We Went to the Woods
The Blithedale Romance
The Book of the City of Ladies
Christine de Pizan
Charlotte Perkins Gilman
Frustra fit per plura quod potest fieri per pauciora.
“It is futile to do with more what can be done with fewer.”
—William of Ockham (c. 1280 – c. 1380)
During the past millennia, the desire to withdraw from a world that feels too complex has motivated countless writers to pen literary utopias and real-life dreamers to found communes. In Caite Dolan-Leach’s We Went to the Woods, five privileged young adults who have grown up in the bucolic Finger Lakes college town of Ithaca, New York, decide to reject the demands of life in 2016. They withdraw to a farmstead owned by Louisa’s family; Louisa is accompanied by friends Beau, Chloe, Jack, and the late addition, Mack. Mack has fled to her parents’ home from a grad-school experiment in New York City, and when Louisa extends the invitation to live close to the land, Mack hurls herself at the opportunity.
I lived in Ithaca for 23 years, and Dolan-Leach captures the beauty and brutality of the gorges and waterfalls that are the legacy of Ice Age glaciers carving land. Much of the land was stripped from the Iroquois Nation after the end of the French-Indian War, and plots of farmland were given to Revolutionary War soldiers in payment for their service. But as many of these settlers found out, the glaciers had left behind rocky terrain and thin soil in an area where snow can be expected beginning in October and continuing through May. Temperatures in the height of winter can reach 25 below zero Fahrenheit, and during those months, sun as weak as chamomile tea struggles to penetrate the clouds. It is country that defeated many who attempted to farm it, and much of the land is now devoted to livestock or viniculture—wine grapes grow in abundance on the shores of the lakes.
So what would make the five young adults at the center of Dolan-Leach’s novel withdraw from modern life? They certainly have a local history from which to draw. In the 19th century, New England and New York were home to a number of “utopian” societies, intentional communities where people withdrew from the general population in order to join small groups of people who sought to create a way of life they considered superior to that of general society. In New York, the most prominent of these societies was Oneida, an intentional Christian-communist settlement that practiced relationships in which sexual intercourse was seen as an “art form” and marriage was intended to be “complex”—that is, allowing for multiple partners.
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The five young adults seek to create community as an answer to complexity they find too overwhelming. They decide to eat only what they can grow on their own land or barter for from other local farms. They decide to forego electricity and modern plumbing, utilize the most basic forms of farming—hand tools and no pesticides—and to support themselves as a community by selling goods they’ve made or grown in the the local farmers’ market. Mack, who narrates the story, insists they understand the farm as some kind of solution for a world that is “irredeemably fucked-up and horrifying.” But Mack asks in a moment of anguish:
“What were the alternatives? Wait for the icecaps to melt, for the workers’ revolution, for the government to do something about the future that was so clearly evaporating before our eyes? Better to try something, even if that something involved composting toilets and bathing in the murky cow pond. We thought we had a responsibility to take action because of our privileged vantage point, to lead our misguided cohort away from Whole Foods and Apple to a compostable, probiotic future. The Homestead was five answers to a dilemma that needed billions of responses, but we could hardly make things worse, right?”
But as the friends discover, choosing to embrace a simple solution to complex issues won’t bring the peace they’re after. In fact, by the end of this harrowing novel, they’ve decidedly made things worse. Why? I would argue that the problem lays in desiring simplicity as an answer.
William of Ockham argued in the 14th century that, faced with two explanations, it was better to go with the one that had fewer components. In other words, “the simpler, the better.” The Shakers, an American sect, left behind the hymn that declared, “‘Tis a gift to be simple.” And in church basements and public meeting rooms all over the country, 12-step groups remind their members to “K.I.S.S.—Keep It Simple, Stupid.”
The preference for simplicity is predicated on a belief that simple is equivalent to “pure” or “truth.” We manifest this preference for simplicity in everyday life, whether by opting to purchase the grocery item with the fewest number of ingredients, to equating a simple black dress with the height of elegance, or to advertising slogans like the classic selling point for Ivory soap: “99 and 44/100% pure.”
Complexity requires an understanding that the surface part of something is not necessarily representative of the whole, and that time and effort are required to process it. Thus, when it comes to higher human activities, such as making laws to govern society, the simple answer may not be the best. Complexity requires utilizing the cerebrum, the front part of our brains, where judgment and learning are located. Our “lizard” brains, the primitive part located at the back of the brain, is the part that controls basic functions such as breathing. But at the center of this part of our brain is areas such as the amygdala, which sends distress signals to the hypothalamus, which triggers the “fight or flight” response. The simple part of our brain is where rational thought can have a hard time penetrating.
The desire for simplicity has manifested itself in various religions as “fundamentalism,” which posits that going back to the original sources (ad fontes) and reading the words as their writers intended them when they were written millennia ago is the most pure way to observe a religion. Such suppositions fail to address how it is impossible for us to understand what writers of texts—perhaps in a language that is no longer spoken—meant literally by their words, and that strictures created to prevent food poisoning or to control reproduction were products of their time, which may not apply in the days of modern science and hygiene. And reading biblical verses that advocate stoning for adultery shows that obeying cruel edicts because they’re ancient is antithetical to most folks’ understanding of an ethical life.
This desire for simplicity also has an impact on what we eat. Many consumers are now convinced that modern pesticides and fertilizers, which initially made possible the explosion of land arability and food production, are poisons. They demand organic foods—that is, food that has been raised in simple ways. And some authors have made a lot of money by claiming that we should return to the days when Neanderthals hunted mammoths and didn’t grow a lot of cereal crops. We should eat “paleo” diets that assume our digestive systems have not evolved in the thousands of years since the Mastodons roamed the earth. But it is also true that simple methods for growing crops will no longer feed a world of seven billion humans. Going organic may benefit those who can afford to buy organic products, but it cannot provide food for all of humanity unless other drastic changes are implemented, too.
As the residents of the Homestead discover, this desire for simplicity turns out to be more complex than they anticipated. When they establish the farm, they don’t have supplies laid in, and because nothing grows in that area during the long winter, they initially survive on ramps and scallions they harvest themselves. But, as Mack notes, even those simple crops had to have been put in the ground the year previous by Louisa and Beau, who had begun planning long before anyone moved onto the land. As they wait for crops to come in, they force themselves to live on the most basic of foods, as if being willing to starve or suffer malnutrition is the best way to stay “pure.”
Emma Goldman, the Russian-American anarchist and birth control advocate, was also in favor of sexual freedom, in which couples rejected exclusivity in order to not equate love with ownership. But as Goldman discovered, as much as she admired the principle of free love, when she witnessed her lover, Ben Reitman, having relationships with other women, she felt awful. She struggled to overcome her feelings of jealousy, and she and Reitman often fought about his unwillingness to be “faithful” to her. At the Homestead, those same rules of free love apply, but as readers learn, regardless of the individuals’ desires to not claim access to one person, jealousy interferes in the functioning of the farm. The solution for some intentional communities has been to implement rules of chastity, where sexual intimacy is given up in order to avoid problems of jealousy. But many people equate personal happiness with a rewarding sexual life, and such communities can’t sustain themselves if members don’t produce children who will become the heirs to carry on their traditions.
Mack’s role at the Homestead becomes that of chronicler and historian. She keeps a daily journal of the group’s activities, but by setting herself up as the Homestead observer, she becomes a spy who seems to have access to secrets and hidden activities other members are oblivious to. And, of course, Mack’s decision to leave society for the Homestead is also predicated on her own secrets. Something happened out in the “real world” that caused pain and humiliation for her. But is going off the grid the best way to process her psychological trauma?
Dolan-Leach finds clever ways to insert issues of class, race, and gender into the mix. As the member of a rival commune argues during a dinner, the utopian groups can appear ridiculous. “We are a bunch of relatively well-off white kids,” she points out, with advanced degrees and tolerant families. What makes them think the ideals they’re conducting their lives by are going to work for someone living in the “ghetto”? The brilliance of the writing in this moment is that the concern expressed for those outside the group (in the “ghetto”) is obviated by the patronizing attitude that sees the intentional community as a gathering of the best and brightest that cannot be extended to ordinary folks.
“We went to the woods” as a title is a play on Henry David Thoreau’s statement in Walden that he had gone to the woods because he “wished to live deliberately.” And while the five members of the Homestead have all read their copies of Walden and embrace that desire to leave society, they fail to pay attention to another famous passage from the same book.
Thoreau wrote that “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation. What is called resignation is confirmed desperation.” But he also recognized that the succor people sought required complex thinking to find an answer. The last thing anyone should do is jump into the void. “But it is a characteristic of wisdom not to do desperate things,” he writes. Or to put it another way, Thoreau recognized that self-sufficiency was a myth. We may desire solitude and independence, but we rely upon one another for those things we cannot do ourselves. Thoreau still took his laundry to his mother’s house.
In addition to We Went to the Woods, here are fascinating novels and treatises that look at the issues that come up within utopian communes.
Featured Image: @Aliyahkm/Twenty20