This feature was selected as the Spring 2021 issue’s Editor’s Choice.
QUITE EARLY THE OTHER MORNING, before it was light—I had been awake for some time already, thinking about an essay I was working on about Shaker architecture—one of the motion lights in the driveway came on, probably from a branch tossing in the wind. You will remember how your mother installed those lights at the behest of the insurance company some years ago, as a deterrent against any burglars who might happen up the long driveway at night when nobody is here—or, for that matter, when they are. (It seemed funny at the time, and still does, that a burglar would have any interest in an upstate New York farmhouse whose only contents are ladybugs and books from the 1940s. There is nothing here to steal; even the copper pipes have been replaced with plastic.) I didn’t remember seeing the lights come on, but rather just opening my eyes to notice they were on, and also noticing quite close to the window the branch hanging over the driveway, swinging back and forth in the wind. And this branch, which kept moving as I watched it, like a sort of fitful pendulum, affected me in the strangest way. Its nearness, the way it rustled and swayed at its own quiet level outside our window, gentle yet persistent, reminded me of waking up at night on Sanibel Island that time we took the children there in the early 1990s, and the way the oversize palm leaves rustled and banged against one another in the warm winds coming in off the Gulf of Mexico, so that we heard them in the dark and later at dawn outside our open window, making their sounds as we lay in bed together listening to waves crossing the Gulf over and over, stars visible above and the moon shining a white streak across the water and maybe a pelican crying out as it flapped overhead, or a door rattling in a gust, all of which made me think, as I lay there wide awake beside you in your family’s old house in the Catskills, of the Muir Web.
You remember how we were talking about the Muir Web a few years ago, the graphic devised by ecologists at the Wildlife Conservation Society to illustrate the complexity of the nonhuman world, its interconnectedness apart from us. As you know, it was not actually the interconnectedness of the entire nonhuman world that Eric Sanderson and his team were trying to illustrate with this image (so named after John Muir), but rather the interconnectedness of all things on the island of Manhattan—and not all things ever on the island of Manhattan, but all things in 1609, the year Henry Hudson arrived and started the process that Europeans used to think of as civilization. Sanderson and his team collected data on the relationships among the different elements in the ecosystem as they were able to reconstruct them from old maps, travelers’ accounts, diaries, and any other sources they could find about life on the island in the early seventeenth century—beavers damming wetlands into ponds, the ponds’ fish eating insects, the insects breeding, bears eating fish, bears eating raspberries, raspberries circulating through bear waste, raspberries photosynthesizing, bears basking for warmth, and so on—and Sanderson and his team entered those connections into their computers until they’d created a spreadsheet with a thousand rows and a thousand columns and still they hadn’t even begun to enter all the data they’d collected on Manhattan in 1609, and they realized they needed some other way to look at the information, so they threw it on a scatter graph. What emerged on their screens was the Muir Web, a massive structure of gray lines connecting all the linked data points, raspberries to bears to trout to mosquitoes to wetlands to beaver to swamp maples and so on. The figure resembled a star, pretty much solid at the center, with a few stray lines shooting out to connect at irregularly spaced points around the outside— a sunlike structure, really, but dense and dark at the center, in a way not like the sun so much as a black hole. This was what the connections in nature on Manhattan in 1609 looked like: a black hole that was also a sun.
I first saw an illustration of one of these graphs in Sanderson’s 2009 book Mannahatta, and later I saw it, unexpectedly, in larger size, during a slide show Sanderson gave at the Arsenal Gallery in 2013. During that slide show, almost casually, after presenting a picture of the scatter graph, Eric Sanderson showed a blowup of its top half. He pressed the button of his remote control and, in a corner of that top half, at the very end of one of the narrow projecting triangles—and not the longest triangle at that—a red circle appeared. It was tiny. I say it was tiny, though on the screen it might have had a diameter of six inches, because in relation to the triangles shooting out of the web, which on the screen might have been four or five feet high, it really did look very small—a red circle around a single point with just a few lines of connection back down into the swirling dark mass below. “This,” Sanderson said, “is the connection we found to people.” Sanderson was giving a lecture that evening, and I know that he spoke somewhat like this, because I have watched him give pretty much the same lecture at other locations on YouTube, so that the words he used and the length of his pauses have ingrained themselves in my memory. And so as I lay there that early morning watching the branch swaying back and forth, I remembered what Sanderson said next, after showing us the red circle. “When we live in cities, we know about the complex network that’s our friends, our families, our associates, the people we meet on the street, but sometimes we forget about that larger network supporting us.”
I had not yet begun to think about the Shakers so much or to photograph their buildings at the time of Sanderson’s lecture, but that night in your mother’s house in the Catskills the Shakers were very much on my mind. I found myself thinking about the family and village structures that the Shakers had created up and down the East Coast and as far west as Kentucky and Ohio, and about the diversity of backgrounds they welcomed to their communities, and especially about the efficient ways they used water and fuel and brought sunlight into the buildings where they lived and worked and worshiped; and I realized how in so many ways the Shakers, starting with their founder, Ann Lee, were on to the same kind of thing as Sanderson. I remembered some charts Sanderson had projected showing how much more efficient life in the city is than life in the country—how city dwellers use so much less fuel oil per person and apartment buildings are so much better at conserving heat—and the sunlike shape that relationships in nature take on Sanderson’s graph, and how insignificant the human point of contact is with that complexity. And I remembered my own experiences in Shaker buildings, and how so often the buildings seemed to serve as points of contact between their human occupants and something larger, just as, in a way, the branch outside our window was doing now, connecting us to the rest of the forest stretching away for fifty miles across the Catskill Mountains; and though I do not consider myself a religious person, I did think as I lay there that such moments of visceral connection to an external complexity must have something to do with the religious experience. This, of course, reminded me of our visit with Brother Arnold.
The buildings seemed to serve as points of contact between their human occupants and something larger.
You remember how we met Arnold Hadd, one of the three remaining Shakers, at his community of Sabbathday Lake in Maine on our way to Mount Desert Island? I had written him in advance about taking pictures there, and though he said he wasn’t the one to give permission to photograph, he’d be happy to come out and say hello when we stopped by. He was a slim, straight-standing man of medium height, dressed in loose blue cotton pants and a short-sleeved blue plaid shirt in the August heat, and he seemed busy in the way of someone who has many responsibilities but doesn’t make a hierarchy among them. After greeting us in the front hall of the admissions building, Brother Arnold said we had arrived on a day of great importance to Shakers. On the Christian calendar, August 6 is the Feast of the Transfiguration, the day Christ hiked up Mount Tabor with Peter, James, and John and revealed himself as a bright, shining, starlike figure. God himself spoke out of a cloud to inform the three saints that Jesus was indeed “my son, in whom I am well pleased.” On that same date, August 6, in 1774, Brother Arnold told us, Ann Lee—founder of the United Society of Believers in Christ’s Second Appearing, also known as the Shakers—arrived by ship in New York Harbor, bringing the light of her ideas to the new world. Many of her followers had come to America because they believed that Lee herself was Christ come back to Earth as a woman, and that her decision to come to America was part of the divine plan. August 6 is important to the Shakers for another reason, though, Brother Arnold went on, and he asked us to guess what that might be. When we failed to come up with the answer, he smiled down at the floor with a kind of sadness, as if aware in advance how we might react. “It is the date of the dropping of the first atomic bomb on Hiroshima,” he said—“the date, in other words,” he continued, “when mankind released its own worst light into the world.” He looked at us without speaking for a moment. And standing there with him in the hallway outside the admissions desk at Sabbathday Lake, as a car drove slowly up the road out front, I felt my understanding of this now almost nonexistent utopian society expand a little as I realized just how open their doctrine is to complexity. Physically and metaphorically, Brother Arnold seemed to be saying, light is not always creative; it can be destructive as well. If light is knowledge, then that knowledge is not guaranteed to bring peace. In other words, he seemed to be suggesting, people have to deal with the equivocal; they can’t hide from it or pretend it doesn’t exist.
What I started thinking about that night in the Catskills was that Shaker buildings don’t hide from the equivocal either. After spending quite a bit of time photographing inside them, I had begun to see how these structures not only don’t hide from the equivocal but, in some ways, celebrate it. To what extent the designers of the buildings intended this I don’t know, and my ideas are based entirely on my own observations. What I had noticed was that the power of the light that comes through the windows at Pleasant Hill, at Canterbury, at Enfield, at Mount Lebanon, at Harvard, at Hancock, and at Sabbathday Lake (the Shaker communities I had visited so far) is greater than the designers of the buildings could have controlled or foreseen. The ways it scatters into the interiors, the patterns it forms on the walls and in the hallways, even to this day, are complicated and playful in a way strict Shaker doctrine would not have had a place for. Unlike water, which the Shakers controlled and made use of through networks of cisterns, pipes, sluiceways, waterwheels, gears, and mill ponds, getting everything they could out of it before reluctantly letting it continue its downward journey at the end of the village, sunlight remained a more elusive power, to be coaxed in by all means possible and lured in further through interior windows and wide passageways with reflective walls. At any time a cloud might hold it back, and because, from the perspective of the building, the light was always changing position, no single light pattern would last. One arrangement would give way to another, and within the ordered geometry of the architecture—Shakers believed lines should be straight and angles right; diagonals, whether in furniture, architecture, walking paths, or thought, were discouraged—would appear brilliant parallelograms, ellipses, rhomboids, trapezoids, disks, crescents, deltoids, and purely amorphous pools and puddles, streaks and arches—and this doesn’t include the shadows that cut through these shapes, shadows of branches, shadows of windowpanes, shadows of random pieces of furniture. In his lecture at the Arsenal Gallery, Eric Sanderson had pointed out how hard it is to see the complexity and fullness of nature that the Muir Web assures us is out there; it is just too vast and complicated to take in all at once. It seems to me that the Shakers were a great deal more alive to that complexity than is usually thought, and that from within the confines of their orderly, celibate life, they viewed the complications with sophisticated understanding and even delight.
The American Shakers liked their lines straight and their angles right, yet the sun patterns in the Centre Family Dwelling in Pleasant Hill, Kentucky (pages 74, 77, and 78), and the Brick Dwelling at Hancock Shaker Village, in Pittsfield, Massachusetts (page 80), are playful and suggestive in ways that seem to go beyond strict Shaker doctrine.
It is of course impossible to know what was going on in the minds of the Shakers, as it is impossible to know what is going on in anyone’s mind, but if you take on for a moment the conceit that a house is the metaphorical equivalent of a mind—something the Shakers themselves believed—then you have to consider that these highly practical idealists must have understood the ambiguous nature of the patterns they were accepting into their houses and that they considered the benefits of this acceptance greater than the risks. During a century and a half of building construction, Shakers stuck to a pretty unchanging set of designs, and whatever doubts the authorities might have felt about the wild splays of light through the interiors must have seemed less critical than the gloom (or artificial light) that would have accompanied an alternative. Or perhaps these ambiguous visual excitements seemed temptations worth conquering in the attempt to connect with the divine. As the architect and photographer Henry Plummer writes in his study of the effects of light in Shaker buildings, “by heightening the perception of celestial motion, Shaker architecture was able to make visible to the eye those cosmic powers and natural rhythms that closely govern life on earth.” The sun “arriving in various rooms at contrasting hours and from different directions—at times streaming horizontally through a window, only to then rain from a skylight, perhaps trickle out of a transom window, or angle down a cascade of steps, continually ricocheting from one reflective plane to another” brought forth what Plummer calls a “fluid metaphysical presence” in buildings that are “materially static but immaterially alive.” With such constant optical stimulation, it is not hard to see how into even the most upright, right-angled, spacious, and elegant Shaker soul could filter the irregular and playful, and how even those with solid walls and straight beams were not impervious to unexpected diagonals and fleeting irregularities. As we know from Shaker diaries, just maintaining celibacy was a struggle for many. It was not for having been untempted by “the nature of my fleshly mind,” as Mount Lebanon elder Isaac Newton Youngs put it, that believers were able to clamber up onto what Youngs yearningly called “the straight and narrow path.”
Nowadays, of course, the Shakers’ connection between sunlight and divinity does not seem otherworldly or hopelessly disconnected from reality. Not only everything humans do, but every connection on Eric Sanderson’s Muir Web depends, directly or indirectly, on the sun. As Sanderson points out in another book, Terra Nova, it is solar energy preserved in prehistoric plankton buried in the earth, heated, crushed, and later refined, that cars now burn in the form of gasoline. Gasoline itself was originally a byproduct of kerosene, marketed as a cheap replacement for the whale oil that provided light for homes. That not only Shakers but also many religions in one way or another have connected a characteristic that might be called volition to the powerful source of light is strange only if you are entirely unwilling to entertain the idea that you are known by the universe, that somewhere out there in nature is an intelligence like that of a parent watching you concernedly and hopefully.
On sunny mornings here at your mother’s house in the Catskills, as I sit in an armchair in the living room, sun shoots through the irregular glass of the old windows to stretch itself in parallelograms across the walls and to curl in spheres around doorknobs. When I was a child, I had the feeling that a mind moved among those patterns, that the thousand calls of birds during the day and insects at night were alive with the presence of something that had me under consideration, as was the drip of water from icicles and the stirring of leaves in the wind. I was probably right, in the case of the woods, that animals were aware of my presence—but not the wind. Along hillsides it flows, stirring leaves, and in here we lie awake, hearing it but not thinking it thinks. We surround ourselves with dogs and cats to ensure that some intelligence is watching us, but just outside, right there, is the wind. If I can take comfort in that, if I feel something in that— for in some ways it has generated this whole line of thought—it is not in its vastness but in its attributes, the way it touches down in places where we are, the way it crosses us and swings this branch. Perhaps this is the most we can hope for, these points of contact, these moments when you and I, here, can listen to the stirring of those hundreds of thousands of leaves we cannot see. Perhaps just being alive to the possibility of such contact, even with something as impersonal as the wind, is enough. But then again, we are not alone in this. We have each other. O
Benjamin Swett is a writer and photographer whose books include Route 22 and New York City of Trees. His photographs of Shaker interiors will be published by Design Arts Press this spring.
As one expects from Benjamin Swett, an extremely evocative personal essay that is widely comprehensive in scope. Even without photos, one has pictures in one’s mind. A pleasure to read.
Glorious prose and photographs! Having made my own pilgrimage to many Shaker villages thirty years ago, I appreciate how these words and images brought that wonder right back. This story of connection is beautifully woven.
thank you for the post
Having worked as an historical interpreter at Hancock Shaker Village, I found a new and interesting perspective on the Shakers and their architecture in your essay. Light was certainly a significant part of Shaker architecture and life. I remember especially when I was stationed in the dwelling how the light would pour into the windows at certain times of the day, illuminating a portion of a massive chest of drawers or a three-legged round table. At certain weekends of the year we would hold World’s People’s dinners (for the non-Shakers) in the evening. After dinner in the dwelling we took these people on a candlelight tour of the village, so that everything became seen now through a soft muted light.
I was surprised to hear that there were still three shakers left in Sabbathday lake. It is interesting if a bit confusing that these are not covenantal Shakers, since the Covenant was closed with the last sisters at Canterbury a number of years ago. Hancock had closed previously in 1960. This notion of beng in but not exactly of the official community is an example of the rather strict lives that the Shakers led for themselves on the one hand, while still finding themselves open to those who would follow the Shaker lifestyle even if in a less strict and more contemporary way.
The Shakers were a practical people and did not shun technology if it would make their lives more efficient. They also took in orphans from the world around them, many of whom ended up joining their society. In the 19th century with the rise of the industrial revolution, these orphans often started working in the mills and the Shakers began to see a decline in their membership. It was this and not celibacy that unfortunately brought them from their numerous villages to today’s three remaining Shakers.
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