creating community through celebration

In Defense of Foolishness

I’ve been thinking lately of just how many things I regularly do that could be thought of as “foolish”. I don’t mean things carelessly undertaken that result in regrettable outcomes. I just mean things I do that a reasonable observer would judge unlikely to produce an expected result.

Take chickens for example. We have six hens living in a coop I built in the back yard. At this moment, they are busily hatching a plot to get around the fencing I erected to keep them out of the Romano beans. I guess that raising these creatures puts us in the mainstream of the organic - low carbon footprint – locally produced - urban poultry movement. If everyone did likewise, the world would be a better place: chicken farming on the cutting edge of social progress. The problem is that everyone can’t or won’t do likewise. It’s a foolish expectation. I should settle for keeping them out of the Romano beans.

Take the Romano beans for example. Among their many noble qualities is their ability to fix nitrogen. “But my nitrogen isn’t broken”, you might say. Possibly not, but plants that fix nitrogen make it available in the soil in a form that can be used by other plants. If everybody grew nitrogen-fixing plants, we could effectively do away with the need for artificial nitrogen fertilizers which are dumped on ethanol-producing Midwestern cornfields which drain into the Mississippi River which, in turn empties into the Gulf of Mexico, nourishing an algae bloom that creates a dead zone even bigger than the BP oil spill. If only everyone would pitch in and fix their darn nitrogen, we could help save the Gulf fisheries. But they won’t. Lots of people don’t even like Romano beans. And of those that do, there aren’t enough to produce change on that large a scale. It would be foolish to think so. Better to cook them for dinner.

Take dinner for example. Around our house, we always try to eat supper together, a somewhat time-consuming and deliberate process. Because we tend to make things from scratch, there is a good bit of preparation time involved in peeling, chopping, even picking the ingredients. Then there’s the cooking, the table setting, extracting the kids from whatever activities have consumed them, and getting everyone to the table. The payoff? Studies have shown that families that dine together tend to produce better-adjusted, more highly motivated kids with better levels of self-esteem, who brush their teeth regularly and clean up their rooms with no one having to ask them twice. (I made up some of this). There is also a positive correlation with academic success. So by seating the urchins around the dinner table, I am propelling them inexorably down the path to graduate degrees from renowned Universities and careers that will equip them with the means to sustain their parents in comfortable circumstances through their advanced years. Even if eating together makes me late for Morris practice.

Take Morris practice for example. If you’ve never seen one (count your blessings) a Morris team practice consists of a “side” of men, old enough to know better, alternately leaping and capering sweatily through their dance “figgers”, and discussing at excruciating length just what leaping and capering ought to take place. Great emphasis is placed on the authenticity of the form and adherence to the tradition. These are argued with much vehemence, although documentation for any given viewpoint is probably tenuous and certainly open to interpretation. Nevertheless, beer is downed, dances worked up, and plans made for dancing out. After all, a large and enthusiastic public awaits, nay demands, its Morris and all that it promises in terms of a collective return to 19th century English rustic community values. Just like the Revels.

Take the Revels for example – an ongoing expression of foolishness. On one level, it can be seen as failed historic reenactment, a quixotic attempt to surround audiences with the experience of living in one or another historic period. But we don’t even try to be totally accurate, and the audience involvement in Revels is not on the level of role-playing. (I have always been impressed by real historical reenactors who can go ten, twelve hours at a stretch, merrily chatting along in faux Elizabethan patois. I don’t think I could do that.)

No, Revels operates instead on the level of metaphor. Just as a poet might write about fire to express passion, lightning to express anger or rain to express sadness, so Revels uses simple and concrete imagery to touch complex and amorphous concepts. A children’s song like Oats Peas, Beans, and Barley Grow can express a much deeper connection to the mystery of creation; the lovely French song, Le Semeur, describes sowing seeds in a way that evokes the cycle of existence. Foolishness is inherently metaphorical. It ignores the rationally perceived absurdity of what is being said or done in favor of the deeper meaning of what is being felt.

Growing a patch of beans to save the environment is absurd, and yet on a metaphorical level, it reinforces and communicates an important value – and it puts beans on the table. The same goes for backyard chickens, family dining, and the ethos of Morris dancing. They all meet my test of foolishness, which is to produce results that, while in no way achieving the grand consequences that the skeptic might demand of them, are nevertheless useful and satisfying in themselves and connect to values that are deep and important and cannot be experienced in any other way. That is the utility of acting metaphorically – the usefulness of foolishness.

- David Parr, Artistic Director