On the margins of the margins

By David Parkinson

Water vapour in the air condenses into fine threads of ice along the surface of a log. How do the crystals know to align themselves to the log's diameter?

This is what you shall do: Love the earth and sun and the animals, despise riches, give alms to every one that asks, stand up for the stupid and crazy, devote your income and labor to others, hate tyrants, argue not concerning God, have patience and indulgence toward the people, take off your hat to nothing known or unknown or to any man or number of men, go freely with powerful uneducated persons and with the young and with the mothers of families, read these leaves in the open air every season of every year of your life, re-examine all you have been told at school or church or in any book, dismiss whatever insults your own soul; and your very flesh shall be a great poem and have the richest fluency not only in its words but in the silent lines of its lips and face and between the lashes of your eyes and in every motion and joint of your body.
(Walt Whitman, 1855, from the preface to Leaves of Grass)

Yesterday evening I attended the Annual General Meeting of the Cranberry Community Hall Society, the non-profit organization which owns and manages the Cranberry Community Hall, formerly known as the Unitarian Hall.

I went as an interested observer, not being a resident of that odd little pocket of unconventionality hidden away from the straight line between Saltery Bay, Westview, Townsite, Wildwood, and points north. But as someone who has organized and attended many events at this community hall, I was curious to see what the Society’s plans were.

After disposing of the routine business of an Annual General Meeting, we had a discussion about what the membership would like to see done with the hall. And this was a conversation that was very interesting: almost everyone acknowledged the importance of having an asset like this community hall remain under the control of the people who benefit from it, with barriers to access kept as low as possible. Several people mentioned that we have lost too many of these resources over the past years and we need to work now to bring them back.

It’s still not a mainstream belief that we ought to be preserving these old community buildings and the institutions which own and care for them. I don’t think it’s on most people’s radar that we might be moving into a time when it will be important to live near a neighbourhood hall which could host daycare, art classes, a community kitchen, a library of tools and equipment, not to mention dances, live music, and celebrations of important occasions like births, weddings, and funerals. So many of these activities have been privatized over the last half-century and more that it looks like willful nostalgia to think that we could be doing all of it for ourselves, on a small scale, with limited financial resources — beyond ownership of a hall, of course — but unlimited volunteer labour and support from those who gain the most from the presence of a vibrant common space within walking distance.

Also, there is a pervasive mindset out there, which the coming years will do the hard work of dispelling, that the first solution to every problem is something along the lines of: go find a big pot of funding; hire consultants to put together a study to tell us what we already knew; pay top dollar for the biggest slickest state-of-the-art-est multi-use community complex; and fill it full of well-paid professional service providers. It’s just not sexy enough to slog through the grime and try to retrofit something old and worn-down. I just think we’re coming close to the end of the easy money and were going to have to make do or do without.

I have read enough in the world of peak-oil preparedness, Transition, and food security to know that the creation of collectively-owned and -managed resources like this is one of the main prescriptions for any community which aims to create a soft — or less hard — landing for people who are already starting to feel the pinch from the rising cost of everything paired with stagnant or falling pay (not to mention the deliberate systematic gutting of the social safety net in the name of fiscal responsibility). In his weekly post, James Howard Kunstler, the trickster fool of the collapse scene, writes:

If you want something like gainful employment in the years ahead, don’t rely on the corporations, the government, or anyone with a work station equipped cubicle. Start reading up on gardening and harness repair. Learn how to fix a pair of shoes. Volunteer for EMT duty if you’re already out of a paycheck, and learn how to comfort people in medical distress. Jobs of the future will be hands-on and direct.

And the paths in and through this new rickety economy are going to be good old-fashioned involvement: immersing oneself in the real active life of the community, as close to home and as close to free as can be managed.

(This involvement take place in a double obscurity: most people in the mainstream don’t see any need for special measures to create more resilient communities; and even those who are savvy to this sort of thing don’t see that this work is not always about shiny new projects with an explicit commitment to carbon reduction or local food or what-have-you. These are the margins of the margins for the time being, but probably not for too much longer, as more people realize that we can build amazing things out of the débris of the past.)

What really struck me about the meeting last night was how organic and basic it was. (Also the high amount of crossover between this group and the new crop of active volunteers at CJMP FM.) This was no project with funds casting around for a purpose; no effort led by ‘experts’ looking to ‘create opportunities for key stakeholders to envision a common future’ or some such bureaucratese; and it was not a meeting of the usual enviro-savvy types out to save the planet. Just a gathering of folks out of the neighbourhood and a few from other far-flung parts of the region, doing the boring unglamorous work of preserving a community asset that many may have forgotten even exists. We’re supposed to think of this work as ‘charming’ or ‘quixotic’, in opposition to the hard-nosed reality emanating from the think-tanks and consultancies or the various recipes out there for saving the world. I just can’t see anything of true and lasting value coming from these high-priced sources; as we move into a time of extreme relocalization we’re just going to have to do what we can to stay abreast of the changes coming at us, and there will never be enough experts and one-size-fits-all solutions to make sense on the local scale.

I am pretty sure that the real meaningful changes that happen as the result of people working together will come from the out-of-the-way easily-overlooked places. We live in a time thronging with well-funded and well-intentioned projects to prepare the way for a shiny new future of low-carbon emissions, ecovillages, local currencies, and so on. And usually what these visionary programs omit is what we saw and engaged in last night: getting together in small groups, working to preserve what we already have, taking tiny steps, making simple achievable goals to build from where we are, with no real overarching goal except to hold open a space for community to flow into. A very humble process.

These are the margins. Out on the edge where the population is dispersed and odd notions proliferate. A zone of experimentation where things self-organize or die. The place no one looks for the answers, because the questions lead to where the money, power, and prestige are held. The last stronghold of romantics, fools, and the connoisseurs of hope, who can tell the real thing from the barbarized version dished out by charlatans. The realm of dissensus and the breeding-ground of our failures which teach us more than their successes. Sometimes disguised as a meeting to preserve a community hall.

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A HOUSEKEEPING NOTE

Regular readers — if such even exist — may have noticed that my posting schedule seems erratic lately. In fact, I am on an eight-day rotation because I feel I should visit the days of the week with impartiality. This way I can always post a day late and still be on time.

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