A Day at Shaker Village

During the seemingly endless days of long distance dating, Ellen and I both loved our respective cities so much that we spent weekends showing one another around, dropping in at our favorite haunts. We had so many places and things we wanted to share with one another that we created a list, one for Lexington and one for Indianapolis. Yet as time went on, we easily crossed the Indianapolis items off the list, as Ellen spent far more weekends driving to see me than I was able to drive down to see her. I was still a single parent then, taking fifteen credit hours at university, and working a part-time job as well as photographing weddings for my fledgling photography business. Ellen had the ease of hopping in her truck with her pup, and barely even packing a bag, she'd hit the road after work on Fridays, speeding towards me so we could hug one another so fiercely it hurt.

We've now lived together for two years, and while we don't live in Lexington, we're still in Kentucky - and many of the things Ellen had on her list were not just in the city, but outdoorsy, rural points of interest. We abandoned the list for awhile, just enjoying that we were together and exploring our new town. Yet once we decided to travel full-time, we realized we needed to finish the list before we left. There is still so much to see here, and within an hour or two, we can be in an entirely different place. So last week, we rose early and set out to spend the day at Shaker Village, an extinct yet preserved Shaker community near the Kentucky River. We bought coffee on the way and listened to The Stray Birds, which seemed rather appropriate, after all, we were driving down the back roads of the Bluegrass.

We spent the day at Shakertown, staying near to close, even as the crowds thinned and returned to their cars in the parking lot, which seemed foreign and strange after spending the day walking amongst horse-drawn carts and oxen. Our sweet girl led the way, grasping her site map so tightly against the strong winds that coursed through the village, that by the end of the morning it was crumpled and ripped. The early autumn breezes were pushing on us all day, ripping fragile and dying leaves from their branches and depositing them on the gravel paths, swirling them dramatically around our boots. A particularly strong wind caught the edge of her map and then it was up, and like the mother that I am, I ran after it, knowing the devastation that would ensue if the map was lost to the wind. I scrambled across a field, hoping no one was watching this bumbling spectacle as I raced after the tumbling map, only to catch it, holding it up victoriously so our tiny daughter could be relieved of that breath she was holding in her cheeks, and the wind caught it again. I was off, running after a colorful and replaceable piece of paper, like a damn fool, and so terribly out of breath that I muttered angrily to myself about needing to exercise and stop eating so much cheese.

I was, of course, enamored with the kitchens and drying rooms, the storage cellars, the medicinal spaces. I was reminded again and again how simple, intentional living isn't easy. That the life we are carving out for ourselves in the Airstream and then one day, building a small farmhouse and being entirely self-sustaining, will take work. Hard work. We have to learn, read, study, and then put our hands to the test. In many ways, I am thankful that we have decided to travel first, to make the transition from our consuming, on-grid, Starbucks life a little less shocking.

I spent the most time in the kitchens here, which are comprised of several rooms specific to different tasks. There was a deep brick oven, as well as multiple broad fireplaces for cooking, deep sink basins and heavy work surfaces. The tools were varied and often unidentifiable until reading the descriptive placards posted nearby. The implements were over-sized, as they were not just feeding small nuclear families, but the entire village. Thick wooden and iron colanders the size of modern-day sheet pans, wooden bowls the size of tabletops, carved wooden scoops and spoons and paddles and cast-iron everything. Thick, hearty ceramic jugs and bowls were shelved and scattered, yet despite the lack of relation to any present-day kitchen, I could see myself cooking here, learning new-to-me methods and returning to a time where cooking wasn't about the ease or convenience, but it was diligent, dedicated to the necessary nourishment of hard-working bodies, keeping them able and strong.

We admired the cycle of work that took place here, the symbiotic relationship between the land, the animals, the people. The gardens and livestock that were carried to the kitchens, after many other hands tilled and planted and cared for and harvested, foraged for mushrooms, wild berries, chestnuts, fattened the calf, snapped the chicken's neck. Their mantra, hands to work, hearts to God. I touched things I wasn't supposed to touch, craving to touch what others had and eventually abandoned, and I wondered where the children of these people are now. Do they visit here, connecting with their history, needing to touch the worn tables and heavy plastered walls?

There was so much to take in, so much to see, that we didn't even get to the trails and waterfalls on the property. We did frolick in a field filled with spiders and what-have-you, I'd rather not think about it and instead be thankful I didn't notice because I was so happy, breathing in the perfection of the autumn day, the wide and pushy wind that whipped at our hair, the warm sun, the two people I love most with me, happy too, and we drove home the long way, down to the river, along it, and away from it, sleepy but still exhilarated from what we had learned, what we will carry with us, feeling more certain and sure about the life we want and are working toward.

Hands to work, hearts to God.

Shaker links:

The Shakers / Ken Burns, PBS

Shaker Village / Kentucky

Sabbathday Lake / Maine, only remaining working Shaker community