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Poetic community

09/27/06 12:00AM By Bill Shutkin
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(HOST) You might not think of community planning as a poetic endeavor, but commentator Bill Shutkin says that - sometimes - it is.

(SHUTKIN) "To fail as a poet," the philosopher Richard Rorty tells us, "is to accept somebody else's description of oneself, to execute a previously prepared program, to write, at most, elegant variations on previously written poems." For Rorty, a poet isn't just someone who writes verse; she's anyone who strives for invention, who finds the old ways inadequate to deal with new experiences.

Given this definition, Sigmund Freud was a poet, because he changed our map of the mind by creating a new vocabulary that combined economics with legends and myths. George Orwell was a poet, too. He redescribed communism in the colorful, if radical, terms of allegory, leaving the world to behold a once grand notion turned poisonous.

But poets need not be great thinkers or novelists. They need not even be individuals. Take the small town of Wray, Colorado, for example, on the western fringe of the Great Plains. Like many rural Plains communities, Wray sits on a fault line of drought and depopulation. In some ways, Wray still resembles the 19th century frontier town it once was - dry and dusty, with a mere six people per square mile in the surrounding area.

But the people of Wray weren't satisfied with simply repeating the same old patterns. They came up with a new vision and a new approach to getting there. When they looked out across the landscape of eastern Colorado, Wray didn't see hardship but promise, in the crops the farmers struggle to grow, the wind that constantly buffets them, the sun that constantly parches them and the local school that, more than any history book, tells the true story of the town - as it is today and might be tomorrow.

Wray is becoming a model for rural community development in which agriculture and energy production are the starting point for positive change. The local high school has erected a wind turbine to power the school's facilities while educating Wray's younger generation about the possibilities of renewable energy as a source of community renewal. Local farmers and ranchers have come together around ethanol, biomass, methane, wind and solar to help achieve energy independence. And they've helped create 25x25, a national effort to provide twenty-five percent of the nation's energy needs from U.S. farms, forests and ranches by the year 2025.

Wray's innovation has begun to turn a story of despair into a story of hope. It's emerging as a symbol of a new, forward-looking rural America. Call it a "poetic community." And there are others - like Paonia, CO; Missoula, MT; Northampton, MA and our own Brattleboro. These are places that simply refuse to accept somebody else's definition of what's possible.

I believe in each of us, in each of our communities, is a poet waiting to rise up, and that now, more than ever, we need our poets. So like a preacher, I say, "All rise."

Bill Shutkin is president of the Orton Family Foundation and a Research Affiliate at MIT.
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