I’ve been sitting on the toilet for long periods. Time seems to have slowed down everywhere, but it’s particularly slow in the Virginian woods where I’m sequestered. Back home, in New York City, my restroom visits are interims from which to hastily progress. Here, I’m learning to inhabit the caesura. To engross myself in my surroundings. To essay a new way of living.
Today, I’m watching a bombardier beetle scamper across the bathroom floor. It pauses at the chindi rug before braving the scabrous terrain. It stops again at the wooden monolith supporting the sink, caressing it with its feelers. The beetle seems to be searching for something. Is it searching? A distinct, conscious project? Or is an indeterminate process of scavenging in occurrence, a confluence of magnetic draws and reactions? When I finally stand up, the beetle freezes. It stays still until I move my foot, which prompts it to scurry under the laundry hamper.
Yesterday, I watched a brown recluse spider cautiously descend from the top of the shower curtain, appearing to eye me all the while. The day before that, it was a luna moth that had fluttered through the window. These encounters happen outside the bathroom too. I walk for hours with cattle, staring at them, talking to them. Also with cats, and dogs, and tortoises. Two days ago, on my daily jog, I jumped over a possum that was either dead or playing dead. It didn’t stir when I turned it over. Last weekend, I nursed a hummingbird back to a state of feeble motion, before it succumbed to a cat’s inflictions.
When my sister and her husband offered to drive me from New York City to their home on Shannon Farm, in Rockfish Valley, Virginia, I acceded. Happily. I’m spending my quarantine surrounded by the Blue Ridge Mountains and 520 acres of forests, pastures, and hayfields. Back in my city, animals are peripheral and belong to one of two camps: they’re either domesticated, cramped into apartments, the inexplicable burden of friends who choose canine or feline companionship over mobility and freedom; or they’re abject pests, darting across subway tracks and slithering into drains.
Here, the fauna is omnipresent. My sister’s house opens onto a vegetable garden that is followed by an explosion of forest. I interact with animals of all sizes throughout the day. I learn about new species. I cannot help but seek out such knowledge, in encyclopedias, in databases, by sheer observation, because I find myself unaccustomed to living alongside so much (and such unabashedly visible) non-human life.
Identifying them is one part of the fun. The brightly-colored moths (rosy maples). The large, terrifying wasps (cicada killers). The tiny mice that the cat leaves on the carpet (voles).
Studying their behavior, their habits, their potential to cause me pain, is another part. “Try not to run at dusk,” I was recently warned. “That’s when the copperheads like to lie on the gravel and warm up.”
But most fascinating are the lavish exhibitions of the problem of self-consciousness. Distinctions between intention and instinct, between will and reflex, hinge upon something appearing to itself rather than passing from one perceptive mechanism to the next. There are obvious differences between insects and mammals, but animal life itself seems to demonstrate this dilemma. Hence the strange paradox of an extraordinarily capable anatomy, as far as prolonging life is concerned — the pelecinid wasp, the great horned owl, the cottonmouth snake — that still lacks a receptacle for the metaphysical process of self-awareness. That lacks an inner-voice. Self-consciousness, after all, can’t be felt. It requires more than a proximity to sensation. It requires language. It must be thought. It reveals itself through dialogical fruition.
To put it another way, only thinking is equipped to distinguish its own process. A watcher does not appear to himself in the things he sees, nor does a hearer in the things she hears. But a speaker can speak about speaking and then let this revelation authenticate a Weltanschauung that reverses the ontological hierarchy: first language, then everything else. Still, while animals lack the dialogical faculties to appear to themselves in conceptual language, thinking humans aren’t much less prone to the tantrums of the body — to the tug of war between sensation and abstraction.
"Sometimes a particularly conscious person is forced to distract his mind in order to get from himself the accomplishment of an act which must be reflex or cannot be," the French philosopher Paul Valéry said to an amphitheater full of surgeons in 1938. The surgeons must have bristled. The conflation of conceptual and bodily engagement is essential to medical science — most sciences cannot exist outside purely perceptive terms.
A few decades later, Hannah Arendt stated it more plainly. “Consciousness prevents our bodily organs from functioning properly,” she wrote. “While you are thinking, you are unaware of your own corporality." Arendt always insisted she be called a political theorist and not a philosopher, despite demonstrating more competence in the ontological arena than almost any of her peers.
For Thomas Aquinas, consciousness also permits some supercilious resistance of bodily needs. Unlike animals, man "awaits the command of the Will, which is the superior appetite,” he wrote in his 13th century treatise, Summa Theologica. “The lower appetite is not sufficient to cause movement unless the higher appetite consents."
I’ve thought about animal consciousness before. I’ve written about it. But I don’t think I’ve been granted such an operatic accompaniment to my deliberations, the opportunity to gaze for great lengths at glossy eyes and twitching heads, at the endless laboring of carpenter ants and endless slumbering of horned cattle. On past visits to the farm, I never quite settled in. My surroundings weren’t a lasting reality. I looked for photo opportunities, for sensations of leisure, then returned home.
This time, I’m a fugitive. I have no shortage of time. I’ve surrendered to my own experiment: How do I live, how do I think, when plunked into absolute rurality for an indefinite period?
In 1971, John Cunningham was bored. He was a master’s student at Yale, writing his thesis on communal economics. He was studying under future White House advisors and Nobel Prize recipients — Joseph Stiglizt included — but he found them sterile. He wanted more than theory. He wanted a practicable experiment.
“I got this brainstorm,” Cunningham, 71, tells me one afternoon. “I wanted to do something socialistic. And I think, ‘Hey, we don’t need to take over the government to try and do things.’”
So he placed an ad in Ramparts, a New Left magazine that ran until 1975. “The idea was, we’ll just set up our own village and show people that the way to do it is to create a little socialistic environment,” he says. “And then people can come join. So you build it from below, rather than from above.”
When aspiring comrades came knocking, Cunningham decided to abandon his thesis and look for land. They considered Maine. Vermont. Finally, Virginia.
At first, the South was a little intimidating to the group of young, northeastern hippies. They were apprehensive of cultural differences. Especially racism. But they’d found an idyllic farm for sale in Nelson County. And Twin Oaks, a famous, free-spirited commune, was thriving only 60 miles away.
On June 3rd, 1974, they bought the land from the widow of an FBI agent turned farmer whose surname was Shannon. They thought about naming the community something like Windy Ridge, or The People’s Republic of Nelson, but they stuck with Shannon Farm to minimize town gossip.
“Later, we found out people were saying, ‘Old man Shannon, he’d be rolling around in his grave if he’d known a bunch of hippie communists named their place after him!’” Cunningham says, chuckling.
We’re sitting outside, ten feet apart. It’s a windy day and his tangle of white hair, already untameable, is blowing about. He tells me his parents were liberals. Both of his brothers eventually came out as Republicans. One of them is a long-time executive editor at the New York Post. But Cunningham always leaned left. Far left.
“I wanted to call ourselves a commune,” he says. “We were sleeping around. The drugs were there. Culturally we fit the communal norm. But economically we didn’t.”
Shannon, a nonprofit corporation that owns the land, decided to call itself an “intentional residential community”. Members pay monthly dues: seven percent of their post-tax income if they live on the land, five percent if they live elsewhere. Everyone votes on major decisions, and consensus is always preferred to majority rule.
Early on, a member who was studying landscape architecture at Harvard produced a blueprint of the farm for his graduate thesis: eight clusters of homes (to optimize resource-sharing), plus shared buildings like a community center, a barn, and storage facilities. Shannon adopted the plan and it was promptly approved by the county’s board of supervisors.
Instead of communal homes, the clusters consist of single-family houses, built and financed by individuals. While they don’t own the land beneath their houses, nor acquire traditional deeds, they can sell them for the value of the work put in, plus a marginal appreciation that doesn’t come anywhere near market value. New residents require the farm’s vote of confidence.
“We tell everybody who moves to the farm: You don’t make a profit here,” Cunningham says, smiling slightly. “We don’t want people to make a profit.”
Today, there are about 60 members. Very few of them make a living off Shannon’s land. Most work as computer programmers, community organizers, nurses, teachers, and waitresses. Once upon a time, there was a doctor. There’s never been a lawyer.
“It’s definitely our village — I’m gonna use the word ‘tribe’. Or ‘clan’, spelled with a C. Not a K. We’re like a backwoods clan. Locals say, ‘Okay, they’re hippies — but they’re the hippies who take care of themselves.’”
In his biography of Friedrich Nietzsche, the historian Curtis Cate says that almost every morning between 1883 and 1888, Nietzsche rose at the first signs of light and washed himself with cold water from the porcelain basin near his bed. After working for six or so hours, sustained only by a few glasses of warm milk, he walked to one of the two lakes between which his dramatically scenic village lay, a sprinkling of homes amid Swiss alpine pastures, framed by the Bernina mountains. He returned for lunch, wrote for another stretch, and then embarked upon an even longer walk, notebook in tow. Sometimes he wandered as far as the next municipality.
“One must still have chaos within oneself, to give birth to a dancing star,” Nietzsche wrote in Thus Spoke Zarathustra, conceived during his strolls along the banks of Lake Silvaplana. In Twilight of the Idols, he distilled this into a paean to peripateticism: “Only ideas won by walking have any value.”
If a distracted mind bodes well with the accomplishment of an act, as Valéry pointed out, then the same is true in reverse. The mind comes alive when the body is occupied. On long walks, there is minimal exertion, but the legs have their task. The eyes can busy themselves with the route and the trees, just as the ears can take in ambient chirping and rustling. And with this ambulating but tranquil template, one can speak with oneself. One can withdraw into abstraction, free to conduct baroque observations using the rapid, crescendoing dialectic so unique to dialogical consciousness.
Every afternoon at four, whatever the weather, Arthur Schopenhauer took a two hour walk through Frankfurt. Charles Dickens covered up to twenty miles of London a day, and it’s said that Immanuel Kant’s neighbors set their watches by his daily strolls.
A few years ago, I visited the Nietzsche-Haus in Sils Maria on a tour of my favorite philosophers’ homes. After snaking downward through Weimar, Stuttgart, Freiburg, Heidelberg, and the Black Forest village of Todtnauberg, where Martin Heidegger’s hut rests atop a hill, I crossed into Switzerland. I wanted to see if it was true: if there was something about these walks through fairytale pastures that spark magic in the mind. The setting was almost fulsomely beautiful — like the illustrations on Swiss chocolate wrappers had sprung to life. The grass was so green, the walking paths so clean, the air so fresh, that at one point I picked a yellow flower and ate it. It didn’t taste like anything, but I half expected something sweet, like the candy flowers of Willy Wonka’s indoor meadow.
If Nietzsche had attempted life as a flâneur in New York City, his walks might have been vibrant, even glorious, but silent? Uncrowded? Even in their serenest moments, my saunters down Riverside Drive require a dance familiar to all New Yorkers: anticipation, acceleration, sidestepping, resumption. Uninterrupted thinking is difficult.
At Shannon, my daily walks begin a little after 5 PM. Well-paved paths cut through the farm’s forests, winding over hills, around the lake, and past each cluster of homes. Here and there, a trail sprouts off the main path, offering inlets through the weald that end at a meadow or waterfall or canopied expanse of birch and oak. It is a philosopher’s largesse, a writer’s empyrean, a gift of meditation from this awful pandemic.
There is some culture shock here, aside from my long feuds with blue bottle flies and moonlight so bright it wakes me up through the window. There is, for instance, a custom of waving to anyone who passes by. Whether they’re driving, walking, or riding a tractor, eye contact and a raising of the hand signals camaraderie and our intentional cohabitation of the farm. This hovering awareness of others, this feeling of conspicuousness, blurs the lines between public and private space. It may be the closest I’ve come to living in one of those trifling towns that only seem to exist in the most authentic pockets of America. Perhaps authenticity requires insulation. A dormancy preclusive of vicissitudes.
There is also a talkativeness of the farm’s residents that exists in direct proportion to the empty space around them. If I pass somebody in the woods, or by the blueberry orchard, I expect pleasantries to last for fifteen minutes and conversations to inch toward the half hour mark. Part of it is their intrigue. With my urbanism. With what I can report about the manic centers of the country that Anderson Cooper won’t tell them on CNN. With my career spent working in newsrooms and news studios. With the stories that invariably follow: lunch with Anderson Cooper himself, coffee with Ann Coulter, urinating next to Rick Perry right before his interview with a particularly coarse Fox News host. Stories that New Yorkers would dismiss, perhaps with a bit of sympathy for their solicitousness.
Part of it is my own intrigue. With the history of Shannon. With their reasons for moving here. Their day-to-day routines. Their intimate knowledge of kale and beehives and woodwork. Their gracious dispositions.
And part of it is because many of the residents have seen me before. “Hey, it’s the pundit!” a lanky young man called out last week, grinning from his red Tacoma truck as he drove down the hill.
Three years ago, the farm gathered for a ceremony on a grassy field by the Rockfish River. I sat at the center of a large circle of people, a queerish, Rasputin-looking fellow, marrying my sister to her husband. I wore eyeliner and my hair up in a bun. My long, crimson robes were a gift from my grandmother. The ceremony itself comprised an irreverent pastiche of symbols and customs: the elements of the earth, an Indian lota to sprinkle water, sindoor to give everybody bindis, a Thai buddhist gong, Germanic mythology, original poetry. “Earth, stone, soil, shell: abode of man, cradle of our feet,” I cried out at one point, beckoning members of the circle to create a mound of fresh dirt atop the couple’s entwined hands as I eulogized their journeys together around the world, their groundedness.
“You’re going to Virginia? Be careful!” a colleague said last summer, a day before my Amtrak left New York.
“Careful?” I asked.
“Well, everyone there is racist!”
“Just...be careful,” she repeated, shaking her head. She brought up the Charlottesville protests of 2017. The photographs of Klansmen. She spewed the quotidian millennialisms one must endure in great cities. The conventional reductions of this enormous nation into a buffet of identitarian dilemmas and binaries: innocent/evil, oppressed/privileged, victim/bigot, non-white/white.
I asked my sister, a brown woman, if she’s experienced overt or implicit racism, or the looming specter of white supremacy, in her four years here. She splits her time away from the farm between Charlottesville and Harrisonburg. She thought for a moment. “Does someone not knowing where Dubai is, count?” she asked, referring to the city we grew up in.
“Well, then not that I know of,” she replied. At the end of the day, this might be the point.
At the farm, everyone is strikingly open-armed. In the surrounding towns, people at supermarkets and gastropubs and liquor stores smile with that Southern graciousness I read about as a teenager in the Middle East. Like my sister, I can’t remember experiencing racism here. And so, I direct my galvanizing emotions and remedial intentions toward what seem like more pressing axioms, more militating elements of everyday life. Without some liberation from history’s disfigurements, the present cedes the space for individual interpretation.
What I do notice down here is an ingenuous, almost adorable tendency to be so self-consciously welcoming that I am taken at my most foreign points, only so that I can be told “How much we love India!”, “How remarkable your English is!”, “How well-traveled you are!” Funnily enough, it’s easy to get used to this. Being othered can be flattering — an easy pathway to distinction. A trump card, of sorts. When someone new treats me like I’m ordinary, I find I begin to miss playing the intriguing alien. The ethnic patrician. The pundit.
When I venture into rural areas of America, I find myself a little less controllably libidinous than usual, partly because I know that no easy fix is around the corner, and partly because I feel closer than ever to a cut of bona fide countryman — to those brawny, gruff, farm-raised dudes I see in good vintage pornography.
Sadly, guys out here aren’t the closeted farmhands of my fantasies. The nearest man on Grindr is 12 miles away. He is 6’4, 210 lbs, and 51 years old. He writes to me every day, even though I never write back. He usually just asks if he can lick my toes. His profile says: “Tall daddy here. It’s not going to suck itself.” I’d chat with him if he seemed self-aware enough not to exude necrophilia. Of course, it’s possible that my stereotypes lean the other way too: hunky farmhands on one hand, degenerate boors on the other.
The cuter men are even farther, clustered in cities like Staunton and Waynesboro. Back in my Harlem apartment, the closest profile is normally ten feet away — my roommate.
On April 4th, Shannon Farm held its first virtual meeting in 46 years. It was well-attended. Younger residents were curious about limitations that might be imposed upon their mobility. Older residents were impressed by the efficacy of Zoom. Almost everyone was aware that the community, permeable to the outside world, had to respond in some way to the pandemic.
Still, not all were bothered. Some were positively blithe. So anxious parents and retirees took the reins. They proposed a series of rules to go into effect immediately.
Residents would clean their way in and out of the Community Center, like ascetic Jains, the pacifists of northeast India, who famously sweep the floor as they walk, to avoid harming insects. Outdoor gatherings would be limited to eight people. Households would stay six feet apart from others. Masks would be worn. Parents would ensure their children complied.
Nevertheless, on most days that I jog past the meadow in which I officiated the wedding, I notice a cluster of cars. Nearby, a group of teenagers lounge by a fire pit, some drinking beer, some holding cigarettes, none wearing masks, all some hybrid of bohemian, bumpkin, hipster, and farmer.
The tendency to prance through the pandemic, armed with a combination of science, superstition, and impulse, has been oddly commonplace. Twice a week, my mother sends me a recipe for a purported panacea that usually involves turmeric, ginger, lemon, and hot water. My roommate back in New York sprayed the apartment with bleach so often I was sure I’d die of toxic shock before catching the virus. At the farm, some houses insist upon scrupulous protocols, some let their teenagers run wild, and others fall somewhere in the middle.
My brother-in-law’s family lives next door to us, in a large house that’s always growing larger because of new extensions and modifications. “We should ban visitors who still gather in large groups,” his grandmother, a Shannon resident since 1985, told me. “But even if we all agree on something, we can’t really enforce it without calling the police, and nobody wants to call the police.”
It’s a sunny day, and I’m sitting with John Cunningham again. He’s wearing a wrinkled T-shirt that’s as green as the foliage around us. He looks like Tom Hanks, but older, stouter, taller, much taller, with expressive blue eyes.
In one week, it’ll be 46 years since he helped found Shannon. I ask him if his experiment worked out as well as he’d hoped.
“Look, we fucking live in heaven, okay? We're in the middle of a pandemic, and I'm still living in heaven. Look at this place. Look at this place!” He stands up and spreads his arms to the sky. “What is heaven supposed to be like? The birds and the trees and the animals and the farm. Well, here we are! This is it! We've got a rural village with our people, our shared values. It’s what we wanted.”
When you grow up in a desert, your visualizations of wildlife take a hit. On the eastern tip of the Arabian Peninsula, summers creep up to 120 degrees Fahrenheit. The sun is drastic. The air is thick. We celebrated rainfall by running out of our classrooms and dancing in the playground.
A twenty minute drive out of Dubai brings abrupt panoramas of the Arabian Desert: red sands for miles, varied only by dunes, wind patterns, and shrubs. As a child, I could draw on experience to picture camels and flies. Dogs, pigeons, and stray cats too. But I longed to see the nightingales, foxes, squirrels, and eagles of Aesop’s Fables. The owls, wolves, and swans of the Brothers Grimm’s dark tales. I wanted to live among the characters in my favorite Panchatantra stories, the ancient Sanskrit parables my grandmother sent me from Delhi: “The Jackal and the War Drum”, “The Unteachable Monkey”, “The Loyal Mongoose”, “The Frog That Rode Snakeback”.
It wasn’t just the wildlife that elated me when I moved to the Hudson Valley for college. I’d never lived through seasons. Or snowfalls. I’d never needed a fireplace. Or a leaf blower. So many sensations had been unattainable in my air-conditioned bedroom in the desert.
A multicultural, multinational childhood begets a strange farrago of inclusion and exclusion. My Indian Buddhist parents sent me to an American school in an Arab country, to which they moved from Thailand after the Gulf War. I read John Steinbeck and was mentored by teachers from Iowa and Ontario and Pakistan. School was cancelled every time an American president bombed Sudan or Iraq. After 9/11, guards with AK-47s flanked the campus’s perimeter.
We sang John Denver’s “Country Roads” on karaoke nights. But the Blue Ridge Mountains were just lyrics back then. Denver’s nostalgia seemed parochial, his landscapes like a movie set — too specific and grandiose to permit any real communion. They certainly didn’t foreshadow a dignified exile. Or a valley prodigious enough, with inhabitants varied enough, to one day bequeath to an amiably amalgamated alien some good-old-fashioned American efflorescence.