Reflection 143: Shaker Consciousness

August 17, 2009

(Copyright © 2009)

For her birthday, I gave Carole an all-expenses-paid trip to Sabbathday Lake Shaker Village in New Gloucester, Maine, about 25 miles northwest of Portland. That is, we went in her car, both brought our lunches, and I paid for gas, tour and museum tickets. From Bar Harbor, it was about a three-and-a-half-hour drive; I drove down, she back. Neither of us had ever been to Sabbathday Lake Shaker Village—now down to three members after peaking at some 180 in the 1840s—sole surviving Shaker community in the U.S. of the 19 main villages that once thrived from Maine to Florida. We visited the museum, took a guided tour of the village, ate lunch, and purchased seven books about the Shaker experience.

I have never spent a more profoundly moving four hours than those that passed so quickly in Sabbathday Lake Shaker Village. I had no idea what to expect, but intuition told me it was time to find out. What we discovered was a working model of what a human community could be if it set its collective mind to living sustainably and cooperatively on the land with dignity and spirit made possible by skilled craftsmanship and hard work. Patterning their lives on Jesus’ example, Shakers knew how to live sustainably on the land with a modest carbon footprint long before peak oil and global climate change were conceived in the human mind. Sustainably, that is, except for one thing: Jesus was celibate and so were they. Going forth and multiplying was never their way. They relied on personal convincement to bring in new blood, which worked from 1776 until before the Civil War, but failed to replenish their numbers after that. They took in orphans and children placed with them, giving young people a choice upon turning 18 to rejoin the world or become Shakers. If they stayed on, then they largely retired from the world to embrace a life of celibacy, confession of sin, pacifism, communal activity and ownership, and handiwork without end. 

Which by modern standards would add up to an extreme way of life. But through strict communal discipline, Shakers created joyous and highly productive lives for themselves. Their priorities were clear, their efforts devoted to expressing peace and love in everything they did. One Shaker catch phrase says it all: Hands to Work and Hearts to God.

Shakers were renown for their handicrafts, well-tended farms—and the enthusiasm of their worship. Like every other aspect of their life, they put themselves into it. Apparently it was something to see; Sunday mornings, people came from miles around to witness Shakers singing-dancing-marching in praise of the Lord. But what got to me in the four hours I spent at Sabbathday Lake was the undeniable evidence of Shaker consciousness. Most of what they accomplished required elaborate hand-eye coordination, a sure outward sign of deliberate consciousness and attention to detail. The tour, for instance, covers:

  • bonnet making
  • dressmaking and tailoring
  • shoemaking
  • basket weaving
  • woodcarving
  • chair making and caning
  • broom making
  • spinning
  • weaving
  • rug-hooking
  • needlework
  • quilting
  • herb gardening and drying
  • pickle and catsup making
  • beekeeping
  • apple harvesting and pressing
  • painting and drawing
  • photography
  • candy making
  • not to mention agriculture and animal husbandry, and  other activities I have forgotten.

It was not the various craftsmedia themselves that got my attention so much as the design and overall simplicity of individual pieces turned out day after day. Consciousness cannot be random or chaotic and turn out Shaker furniture, gift drawings, rugs, tins of herb teas, or even fudge for that matter. It was how individual details fit together that mattered in almost everything they did. The simple elegance of Shaker tables, desks, chairs, cupboards, and boxes speaks of the minds that designed, cut, and put them together. Collectively and individually, Shakers give the impression of being a together people. Which I see reflecting the internal discipline required of them in becoming Sisters and Brothers. Each was valued as a decided individual, and the ways they found of respecting and valuing one another bound them together—like the separate straws making up the business end of a Shaker broom.

I felt a strong rapport with this tradition with its people being wholly who they were under what must have been stressful conditions. Survival takes full concentration, particularly in rural Maine in days when there were no big boxes to mar the landscape, no imports from China. Everything had to be done locally by hand. Most of us in the U.S. today wouldn’t last a week if we had to produce what we ate and used from scratch by hand labor. When life depends on conscious activity, a certain gladness shines through every task completed, every new beginning, every tool, every mending job. Evolution did not create Shaker furniture, but it did create human consciousness, which created cultural evolution, which created Shakers, who did create furniture by putting their minds to work on the challenge of day-to-day survival. The whole saga is on view at Sabbathday Lake Shaker Village, and at other Shaker villages as preserved because we can’t stand to lose them as examples of what human consciousness can achieve.

For myself, I choose to find a message in the behavioral idiom Shakers created for themselves. I see that idiom addressing many of the challenges we face in the 21st century. Evolution equipped humans with strong appetites for sex, food, personal possessions, wealth, and social status. But it did not have the foresight to equip us with an off-switch so when appropriate, we could squelch our drives and coast along with what we had. The Shakers took it upon themselves to manage their drives by adopting a code of celibacy, communal living, moderate (but healthy) diet, few personal possessions, no personal wealth, and invention of a new kind of social security—all labor intensive—all extremely rewarding because of the skill and discipline required. Without genetic engineering, the Internet, cellphones, pesticides, superhighways, international trade, or big government. What did the Shakers know that we don’t? That hard work and imagination can solve problems if you really put your mind to it. Shakerism is a lesson in locally applied consciousness based on personal initiative and cooperative living, not massive infusions of cash.

OK, so they sacrificed sex to get there, but if the human population is a problem in itself, that could be seen as a good thing. Sustaining bad ideas and sorry institutions is not necessarily a good thing if they are in fact the source of the problem. There is deep wisdom in Shaker madness, wisdom I think we should emulate insofar as it is appropriate to our current situation—which I maintain is a fairly close match to that of their day. Hardship unto the threat of death was always at the gate of a Shaker Village. Yet they persisted by making the most of what they had in the time available to them. We, on the other hand, are more profligate, doing precious little with our vast stores of wealth, wasting much of it on gadgetry, glitzy trinkets, and empty entertainment—as if spending money gauged the meaning of life.

Where Shakers made the most of their conscious hours, we seem to pride ourselves in taking as much time as we can to do as little as possible. Worker productivity is said to be up, but productivity of what? Most of it turns out to be nonsense rebundled in tinsel to bilk investors of their retirement funds. Our consciousness is spinning its wheels, seeing if there’s anything good on the tube or the Web when, all the time, what counts is what’s in us already: consciousness, evolution’s gift to us all, which we can’t seem to get the hang of.

Removing themselves from the vanities of the civilized world, Shakers staked their lives to the soil, not to fashion. We have chosen the other road, preferring vanity over nature—to sorry effect. Our world runs on image and influence, not energy coursing through the seasons, which Shakers knew how to harness. Yet we thrive and Shakers shrivel. Our world is surely powered by irony, that of the Shakers by simple self-knowledge. Which seen in the right light is our failure, not theirs.

Shaker barns, Sabbathday Lake

 

 

 

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