Arcadia, and what’s next

“The monster is peering in the window. The ice caps have melted, the glaciers are nearly gone; the interiors of the continents becoming unlivable, the coasts so storm-battered people are fleeing by the millions. New Orleans and the Florida Keys are being abandoned. The hot land-bound places are being given up for lost; Phoenix and Denver becoming ghost towns. Every day, refugees show up in the city. A family takes shelter in the lee of Bit’s front steps, parents with two small children, silent and watchful.”       from Arcadia, by Lauren Groff

Arcadia book cover

In the novel Arcadia, Bit and his family leave the dying commune they helped establish and move to New York City when Bit is fourteen. As an adult with a teen-age daughter, Bit is a good man who nonetheless feels guilty over what he calls his selfishness: his greatest concern is Grete’s survival in a world rendered dangerously unstable by climate change. No matter what happens, he says to himself and any greater power that may be listening, let Grete survive. That’s something I wonder about too, the kind of world my sons will inherit and the challenges they’ll face.

Reading this novel and Barbara Kingsolver’s Flight Behavior   got me thinking about a symposium on the environment I attended in 2010, sponsored by the Rochester Zen Center. Rochester has many treasures, and the Zen Center is one of them. Founded by Roshi Philip Kapleau in 1966 and now one of the largest organizations devoted to Zen Buddhism in the country, it occupies one of Rochester’s stately old homes off of East Avenue near the George Eastman House.  It has been extensively renovated, and the zendo is a stunning space for meditation.

The symposium, called “Turning Toward the Earth,” centered on the Buddhist response to our environmental crisis. This was an intense and unsettling day, the kind of day that makes you want to take dramatic action, upend your life to make a difference – but just how do you do that? The name of the symposium came from “The Great Turning,” a term coined by Joanna Macy, one of the featured speakers that day. Her stance is explained in an article in the Zen Bow:

“The Great Turning is a concept developed by Buddhist philosopher and activist Joanna Macy to help us understand and engage with the momentous change in worldview that is required of us now, at the close of the modern age. Because our species’ enormous technological power is not matched by our spiritual development we have reached a crisis-point unlike any other in the history of humankind, one in which all other sentient beings and so-called inanimate things are irrevocably caught up.”

In her talk at the symposium, Macy encouraged us to act, regardless of any specific outcomes, no matter how overwhelming the challenges may seem. Author and Zen Buddhist David Loy also spoke. He, too, talked of the need for spiritual transformation on an individual level to save our earth as we know it. A tall order, but he seemed hopeful. Conservation biologist Michael Soule, also a speaker, is largely concerned with the dramatic diminishing of species. He believes humans must change their self-centered nature and overcome their selfishness to solve the the extinction crisis, but he is less hopeful. He wasn’t shy about saying he thinks it is already too late.

If you’d like to know more about the Buddhist response to the environmental crisis, take a look at some of the books authored by Macy and Loy. I have read Macy’s World As Lover, World As Self, and I want to read more of her work.

Buddha

Chasing Ice is a documentary about environmental photographer James Balog, who set up time-lapse cameras across the Arctic to record the melting glaciers. One of the trailers shows an astounding view of a glacier calving – breaking up into an immense iceberg. Once part of a glacier becomes an iceberg, it melts much more quickly.

We’ll be watching the documentary Tuesday evening at the Little Theatre.

Introductory quote from Arcadia, Lauren Groff, Hyperion, New York: 2012. Quote from Zen Bow: “It Goes Along With Everything Else: Mass Extinction and the Great Turning,” Sensei Amala Wrightson, Zen Bow, 23(1), 3 – 8.

Arcadia, an American commune

I was so embarrassed and desperate to fit in. I didn’t tell anyone about the commune.   Rena Mundo Croshere, in the trailer for the documentary, American Commune

Arcadia book coverI’ve been reading Arcadia by Lauren Groff, a novel about a boy named Bit who grows up on a commune in western New York. The fictional story was inspired by The Farm, an intentional community in Tennessee that grew to become the largest commune in America in the 1970s. When I was describing Arcadia to a friend, she mentioned a documentary-in-the-making about The Farm produced by two sisters, Rena Mundo Croshere and Nadine Mundo, who were raised there.

I looked at the trailer, which is tantalizing. I’m looking forward to watching the full documentary, which is slated for release this year. I was especially taken with a moment when Rena Mundo Croshere describes abruptly leaving The Farm after over-population and a police raid caused a mass exodus of families. After a shot of flower children singing on the commune, you see a VW bus driving along a highway, then a TV ad for Barbie make-up, followed by a teenage Rena in her bedroom, with her voice-over saying she wanted to fit in so badly, she didn’t tell anyone about the commune. Moving off The Farm, with its lifestyle built on a vow of poverty, to Los Angeles and mainstream, materialistic America was, she says, like moving to another country.

This notion of hiding one’s true self and background resonates with me because I did something similar by not telling anyone about my mother’s mental illness when I was growing up. I can identify with this leading of a double life, of presenting one face to the public while hiding one’s true self and world of origin. For the same reason, I was drawn to the novel Arcadia, at once curious about what life was like inside a 1970s commune and about how the teenager, Bit, would adjust to living in urban New York after 14 years on a commune. Bit had never once seen the outside world – had never traveled to the “big cities” of Syracuse or Rochester, had never seen bathrooms as we know them with toilets and conventional indoor plumbing, had never been inside a grocery store or to public school.

Groff doesn’t glamorize the communal life but, in her view, completely abandoning the hippie cultural experiment isn’t the answer, either. I had thought Groff’s climax and conclusion would center on Bit’s adjustment to vastly different cultures, but she doesn’t end it there. She takes us into the future, to the year 2018 or so – a world of pandemics, climate change, and food shortages – implying that we need to take another look at these utopian social experiments that were, in many ways, ahead of their time.

In an interview included in the paperback edition of Arcadia, author Lauren Groff says, “In my research, I saw many 1960s counterculture idealists become, over time, obsessed with things like Peak Oil and gold and how to live off-grid, a kind of palpable belief that society is at the brink of failure. They’re not wrong. It’s hard to raise a child these days and not fear doom. This book was my argument with myself for hope.”

More about Arcadia to come in my next post.

Book Giveaway Winner

Lynne Favreau has won my Books Can Save a Life 1st anniversary book giveaway! You can catch her very funny blog here.

Quote by Lauren Groff from “A Conversation with Lauren Groff” in Arcadia, Lauren Groff, Hyperion, New York: 2012.

Quote by Rena Mundo Croshere in the trailer, American Commune, Mundo Films.

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