(When work was shifted from home to factory, it turned from something that could be done in the company of neighbors into something best done alone, cutting deeply into time available for socializing. In March 2005 I wrote a weblog post about this, repeated below.)
When Eric Brende moved with his wife to live in a low-tech Amish-like community, he wasn’t surprised to find that the community spent a lot of its time socializing. After all, it’s said that the primary Amish leisure activity is visiting. But he was surprised at how much of the socializing centered around shared work. In fact, he concluded that the community saw opportunities to work together as something to look forward to, because they provided the opportunity to socialize.
The idea sounds odd to modern ears. Work is usually something that takes all our attention, or at least we are expected to devote all our attention to our work. Socializing at work is usually viewed as theft of labor, an activity that distracts us from the task we’re being paid to do. But what Brende discovered is that most of the chores that make up the agrarian life are self-automating.
One day early on he and his wife were hoeing their garden while chatting idly; Brende suddenly noticed that he was at the end of a row with no memory of having hoed it. He looked back over the row, and saw that it had been weeded perfectly. Meanwhile, his wife was starting on the next row while asking him to repeat his last point about Descartes.
Once the basic techniques are mastered, it is possible to hoe a field or bundle grain or can tomatoes or shuck corn or even raise a barn without paying too much attention to what you are doing. Which leave lots of attention left over for thoughtful conversation—provided someone is around to talk to. Consequently, the Brendes found that time and again neighbors in the community would stop by and pitch in with whatever chore was being done at the time, and that they found themselves seeking out opportunities to do the same for their neighbors. Not due to any sense of works-righteousness, but because shared work approached the level of leisure for them.
This is a sobering lesson for those of us wondering how to build community in a modern industrial society. If a central element of community is shared work, then perhaps it shouldn’t surprise us that community began to disappear just about the same time that society shifted from an agrarian to an industrial basis, and work changed from something that could be shared to something that was best done alone. And perhaps it shouldn’t surprise us that our attempts to recapture community tend to center around social events, where often the reason for gathering is made-up work—a church committee, a Bible study, a board game, a sports team, a rehearsal. More important, such events have to be stuffed in the corners, pursued after the day’s real work is done.
Often when the issue of agrarian living is raised, the first response (if it isn’t a scornful laugh) is an apprehensive question: does everybody have to live on a farm? The comforting answer is usually: of course not, even an agrarian society needs bankers and printers and merchants; just think of, say, Colonial Williamsburg. What generally isn’t mention is that for every family living a non-farming life in town, there were nineteen families living on farms out of town. There may be no relationship between that nineteen-to-one ratio in agrarian America, i.e. that the work of agrarian America was farm work, and the fact that community thrived there. But the possibility can’t be rejected out of hand.