Longing for Utopia

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Woodstock, of course, is the icon. The music festival, which is back on everyone's minds because of its 40th anniversary this weekend, is the name-turned-definition of a Utopian, peace-love-and-creative-expression community. An idea as much as an event. A moment in time where the normal rules of commerce and capitalistic society as we know it were magically suspended.

Woodstock was also an accident. Planned as a straightforward, money-making, commercial music concert, it unexpectedly morphed into something bigger that overwhelmed commercial control. People behaved, the government provided support, and everyone stumbled upon a rare "moment of grace," as one New York Times writer put it this week.

Coming as it did, in the midst of violent social unrest and upheaval, Woodstock was a particularly precious moment of reprieve. But the idea of Woodstock; the idea of a perfect, peaceful, cooperative community, where everyone shares and gets along with "crass" commercialism, has been around for a very long time.

Thumbnail image for thomas more.JPGSir (Saint) Thomas More wrote the book Utopia way back in 1516. I'm not entirely sure whether More, a devout Catholic who was later beheaded for refusing to acknowledge King Henry VIII's divorces as legitimate, was being earnestly wistful or caustically satirical in his description of a fantasy island where money was unimportant and communal cooperation abounded, along with niceties like religious tolerance and legalized divorce. But in any event, very serious attempts at making that fantasy a reality have cropped up over and over again in the years and centuries since.

Dreams of communal utopia also often mix with dreams of a simpler and more organic way of life--not only because it's more egalitarian and ecologically friendly, but also because if you're going to do away with 9-to-5 jobs and the money they bring in, you're going to have to be more self-sufficient. Ideally, of course, this self-sufficiency mixes with time and space to be creative and fun-loving. Utopia wouldn't be nearly as perfect without those qualities.

One recent iteration of this enduring dream is the floating "Waterpod" community that's been cruising the waters around Manhattan this summer. The moveable barge/art project/commune was envisioned, Melena Ryzik wrote in yesterday's Times, waterpod3.JPGas a 3,000-square-foot experiment in self-sufficient "community living and artistry" that could serve as a prototype for sustainable communities in a resource-scarce future. Structures on the grant-funded barge were built by volunteers out of recycled materials. Chickens and an on-board garden provide the food, the sun provides the energy, and the residents can balance the tasks of food preparation and maintenance with time for creative art. A Utopian solution to hard times.

One important detail: the two main organizers of the project had no prior knowledge or experience in either gardening or carpentry. If they had, they might have had a better idea of just how much work they were getting into. As it is, they've been surprised to discover that after two months, they've had some great communal moments, but not a lot of art is getting done. Turns out that organic, self-sufficient living is very hard and time-consuming work--a fact that Thomas More clearly knew, because he included household slaves in his vision of a Utopian dream island.

It is possible to live a simpler, close-to-the-land, self-sufficient existence. Farmers around the world have been doing it for centuries. It's just tough to do that and also have the time and energy to be a creative artist.

The Waterpod organizers are also discovering a second reason why few Utopian communities last: humans have a tough time getting along in communal bliss for long stretches of time--especially if they all have separate visions of personal expression and freedom. Most traditional tribal villages have a strong sense of community and sharing. But they also tend to have very strict rituals and rules of behavior that don't allow for a lot of narcissistic or free-wheeling experimentation.

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But take away the requirement that it last, and have the experiment be a voluntary event instead of a lifestyle where actual survival is at stake, and anything can become possible. It's worth noting that Woodstock's ideal, mystical joining of community and creative expression only had to last three days. Ditto for the Burning Man festival, which now draws almost 50,000 people to the Nevada desert each August for what's called "an experiment in temporary community dedicated to radical self-expression and radical self-reliance." Emphasis on temporary. For seven days, Burning Man attendees pay to immerse themselves in an artistic community in the middle of a remote dry lakebed. They share peacefully, express themselves creatively, feel the love ... and then go home to more comfortable surroundings.

Leave those same people in the middle of a harsh desert for two years without rescue, and some very different dynamics might ensue. But that's okay. At least we still dream of peaceful, cooperative communities where life is good, art is plentiful, and love abounds. Ideals are important compass cards for a civilization. 

In Latin, Utopia means a place that doesn't exist. But perhaps it's more like Rogers and Hammerstein's fictional town of Brigadoon, which wasn't on any map because it only emerged from the Scottish highland mist for one day every 100 years. So while the dream endures, we stumble upon it only rarely and briefly; for a week each summer in the Nevada wilderness or ... once upon a time ... for three days on a farm in upstate New York.

(All photos from flickr.com)