“Hillsboro’s a conservative community,” said Robert, and for three days and three nights I attempted to figure out what he meant.
He said it right after we arrived at his shop, high atop a lush, sylvan hill off Beaver Creek Road, five miles south of Hillsboro in Western Wisconsin, the “Driftless Area.” It’s called “driftless” because, according to geologists, no leveling glacier ever came through these parts.
No cellphone works here, and as my son, Gus, told me later on, Robert has internet, but he only turns it on when he absolutely needs to use it. That statement came to mind when Summer, Robert’s wife, spoke pityingly about helicopter parents awaiting the end of the next drop-off activity, who have adopted the now too familiar posture: back arched, head reverently bowed, finger scrolling, thumbs typing. I do that, I thought to myself. Then I said something profound about the silhouette of the hollow men, which stung a bit even as the words came out.
Gus is here for intensive blacksmith training. At 15, he built a forge in our back yard, teaching himself through YouTube and a fascination with metallurgy. Now, at 16, and with forearms and hands that look like those of a man at 30, he’s in need of guidance from an artisan. After three days with Robert, he will take an idea and make it emerge fully from a piece of raw metal. For Gus, the labor—designing, forging, hammering, annealing, quenching, tempering; burning and epoxying the tang into the handle; filing and grinding; pinning and peening; polishing and sharpening—is both hard work and pure joy. And everyone present in the shop—Gus’s fellow students; Aaron, Robert’s jovial, bearded assistant; and the artisan himself—will share in that joy. I witnessed it every time I returned to the shop, from the sunny start to the very end, as clouds gathered over the hillside for a late-May monsoon. Robert kept Gus for over an hour after the final session, showing him tricks on the Arkansas stone (the best sort for sharpening). Amid explaining the angles and the proper motion, Robert paused, exhausted but with a placid look on his face: “I could do this for hours.” The statement seemed to apply equally to sharpening a new edge and to the act of tradition, tradere, giving over, handing down.
Robert is part of the Driftless Folk School, a cooperative venture of artisans and keepers of cultural memory who love to transmit old ways to the next generation. Such groups have sprung up around the country—the John C. Campbell Folk School in Brasstown, North Carolina; the Ozark Folk Center in Mountain View, Arkansas, where Lorrie and I first went on our honeymoon; and Driftless, centered in Viroqua but extended here to Hillsboro because of Robert.
Each of these folk schools is flavored by the community in which it sits, but they all tend to share certain traits. The people are not saints, but they are remarkably friendly and respectful. They are good storytellers. They love traditional folk music, grow their own vegetables, and eat what’s in season. The art they teach bleeds into other arts and reflects a deeper philosophy of life that aspires to work with creation instead of against it. They are kind and patient, but don’t have much regard for jerks. They cannot imagine practicing their craft without passing it along to others, especially the young. They combine diligent study and work on an individual level with a frank realization that life is impossible apart from a community. They make money at what they do, but they don’t do it for the money. For them, efficiency is a means and not an end—a means bound by an end that derives from something other than pure utility, rationality, fashion, or popular consensus.
And here’s the darnedest thing: They’re not all Republicans. For that matter, I’m fairly certain that many of them would bristle at the label conservative. Some of them are self-consciously liberal. I’m pretty sure that the typical folk-school type listens to NPR.
I sit on the banks of Bear Creek in nearby La Farge, casting for trout and pondering Robert’s statement: Hillsboro’s a conservative community.
Well, it’s certainly the “Czech Capital of Wisconsin.” The annual “Cesky Den” bears witness to this, as does the onion-domed St. Aloysius Catholic Church, with the large stone Ten Commandments (flanked by the Greatest Commandment and a statue of the Blessed Virgin) outside, and the Latin Mass inside. But the town, like many in the Driftless Area, is heavily German, with both the Wisconsin and Missouri synods fully represented, along with a smattering of Wesleyans and Baptists.
Then there are those who have embraced the Benedict Option to the fullest, the Old Order Amish of beards, buggies, bowl cuts, and no buttons. They have a very large “church” (community) in Cashton, north of La Farge, and a smaller sister church in Hillsboro. On the winding highways, I regularly passed men plowing fields behind draft horses. Gus and I witnessed a group of teenagers on Beaver Creek Road—the boys Gus’s age, beardless, the girls in their white bonnets and long black dresses, with all the modesty of a burka and none of the threat. They were congregated at the base of a hill, staring at an object to which we weren’t privy, laughing and chatting with the hormonal vigor of youth. They turned to us and waved. Sitting in front of the Hillsboro Brewery—my only access to Wi-Fi—Hills boro Pale Ale in my glass and pipe in my hand, an Old Order lady walked by, lugging eggs to Whitaker’s Farm Fresh Market across the street. She acknowledged the worldly Gentile’s greeting with a flush-faced smile and nod.
On the way to Bear Creek, I encountered a buggy, its one-horsepower at full throttle, unguided by human hands. The erstwhile driver, a towheaded teenage boy, was pounding away at a smartphone, his thumbs perhaps in secret Rumspringa, the open road and his draft horse providing the only chance for electronic liberty. Asking around, I later learned that even Old Orders may sometimes possess a cellphone for business purposes. Is this why he’d had it? Or was it concealed contraband? The wild-eyed delight on his acned face suggested something beyond business concerns. But there is no cell-data coverage on Highway 82, so this “running around” may have been nothing more than a round of Angry Birds.
In the land of no leveling, Republicans went in strongly for Queens, New York’s Donald Trump (defying those in the urban areas of America’s Dairyland, who chose Cubano-Canadian-American Ted Cruz). Overwhelmingly, the Democrats here voted for the one who consults openly with Karl Marx instead of the one who consults secretly with the Weird Sisters. Yet everyone I interviewed over the course of my time here seemed indifferent to it all, from the waitress and the old feller holding court at Barbie’s Café, to the fur trader near the Kickapoo River in Rockton, whose store was decorated with NRA decals, to the gossipy gals at Sisters Restaurant in La Farge. They preferred to talk about the affairs of the community.
The trout, satisfied by the morning’s storm, are not biting, so I turn creekside to Josef Pieper’s Only the Lover Sings, which I’ve brought with me along with inadequate fishing tackle. I’m rereading it in preparation for Gus’s philosophy class, which I’m leading next fall, a one-hour weekly seminar for his classical Christian homeschool group. I stare at the riffles and wonder: Am I doing this because I love philosophy, or because I am desperate to hold on to every possible moment with my eldest son? Yes, I conclude.
Pieper’s essay-book builds on themes that are also found in Leisure: The Basis of Culture, Tradition: Concept and Claim, and others of his writings. The modern, desacralized West is dominated by a culture of monotonous work that values only utility. The “world of work,” in Mussolini’s famous phrase, has no room for true leisure, for moments of pure receiving, for those arts that Aristotle called “liberal”—free, that is, from the need to fulfill ends beyond themselves. The goal of philosophy is not something else of value, monetary or otherwise; the goal of philosophy is philosophy: to love reality, to see what God has made and respond with wonder. Even the ancient pagans understood this, however inadequately (idolatrously), and in the advent of Christ, the world was given its arche and telos, its beginning and end in human flesh, incarnate so man could clearly see reality, and crucified and raised so that man might serve reality in this world and the one to come. That has certain implications for culture, in matters both sacred and mundane.
The world of work has gobbled up church life and politics, so that words like Christian and conservative and liberal correspond merely to a particular flavor of the five-year plans that once characterized communism and now characterize Western society. For us, though, there is no five-year plan to fix everything. The red pill of ideology, of isms that replace one demon with seven, is poison.
Pieper recommends silence—eliminating the noise of modernity that turns leisure into anxious labor, perverting both work and rest. That’s a start, but it is not enough. Beyond it, people must endeavor to create art again—prose, poetry, sculpture, painting, song. The true artist, Pieper says, has to see reality in order to create. Only the lover sings, and the Lover and ultimate object of our love is God.
Back at the forge, I think of the task of the artisan, which may be the bridge between the worlds of the servile and the liberal arts, a catalyst for sanity in these frantic times of hollow men and prayerful smartphonery. Gus shows me his finished Bowie knife, and I beam at him and it—its lines, the uniqueness of the blade’s contours to the mind and action of its creator, the experience of silence amid hammerfalls on anvils, the direction of the master, the help of the community, the gleam of the steel, the shape of the handle. The Lord is not only a Philosopher—a lover of Himself: He is, as the author of the Letter to the Hebrews writes, a Technites (a craftsman) and a Demiourgos, one Who creates for others, for the people. By faith, Abraham “looked for a city that hath foundations, whose builder and maker is God.” God doesn’t need a city. He takes on the form of a servant to make a beautiful one for us. It is an act of love, of liberality.
Before leaving, I ask Robert what he’d meant when he used the word conservative. “People around here need to be connected to the land and to each other,” he says. “Really, it’s how the world is supposed to work.” That seems to me like the redemption of work itself, of the realm of the servile arts that, in Pieper’s words, belongs to humanity. True liberals and true conservatives can meet right there.