return. Of course. But the subtler point Ruskin draws our attention to is the one about motivation: he wanted the vivid, natural displays because he had an awareness of, and desire for, spiritual commons.”

That is reminiscent of an event from 1994. There was a major earthquake on the West Coast and Los Angeles had a blackout. The emergency services were swamped with calls, not from people needing help for injuries but out of panic for the strange lights they were seeing in the sky. It scared people, as if the lights were more threatening than the earthquake itself — actual signs from the heavens. Eventually, the authorities were able to figure out what was going on. Thousands of urbanites were seeing the full starry sky for the first time in their entire lives. That situation has worsened since then, as mass urbanization is pushed to further extremes and, even though smog has lessened, light pollution has not (Urban Weirdness). We are literally disconnected from the immensity of the world around us, forever enclosed within our own human constructions. Even our own humanity has lost is wildness (see Paul Shepard’s The Others: How Animals Made Us Human).

We can speak of the world as living, but to most of us that is an abstract thought or a scientific statement. Sure, the world is full of other species and ecosystems. That doesn’t capture the living reality itself, though, the sense of vibrant and pulsing energy, the sounds and voices of other beings (Radical Human Mind: From Animism to Bicameralism and Beyond) — this is what the neuroanatomist Jill Bolte-Taylor, in her “Stroke of Insight”, described as the “life-force power of the universe” (See Scott Preston’s Immanence of the Transcendent & The Premises of Our Existence), maybe related to what Carl Jung referred to as the “objective psyche”. One time while tripping on magic mushrooms, I saw-felt the world glistening, the fields shimmered in the wind and moonlight and everything breathed a single breath in unison.

That animistic worldview once was common, as was the use of psychedelics, prior to their being outlawed and increasingly replaced by addictive substances, from nicotine to caffeine (The World that Inhabits Our Mind). And so the addictive mind has built up psychic scar tissue, the thick walls of the mind that safely and comfortably contain us (“Yes, tea banished the fairies.” & Diets and Systems). Instead of beating the bounds of a parish, we beat the bounds of our private egoic territory, our thoughts going round in round like creatures caught in a tidal pool that is drying up in the harsh sunlight — when will the tide come back in?

* * *

Here is some additional historical info. The feudal laws were to some extent carried over into North America. In early America, legally owning land didn’t necessarily mean much. Land was only effectively owned to the degree you used it and that originally was determined by fencing. So, having a paper that says you own thousands of acres didn’t necessarily mean anything, if it wasn’t being maintained for some purpose.

It was every citizen’s right to use any land (for fishing, hunting, gathering, camping, etc) as long as it wasn’t fenced in — that was at a time when fencing was expensive and required constant repair. This law remained in place until after the Civil War. It turned out to be inconvenient to the whites who wanted to remain masters, as blacks could simply go anywhere and live off of the land. That was unacceptable and so blacks need to be put back in their place. That was the end of that law.

But there were other similar laws about land usage. Squatting rights go back far into history. Even to this day, if someone shows no evidence of using and maintaining a building, someone who squats there for a period of time can claim legal ownership of it. Some of my ancestors were squatters. My great grandfather was born in a house his family was squatting in. Another law still in place has to do with general land usage. If someone uses your land to graze their horses or as a walking path, some laws will allow legal claims to be made on continuing that use of land, unless the owner explicitly sent legal paperwork in advance declaring his ownership.

There was a dark side to this. Canada also inherited this legal tradition from feudalism. In one case, a family owned land that they enjoyed but didn’t explicitly use. It was simply beautiful woods. A company was able to dredge up an old law that allowed them to assert their right to use the land that the family wasn’t using. Their claim was based on minerals that were on the property. They won the case and tore up the woods for mining, despite having no ownership of the land. Those old feudal laws worked well in feudalism but not always so well in capitalism.

I’ll end on a positive note. There was a law that was particularly common in Southern states. It basically stated that an individual’s right to land was irrevocable. Once you legally owned land, no one could ever forcefully take it away from you. Even if you went into debt or didn’t pay your taxes, the land would be yours. The logic was that land meant survival. You could be utterly impoverished and yet access to land meant access to food, water, firewood, building materials, etc. The right to basic survival, sustenance, and subsistence could not be taken away from anyone (well, other than Native Americans, African-Americans, Mexican-Americans, etc; okay, not an entirely positive note to end on).

Sense of Place, of Home, of Community… or lack thereof

As I work as a cashier, I always have plenty of time to read and there are often newspapers available. Otherwise, I’d be mostly ignorant of old media. There is something quite relaxing about reading a paper. Anyways, the pleasure of physical reading material isn’t the point of this post. I just wanted to give credit to the dying old media.

The real reason for this post is an article I came across in the Wall Street Journal:

The Homeward Bound American
By Jennifer Graham


That article is about the data from recently published research:

Residential Mobility, Well-being, and Mortality
By Shigehiro Oishi and Ulrich Schimmack

The research is about moving and the impact it has on children (family being a topic that has been on my mind recently: Conservative & Liberal Families: Observations & Comparison). I guess it does relate to old media and to the world that once was. It may be hard to believe that there was a time when moving was uncommon. Once upon a time, every town probably had at least one if not several newspapers offering local perspectives on everything. Could you imagine reading the same newspaper your whole life which was reported by and which reported on the same local people you knew your entire life?

In the United States, though, the stable community has always been more of an ideal than a reality. We are, of course, the land of immigrants, the land of a people constantly moving Westward. At this point, it might be in our very genetics. All the people with homebody genetics stayed in their homelands while their restless family members ventured to the New World. Those who weren’t given a choice in making this ocean trip, such as slaves and refugees, often had their entire culture destroyed and their connection to their homeland lost. Americans are a rootless people, whether by choice or not (which I’ve written about before: Homelessness and Civilization; in that post, I point out the Christian theology of homelessness).

It took Americans to create something like the internet which has challenged old media and traditional communities. Even the media Americans create tend towards rootlessness. A lot of good things have come out of this American attitude of embracing innovation, of embracing the new. It’s easy for us to rationalize our national character as being a great thing. Americans idealize optimism, but optimism can’t deny reality. No matter how willing we are to move (with about half the population moving in their lifetime), the above linked research shows that it doesn’t necessarily lead to healthy results. I intuitively felt this to be true, but until now I haven’t had hard data to support my intuition.

My thoughts on the matter are influenced by my own personal experience. I’m an American and I think I’m a fairly typical American in many ways. I moved around some while growing up. By the 8th grade, I had lived in 4 states. The place I spent my high school years in was a large city and so it wasn’t conducive to developing a sense of home and community. I actually ended up longing for the previous town we had lived in because I had many friends there and it was a small town with more of a stable community. In the different schools I went to, there was always a core group of kids who had known each other their entire lives. I could see the immense difference between them and I. This may have been made even more clear because I spent my early years in the Midwest before having moved to South Carolina. Along with the sense of having loss my home and my friends, I experienced some major culture shock. The entire time I lived there, South Carolina never felt like home. My brothers and I moved back to the Midwest as soon as we had an opportunity. I suspect this somewhat transitory childhood has had long-term impact on myself and my brothers.

Let me first point out some of the results of the research. Here is from a Science Daily article about the same research:

Moving Repeatedly in Childhood Linked With Poorer Quality-of-Life Years Later, Study Finds

The researchers found that the more times people moved as children, the more likely they were to report lower life satisfaction and psychological well-being at the time they were surveyed, even when controlling for age, gender and education level. The research also showed that those who moved frequently as children had fewer quality social relationships as adults.

The researchers also looked to see if different personality types — extraversion, openness to experience, agreeableness, conscientiousness and neuroticism — affected frequent movers’ well-being. Among introverts, the more moves participants reported as children, the worse off they were as adults. This was in direct contrast to the findings among extraverts. “Moving a lot makes it difficult for people to maintain long-term close relationships,” said Oishi. “This might not be a serious problem for outgoing people who can make friends quickly and easily. Less outgoing people have a harder time making new friends.”

The findings showed neurotic people who moved frequently reported less life satisfaction and poorer psychological well-being than people who did not move as much and people who were not neurotic. Neuroticism was defined for this study as being moody, nervous and high strung. However, the number and quality of neurotic people’s relationships had no effect on their well-being, no matter how often they had moved as children. In the article, Oishi speculates this may be because neurotic people have more negative reactions to stressful life events in general.

The researchers also looked at mortality rates among the participants and found that people who moved often as children were more likely to die before the second wave of the study. They controlled for age, gender and race. “We can speculate that moving often creates more stress and stress has been shown to have an ill effect on people’s health,” Oishi said. “But we need more research on this link before we can conclude that moving often in childhood can, in fact, be dangerous to your health in the long-term.”

My brothers and I all have some predispositions toward such things as introversion, depression and anxiety. I don’t think any of us deal with stress all that well. Of course, I can’t know how we would’ve turned out if we hadn’t moved around so much. The only comparison I can make is with my parents. Unlike their children, they had relatively stable childhoods at least in terms of growing up in a stable communities (I know my mom even lived in the same house while growing up, the house that her father built). The difference is that they chose to move after they had become adults and their relatively stable childhoods seemed to have provided an internal sense of stability that allowed them to adapt well to moving to new places. If they hadn’t wanted to move or decided they didn’t like their first move, they could’ve chosen not to move away from their home or they could’ve chosen to immediately move back to their home community. As children, my brothers and I had no such choice because our parents chose for us.

I’m of mixed opinion. I don’t know how much parents can be blamed, especially in the past. Much of this research is recent and so people didn’t used to know about it. On the other hand, my parents knew stability and have always stated a belief in family values. So, why didn’t it occur to them that a stable home and community might be an integral part of family values? To generalize beyond just my parents, why do conservatives (and other Americans as well) idealize the nuclear family as an isolated entity with extended family and community simply being nice things to have around if convenient? Part of me wants to pick on the conservatives because they particularly seem obsessed with the 1950s sitcom ideal of the suburban nuclear family. But to be honest I have to admit that this warped view of family cuts across ideological lines.

At the same time, Americans are obsessed with the idea of community maybe for the very reason we lack a traditional sense of community. I’ve heard Europeans note that Americans are very social in that we constantly like starting and joining groups. In the Midwest, there is even a popular type of group whose sole purpose is to welcome new people to the community. Over all, Midwesterners have more of a real sense of community because early farming communities were so isolated. Midwestern pioneers, quite differently than Southerners, were highly dependent on their neighbors for survival. My observation is that Southerners tend to base their sense of community on their sense of family rather than the other way around. As a general rule, beyond mere formalities, Southerners (in particular middle to upper class Southerners) aren’t very friendly with their neighbors. For example, when a Midwesterner invites you over for coffee they genuinely mean it, but when a Southerner invites you over for coffee it may just be a formality.

As for myself, I internalized from a young age the Midwestern sense of community and neighborliness. It’s not that I live up to it in my personal behavior, but it does form what feels normal to me. Because of this, my disjointed and rootless sense of the world somehow feels wrong. It seems to me the world shouldn’t be this way… and yet it’s the way my world feels. I’m not as close to my family as I wish I were, but I feel that a disconnection has formed in my family that can’t be bridged. One of my brothers became married and had kids. He ended moving away to a nearby town, but he is busy and is incapable of disentangling himself from his wife and children. My other brother has moved around following his career. He essentially has become like my dad in not settling down. Part of him values family and part of him likes the distance moving around provides. None of us in our family get along perfectly well and I think we all value distance to some extent, but I can’t help wondering if it could have been different. If our parents hadn’t sacrificed family and community for career (we were latchkey kids with both parents working), would our family have been much closer than it is now?

I suppose it doesn’t matter. It’s too late now. My parents made their decisions and the time lost can’t be made up. They had been down South for a couple of decades and only recently moved back to the Midwest. My brothers were at one time all living in the same town as I am now living in, but that hasn’t been the case for a number of years. The brother that has been moving around quite a bit did for a time move back to the area before moving away again just as my parents were moving into town. Even though my parents used to live here and used to have many friends here, they’ve been away too long and my dad in particular left behind the community he felt a part of in South Carolina. When you spend so much time apart in different communities and in entirely different regions of the world, you lose the basic daily experiences on which personal relationships are built. The people my parents know generally aren’t the same people I know. In chasing money and career, why didn’t my parents consider the clear possibility that it would undermine our entire family? People always think there is time later on to develop personal relationships, but then after retirement one realizes that some things once lost can’t be regained.

It pisses me off. I always wanted a family I could rely upon, but on an emotional level (which isn’t rational) I don’t have a sense of trust towards my parents. I don’t fundamentally believe they would necessarily be there for me if things ever went wrong. I understand it isn’t entirely rational. My parents do value family and they are caring people. It’s just that I have this very basic sense of disconnection. I’ve lived in this town longer than anywhere else and I love this town. It’s my home. Still, I don’t feel entirely connected to even this place, to the community that I’m surrounded by. My sense of place is always in the past, in the memories of my childhood in this place. It’s hard to explain. When I moved away after 7th grade, I spent years going over and over my memories of this place. Once I returned, everything had already begun to change. So, my sense of place is only loosely connected to the place itself. My suspicion is that it would be different for someone who lived in the same place their whole life because the place would have changed as they changed. One’s personal changes would be grounded in the changes in one’s sense of place. Once you move away, you can never come home again. So, it’s more than a desire for a stable sense of family. It’s a desire for a stable sense of community, a stable sense of place, a stable sense of personal reality. My whole life I’ve wanted to fit in, wanted to feel like I was accepted, like I belonged. Instead, I feel broken.

Of course, I’m not special. Everyone grows up and everyone loses their childhood, but it seems particularly traumatic for those who have moved around, most particularly if they have certain personality traits. Even so, this sense of malaise seems to be a common factor of modern civilization. From my studies, it’s my understanding that indigenous tribal people don’t share this sense of malaise… not until they’re introduced to modern civilization. We moderns are extremely disconnected from the world around us. Even the person who has never moved is unlikely to have a deep sense of place as was once common when all humans were indigenous.

I noticed the above research was mentioned in an article in The New York Times (Does Moving a Child Create Adult Baggage? By Pamela Paul) which led me to another article:

The Roots of White Anxiety
By Ross Douthat

Last year, two Princeton sociologists, Thomas Espenshade and Alexandria Walton Radford, published a book-length study of admissions and affirmative action at eight highly selective colleges and universities. Unsurprisingly, they found that the admissions process seemed to favor black and Hispanic applicants, while whites and Asians needed higher grades and SAT scores to get in. But what was striking, as Russell K. Nieli pointed out last week on the conservative Web site Minding the Campus, was which whites were most disadvantaged by the process: the downscale, the rural and the working-class.

The reason I mention this article is because rural areas represent the last communities that have maintained some semblance of stability, although it’s eroding quickly. These poor, rural whites maintain their communities and their poverty by not moving much. That is what the author of this article didn’t fully comprehend but which some readers made note of in the comments:

dc wrote: “The issue is class, not race, not political affiliation, and certainly not religion.”

Yes, class AND culture… the two being inseparable.

Poor rural people (of any race or religion) are less willing to sacrifice family and community for social advancement in terms of education and career. They’re less willing to play the moving game. But, in a society that doesn’t value the rural culture, such stable cultures aren’t likely to represent the best of society. Loss of family farms and the decline of small towns has caused rural communities to become impoverished and so they have tons of social problems, but these communities once were relatively good places to live and to raise a family… and they still are in some ways. The article does make a point that whites have reason to be worried, paranoid even, about the undermining of this traditional rural culture. Still, no one in particular is to blame. What America is becoming is an almost entirely inevitable result of how America began. It’s noble that these rural folk self-impose (consciously or not) an isolated sense of community. They choose to homeschool their kids and send them to state schools or community colleges. By doing this, they maintain their family ties.

My parents, on the other hand, were willing to make sacrifices that many rural people are unwilling to make and because of it my parents have been more successful in their careers. My parents apparently weren’t contented to just be working class or to otherwise limit their careers to one specific community.

It makes me wonder about the future, my personal future and the future of society. I don’t feel optimistic about my own family and community. My depression and introversion combine in such a way that I lead a fairly isolated life. What really saddens me is that I’m far from unusual. Are people like me merely a sign of what our society is becoming? What is the future of communities and families? As a society, will we ever again collectively value community more than career, family more than success? Will we ever stop building ugly, soul-destroying suburban neighborhoods? Will the warped ideal of the nuclear family ever be brought back into alignment with concrete realities of the world we live in? Is there any hope for modern people to regain the sense of place without which “home” becomes a mere abstraction?