Having just passed through the gate of Ecological Consciousness, we are now ready to enter the second gate—Social Consciousness. Because those who enter my garden through the gate of Social Consciousness are often estranged from Nature, it is paramount for them to realize that we are all inseparable from Nature. In fact, our entire lives are spent in an unending study of and practice of our relationship with Nature in one way or another, which, in the best of all worlds, includes a deep and abiding sense of community.
Before proceeding through the gate of Social Consciousness, however, be prepared for a softer and less well defined path than that leading through the gate of Ecological Consciousness. While ecological understanding is intellectually based on the scientific study of relationships, social issues are based on the emotional, philosophical, and moral interpretation of many of those same relationships.
To further illustrate, close your eyes and visualize a path leading uphill through a meadow with three huge boulders on the immediate right and two on the left. It is three o’clock in the afternoon of a bright sunny day, and the shadows cast by the boulders are crisp and clear, which makes the size and shape of the boulders not only readily discernible but also catching to the eye. This image of the meadow is analogous to the gate of Ecological Consciousness through which you have already passed.
Now visualize the same path on a bright moonlit night. Again, look at the five boulders. They are not so crisp in their outlines; they are more difficult to discern with absolute clarity. Yet their relationship to the meadow as a whole is perhaps easier to see because the background is closer to being within the same depth of field. This softer view of the boulders fits more easily with the fuzzy edges of social philosophy, which, more often than not, generates an abundance of questions and a dearth of concrete answers.
Unlike ecological decisions and consequences, which seem to have relatively discrete cause and effect relationships that simply are as they are, regardless of whether we understand them, social issues are difficult to discuss as discrete entities because they ooze endlessly in amoeboid fashion one into another. This fuzziness, the lack of seemingly fixed boundaries, the seamless relationships between and among social issues carries over to the path leading through the gate of Social Consciousness.
With this in mind, let’s proceed into my garden. But, be prepared to discover, as I have, that seldom, if ever, is there a clear-cut “right” answer to any question I or you may pose. Rather, the “rightness” of each answer is a matter of personal consciousness, which lends credence to a claim found in The Old Farmer’s Almanac of 1850: “Gardening . . . may be regarded as the test of civilization.”
As a community is rooted in a sense of place within the larger context of a surrounding landscape, so I, as an individual, am rooted in a personal sense of place in my home within the larger context of my surrounding garden. As a community has a collective history, so I create a personal history in my home and garden with the first vision of future possibility, the first squeaky door I oil, and the first soil I turn in cultivation. As a community is built on trust, so is my relationship with my neighbors, which coalesces around the mutual sharing of produce from our gardens as the hub of our immediate community—much like the common well in the villages of old.
My garden is the point around which my commitment to community revolves. By community, I mean my neighborhood, where we all have a sense of place and personal commitment. I say this because my hometown has grown too large and too transient to any longer be considered a community in and of itself, and it is the intimacy of community that I crave.
As the world changes in ways both violent and socially unjust, I find my home, my garden, and my neighborhood becoming ever more important. They form the relatively known and predictable environment from which I venture into the unknown of the outer world and to which I return and search inwardly for my place in the scheme of things.
That is all fine, you might say, but what is community? To explore the meaning of community in the social sense, I will have to leave the confines of my garden and go into the outer world of larger vistas. If you will be patient with this part of our journey of consciousness, I will bring you back once again to the scale of my garden.
Community is a group of people with similar interests living under and exerting some influence over the same government in a shared locality. Because they have a common attachment to their place of residence, where they have some degree of local autonomy, they form the resident community.
People in such a community share social interactions with one another, with organizations beyond government, and through such participation are able to satisfy the full range of their daily requirements within the local area. The community also interacts with the larger society, both in creating change and in reacting to it.
Community is rooted in a sense of place through which the people are in a reciprocal relationship with their landscape. This relationship is well expressed in the Hupa word “Natinook,” which means: “Land where the trails return.” (Hupa is the name of a tribe of indigenous Americans in northwestern California.)
As reciprocal relationship implies, a community is a lively, ever-changing, interactive, interdependent system of relationships, not a static place within a static landscape. Because community is a self-organizing system, it changes its environment as well as incorporating information. Finally, the community as a whole interacts with the local environment, molding the landscape within which it rests and in turn is molded by it.
Reciprocity is the self-reinforcing feedback loop that either extends sustainability to or withholds it from a community and its landscape. We humans therefore create trouble for ourselves when we confuse order in a community with control. Although a degree of freedom and order are partners in generating a viable, well-ordered, autonomous community, a community is nevertheless an open system that uses continual change to avoid deterioration.
A community also has a history, which must be passed from one generation to the next, if the community is to know itself throughout the passage of time. History, by which we decide what is true or false, is a reflection of how we see ourselves and is the very root by which we give value to things. Our vision of the past is shaped by, and in turn shapes, our understanding of the present and our projection into the future.
There are people in Newfoundland, for example, who continue to remain in tiny, isolated coastal communities, where, says Canadian author David Suzuki, their ancestors lived and fished for centuries. As David says, this is not foolish nostalgia, but rather a spiritual relationship with their homes and communities of historical proportions that in sum have far greater personal value than standard economic theory could ever account for.1 In this connotation, houses can be rebuilt, but many of the personal objects cannot be replaced, especially those of antiquity within a family. These things contribute to an individual’s sense of identity and often form an irreplaceable thread of continuity with one’s historical context of a sense of place.
When the continuity of its history is disrupted, a community suffers an extinction of identity and begins to view its landscape not as an inseparable extension of itself but rather as a separate commodity to be exploited for immediate financial gain. When this happens, community is destroyed from within because trust is withdrawn in the face of growing competition, which breeds distrust and intolerance.
It seems clear, therefore, that true community literally cannot extend itself beyond local place and history. According to Wendell Berry, for a sustainable community to be founded in the first place, it must rest on the bedrock of trust.
“. . .a community does not come together by covenant, by a conscientious granting of trust. It exists by proximity, by neighborhood; it knows face to face, and it trusts as it knows. It learns, in the course of time and experience, what and who can be trusted. It knows that some of its members are untrustworthy, and it can be tolerant, because to know in this matter is to be safe. A community member can be trusted to be untrustworthy and so can be included. But if a community withholds trust, it withholds membership. If it cannot trust, it cannot exist.”2
Trust, according to the American Heritage Dictionary, is firm reliance on the integrity, ability, or character of a person or thing; confident belief; faith. But trust cannot really be defined because it is based on faith that this person or that is “trustworthy” or faithful to his or her word. Trust can only be lived in one’s motives, thoughts, attitude, and behavior. Trust and love go together because, according to Greek dramatist Euripides, “love is all we have, the only way that each can help the other.”
Community also reminds one that the scale of effective organization and action has always been small local groups. As anthropologist Margaret Mead admonished: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed it is the only thing that ever has.”
“Community” is a deliberately different word from “society.” Although it may refer to neighborhoods or workplaces, to be meaningful it must imply membership in a human-scale collective, where people encounter one another face to face. Community must nurture a system wherein quality, human-scale relationships are the norm, a system of relationships within which people can feel safe and at home in a particular place to which they feel a measure of fidelity. And it is precisely this sense of safety in and fidelity to a particular place that is being called into question as the face of community is being redefined—both politically and economically—in a more worldly context, where the scale of reference to community is extended well beyond that intimate scale of people living together in a local place in which they share a goodly dose of autonomy.
Contrary to what I hear spoken and see written today, community does not come in a variety of scales, from the local to the global, because community can exist at only one scale—the human scale, which is both local and resident. Community begins with one person sharing with another a necessity of life, such as relationship, food, or help, which in an agrarian culture is perhaps more often than not focused around a garden, as in my case.
When Zane and I moved into our house and began fixing it to meet our notion of harmony, I felt a growing fidelity to the wooden structure with its concrete foundation, which was gradually becoming home—the first I had ever really known, because this time we made a conscious decision to settle in for what we hope to be the rest of our lives. Always before, I knew that one day I would move on.
During our first autumn and winter, we, being true introverts, worked inside, out of view of our neighbors, and thus did not get to know them to any discernible degree. Early in our first spring, however, we started working outside.
At that point, we could be seen by our neighbors, who started coming over to watch and share in the progress as the patch of weeds was transformed into a garden. Then came the sharing of tools, labor, and ideas. We helped one another build fences; chop and pile wood; get manure, mulch, and much-needed topsoil.
As spring progressed into summer, gardens were planted around the neighborhood and with the ripening of each crop, we began sharing surpluses with one another, including fruit from long-established trees. We also shared flowers and other plants as they seeded or were divided, and helped one another with tips on and materials for growing this or that, each based on our wonderful successes and horrendous flops. Nevertheless, each person’s experiences were valued—no matter the various outcomes.
Gradually, we began taking care of one another’s homes, yards, and pets as vacations came and went, and we put out and put away one another’s garbage cans on collection day. In addition, I had learned so much from building my garden pond, watching it mature, and protecting it from predators that I could help a neighbor rehabilitate hers after it was repeatedly devastated by a family of raccoons. This included sharing the thriving plants in my pond and the fish, which in two years had reproduced a small armada of sparkling orange, orange and white, and charcoal-colored babies. And finally, there was the business of helping to raccoon-proof her pond.
Beyond this, we visit with one another whenever occasion permits. With each kind deed, each bit of fun, the sense of community grows, and that is as it is meant to be. There are other times, however, when I yearn for the solitude and spiritual fulfillment I find within the boundaries of my garden.
Text © by Chris Maser, 2009; Illustrations © by Leslie Edgington, 2009. All rights reserved.