|hoto by Mark Bugnaski, Kalamazoo Gazette|
“You’ve got to experiment, and experiment with your own life! Not just sit back in an ivory tower somewhere as if your life weren’t all mixed up in it….” B.F. Skinner, Walden Two
Lake Village in Pavilion Township began as an experiment in “getting back to the Earth.” Now in its 40th year, it sees no end in sight.
In fact, members of the group believe the Homestead has become more relevant than ever as more and more area people want its free range meat products raised without chemicals, antibiotics or growth hormones and its vegetable crops that are grown without synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides.
While food production is one important aspect of the farm, Lake Village is much more.
“It is a place of peace and healing and it provides me with opportunities to learn about connecting to Nature and getting along with all kinds of people,” said Tony Kaufman, 42, Lake Village farm manager.
It’s also about animal care, politics, business, education, environmental issues. Kaufman has been living at Lake Village for 20 years. His 10-year-old daughter, Ella, who was born on the farm, lives with him.
Traci Ulrich Seuss, 48, was nine years old when her family moved to Lake Village and she has lived there ever since. An avid lover of horses, the certified massage therapist has appreciated the freedom to ride and roam the 350-acre property that is also home to her daughter, Della, 11, and 50 other people of this cooperative community.
Although by definition, utopia is not a definitive place, Seuss argues that it exists inside a person.
“I love my life. It’s perfect,” she said
The man behind the Lake Village experiment is retired WMU psychology professor Roger Ulrich. Inspired by B.F. Skinner’s novel, Walden Two, he has combined his Mennonite background, Native American spirituality and a love for baseball into a practical philosophy that he sums up in two brief sentences:
“There is no experiment other than the real situation. Until you get into the earth and grow a real tomato, there is no real education.”
Before he founded the homestead in 1971, the Skinnerian behavioral psychologist used to experiment with rats and pigeons.
“I thought I was doing the right thing for science,” he said. “This is what was happening at the time, what we were taught to do and what we taught our students. But it was kind of mean and I stopped torturing animals and apologize to the pigeons and rats that took that pain.”
His vision of Lake Village was to create a place where people, animals and all of Nature lived together peacefully.
“We have been conditioned as children to see ourselves as different and separated,” said Ulrich as we sat on the deck of his house that overlooks Long Lake. Chickens clucked one floor below us and a cardinal beckoned Ulrich to put some seed out on the ledge.
One of his most important influences was his contact with Rolling Thunder (1916-1997), a Native American medicine man who advocated for the care of the environment as well as the togetherness and inclusiveness of all peoples. He and his wife, Spotted Fawn, founded an inter-tribal, inter-racial, non-profit community on 262 acres in northeastern Nevada near Carlin to teach white people Indian ways.
Ulrich visited Rolling Thunder for a week while he was on his way to a professional psychology conference in San Francisco and it proved to be a life-changing experience.
“I learned that I’m not separate from Nature,” he said, “even though our culture conditions us as children to see ourselves as different and separate. I’m one with the squirrel and the blackbird. I’m an undividable part of all of life.”
Ulrich, who doesn’t define himself by any particular religion, has adopted this “natural spirituality” where he believes that all that’s here was present in the beginning and will never end.
Ulrich, who will be 80 in August, was born to Mennonite/Anabaptist parents in Eureka, IL, where he learned to live a simple life. His father was a farmer who used plow horses but whose off-farm income eventually led him to become a John Deere tractor salesman.
This was a seminal moment for Ulrich—and for America—because it signaled a changed brand of agriculture and a society dependent on oil and consumerism, both of which Ulrich believes are this country’s biggest problems.
“We’re conditioned at birth that we need all this stuff. We could do well with less,” he said. “We have to undo what we have been taught even though it’s not easy to turn around a whole culture.”
Ulrich’s Mennonite roots also taught him pacifism, which created a dilemma for him when the Korean War broke out. Because he had a college education, he chose to enlist in Officer Candidate School in the U.S. Navy. After a short time there, he found that he didn’t fit the military framework so he asked to be a regular seaman. For two years he sailed the Mediterranean Sea and coastal areas all around the United States.
He left the military with many questions about aggression, and this led to a lifetime of research.
“Shooting at people just escalates the conflict,” he concluded. “You can’t stop aggression through punishment.”
Later the U.S. Navy commissioned Ulrich to conduct research on aggression as a strategy for containment. However, his report did not conform to the Navy’s assumptions, so it was summarily disregarded and dismissed.
“We live in a country with many blessings because we fight,” said Ulrich. “I pay taxes to this larger machine that assumes ‘might makes right.’ However, the problems we face are not solved at the human level.”
Consumer products and the means for procuring them has left us not only with air, water and land pollution but with more violent storms, floods and drought, he said. The increased use of oil is the main culprit.
“We’re in the days of purification where we can’t keep using our scarce resources as we have been,” said Ulrich. “Nature will determine what comes next and we’ll be a part of it [because we are part of Nature].”
Watching television and flipping on lights contributes to this problem because it takes coal, oil and other resources to generate the electricity, he said. Lake Village members attempt to be mindful of their use of energy and to seek alternatives.
Ulrich’s house, for example, is heated with wood and built into an earth berm. Its abundance of windows brings in natural light. Eighty percent of the food Lake Villagers eat is either raised or purchased within 100 miles of the farm.
“You try your best to do what you can do and live a life that you feel will be sustainable.”
But Ulrich also sees consumerism and sustainability in spiritual terms with the Golden Rule (“Do unto others as you would have them do unto you”) as a guide not only in our relationships with each other but with the Earth.
“It’s not so much me as a human being as it’s the Earth that is the nurturer,” said Ulrich. “Our life here is all tied up in the soil, sun, water, air. The way we treat the Earth is the way we treat each other.”
More Americans are now capturing the essence of taking care of themselves and the Earth such as the Eat Local Kalamazoo group and the organic food movement, said Ulrich.
“The way plants and animals are treated affects us. You are part of their life.”
Focusing on raising food more cheaply, efficiently and in greater quantities without considering health issues for humans or the animals, land, water or air is counterproductive to good living. Current farming practices put animals in confined animal feeding operations (CAFO) where they experience stress and pain.
“This makes the animals mentally ill and crazy and when we eat them. We take on that craziness,” he said.
Actually, scientists are finding connections between people’s food and their susceptibility to medical problems like asthma, autism and diabetes.
Living close to one’s food source is another angle to his natural spirituality, however, Ulrich realizes that not everyone needs or wants to live on a farm to be more intimate with Nature’s cycles and processes. They can grow a garden or even raise chickens—as is now permitted in Kalamazoo and Portage. What’s important is that they connect to Nature for good physical, mental and emotional health.
“All is sacred,” said Ulrich. “We are all part of the life force.”
Ulrich’s philosophy of life also stems from his love of baseball, which inspired him to go to college so he could keep on playing the game. He subsequently tried out for the Chicago Cubs. Although he didn’t make it, he played ball all his life including years with the Kalamazoo Warriors senior softball team until he was 76.
Nevertheless, he did find academe engaging and stimulating enough to continue it through to the Ph.D. level. He taught in the university where he also served as a professor and assistant dean of students at Illinois Wesleyan. At Western Michigan University, where he stayed for 30 years, he was a department head and a researcher.
Sports taught Ulrich the quality of teamwork to achieve a goal. He transferred this idea to Lake Village where everyone, residents, animals, vegetables, trees and all living things live together.
Ulrich claims he never planned his life but instead indulged himself in whatever was available to him at the time.
“Have fun. Be joyful. Enjoy the ride,” he said. “If you can make the ride more comfortable, do it.”
Perhaps that’s the grandest experiment of them all and Ulrich invites everyone to indulge in it!