“Utopian communities are inherently tragic because they are always, every single time, doomed to failure.”
It was the end of an era. Saturn finally moved out of Sagittarius and into Capricorn. I finished my book tour, my students’ grades, a semester of living out of my backpack. Snow fell upon all the living and the dead. Then I was shot through with shingles. Blistered and feverish on my couch, not yet thirty years old. I was furious. There was so much to do. As I came to a couple of weeks later, with a swollen eye and a constellation of scabs, I retreated to Rochester to be with two friends, and to visit a site of a vanished utopian community.
I had not been to Rochester since 2015. That winter, Saturn had recently moved into Sagittarius—marking that notorious period known as Saturn’s return. My father-in-law was in a coma, and we were not sure if he would live or die, or what living would look like. I was with the same two friends. We drove to the Wesleyan Chapel at Seneca Falls and performed a sort of séance for the first wave of American feminists: to both reclaim what they’d done, and air the blind spots and even evils they’d helped perpetuate. Then we sat in a garret apartment back in town and ate spaghetti and watched the documentary about Pussy Riot. The snow fell. We wondered what was coming next.
“Next” arrived in no time. A lot happened, including that my father-in-law indeed lived, though in a profoundly altered state. And two years later I was back in Rochester, road weary. It had been a full, but tiring couple of years, and I was wondering if or when rest would come.
Perhaps that’s why, partly at least, I’d been so drawn to the histories of American utopian communities, the peace they seemed to believe in, but were rarely, if ever, able to sustain—and in America, itself a sort of utopian project, misguided from the outset like all of them. Partly it is my nostalgic sense, my primal feeling, that there is some better hereafter or long-before, always just out of reach. And partly because I have always felt stateless, caught between homes or non-homes, with no resting place, no place that is constant and marked by my presence.
It snowed eighteen inches that night. In the morning, we wrote and napped and wrote and napped in intervals, and then went for dinner at a place called Thai Mi Up. (They were actually purveyors of Laos cuisine.) Afterward, we digested in Kelly’s warm living room and planned for the next day. It was time for me to figure out which utopian site I was going to take us to. There are a lot to choose from in Western New York, but I settled on the site of the Sodus Bay Phalanx.
We drove out of the flat, snowy expanse of the city, across the Genesee River, through the woods, over orchards—tons of bare, gnarled apple trees—to a plot of land perched above the south shore of Sodus Bay, Lake Ontario: 627 acres of farm currently home to Cracker Box Palace, a sanctuary for abused and neglected farm animals.
We squeaked tire tracks up to the entrance through the bone-dry snow in my friend’s bright red Vibe. Then we pulled up in front of a barn and got out of the car, facing the gentle white slopes that terminated just beyond the trees at the lake’s edge. It was a beautiful, freezing blue day. The snow was deep and muffled all sound except for the crowing cocks somewhere in the distance. White, smooth snow as far as the eye could see, except where it had been trotted through by this community of ungulates.
Here is the story of this place, as best as I understand it: First, the Seneca Indians were here. They’d rest in a stand of sycamores alongside the great lake during their summer fishing sprees, and then migrate home. There’s even evidence of permanent dwellings going back long before the Seneca. Then white settlers came and privatized this property in the mid-eighteenth century. And in the early-nineteenth century, the Shakers moved onto this land, followers of Mother Ann, who is believed to be the incarnation of Christ’s second coming. The Shakers raised a barn, lived communally, made beautiful wood furniture, and performed ecstatic prayer under a doctrine of total celibacy. Later, when the Erie Canal was being developed, New York State usurped the property from the Shakers, but the Canal lost traction before they could build. The land remained unmolested.
Then, the Fourierists moved in a decade later, a French utopian socialist movement grounded in the creation of thousands of self-sufficient cooperatives worldwide. (They managed to develop about thirty in the US alone, but most of them quickly fell apart.) After the Fourierists, the property was a stop on the underground railroad, in the guise, I think, of a wealthy lawyer’s private residence. Later, still, in the 1920s, the land was bought up by the grandson of aristocrat Henry Strong, president of Eastman Kodak who had made his fortune—get this—as a buggy whip manufacturer, for whipping horses. Said grandson, Alvah, named the tract of land Alasa Farms, and turned it into a Model Farm, where he displayed the wonders of twentieth-century agricultural innovations to the devastated Depression-era US. I don’t know he long he stayed, or what happened after. Now, the property belongs to New York State, and is leased to Cracker Box Palace.
We padded through the snow to a group of wooly sheep of all colors and sizes huddled near a broken shed. In the middle of the sheep squad was a single, snow-white llama, who stood a full foot-and-a-half taller than them, staring at us accusingly, a bright green harness strapped around his snout. The sheep just backed away sweetly, dumbly, hiding behind the fence, or standing sideways so they could see us from one eye. The llama stood guard.
They were the happiest sheep in the world. I recalled something that photographer Isa Leshko had said about her series Elderly Animals—these deep, empathetic portraits of aging farm animals on sanctuaries just like this one all over the United States. She talked about how extraordinary it was to see farm animals in this state because they rarely get to live out their natural lives, or even close to it. So there is something miraculous about this moment as we, these elderly animals and I, look at each other over the fence, beating the odds. Utopian, even. In the kingdom, all the animals will be in their thirties, fat off the land.
Standing on the farm property, I can feel the buoyant, utopian joy of the place. My friends and I leap around in the snow, laughing, moving from pasture to pasture. I forget everything for a while: the shingles, the exhaustion, the lost time, the old wounds, the preternatural feeling of never arriving at, but only ever being on my way home.
The way that the story of utopianism in America unfolded sounds a little like this:
It’s 1681 or 1763 or 1830. So-and-so Jansson or Van Wort of somewhere-or-other, Sweden or Germany decided the Lutherans were sent by the devil. There should be no mediation between man and God, and, promptly, he breaks away to create the Community of True Inspiration or God’s Real People or We are the Realest Ones. He and his small band of followers, who by then have adopted some kind of dress to distinguish themselves, promptly have a mass burning of Lutheran hymnals. They hang out in northern Europe. They live in shared shacks. But then that guy (Jansson, Van Wort, etc) runs into so-and-so Bartlett or Godrich or Randolf who, himself, is in the middle of trying to reform the Dutch Reformed Church, but having no luck reforming the reformed, they join forces.
The blending of their two groups produces a new name, and a new theology: the Zoar Community or the Harmony Society or the Most Divine of the Most Divine. They believe in adult baptism or ecstatic dancing or that the end is nigh or that no one should speak in church, but often, above all, they believe in communal living, as modeled in the Book of Acts when Christ’s followers, after the crucifixion, give up everything they own and go underground for forty years or so, living in symbiotic communitarianism and out of sight of the Roman Empire.
So, it’s the early 19th century and the new group—Zoar or Harmony or what-have-you—embarks to scope out land for a settlement in the New World, and, for no reason I can figure out, they dock in New York City, but sometimes go all the way to central Pennsylvania or Illinois. There, they claim a tract of land in a snowy, muddy lowland near a Swedish Methodist church that they already think is heretical, and they build semi-underground log cabins, and everyone comes out from Switzerland or Sweden or Germany, tons of people dying on the way on the ship, and tons of people dying in those freezing cabins, trying to live out their imagined reconstruction of first century “biblical” communism.
But then there are schools! Tanneries! Businesses of all stripes, operating in a sort of small-scale divine socialism, for a little while, at least—but then something goes wrong: cholera, smallpox, not enough money, a violent husband, theological/ideological disagreements, or (usually) the commune leader says that God permits him to have sex with whomever he wants. Some people die, others run off to join a different utopian community, sometimes to the Shakers to live out their time with Mother Ann. Others run to cities, others stay in the falling-apart community because they don’t know what else to do. Eventually, a town forms around them. They incorporate, and within a generation the utopian project is erased, assimilated. It’s just Harmony, Pennsylvania or New Harmony, Indiana or Aurora, Oregon, or, in this case, Alasa Farms.
Utopian communities are inherently tragic because they are always, every single time, doomed to failure—and often quick failure, sometimes disastrous failure. Do the makers of these communities forget that, and do they always imagine that this time, unlike the others, they’ll last forever? Or are they like me: a little romantically obsessed by the will to create something perfect that I know will ultimately perish, that is only here for a second, that is ephemeral and doomed to tragedy, and yet which you must strive to do anyway?
I mean, sometimes it does work out. The Model Farm business operated by the Strong grandson lasted for a while and helped, in some small way, America recoup a bit of profit and morale. And the fact that the property eventually, a generation later and from a totally different group of people, became a resting place for abused animals, having been seeded by money a century before from the generational profits of buggy whip manufacturing, paints a picture about the arc of time that is kind of hopeful.
There were lots more animals at Cracker Box Palace: horses, cattle, ponies, donkeys, goats, a “bunny emporium,” a giant henhouse, all kinds of creatures, tottering around in large open pens through the snow, or which had retreated into their sheds or barns. During our visit, we ran into a couple of other volunteers, people who come to Cracker Box Palace of their own volition on weekends or free weekdays to feed and groom the animals, hang out with them, empty the slop.
A farm cat approached us as we skirted the horse stalls—a fluffy gray-and-white male, meowing, trouncing through the snow, following us, even into the cold, deep drifts around the Shetland ponies. Then the cat started to lead us around: out to the disturbed horses, the one with the crooked back, the social donkeys. The cat charged ahead with his little puff-pants legs, stopping in front of each of the pens as we arrived, confidently leading us forward, looking back sometimes to make sure we were still there. The donkeys hee-hawed desperately, hoarsely.
We passed by the bachelor farmhand bunkhouse, left from the 1920s. We passed by the old Shaker barn which has been turned into a museum, shut for the winter, built in the 1820s. The little welcome office was shut, too, but next to it was an illustrated sign, also buried in the snow, covered in line drawings of animal portraits: Cracker Box Palace: Farm Animal Haven.
“Cracker Box Palace is a refuge and rehabilitation center for neglected or abused farm animals. Animals brought to the Palace are cared for by veterinarians, immunized, put on prescribed feed programs, and provided physical therapy. Rehabilitated animals are trained and available for adoption. Animals unable to be adopted are welcome to live out their natural lives on the farm.”
The sign boldly proclaims that the farm fields “will remain undeveloped forever, protected by a conservation easement held by the Genesee Land Trust.”
That one gives me pause.
Forever! What a claim, considering the folks who started here—the Seneca, of course, and then the Shakers, the Fouerists, the farm of tomorrow, etc, etc, etc!
I am very interested in human grappling with notions of forever, human hopes of what forever means. The folly of it gives me a sort of pleasure and a sort of peace.
I suppose that is why I’m really interested in the layered histories of places, too, the way they defy notions of “forever” as far as we understand—sites where various stories play out in spacetime, unbeknown to each other. Where they are all in conversation, or in dynamic, creating a gravitational pull, like ghosts who cannot see even each other, and yet affect each other’s energy fields nonetheless. Because why? Because I think the patterns of use in a particular place can tell us something about the place, if we listen closely—and can tell us something about what was being carried out there, and even what’s to come.
Maybe there’s a sort of story of long game reciprocity in the end—I think of all that buggy whip money being eventually converted into an endowment for these horse’s retirements—or some other kind of circle of meaning. Not karma, not tit-for-tat, just a kind of story.
But the story is not always cheerful. The stories can twist, turn back on themselves, or reveal endings that are less morally triumphant than they first appeared. Because here’s another: When the Shakers left Sodus Bay, they moved up the road to Groveland and re-established their community for another decade or so. Later, they sold that property to the state under the conditions that the property would be used for “good purposes.” First, it became a treatment center for epileptics, then later the land was sold to the prison system. Today, the old Shaker farm is now the Groveland Correctional Facility, medium security. The prison chapel is the original Shaker chapel.
Adrian Shirk is the author of And Your Daughters Shall Prophesy, a hybrid-memoir exploring the lives of American women prophets and mystics, named an NPR ‘Best Book’ of 2017. She's currently working on a manuscript about utopian communities. Shirk was raised in Portland, Oregon, and has since lived in New York and Wyoming. She's a frequent contributor to Catapult, and her essays have appeared in The Atlantic, among others. Currently, she teaches in Pratt Institute’s BFA Creative Writing Program, and lives on the border of the Bronx and Yonkers with her husband Sweeney and Quentin the cat.