Tonight, once again, I’m going to enjoy not being at a meeting of the investors in Sustainable Fairview Associates (SFA), the group that is trying to convert 275 acres in Salem into a sustainable, aka “Green,” development. Back in January I wrote about why I don’t like to attend the SFA meetings. I just re-read that posting, and was pleased to see that I predicted Howard Dean’s demise and John Kerry’s/John Edward’s rise on the basis of a single criterion: With whom would I like to remain in a room?
Last Saturday, at noon, a bunch of guys and me hung around after our martial arts class, shooting the breeze, enjoying each other’s company. We didn’t want to leave the room (or dojo). Last Saturday, in the evening, a bunch of friends and Laurel and me spent three enjoyable hours at our monthly Salon discussion group, enjoying each other’s company. So what is it that makes me, or anyone else, gravitate toward this collection of fellow human beings, and be propelled away from another collection? Why do we want to linger here, and can’t wait to escape from there?
I don’t have the answer to these questions. If I did, I’d bottle the essence of here and make jillions of dollars (maybe more!) selling it to resorts, supermarkets, restaurants, hotels, coffee houses, amusement parks, political parties, matchmaking programs, and anybody else—which means almost everybody—who is concerned with bringing people into their orbit and keeping them pleasantly occupied there.
But here’s my best guess, based on my own experience: I enjoy places that let me be myself, and also let me commune with other people who are similarly being themselves. If I just wanted to be in touch with me I’d sit at home alone. Yet going out and losing touch with who I really am is unappealing, as is communing with others who keep themselves hidden behind a façade of fakeness.
Thoreau puts it so well: “Rather than love, than money, than fame, give me truth. I sat at a table where were rich food and wine in abundance and obsequious attendance, but sincerity and truth were not; and I went away hungry from the inhospitable board.” What truly sustains us? Not water, not air, not food, not shelter. These are all for the body, not the “us” that is our soul, spirit, consciousness, original nature, true self—whatever you want to call it.
A so-called “sustainable development” that doesn’t sustain this part of us, the most important part of us, the part of us that finds meaning in life beyond bare existence, it isn’t sustainable at all. Man (and woman) does not live by solar collectors, living system wastewater treatment, permeable roads, and fuel cells alone. A life absent genuine community—where I can commune both with myself and with my fellow human beings—is a life absent what makes life worth living.
Several years ago, when I was still enthusiastic about what SFA could accomplish with the Sustainable Fairview property, I got to know Christopher Alexander, a noted architect and author of a series of books about The Nature of Order (plus other books about his influential “pattern language” approach to design). I haven’t read any of Chris’s books, but I have had the pleasure of talking with him in person and on the phone, and of exchanging many emails with him.
What Christopher Alexander understands, and what the management and most investors in SFA don’t, is that people yearn for so much more than wood, glass, bricks, mortar, and such in the so-called “built environment,” no matter how elegantly and skillfully these materials are designed and assembled. We are feeling beings. We yearn to experience real life in a real community of real human beings.
Every once in a while I go to Chris’s website and click on a marvelous series of pages he and his staff designed that show how Sustainable Fairview could be developed in a genuinely sustainable fashion—one that would blow the world away, that would be a cutting-edge model of how all three legs of sustainability, environmental, economic, social, could support the development of a community that would be a place where people loved to live, work, and play. Right now SFA would have to be beating potential buyers off with a stick if we had listened to Christopher Alexander’s advice—which I, Russ and Delana Beaton, and other members of SFA echoed and tried to amplify, but with no success.
I’m frustrated. In every person’s life there are only a few opportunities to be part of something that truly can make a difference. This world, this country, this state, this town, on every level, there are so many differences that need making. After ten thousand years of human “civilization” (using that term loosely, as it should be) we haven’t yet learned how to live harmoniously with nature, with each other, or even with ourselves. Once I was tremendously excited about the prospect of Sustainable Fairview being a laboratory where a real experiment in sustainable living could take place.
However, I don’t see this happening now. For me, at least, the soul has departed the body of the project—assuming it ever was present. SFA has a zoning code, developer agreements, loads of bank debt, a partial master plan, a land use appeal law suit, and unhappy investors. In short, Sustainable Fairview is right on track to becoming a traditional mixed-use development, with an overlay of green building approaches. Whoopee.
Well, a friend is fond of saying, “No one’s life is every completely wasted. You can always serve as a horrible example to others.” I don’t see Sustainable Fairview Associates as being “horrible,” but certainly there is much to learn from this cautionary tale of great potential being frittered away through lack of attention to the spirit that invests life with more than mechanical existence. Absent that spirit, that zest, that passion, that feeling of community, a place is just a place, not somewhere you wish you could stay forever.