In gratitude for the micro-commons where I live
Peer in and you can see two tiny stuffed rabbit-dolls sitting on chairs in a living room enjoying a cup of tea. There is a table in the house, with a thick book on it, and a tiny mirror on the back wall bearing the inscription, “Home, the spot of earth supremely blest / A dearer, sweeter spot than all the rest….”
It’s a mystery who had the whimsy to build this fairy-tale jewel in the forest. I’ve always appreciated it as a puckish gift to pleasantly startled strangers. In the years I’ve been walking there, no one has ever vandalized the Bunny Room. It has become a kind of folk-art fixture and landmark.
I have come to realize that the Bunny Room is no aberration in and around my town of Amherst, Massachusetts. There are other monuments of homespun generosity and expressive beauty that some anonymous souls simply decided would enliven the community. I call them micro-commons because they slyly build a shared community of appreciation that is rooted in a particular, meaningful spot.
Another micro-commons that I love is an impressive pile of stones on a hiking trail in nearby Pelham. The four-foot work sits like a prehistoric alter in the dark, quiet woods known as Buffam Brook Community Forest. There is a verdant forest canopy some 30 or 40 feet overhead and the happy sounds of a cascading stream off to one side. The stone pile – a four-foot high cylinder that tapers to smaller circumferences at the top and bottom – is made from hundreds of stones, each carefully fit together.
I realized how much the landmark meant to me when, after several days of fierce storms, I was walking by and noticed that a tree branch had fallen on the structure, destroying much of it. Tragic! I was so dismayed. The mess made me realize how much I had come to love this living piece of folk art and the thoughtfulness behind it. The next spring, lo and behold, the same anonymous stone-worker had quietly re-built the pile of stones. It lives!
I call these anonymous gifts to the world micro-commons because countless people have come to depend on them as welcoming landmarks and symbols of this place. They subtly convey a sense of care and appreciation for our favorite spots, and their own spirit. The anonymity of their creation makes them radiate a special feeling, as if to say, “Here is my expression of gratitude for this wonderful place.”
The micro-commons remind me of the cover image on the original edition of Lewis Hyde’s classic book The Gift, which featured a painting, “Basket of Apples,” by unknown members of the 19th Century Shaker Community in Hancock, Massachusetts. “The Shakers believed that they received their arts as gifts from the spiritual world,” writes Hyde. “Persons who strove to become receptive of songs, dances, paintings, and so forth were said to be ‘laboring for a gift,’ and that the works that they created circulated as gifts within the community.”
Perhaps I’m making too much of some simple folk art, but these micro-commons always make me feel good about the world. Since encountering the first two, I have run across others. In a nearby neighborhood, someone erected a “little library” – a weather-sheltered box with a window in front, which contains a few dozen books. Anyone can contribute to the collection, or borrow and share books: a lovely gesture of neighborliness.
A few weeks ago, I took Jackson to a forested trail in the town of Leverett. At a certain point in the hike, we encountered a bench looking out on a gorgeous meadow. Next to the bench was a wooden box containing a notebook, carefully wrapped in plastic to protect it from the rain. The notebook was filled with homegrown poetry! Hikers pausing for a rest were invited to contribute their own spontaneous poems in response to the beauty all around them.
The notebook didn’t contain great poetry, as I recall. But the sublime landscape was surely the kind of scenery that had once inspired Emily Dickinson – a local icon – to contribute her own unabashed “letters to the world.” That may be all that it takes to create an invisible community of affection – an open notebook or a pile of stones, and an attitude of gratitude.