Fellow Conservatives

By

Published

Fall, 2010
West Marin Review

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Out here on the edge of the continent, where the force fields of respectability and convention run thin, we like to think of ourselves as progressive, in an undogmatic way. But really we are conservative, when you get down to it. We are alert constantly to the capacity for evil in human nature, especially in the form of greed, and greed’s designs upon the land. We are skeptical of the version of progress that the corporate market pushes at us. We embrace the wisdom of the past, especially as embodied in the natives of this place.

Russell Kirk, the intellectual progenitor of modern conservative thought, marked these as central tendencies of what he called the “conservative mind.” (Kirk would not be pleased by what claims that banner today, but that’s another matter.) We revere the land and take a dim view of change, and if those are not conservative inclinations, then nothing is.

Unlike the conservatism that prevails in Washington, ours is not pliant to moneyed interest or calculated for political advantage. It represents the strange fate that befalls the progressive in a commercial culture that turns everything into a commodity for gain. Yet this does not exempt us from the karmic conundrums that attend efforts to resist change or turn back the clock. Nor does it make us immune to the blind spots that can occur when a sense of virtue is wrapped up too tightly in the preservation of a status quo, even an ecological one.

Create a national park, restore a wetland, and people want to drive out here to partake of them. Start to create a local food economy, and more people come who are less interested in the landscape than in the food. The town fills with cars. Parking becomes a problem. A place in which ecology is practically a religion becomes, on summer weekends, a hot spot on air pollution maps.

We locals become a little cranky and walk around with a debate inside our heads. We like our neighbors who have started the ventures that help attract these crowds. We want them to succeed. We support local economy, organic food, all of it. Yet each success takes us a little further from what we thought we wanted to be—or at least from what this place used to be. It also drives up real estate prices, so that people who made the community what it is can no longer afford to be part of it.

It is not a new dilemma—the failure of success. But it has a particular and ironic twist in a place where people thought they were going to be different. It eats at us, the way our certitudes keep colliding; and this is what makes local points of contention—a footbridge over a creek, or an oyster farm on Tomales Bay—so symbolically hyper-charged, almost like conflicts in the Middle East. The disagreements are over competing versions of good and therefore become projection screens for the tensions that beset us not just from the outside, but from inside as well.

Walking—good. Sustainable aquaculture—good. Local food economy—good. How do such goods become bads? It is hard enough to battle developers. Now the fight is over objects of our own desire too. We feel a need to draw a line. But where, and how—especially when we are part of what we have to draw the line against?

We build our homes at the edge of this stunning landscape— well, let’s call the spade here, in this stunning landscape. Then we get our backs up at those who would intrude upon it with their footsteps, or a sustainable livelihood, or a second unit that enables the owner to afford the first. We create our own understated and ecologically responsible versions of better homes and gardens, and then wonder why the town cannot remain forever the rough-edged remnant of the Old West it still is in our minds.

As somebody once put it, the one who builds the house is the developer; the one who lives in it is the environmentalist. Yet we are not unself-conscious people. The paradoxes—I put this gently—of our oppositions rest uneasily in us, along with the awareness that we are a privileged group to begin with—we who oppose privilege on principle—just for being here. We find ourselves a little like those people who, in middle age, begin to suspect that they have become the parent they rebelled against, and that their rebellion somehow binds them to that parent all the more.

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This quandary is not new to me. From the time I first came to West Marin 15 years ago, I have felt that I had walked back into a drama I’ve been through before. I spent my teen years at the tip of Cape Cod, which is as far east as Point Reyes Station is west. My mother’s husband was an artist-craftsman who owned a shop—and later apartments—in Provincetown, where the land ends, and from which the next stop is England. The Pilgrims landed there before they went on to Plymouth.

P’town, as it is called, is a compact little village along a narrow strip between the bay and the dunes. Physically and geographically, it is very different from West Marin. The Cape at that point is less than two miles wide; the open spaces are out to sea. History overhangs the place in the form of a tower that commemorates the Pilgrim landing.

And yet P’town in those days was similar too. The traditional economy was based on food. Where we have cows, P’town had fish. More precisely, it had a fishing fleet that worked the bay and the Georges Banks beyond. The old-timers were Portuguese fishermen, tough, swarthy guys who went out for a week or more and who still walked barefoot down Commercial Street in winter. As out here, there were decaying remnants of a railroad. It had once carried the fish to Boston, which is 120 miles by land, though only about 50 by sea.

What P’town shared most with West Marin was a sense of being beyond the pull of social constraint. It was a separate world; you could go for years without a coat and tie. Artists and writers were drawn to the rustic authenticity where they were close enough to Boston and New York for a quick visit to a publisher or gallery. Eugene O’Neill started the Provincetown Playhouse. Norman Mailer, Stanley Kunitz, and a host of others followed.

What drew them drew another group as well —- gays, who came in summer droves and let it all hang out in ways they couldn’t even in New York back then. The result was a mélange like no place else. There was traditional P’town, embodied in the fishing fleet and Portuguese Bakery, with its flipper bread and tangy soup. And then there was Mr. Kenneth with his hat shop; the female impersonator lounge singer at the Crown and Anchor Inn; the lesbian bar called the Ace of Spades, which jutted out into the bay and from the deck of which throaty laughter could be heard late into the night; and the Atlantic House down the alley where the homo-erotica in the men’s room could make even a gay sailor blush. A town council dominated by people with names like Santos and Cabral looked upon it all with a Mediterranean shrug. (The business brought to their bars and restaurants didn’t hurt.)

It was a rich mix, and a fragile one. As with so many places, P’town was done in by what made it so attractive; its uniqueness turned on itself. The tourist shops metastasized. Fudge became more prevalent than fish. The gay self-presentation became more circus-y and contrived. Wooden cottages were spiffed up. Rough turned into quaint; the nooks and crannies of affordability disappeared. The year-round population diminished; merchants had fewer customers in the winter months. Meanwhile, artists without trust funds could no longer pay the rents—nor could very many others.

If the shoe doesn’t fit enough already, there’s more. Outside of town, a new national park—the Cape Cod National Seashore—made the lower Cape (the end furthest out, though also the furthest north) all the more attractive, and the existing real estate all the more valuable. The park saved a precious landscape—within its boundaries. Outside them, development came like mange. The marsh across the road from the Goose Hummock outdoor shop in Orleans, which I passed on my way to school each day, is now the Cranberry Cove Plaza. You could be anywhere. Much of the Cape is that way now. It pains me to go back.

In the parts that aren’t spoiled, moreover, an Aunt Sally landscape has replaced the Huck Finn version—preserved, but with a precious quality, and woe to him or her who tracks dirt across the rug. Deer hunting season used to be a little like a Jewish holiday in New York, with empty desks at Nauset High School. Now the woods are houses. The guys go to New Hampshire to hunt. There was a dune colony just outside of P’town, near Pilgrim Lake, where adventuresome souls lived off the grid in summer in driftwood shacks. The Park Service took it down.

The dune colony was a little like the summer encampment at White House Pool, halfway between Point Reyes and Inverness, where young people in the 1960s took refuge when they had to relinquish their winter rentals to the owners. The informal campsite couldn’t happen now; and what is relief to some is a sense of loss to others, leaving us with a nagging question as to whether there might have been another way—one that maintained our rougher edges and the social dimension of our landscape.

****

That Cape experience helped to shape my conservative side, in the Kirkean sense. Washington conservatives see evil mainly in government and in a teeming penumbra of Communists, gays, Muslims, and liberals that never give them rest.  I see evil more in money — not money itself but the love of it, the cupidity, which threatens always to ruin that which is precious and beyond price.

That weighs on me when I see development creeping out from Petaluma, Fairfax, and Novato, and the story poles that go up periodically around town, and when I think about the potential ripples from an upgraded Grandi Building in Point Reyes Station. When I watch the parade on Western Weekend, I flash back to the P’town equivalent, the annual Blessing of the Fleet. It is still a celebration, if anything louder and more garish than before. But there is no more fleet, just a sad assemblage of rusting hulks at the town pier. The fish market there once did a brisk business. Town kids dived for coins nearby. Now they are gone; and it is hard not to wonder whether our ranches will go the same way and the pick-ups in town become mainly exurban accoutrements for the hauling of landscaping equipment and organic garden supplies.

Edmund Burke, that proto-conservative, worried about the unique local cultures that the Jacobins of the French Revolution would destroy with their rationalistic planning. The real estate market is a Jacobin by other means. Yes, the bulwarks here are stronger than they were on the Cape. We have county planning and the Coastal Commission, where the Cape back then had neither. Still, money doesn’t sleep, and plenty of damage can be done within the existing “envelope,” as the planners call it.

But then I remember the kid—myself—whose family lived on tourists, as did most of the people I knew. My mother and her husband were at the shop until 9:00 or 10:00 every night. I worked on a golf course and in a grocery store where the customers were tourists too. “The season,” as we called it, ran from Memorial Day to Labor Day—three months in which to make the nut for the year. There was gloom at the dinner table on rainy weekends, and even more when the bad weather stretched on for days.

That memory tempers my annoyance now at the traffic. Cars mean customers, and something besides spaghetti on the dinner table. I find myself asking merchants in town how the season’s going. I hope they don’t think I’m nosey; part of me thinks I’m still one of them. There is grumbling in town about the tourists. We grumbled too—about the ones who pawed the merchandise, and let their kids run wild, and never bought anything. My mother’s husband had a thing about the tourists from Canada, of all places, and the women who should have left the Bermuda shorts at home.

But I cannot get too down on tourists. I’ve been tempted, as when a contentious fellow shouted curses at me and my young son when we didn’t vacate a parking space as he expected. Still, our merchants need the business if there is to be a local economy and a Main Street with shops and life. Those lines of upscale motorcycle fantasists on Sundays help keep the Bovine Bakery open for the rest of us. And for all the traffic, it is a kind that is dependent upon the landscape and thus provides an economic base for it.

Do we really expect taxpayers to pay for a park and then let it become a private viewscape for those fortunate enough to be situated nearby? No matter what we do or don’t do, there is a price. Even if we try to build a wall around West Marin, our community still will change because of who gets to live within the wall and who doesn’t. From a strictly ecological standpoint that might not seem so bad to some. The Rockefeller estate in Westchester County, north of Manhattan, has preserved almost 3,500 acres of mainly woodland. You look at the surrounding sprawl and feel grateful for the enclave, much of which is open to the public.

But most of us humans cannot live on ecology alone. There is a social ecology here as well as a natural one; inhabitants as well as habitat. Our town is symbiotic with ranchers, ranch-hands, tradesmen, along with the artists and musicians, who together comprise a human web within the natural one to make the place unique. Yet for all the effort to preserve the landscape out here, not much has been devoted to the integrity of the town itself and the social ecology it embodies. This is a great opportunity. Our biggest contribution to the larger ecological cause could be in finding new ways for the social and the natural to co-exist.

Sustainability without settlement is a non sequitur, and one to which Western environmental movements are prone. I sometimes sense in the complaints about tourists—and in the opposition to such things as an oyster farm—an indifference to livelihood generally and to the practicalities of daily life. This is the classic astigmatism of the conservative gentry; and it is no less myopic because it is connected now to ecology and landscape.

Not long ago I too might have shared it. Then I married a woman from the Philippines and began to visit her family on their rice farm there. It is a rural landscape in a way that ours no longer is. The roads are dirt. There is no plumbing. Chickens and goats run about in the yard. When it is time to prepare dinner, my wife’s mother goes out back with a knife.

Yet for all this it is a domesticated landscape. Practically every inch is accounted for, and must be in a land that is so populous and poor. There are efforts in that country to restore clearcut mountainsides and protect remaining forests. But the concept of “wilderness” in the American sense does not exist. My wife had never encountered it until she moved here. For most of the world wilderness is a luxury for those whose income and sustenance comes from someplace else.

Untouched places are important, where they actually exist. But for most of humanity the challenge is to live on and with the land in a way that doesn’t ruin it; to embrace that challenge in West Marin might help us unravel the conundrum of change. Main Street and landscape are connected. If we want a town that is not just a quaint tourist destination, then we had better support the ranches and dairy farms—and perhaps even an oyster farm—that sustain the agrarian version. No ranches, no feed barn.

A range of housing is important too, to prevent the town from becoming too upscale and precious. Socially and environmentally, it is hardly ideal that so many of our service workers must drive in from Rohnert Park and Santa Rosa each day. This means, among other things, encouraging second units, especially close in. It means filling in the town so we can leave the landscape alone.

Organizations such as the Community Land Trust Association of West Marin (CLAM) and the Marin Agricultural Land Trust (MALT) have been doing yeoman work along these lines. Why not extend the techniques by which MALT has helped preserve the landscape to the town itself? If we can buy development rights to ranchland, for example, why not to town land?

Why not establish a town trust and buy key parcels ourselves? It could help keep out invasive uses, and the rents on existing or created housing or shops could provide a funding base for local purposes.

Such a trust might also purchase parcels in town to create common places where the social ecology can flourish. One of the constants in Provincetown through the years has been the benches outside the town hall on Commercial Street. No matter how expensive and tacky the place becomes—and it is both—the benches do not discriminate. Anyone can sit there to take in the passing scene.

This is social open space. Stinson Beach has a town green. Every town should, especially ones that want to maintain a noncommercial dimension and continuity with the past, as we conservatives want to do.

****

I know a person who bemoans change in town and the visitors who flock here. This person’s house wasn’t even built when another friend up the road first moved in.  There are old-timers who were here before both of them; from their standpoint, the first to move in was a hippie, the other gentry, and both took some getting used to. I have seen pictures from the early 1900s of locomotives coming down the middle of Main Street and the entire northeast side devoted to a railroad yard. That’s not a past that anyone I know wants to go back to.

There is a geology of memory out here, an accretion of reference points for the better yesterday. We tend to think the story starts when we enter; yet our own entrance might have been someone else’s jarring change. The point is not that one house justifies another ad infinitum until the landscape is full. It is that we need to approach the question with humility and an awareness that the process that enabled us to be here is going to continue in some form.

We need to leave some play in the line and some room for humans in the ecological scheme. Nature as a concept would not exist without us. The one thing we can say for certain is that the town will be different in 30 years, just as it is different now than 30 years ago. Once upon a time, the Dance Palace was in the Cabaline. Point Reyes Books was a natural food store. Building Supply was in the Grandi Building, and there was a dance studio above it.

That process will continue, and this is not necessarily to be regretted. If the change is indigenous and inventive—as it can be—we could look at the results and think, “Hmmm, not so bad.” A generation ago, a burst of local energy gave rise to the Dance Palace, the Point Reyes Clinic, and other civic institutions that are warp and woof of the community today. That change is our normal. If we can bequeath a new normal such as that, then we conservatives will
be able to rest in peace.

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