Up in the Hollow: Leopold and Fritz, just two good ol’ boys

Leopold Kohr and E.F. “Fritz” Schumacher never visited Rappahannock County. They never climbed Mary’s Rock or fly-cast in the Thornton River. They didn’t buy fresh vegetables from a local farm or ride horses on a dusty country road past the homes of craftsmen, farmers, small business owners, plumbers, handymen or artists.

But surely they would have recognized in this good rural life the core of their philosophies and their hopes for the future. Though they were both somewhat eccentric European economists, their insights have influenced a generation of “down-home” thinking when it comes to the “economics of happiness.” Simply put, Kohr (1909-1985) and Schumacher (1911-1977) felt that “bigness” inevitably leads to chaos and that “Small is Beautiful,” which was the title of Schumacher’s remarkable 1972 book of essays on right-sized living.

That book had an enormous influence on the burgeoning environmental movement of the 1970s, and I’ll bet that more than one Rappahannock resident headed “back to the earth” as a result of his writing, whether they ever heard of him or not. “To talk about the future is useful only if it leads to action now,” said Fritz. A lot of folks packed up their copies of the Whole Earth Catalog and headed out of the cities, looking for the simple life.

Kohr believed that everything has a natural optimal size, and if it grows past that size, chaos ensues. “Its problems must eventually outrun the growth of those human faculties which are necessary for dealing with them . . . Whenever something is wrong, something is too big.”

He wrote those words in 1940, but surely they apply now more than ever to much of our national life: the Federal and state governments, all of our major corporations, the depraved insanity that is Wall Street and to practically every other enterprise that has more than, say, five committees. Things have a way of getting out of hand, large entities with power get out of control and the “human element” disappears. So it is with General Motors, the United States Army, AT&T and wherever else a human voice doesn’t take your business call.

Schumacher said simply (a rare thing for an economist!) that infinite consumption as a goal of modern economics is a recipe for disaster in a world with finite resources. When asked for a political statement, he said, “Plant a tree.”

I read where some people in Vermont are talking about seceding from the Union because it is a bad deal for them and they don’t feel like they really need the Federal Government. Can you imagine Yankees talking like that?! I could tell them that from a Southern perspective their secession movement probably won’t pan out very well.

But we here in Rappahannock seem to have essentially “seceded” in many ways. Through pluck and luck and thoughtful, visionary leadership, our county finds itself a peaceful, bucolic oasis surrounded by communities that have sold their soul (and the back forty) for the blight of “development” that solves no problems but inevitably brings new problems galore. (I’ve always thought that one good law would be that any “developer” should never be allowed to contribute to the campaign of a county supervisor.)

To achieve and maintain this very desirable ambience requires a fine balance of sensible growth and a determined vigilance to resist the easy convenience of strip malls, franchised fast food joints and the soulless hell that comes with the blight of the exurbs that surround us. We live in a rural paradise, and rural people by their natures and their upbringings do things for themselves and are generally willing to help out their neighbors in times of trouble.

Here, to a remarkable degree, we can have our own self-sufficient economy, eating good, healthy local food and shopping at our neighbor’s stores, shops and restaurants. We’ve got a fine local bank, a lively local paper (with all the news that’s fit to print and at least one eccentric column that probably isn’t), a serious arts culture and first-rate local services.

We’ve got excellent, progressive farms and some major tourist magnets. This is a tight-knit community with a low crime rate, a good school system that is getting better and a tradition of volunteerism that makes all this work. Maybe I should say that twice: “a tradition of volunteerism that makes all this work.”

And oh yeah, it’s a place of breathtaking beauty where every glance is worthy of a picture postcard. I know we need and must have more affordable housing and more small businesses with local jobs, but for the most part, we got it all, y’all. There is only one thing that can screw up all of this, of course. And that is what those two good ol’ boys, Leopold and Fritz, were warning us about.

As the county’s planning commission ponders the future of our Comprehensive Plan this year, it is more vital than ever that we define who we are and why we are truly a rare and exceptional place. And we must nourish those unique qualities that previous generations instinctively understood and protected. We have come much too far to take the easy way out now.

With all of this talk about cheap development and change for convenience’s sake, it is time to revisit the timeless values of the independent mountain traditions that have been here for centuries: “If you can do it yourself, do it. You can’t know where you are going if you forget where you came from. And if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”

Small is beautiful. Very beautiful.