Is this not a contradiction? An oxymoron? Yet a simple thing can dazzle one.
Friday afternoon we hit the turnpike and drove out to the Berkshires, in western Massachusetts, for a long-planned weekend of hiking. On Saturday it rained, of course—not heavily, just enough to make hiking unpleasant (the days are past when, seeking to bag for our list one of the 4000-foot peaks of New Hampshire, we would go out in any weather).
So we’d do something else instead of hiking. What about this Shaker Village? I suggested to my husband. It’s close by. Even if it’s raining we could just go look at it, and they have a café, too, for lunch.
We took the back road; I like back roads best. Except for the pair of aggressive, indignant large dogs which blocked our car and then barked and snarled at us as they chased us out of their territory, the short trip was quiet and lovely—the greenly drizzle, a silvery gray sky, and best of all, forty miles an hour.
Alongside the road, a big pasture spotted with cows—oh, this is it! Not many cars in the gravel parking lot. Goodness, look at this! It’s a large array of solar panels. There is one you can pet if you like, and the little sign explains that Shakers liked technology and so this new kind is not out of place.
After a small lunch of soup and bread and ice cream, we follow the sign for admission. We wait a very long time behind a lady who has many questions about how her handicapped mother might best visit the Village. I feel my impatience rising as the staff person helps her with her many concerns. But the patience of the staff person never flags, and I calm down, and, I guess, remember to love.
Then we step out into the Village, into the cool greenly drizzle. Filling my eyes, filling my heart, here lies a scene of ineffable, thrilling elegance: The Round Stone Barn.
Built in 1826 of local stone and chestnut wood, The Barn is ninety feet across and two tall stories high. Inside is a stunning latticework of beams. The design is so clever and yet so simple. The Shakers worked hard but they did not want to work wastefully, and so they made designs which saved effort. In The Round Stone Barn they could stable, feed and milk fifty-two cows at once, collect the manure cleanly (for fertilizer), and never have to lift hay above their heads.
Those are the details told us by the interpreter inside The Barn. But I did not care about them; I cared only for the breath-taking pure roundness against the silver sky, and no other shape to distract from its simplicity.
There were other colors and forms, too: a pair of ochre workshops and a rose-colored horse barn, their perfect lines against green; and a blood-red machine shop (yes, a machine shop) of four stories, its windows set in such a way that I can see through two of them to the gray sky beyond. A fine broad apple tree grows next to a white fence, in front of the machine shop, and thus I see the messy roundness of nature together with the elegant lines that humans make when they build things.
Shakers were one of the most successful and longest-lasting of the Utopias of 19th century America. In 1774 Foundress Ann Lee came from England with eight followers, and at their height, in the 1850’s and 1860’s, the Shakers were about six thousand. By the turn of the 20th century their numbers were dropping, and this Village became a museum in 1960. But there are three Shakers still living, not here but in Sabbathday Lake, Maine—two Sisters and a Brother.
About two hundred Brothers and Sisters called this Village their family home, and they lived here according to the three principles of Shaker life: community, celibacy, and confession, somewhat like a monastic community. Everything was held in common and all you needed would be provided to you as you provided to others in the community. Women and men were in all ways equal though they lived separately, and no work was less important than any other. You were expected to confess your uncertainties and problems and discuss them privately with the senior person of your sex.
Work was a sacred commitment, and to waste effort or goods was not acceptable. Thus the Shakers invented simple, effective ways to do what they had to do, whether tending the dairy herd in The Round Stone Barn, storing things in built-in cupboards, hauling food for two hundred from the basement kitchen to the second-story dining room by means of a dumb-waiter instead of by stairs, or hanging chairs up on hooks so that you can easily clean the floor—all of these and many more were ways to sacred simplicity.
This Saturday, seeing the Village between green and gray raindrops, my eyes open wide to let in powerful, dazzling images of form and color. Did they intend this, that this simple landscape should be so very beautiful?
‘Tis the gift to be simple, 'tis the gift to be free
'Tis the gift to come down where we ought to be,
And when we find ourselves in the place just right,
'Twill be in the valley of love and delight.
When true simplicity is gain'd,
To bow and to bend we shan't be asham'd,
To turn, turn will be our delight,
Till by turning, turning we come 'round right.
Allen Clark 09:57am, 05/28/2013
Hillary, this was a very pleasant and true telling of your experience, I think. I am not sure my wife and I went to this place but we have been to one or two Shaker museums in the same area. As to your opening comment, I think most of the time when we refer to something being an oxymoron, we are thinking about it as a sort of flaw or negative. For example, “friendly fire”. But in your use, it is totally positive and appropriate.
Allen Clark 10:00am, 05/28/2013
I forgot to add in my earlier comment that we knew a woman who had been the main researcher for “The Money Book” . She retired and moved to Andover, VT. She had a round Shaker barn built, and it was a wonderful and vey practical structure.