Community

My good friend Bob Wagoner walks up his street in Huntingdon PA on a fine, brisk October day.

The root meaning of the word community does not bode well. It comes from the Latin verb, communire, meaning literally “to build a wall together”. What is so menacing about that, you might ask? In the ancient world, walls were significant – as they still are today – think of the Berlin Wall, or Trump who promises to build a wall along our border with Mexico. For the Greeks and the Romans, walls were imposing, menacing, weapons of war or even statements about future planned aggression. In the 470s BC after the Persian invasion, Athens refortified its walls, something seen as hostile act by her neighbors who expressed concern over Athens’ future intentions – nor did it help that they were misled by the great Athenian statesman, Themistocles, concerning the construction of Athens’ walls. Aristotle felt walls were an adornment to Greek cities. When I was a graduate student in Athens roaming the Greek countryside, I was struck by how imposing some of the walls were of the demes (small villages under Athenian control) throughout Attica (the immediate territory around Athens) and of Greek cities such as Corinth and Athens, as well as the fortified positions of many of the ancient sites I visited in the course of that year throughout Greece. Knowing very little at the time (relatively speaking) about Greek archaeology, I was sometimes befuddled by fortifications that looked to me more Medieval than Classical, but over the course of the year came to realize that the fiercely aggressive and independent nature of Greek city states made them essential. For all the deep similarities that made up ancient Greek culture – the drinking of wine, the worship of the same gods, their language – they had a deep and abiding hatred and mistrust of one another. Sparta against Athens, Athens against Thebes, Thebes against Sparta – the Greek world was in a perpetual state of civil war from the time of Homer (and probably before), up until the advent of the Romans. A key feature of the great Mycenaean cities (the Greek civilization of the Homeric epics that flourished between 1600-1100 BC), such as Mycenae, Tiryns, and Gla, were magnificently constructed walls with giant “Cyclopaean” masonry. In addition, the Greeks were very clever about choosing naturally well fortified terrain, often atop a steep hill that was then fortified with heavy stone defenses – Acrocorinth, the citadel at ancient Corinth, is perhaps the best example of such fortifications, and I was always struck by the difficult climb it took to reach them. It was a simple matter that fighting was in the Greeks’ blood, and they fought one another for centuries. Even Alexander couldn’t stop it: yes, briefly for a while the Greek world was unified under him as he breathtakingly conquered from mainland Greece to the Indus River. But after his death the Greeks reverted back, albeit in a much-altered political environment, to fighting with one another. It was only in 146 BC, after the final Roman conquest (in an attempt to throw off Roman hegemony), that the internecine strife of the Greek world was brought to a conclusion.

The same could be said for Rome itself. First there was the Severan wall, built in Rome’s archaic period (roughly the 7th-6th centuries BC), of which only traces remain. Much later they built the Aurelian wall (around 270-5 AD), a fair portion of which still stands, including some magnificent crenelated gates near the Ostia commuter rail station today. The ancient hill towns one finds throughout Italy – Cortona, Orvieto, Assissi, all were sited and fortified with walls for defense. In Pompeii one can still see magnificent walls that were repaired as the ancient Pompeians prepared to join a revolt of Italians against Rome that lasted from 91-88 BC. Roman allies were agitating for greater political rights and enfranchisement since they had done so much fighting for Rome over the centuries, something the Senate stubbornly refused, finally resulting in open revolt that was harsh and bitter. To this day one can see damage to Pompeii’s walls from the Roman assault on it from catapults and other torsion equipment. Moderns don’t need Robert Frost’s ironic phrase that “good fences make good neighbors” to appreciate the mendacity of the claim. For the ancients a wall was both an offensive and defensive entity, a double-edged blade indicative both of fear and of naked military aggression.

In our own lexicon, of course, the term community has very different connotations for the most part. However there is still that sense of tribalism, of a desire to wall oneself off from someone else’s tribe to protect one’s own. Hence the term “online  communities”, which I take to refer to a group of like-minded individuals sharing similar interests. But we have made it more ecumenical to the point where one can even refer to the “global community”, in which the people and planet have clearly shared interests that ranges from a vibrant global economy to a healthy global environment. For the most part the word no longer has the more dismal implications or significance that the Latin verb, taken in conjunction with the ancient ethos and history, need have. It has morphed into an abstract noun that has generally positive implications, though the term can sometimes be abused.

For the past few years the term has been much on my mind, because it is something that I have found elusive – hard to find and hard to define, and even once it is discovered, something that is sometimes quite fleeting. Once found though, it can be deeply fulfilling, even when brief. During our sojourn on the North Coast, in Cannon Beach, I think it is fair to say Lori and I found it – though, as we also discovered, community is something that sometimes one also creates and falls into organically. For us, it all came at once, when we met Mark and Kristin Albrecht, a couple who had retired early for a life on the North Coast, and who were heavily involved in the community there with issues that were also a concern to us: good clean food, promoting or supporting local vendors at farmers markets, and preserving and maintaining a sustainable and clean environment. At various times our interests intersected as we variously volunteered at our local farmers markets, enjoyed fine meals together, and when Lori and Kristen in particular helped to establish a food-only farmers market (River People Market) in Astoria. We also became friends and or supporters of numerous farmers and assorted foodies on the coast, and in this regard I think most fondly of Teresa Retzlav and her partner Packy, who gave us excellent advice about starting up a small farm, and fair warning about some of the issues that we would face. One of the most memorable events I have ever attended was their wedding on their farm near Astoria. Then there was Hank Johnson, a delightful man in his sixties who was himself an outstanding cook and bon vivant extraordinaire who had been the curator of the Portland Rose Gardens, or the couple who owned the cooking school who were originally from Tacoma Park Maryland, or Jeff whose dour demeanor hid that he was not only the most long-lasting organic farmer on the north coast, but that he had also been a ship builder in Norway. Most memorable was perhaps Molly Edison – a delightful octogenarian Tom McCall Republican who believed in the restorative powers of a gin and tonic at five o’clock and who was one of the unofficial mayors of Cannon Beach. We got to know her in her capacity of one of the main coordinators of the food pantry, where we volunteered for two or three years running: once a week for an afternoon Lori and I would go and sort produce, throwing out bad or rotting food, and setting up the pantry to prepare for clients who were in need. It was a wonderful group of ladies, and a few men, who worked the pantry, and we would have a great time together as we helped clients pack and load boxes. And there were other friends and neighbors who were in our circle of friends – everyone knew and enjoyed one another’s company, and we had some pretty wonderful experiences, such as a giant pig roast on the beach one fine fall evening during one of my sabbaticals in which all the local farmers gathered for the most awesome potluck ever. I could continue, but the quirky people who make up the population on the North Coast is the subject of another book in and of itself. We were sorry to leave it, but we were also aware that nothing stays the same. All the volunteers at the pantry were up there in age. Some people, such as Mark and Kristen (and us) have moved on. In an age when movement of people would have been less dynamic the community might have lasted for the lifetime of those who made it up.

Yet we think very fondly of it, because although the time in which we were members of that community was brief, it was a time of transition for us as well, and one of the compelling factors that led me to leave academe. It was not that there was no sense of community (however we might choose to define it) where we were living, both in terms of work and of our immediate neighborhood. I think we felt that both in terms of my department and in terms of where we lived there was, but it was difficult to keep together and was tough. Community, as I think Lori and I would define it for ourselves, consists of people who have shared interests, and, perhaps most of all, time and daily close contact to establish, nurture, and grow the common bonds of affection – to grow fond of someone or some entity that those some ones collectively create. In a neighborhood where people commute, or a university environment where the demands on time are heavy, between teaching, administration, and research and still more research, it is hard to establish that; our department had it, our neighborhood had it – to an extent. But it was hard if not impossible to coordinate something as simple as everyone getting together for dinner. That was a product of stress on people’s time and the workload they carried (or, in many instances, made for themselves). Add to that DC traffic and a close-knit community became almost impossible to create, let alone maintain. There was, too, something to be said for day to day contact and face time – that is why I always felt a sense of community within my department, and think with great affection on all of the great scholars who were and are still active there. I also think very fondly of others at the university who it was my great privilege to get to know – scholars in art history, English, and history, but, fond as I was of the people in associated departments with whom I had contact and got to know, it was frustratingly hard to maintain the kind of close, human relationship the very humanities we studied were supposedly supposed to promote.

Nonetheless, as my dear friend Bob once pointed out to me, we scholars all too often are trained to think not in terms of our commitment to our community, but to our profession. That is why we write scholarly monographs of interest to a few dozen people (if we are lucky), why a general study, even an important one, is not regarded as highly as a tightly focused study. So we talk to, say, other Roman historians about post-colonial discourse in Roman historiography, but not about how the corruption of the late Roman republic reflects our own fraught political circumstances, and how we might learn from one about the other. Perhaps because we fear accusations of bias, or tendentiousness. Specialization was something I long resisted as a graduate student – I chose the field of Classics because I felt it so alive and present around us. You would never know it, though, were you to peruse the current bibliography of classical scholarship, my own included. And this is a real shame: a shame because it does a disservice to our students. As a young professor I had it drummed into me over and over again that good research makes for good teaching. I never saw it – I think it is a mirage invented by pedagogical theorists or by some who saw research and teaching successfully done once or twice and believe in a “one-size-fits-all” model. For me I think it would be death to my profession if I taught my research, and I now tend to go back to basics and to ask myself, why did I love the Classics so much, and why should the students? I try to think in how my teaching will help them to be good citizens, to think independently, to appreciate the deep past that is in fact quite current, of the cumulative knowledge that began, in the written record with Mesopotamia, Egypt, and the Greeks. That, to me, is to help the larger community of a state, a nation, a world.

Part of the problem, I think, too, is the sheer size of the modern university and the basic topographical nature of the modern urban environment. At Maryland they used to talk about the “university community”, but, if there was one, it was by and large atomized, and so really non-existent. If a student dies at Maryland, yes, there will be a notice via email, and students may hold vigil or show some degree of support to his or her family, but at a school of 30,000 it makes relatively little impact. Last year at Linfield a student was murdered in a chance encounter with a man wielding a knife at a 7/11 store. It impacted everyone on our campus of roughly 3,000 students, and I suspect most faculty, as was the case with me, had grieving students in their classroom, friends who had known him. The campus as a collective whole was supportive of one another, and of the student’s parents, and came together as a family would. A year latter, on the anniversary of his murder, the college remembered; a big university probably would not.

Yet, as close knit as Linfield is, and as much as I love teaching there, it is still not as close knit a community as some colleges I have known. By far the deepest sense of community at any college that I have ever experienced was at Bob’s institution, Juniata College in rural Pennsylvania. As an outside observer who has had the privilege of visiting many times over the years, given a number of talks, and gotten to know the dedicated faculty, I would say there are several reasons for this. First, it is a Church of the Brethren college (of which there are six, to my knowledge, in the US); the Church of the Brethren is a Christian denomination that emphasizes peace, reconciliation, and simplicity. There is an ethos of mutual affection – what Cicero would have called caritas – that underpins the collective mindset. One sees this in the emphasis on nurturing students through outstanding teaching in particular. On a more mundane, but perhaps significant level, one also sees it literally in the topography of the college. The local neighborhood of historic houses surrounds the college, and my impression is that many if not most faculty live in it; Bob’s house, for example, is a five minute walk from the campus green. Students and faculty live in close proximity, as do fellow faculty members. At Maryland a dinner party with several faculty members would take several weeks of planning in order for people to check calendars and to cogitate on traffic patterns to avoid snarls on the Beltway. At Juniata Bob could call up a few friends and within a day or two notice arrange a dinner party for six. It seems a small thing, but the simple fact that Juniata is small and that faculty live virtually on campus, that people constantly see and know one another, goes a very long way to creating what I would consider an authentic community. Everyone knows everyone; I was always impressed that, for example, Bob, a professor of philosophy, could tell you who the professors were of chemistry, or economics, and, I suspect, vice versa.

The entrance to Juniata, just a five minute jaunt from Bob’s house.

That is certainly not the case at a large university, for the most part, where people in their particular colleges might know one another very well, but are generally isolated from other disciplines in other colleges, at least in my experience. Moreover people stay at Juniata. Bob has been there since 1965, and there are others, roughly contemporaneous with Bob, sometimes a bit younger, sometimes older, who have stayed as well – something that in and of itself helps to promote and build community through the preservation and continuance of institutional memory. It is a sleepy, beautiful part of Pennsylvania, nestled in the mountains on the Juniata River, so it is easy to see why people do not leave the community. In addition, it is not a research one university, emphasis is, for the most part, on teaching, and I am astonished at how many students are either in or lined up at professors offices each time I go there, this, as opposed to many other university departments that are virtual ghost towns when it comes to the general presence of students at a prof’s door. I don’t want to paint an overly-rosy picture – of course there are conflicts and animosities between people, as there are anywhere, and the “townies” and those involved in the life of the college often clash. But, while someone at the college could speak much more to why there is such a sense of community there, I believe it exists for those three essential reasons: the topography of the town and college, the ethos of the college’s origins, and the emphasis placed not on “publish or perish” but on nurturing young people – this, I believe, is the first and foremost duty of a professor. Those three elements, for one looking from the outside in, are I think particularly striking; they are the threads that weave a tight but generous and open community fabric. At Maryland the anonymity of the students made some horrific behaviors more likely – a bunch of students looting stores, rioting, and setting fires on the main thoroughfare (Route One) after sporting events is more prone to happen in an enormous university setting. You can melt into the crowd and not be seen again; in a town of a few thousand it becomes much more difficult to conceal such behavior.

Here in Sheridan we don’t enjoy the tight community bonds that we did in Cannon Beach or that Bob has enjoyed for half a hundred years at Juniata. But we are working towards it. Part of the reason we don’t is because we are not in town – we are in a rural area and people live far apart – though we certainly have a good and close community of neighbors on our road, and I would say the people here are extremely generous and gracious. Yet little by little we are building a group of friends who are interconnected, as was the case at Cannon Beach, through common interests in quality food, a love of the land, and in maintaining its environmental integrity as best we can. Now of course community can be self-serving in a sense – we tend to one another’s interests an in so doing variously tend and reinforce our own, be it economic, emotional, political, or whatever. At this late date, however, I have had the great good fortune to experience the generosity of our friends and neighbors out of no motive, that I can detect, other than that sometimes generosity, grace, doing a good turn, is something done just for its own sake, because it is the right thing to do and how we should live. There is no particular reason our neighbor Greg should have taught me how to change tractor attachments, or why Karen Hoyt should have shared her recipe for goats milk cheddar, or why Daryl and his wife Kim should take a morning to explain to us the finer points of how to understand the quality of sheep’s wool, or why Beth Saterwaite should give me tips about organic vegetable growing. It is simply what they do – it is in their nature to share and help. That is where the irrational, intangible side of community enters the picture. We were fortunate enough to fall into it in Cannon Beach, almost as if by accident. It is palpable in Huntingdon Pennsylvania. Here in Sheridan, we are gradually building it. Building a metaphoric wall that serves those who have common interests and work towards the common good has, for the Latin purist in me, turned the definition of communire on its head. As it happens, not all walls are as menacing as those found in Attica, Italian hill tops, or as its ancient definition implies.

 

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