Interview: Ray Tucker of Solar Place Farm Talks Community

I hope that you caught my earlier tour of Solar Place Farm, the passive solar home of Ray Tucker, former chair of Kentuckians for the Commonwealth. I really loved getting to look inside Ray’s beautiful home, but what I really enjoyed was when we set down to talk about community. This is a topic that is very near and dear to my heart, and Ray shares that passion.

If there’s anything that Americans have lost in the last 100 years, besides a connection to the land and where their food comes from, it is a sense of community. We don’t know our neighbors, they don’t know us, and what’s worse—that doesn’t seems to bother anyone. Even amongst families, we are not as connected as we once were.

The current model—the American Dream model, I guess is what people would call it today, or would call it twenty years ago—was to go to the suburbs, have a house, have a job, and make it on your own. But that’s abnormal to thousands of years of world history. Communities have always been multi-generational. Households have been multi-generational. So the idea of everyone living in their own little box is kind of crazy. ~Ray Tucker

What’s most interesting is that as we’ve moved away from living multi-generationally, our house sizes have actually gotten bigger.  We’re living in houses that are twice as big as we did in the 1950s, but we have half the amount of people in them. If we are honest with ourselves, we will admit that this is a model of living that cannot be sustained. I think the question we need to be asking ourselves is how much is enough? How much space do we actually need to live?

Sustaining this lifestyle is killing us, literally and metaphorically. We work harder and longer than any other industrialized culture in the world. To have more money and more space and more free time? If you think about it, the equation doesn’t really add up. I asked Ray what he thought was out of balance in our culture and here is his thoughtful response:

We’re trying to grab hold of a dream that’s really a fiction. So that’s the first problem that we have as a society: we base our value in society on something called “money” which has no meaning. What money represents in my mind is trading work over time. You need to have enough time to learn how to work—that’s your childhood—you need to work to earn to take care of your children and to take care of your parents. That’s what you’re really doing when you’re working because they have worked to take care of you. Money makes it so it’s not direct, you don’t have to take care of your parents, but you are trading the work that they did, that other people did earlier to serve them in their old age in society and to take care of the children.

It’s like a beehive in the sense that you raise the young, you gather nectar, and you pass the genetics on to the next generation and it keeps it going. But we’ve quit thinking about honey and pollen and we’ve started thinking about money, about how much money I can get. It’s made some crazy politics and crazy arguments over what makes America strong. And we’ve gotten so divided as a country that if we don’t change, I don’t think we will survive.

Ray definitely isn’t alone in this thought process. More and more people are waking up and realizing that something is drastically, fundamentally, and possibly irreversibly wrong in the United States. In fact, many people that I talk to in the sustainability movement on the ground level are really motivated to pursue self-reliant lifestyles because they don’t trust that the infrastructure in this country can continue on as it has. When you scan the news headlines, filled with stories of overconsumption, partisan bickering, power grabs by big corporations, loss of basic rights for American citizens, and so on, it is easy to feel hopeless. But as we sat in his beautiful home, warmed by the sun and a shared desire to see things change and improve, Ray offered some words of hope.

[But] There’s a lot of resources. Rebecca [my daughter] lives in not the largest town in South Korea, but a fairly large town. It’s got two and a half million people in it. Kentucky’s got five million people in it. So, she’s in a town that’s smaller than Pulaski County and has half the population of Kentucky. So you compare and you say well this country has a lot of space, a lot of resources. It’s a big place. We can change what we do and survive. But, the problem is, do we see that before it gets too late in the sense that people’s emotions are so raw from the partisanship we’ve built that all it is about is winning?

It’s not as bad as it is made out to be, but then we’re not instilling in the next generation what’s necessary to survive. We’re looking at a false horizon—”economic wealth” based on fiction. The land and ability to take care of it, the skills to know how to live below your means are more valuable than whatever you can do with one widget, no matter how well you can do it with that one widget.

But what’s the answer? How can we make changes? Ray believes that strong families are a key component to an improved culture:

Well,  a strong, poor family, is healthier for our society than a broken, wealthy one. And we’ve got a lot of broken, wealthy ones. And we’ve got a lot of strong, poor ones. One of the manipulations that is going on with money right now is holding the strong, poor families down. They’re in a form of economic slavery and that’s what communities can work together to stop.

Families can give children the ultimate gift: the wisdom of a life well lived, learning from the mistakes of the previous generation, gentle guidance to better, healthier choices:

That’s what families, the multigenerational families, gave the younger generation. “Hey, I’ve seen this before. I know what this looks like. Don’t go down that road.” There’s lot of history there. And it’s campfire stories. That’s what the Biblical texts are. People set around and told stories, really in third person a lot of times, but they were really directed at the children to say, “Don’t make the same mistakes that others have made.” That’s one of the big pieces that our society has lost. Now a lot of families are eating through the drive-thru and [watching television]. It’s values. But what values are they? It’s a set of beliefs. And how long does that last before it is self-destructive? If you don’t teach the essential skills to the next generation, the cycle gets broken. I think it can get picked back up and work but it takes a while.

Another way that community can develop is through what are sometimes called third places. These are the places that people congregate outside of work or home. For Ray, this includes his local church, where he organizes meals and participates in various activities to feed the need for community in his own life and hopefully help build it up in others. He also participates in other community organizations, such as the local beekeepers group currently and his past time served with KFTC.

But living and building community takes real work. If you’ve ever interacted with other human beings, you know that  relationships (especially the good ones) can be hard work and just downright messy at times. For many of us, it is easier to bury our noses in the dirt then participate in real, living, breathing community. Especially when our cities are not designed to encourage interaction, and those of us in rural areas (which make up most of Kentucky) often live miles from others and are too busy with work to visit them anyway. Perhaps this is why sites like Facebook and Twitter have become so popular—they give us a sense of community where very little truly exists.

But is community worth it? Why should we pursue something, like sustainability, that seems so far out of reach? In Ray’s mind, we do it for future generations:

If you build something today that makes things easier for your children tomorrow, maybe they can afford to take care of you tomorrow. If you only consume everything that’s there today, and leave them with nothing to consume tomorrow, chances are they are not going to be able to take care of you. So instead of trying to put it in dollars and cents, because it doesn’t matter if you have a million dollars, but you don’t have a society that knows the skills [to survive], that million dollars has no meaning. ‘Well, I have this land and it’s mine!’ Well, maybe it is, maybe it’s not. It depends on what we do with our society. We have to invest in community to give our individual wealth value. People don’t get that. It’s because it’s so big, it’s so overwhelming. ‘Surely, I can’t make a difference in that.’ I’ve jokingly said that people want sustainability, but mainly they want to be immortal and live forever. Realizing that’s not possible, they give up on everything else.

Community, and the pursuit thereof, is going to be a continuing conversation on this blog. I look forward to talking to folks about what they are doing to build community for themselves and the families of the future. I’d love to hear your input on why you think we’ve lost community and what we can do to change it!

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