the (often) meandering travels of a student anthropologist
I had been in Texas less than two weeks, parking in my father's driveway, reacquainting myself with family I hadn't seen in almost a decade, when a dark night of whispered voices, cars going and coming, hurried footsteps, and mournful train whistles ushered in tragedy; one of my young nephews took his own life.
The previously unnoticed heartbeat of our lives stumbled, skipped a long beat and, in the days after, shock stole our breath.
I have hesitated whether to mention it here. The details certainly aren't fodder for narrative. At the same time, however, it would also feel deeply wrong to ignore this young man's loss, and continue to write, to post, as if it never happened. To do so would mean dismissing his eighteen years of life, the impact that his life made on a community, and the hole his death has ripped into the fabric of a family. It would mean pretending that I haven't been deeply shaken as we grieve.
It would mean ignoring what I have subsequently learned is an epidemic of suicide among our young people.
In the inevitable searching for answers in the aftermath, I find myself thinking about how, even within families and communities, people find themselves isolated. They walk the fringes. They are outside of boundaries that we rarely recognize exist. Or, if we are aware of those lines of exclusion, are unable to acknowledge the depth of the effects upon psyche and soul. Sometimes we simply don't know how to bridge them.
To be outside, to be other, is also a state of being that is not necessarily fixed and permanent–such as when a transgression results in a religious shunning–but can feel interminable, nevertheless, to those on the other side of what they perceive as immutable, unchanging, and although invisible, gulfs of separation.
And, sometimes, we find that 'they' are 'us'. We become the outsiders.
When I started my fieldwork, I wanted to study how people create space and carve out community on the edges of mainstream society. Especially those that choose their own exit, their own banishment, their own leave taking: when does this same walk–towards even a symbolic wilderness–mutate from the way groups have traditionally threatened punishment to a self-inflicted, but desirable, option? The people I went to learn from in my fieldwork are now outsiders, but are they 'looking back in'?
One of the ideas I have plucked at for several years now, as I've studied fringe subcultures, is that perhaps the margins of communities offer a pressure release valve from the narrow constructs and strictures engendered by entrenched cultures. Can communities of any size survive without room for the expression of diversity that seem innate in the human experience? Without these fissures, these places of escape, couldn't unrelieved and mounting pressures as socialization bends, molds and demands conformity, cause a society to implode?
And, in light of my family's loss, I also have to ask, without a community of their own, can those on the fringes, survive?
Could the promise of community, for the nomads I met, even be a primary reason for their exodus? It's an interesting question to pose in our political climate of increasing conservatism that looks to solve our current problems by exclusion rather than inclusion. Personally, it is more than just interesting. It has become an urgent question to answer. I have spent the last weeks wrestling with ideas of what is in, and what is out–and how we create structure in our communities with not just brick and mortar walls, but language, relationships, rituals and concepts.
I've also had to confront how we impose 'otherness' on ourselves when we feel we do not 'fit', and how we subsequently remove ourselves, intentionally or not, from our community and family. Perhaps this is a search for, a drive for, authentic expression that is natural to human existence. Despite the myth of the loner, however–the adventure of the quest, the lure of the road narrative–it is a vulnerable journey, and contains the seeds of, certainly a higher potential of, tragedy.
How is the isolation of 'otherness' navigated by the self-exiled nomad? In this movement of self-described introverts how is community perceived, formed, and how is it different than the communities that they turned their backs on?
Although the word nomad is self-coined from within the movement, and therefore appropriate to use, it isn't a wholly definitive term. According to the English Oxford Living Dictionary (EOLD) online, a nomad is “A member of a people that travels from place to place to find fresh pasture for its animals and has no permanent home.” Its origin is “from the French nomade, via Latin from Greek nomas, nomad- ‘roaming in search of pasture’, from the base of nemein ‘to pasture’.” Although rooted in a specific livelihood (the need to pasture animals), the definition, also, by calling a nomad “a member a people”, alludes to an ethnic or familial cluster.
The nomads of the American Southwest are not in search of open fields to feed their livestock, nor do they exist as a separate people, moving together. They leave their families and former lives, as individuals. They are strangers to each other, at least initially, and although most often white, and from typically middle-class backgrounds, are politically, economically and socially diverse.
They would also be the first to argue that they are house-less, not homeless, and that they situate their home around themselves. Permanence becomes a state of being, not a concept rooted in static geography.
The adoption/adaptation of the word 'nomad' more closely correlates to the EOLD’s secondary definition “A person who does not stay long in the same place; a wanderer.” Yet, this simplistic definition misses the mark as well. It is not fully descriptive of the men and women I met. They form communities, both physically and virtually, and retain both formal and informal membership in these communities. Additionally, ‘to wander’ denotes a certain aimlessness, a certain luxury of whim, rather than what I observed as consistent and repeated trajectories fueled by requirements to move with the seasons, find work, or obtain resources.
Also, unlike traditional nomadic societies, these modern American nomads are marked by their movement on the periphery–not the fringes of geography necessarily, despite the sometimes distant location of campsites, but rather on the edges of legal or what is considered culturally acceptable venues of residence. As such, they are often perceived, at least from those outside the lifestyle, as radical. Not just 'other', but potentially, a dangerous and undesirable other.*
Ultimately, I am beginning to understand that the movement's adoption of the word 'nomad', as well as 'tribe' speaks less then to this lifestyle of physical movement and rootlessness, than it expresses the need for–the search for, the seeking out of, the move towards–community.
What is primarily understood (even by the women and men I camped with) as movement outwards, away from community, to be outside of, and on the fringes of mainstream society, critically is one that harbors trajectories and paths towards inclusion.
And perhaps even evolution, rather than revolution. When I ask Silvianne, a 62-year old former HR administrator turned tarot reader**, whether she feels being a nomad puts her on the fringes of mainstream society she responds,
Yes and no. Sometimes even I wonder, "is there something wrong with me?" But then I remember that I am living much closer to the way humans have lived through the ages than your average suburban or urban American. Mainstream society as we know it is falling apart, and that's a good thing.
*Ideas I'll pursue in a future post.
**Featured in Bruder’s Nomadland