Saturday, October 27, 2007

Leaving My Corner Without Losing My Religion

If a cluttered desk is the sign of a cluttered mind,
of what, then, is an empty desk a sign?

- Albert Einstein

I took this photo today, shortly after dawn, because I wanted to immortalize my little corner of this very little house before packing it all up for the Big Move tomorrow. We're going back to the house in the country, you see, though Ruskin is not so terribly "country" any more, since almost all of the orange groves and most of the strawberry fields have been bulldozed flat in recent years, making way for the rows of nearly-identical houses to which buyers continue to flock.

Never mind the hurricanes, damn the tornadoes: Florida continues to be a destination, not just for retirees longing for warm breezes and college students seeking warm beer and beaches, but families, too.

There is little agriculture and no industry in our town, not any more. Not really. It's mainly a suburban residential area these days, though Robert's property remains lushly beautiful with giant pines and oaks that were there in the early part of the previous century, when Ruskin was established as a hopeful experiment in socialist utopianism. The farming-friendly climate and isolation of the Gulf coast led Dr. George McAnelly Miller, a former Chicago lawyer and college professor, to purchase this patch of Florida, which in 1906 was densely wooded and virtually inaccessible to the city folk of Tampa and St. Petersburg (except by boat), and establish the Ruskin Commongood Society.

The town was a commune of sorts, and its principles were based on the writings and teachings of John Ruskin, an English socialist who maintained that higher education should be made readily available to the working class--a fairly revolutionary concept then (and, increasingly and sadly, now)--and that the social ills wrought by the industrial revolution could most effectively be eradicated through education. Education for everyone.

So it came to pass that Dr. Miller, along with the Ruskin Commongood Society, provided for and promoted this notion of liberal arts education for all, along with the teaching of farming techniques, the creation of art itself, and the sharing of blessings and burdens alike. This was the early-1900's South, mind you, and non-white people could not yet own land, even in Ruskin. Bearing in mind that women could not vote until 1920, though, Ruskin was--in the feminist and nonsectarian/inclusive religious senses, at least--a town that was rather far ahead of other Floridian settlements. To wit, an early Ruskin Commongood motto, followed by a bit of history:

Right Relationship
United Effort
Social Purity
Knowledge Unfettered
Industrial Education
New Thought

Dignity of Labor
Ennobling of Character
A Home for Everyone
Link Head, Heart and Hand
Sex Equality

Throughout Ruskin’s early years, life was generally peaceful. People were notified of important events, such as a fire or a meeting, by a bell rung in the community center. There was no fire department, only a bucket brigade. The town church was nonsectarian. Services were held in the college’s assembly hall, and Dr. Miller usually read from his translations of original Hebrew and Greek Bible verses. A. P. Dickman ran the daily newspaper, and his daughter Pauline delivered milk to the local farms. Boys earned extra money by shooting alligators and selling their hides. The colonists built their own cannery, operating the whole process, including soldering the cans by hand, without outside assistance. By 1913, Ruskin had a local and long distance telephone system and electric light plant, and its cooperative store was doing a $25,000 a year business. The colony itself was expanded. Land was bought northward to extend the artesian belt and included more timber acreage, and purchases were made southward to add more truck farming and citrus land.

Cooperation was continually stressed. The colonists labored on public works projects to pay for their land, and college students worked in the fields and cooperative industries to pay for their education. The concept of the “common good” was the motivation for the colony. To this end, it tried to promote “social purity.” To keep the community pure, no liquor or cigarettes were allowed into the colony. Only whites could lease colony land. However, women had the same privileges as men.

And then there was World War I--an event that drained the town of its young people--and the closing of the Ruskin College, a terrible fire, the Great Depression, and the death of Dr. Miller. The Ruskin Commongood Society remained intact until 1967, long after the evaporation, from Ruskin's collective consciousness, of most of the original socialist utopian ideas on which the town was built.

As a result of George Miller's dream of a college within a supportive, socialistic community, the town of Ruskin was founded. Miller's cooperative community surrounding and supporting a socialist workers’ college lasted barely a decade. Nevertheless, the Commongood Society,though generally inactive, existed until October 1967, when it quietly dissolved. [...]

George Miller had depended on his wife’s brothers, three Missouri farmers, to help him finance and organize the colony, and because the community itself was colonized by farmers, Ruskin survived and flourished in an agricultural setting. In the process, the triumph of capitalism nearly erased memories of the town’s radical roots.

I moved to this town in 1987, when my future-husband Robert was starting his nurseries here, assembling the wooded land one parcel at a time, and growing thereupon different varieties of a certain ancient, exotic, and eminently sustainable plant that was, at the time, very new to many Americans: bamboo. Back then, Ruskin's population largely consisted of a handful of farmers--most of whom grew oranges, tomatoes, and strawberries; a few of whom, like Robert, grew ornamental plants--and those who worked for them.

Twenty years later, Ruskin is a place in transition, to put it gently; in fact, it's a patch of Florida that is irrevocably changed. Most of the town's fruit and vegetable farmers--those backbone-of-the-community types who had for years been suffering the slings and arrows of outrageous hurricanes and even more outrageous Free Trade-generated price undercutting by third world growers--succumbed to temptation, one after another, and cashed in on the real estate boom. This in turn led to the replacement of rows of fragrant orange trees with rows of quasi-Mediterranean-Revival-cum-Florida-Cracker boxes, one after another.

And tomorrow I shall return, to live there full-time, at least until the St. Petersburg house is finished.

As I sort through the clutter I've accumulated, not just on my hapless desk but all over the little rental house where the lease is now up, I admit to having mixed emotions about the place, as you'd imagine. Appreciating as I do the rich history of Ruskin and its liberal, socially conscious founders, I experienced some pretty sharp cognitive dissonance at seeing so many Bush/Cheney bumperstickers plastered everywhere in 2000, not to mention having my President Gore signs repeatedly yanked out of the ground or flattened by speeding, swerving pickup trucks.

Ruskin is no different from other growing areas, its residents having enjoyed high-speed Internet connection for years now. So I'll be no less able to read and write, though I'll be more grateful than ever that Robert preserved the massive trees and thick Palmetto that have grown on his land for a century--writers love privacy and quiet, and when home, at least, I won't have to look at all that rampant overdevelopment and destruction of nature. Who knows, I might even fight to save a tree or two and speak out on behalf of those who enjoy a little locally-generated oxygen with their imported orange juice.

Like the natural artesian wells that continue to flow, despite everything, irrigating the bamboo and sending it skyward, hope springs eternal.

Also at Ezra Klein.

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