Radically re-imagining the world - Daniel Silliman

There's nothing left by a little wooden shack, shadowed by the redwoods.

There's a sign, California State Historic Landmark No. 389, to tell you what you're looking at, but today the shack in Kaweah, Calif., is just a small post office in the Sierra Nevada mountains.

Once, though, it was the cornerstone of a new world, the world imagined by a crew of socialist loggers, who trekked up the mountain and bought a timber claim and thought that, with hard work, right thinking and a little seclusion, they could build something ideal.

They camped out along the north fork of the river, in 1886, and they radically re-imagined their own economics, ideas of property and daily life. They tried to name the largest Sequoia after Karl Marx.

They failed, of course. The creation of a national park deprived them of their land and, though once an estimated 300-strong, they dwindled as the state and federal government successfully shut them down. Today, if you take the left turn over the bridge to see what was there, you can't see anything but the marker and the shack, and if you don't look for it, you won't even see that.

It's not even a ghost town. It's sort of a ghost camp.

Similar places exist up and down the California mountain range, and across the country, places where little collections of people gathered around economic ideas, religious ideas, artistic ideas, formed themselves into communities and radically re-imagined the world. Most of them, like Kaweah, disappeared after a few years or after a generation. Most of them didn't even leave a mark to remember them by -- the history of these groups is often carried only by those who were members.

When the communities die they leave nothing but a rumor of their existence, which, somehow, leaves other communities free to sprout up in the debris and imagine themselves as totally new, totally unique in the history of idealistic youths' intentional communities.

Despite the harsh realities, despite desperately long odds, Americans seem to always find themselves here again: Dreaming, envisioning, imagining, hoping.

The history of these American communities starts with the Massachusetts Bay Colony, in 1620s, when John Winthrop said the community would be a shining city on a hill and continues, today, in Athens and Atlanta, Billings, Mont., and the coast of California. It's a seemingly unbroken line of communities conceiving themselves as original and re-conceiving the world in a new, radical and better way.

In 2005, more than 700 of these communities were listed in a directory -- a number, of course, that doesn't even include those which, because of paranoia or privacy or lack of knowledge, didn't get listed -- and almost all of those were in the United States. There's something about Americans, I think, where we easily find ourselves dreaming or a better world, envisioning a perfect place.

Even if you think it's all hallucinated, these grandiose and history-ignorant fantasies, you're still, as an American, participating in some form of the radical re-imagining.

Today is Super Tuesday, and Georgians along with citizens in 23 other states will vote for a candidate and that candidate's vision of this country.

On the Democratic side, they're talking about change and what we could be, if the angles of our better nature were embraced and set free. But even among those who aren't progressive, Republicans who see themselves as attempting to preserve, rather than create, a good society, the candidates and the politically oriented masses are imagining a world and proposing seismic shifts to restructure everything. The most conservative candidate, Ron Paul, would radically realign the country. The representative of establishment Republicans, Mitt Romney, would like to see our foreign policy recreate the world in our own democratic image.

Every one's dreaming dreams. Every one's having visions. Realism and pragmatism are just poses, because we're all radicals of some sort. Like Ray Charles singing about purple mountains and fruited plains, as Al Sharpton once said, we're all talking about a place we've never seen, but believe in anyway.

So the question, on this Tuesday in America, is what kind of country do you see in your dreams?

Daniel Silliman covers crime for the Clayton News Daily. He can be reached at (770) 478-5753, ext. 254, or via e-mail at dsilliman@news-daily.com.