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McCallum: Contemporary Footpaths

(Host) When educator, writer and commentator Mary McCallum built her house in the woods, she reveled in the privacy and the front row seat to nature that it provided. Now, twenty years later, she finds herself drawn to closer neighborly connection.

(McCallum) Recently, I walked from my house in the woods to my neighbor's, a five-minute journey down a steep dirt road. It was a warm autumn day that glittered with late afternoon sunlight and warm breezes that ruffled brilliantly-colored leaves. I was going to get a massage at my friend's home office , and during my walk was struck by the notion of how proximity can enrich our lives.

Ask a Vermonter about the importance of their car and they will assert its absolute necessity. With the average drive from back roads to cultural events, shopping, doctors, employment and children's activities taking a half hour, we are all, quite literally, on overdrive. This requirement to get behind the wheel in order to connect with the world has me thinking about the joys of having within walking distance that for which we yearn for most: community.

I do have good neighbors. The closest one sometimes provides me with eggs. In winter, when she sees me heading down the hill on a dog walk, she might call out that my next dozen will be perched on the snowbank for me to grab on my way back. I like that kind of grocery shopping but it's the exception, not the rule. In fact, while I have a cluster of wonderful neighbors just a short walk away, it's not customary for us to share space, work or even meals.

With my contemporaries, I learned in my twenties how to live communally. The logic of having only one driveway to plow instead of three or four made sense, as did the idea of owning fewer lawn mowers. And having only one lawn to mow. So we pooled our efforts to garden communally and pitch in on cooking and maintenance.

I'm not suggesting a return to that lifestyle. The idea of having one's own space has taken deep root in us all, yet I hear friends talk about the desire to live more closely, to drive less and to share in the good times and the bad from just few footsteps away. Low impact cluster housing is on the rise, as are pocket neighborhoods in large cities designed to feel like small villages. They sport flower gardens, backyards, and even picket fences to visit over with the neighbor next door.

Early history had humans forming small settlements in order to defend themselves from enemies. Their town commons provided livestock grazing and firewood collecting opportunities for all. Nowadays, folks are building modern settlements with shared common space, but with the emphasis on sustainability and community instead of protection.

Some local friends talk about a settlement of yurts with common space and footpaths winding between them. I love that idea, and dream of being able to shout out my door, Hey, I've got some soup, who wants to come over? followed by calls of I've got the wine! and My pie is hot out of the oven!

The perfect mix of proximity, separateness and meals without wheels.

Mary McCallum is a freelance writer and former prison librarian who now works with Vermont elders.
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