Thursday, March 19, 2015

Rituals, Quality of Life, and Living Close to the Land

I found this week's discussion of rituals and modern primitives very interesting. Completely by coincidence, it struck a chord with the book I happen to be reading now: "The Solace of Open Spaces" by Gretel Ehrlich. Ehrlich was a young poet and filmmaker leading a fast-paced life in New York City when a documentary assignment drew her to a Wyoming sheep ranch. The illness and death of her partner during the course of filming, combined with a general sense of exhaustion with city life, led Ehrlich to make a change move to Wyoming for a while. She never left.

Ehrlich reading from her book "The Solace of Open Spaces"

The book she eventually wrote about her experiences recounts events in her personal life as well as daily life on a Wyoming ranch. Among other things, Ehrlich writes about the return of ritual to her life after she began living in an rural, rather than urban, society. As she writes:
  • "Implicated as we Westerners are in this sperm, blood, and guts business of ranching, and propelled forward by steady gusts of blizzards, cold fronts, droughts, heat, and wind, there's a ceremonial feel to life on a ranch. It's raw and impulsive but the narrative thread of birth, death, chores, and seasons keeps tugging at us until we find ourselves braided inextricably into the strand. So much in American life has had a corrupting influence on social order. We live in a culture that has lost its memory. Very little in the shapes and instructions of our grandparents' pasts instructs us how to live today, or tells us who we are or what demands will be made on us as members of society. ...On a ranch, small ceremonies and private, informal rituals arise. We ride the spring pasture, pick chokecherries in August, skin out a deer in the fall, and in the enactment experience a wordless exhilaration between bouts of plain hard work. Ritual--which could entail a wedding or brushing one's teeth--goes in the direction of life."
Ehrlich's book does not advocate that every New Yorker up and move to Wyoming, nor does she discount the possibility of finding spiritual balance in a city. But her writing reminds readers (who often assume that life's best and brightest opportunities exist only in the dozen largest cities in this country) that an urban lifestyle doesn't have to be a foregone conclusion.

I recently came across a BuzzFeed article of 49 infographics that represent maps of the United States in different ways ( Two of the maps, placed one after the other, particularly struck me. The first is a New Yorker cover that sardonically depicts the dismissive attitude with which New Yorkers view the rest of the US. The second shows the percentages of the population, per state, who say their state is the best to live in. State pride was highest in Montana and Alaska, with Utah, Wyoming, and Texas not far behind. Between 68 and 77 percent of the inhabitants of these big sky states said they lived in the best state; only 41 percent of New Yorkers agreed.

This combination of facts is far from conclusive, as many factors play into our attitudes about our own states and ways of life compared to others. However, it's a little-heard reminder that quality of life doesn't necessarily correlate to the number of museums or subway stops per capita.

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