I can never remember if my first experience of something Shaker was nearby at the Morikami Museum in Delray Beach, Florida (a captivating exhibition that contemplated the similarities between Shaker furniture and traditional Japanese furniture), or if it was on my first big road trip on my own, in autumn 1989, at a stop at the Shaker Museum in Old Chatham, New York, where I had a memorable sandwich (cheddar, apple, and carrot with maple mustard on hearty wheat). Aside from the sandwich, though, the visit was not very good. The museum left me feeling sad and depressed. Everything about it suggested that the Shakers were long gone, relics of the past.
Somehow, in the weird serendipitous stumbling manner in which I’ve managed to get through my years, I ended up going a few years later to the mountains of North Carolina to study the book arts at the Penland School of Crafts, meeting a guy there named Seth Thompson. He would end up becoming my husband 20 years later, but perhaps more important to the story, he happened to be from Maine, from a neighboring town to Chosen Land, the sole remaining active Shaker Community in the country. Or the world, for that matter. Seth also happened to work there sometimes as a tour guide and in the herb gardens, and so he had a working relationship with the Shakers, especially with Brother Arnold Hadd, who, like me, is a letterpress printer. I’m not sure if the idea to print a book at Chosen Land was Seth’s or mine to begin with, but we approached the Community with the idea, and they said yes. Or “yea,” in the Shaker manner (they answer with “yea” for yes and “nay” for no). I was welcomed, in fact, each summer while I was in grad school, to research, write, set type and print and make books.
Chosen Land is the polar opposite of my experience in Old Chatham. It is a place full of life and love and timeless beauty, and I count my time with the Shakers as amongst the most important days of my life. And today, the 6th of August, is a day of great meaning to them: It is the anniversary of the arrival of the Shakers in America––the day they call the Glorious Sixth.
Here’s the story: On the 6th of August in 1774, a slight woman from Manchester, England, arrived in America at New York Harbor with a small band of followers. Her name was Ann Lee, but her followers called her Mother Ann. They called themselves then the United Society of Believers in Christ’s Second Appearing, but they became known as Shaking Quakers, a derogatory name given to them by outsiders to describe the whirling and sometimes frenetic dances that were part of their worship. In their own empowering move, they embraced the name and began referring to themselves as Shakers, and following their arrival in America, the Shaker movement gained momentum. Shaker communities sprouted up throughout New England and west into Ohio, Indiana, and Kentucky. A short lived community was founded even in Florida.
Sometimes other people in my life get sucked into my serendipity. Today’s photograph, which was shot at a window ledge at the Shaker Store at Chosen Land, was taken by a former student of mine, Charles Pratt. Charles is still in school here in Florida, but he’s up in Maine this summer working as a camp counselor. As luck would have it, the camp he’s working at just happens to be minutes away from Chosen Land. Last weekend, he made his first visit to the Shaker Community. I know the window through which he shot that photograph, for I worked in the Shaker Store myself during my visits there. Just part of the routine. If I wasn’t printing or binding, I might’ve been tending the store, or in the garden weeding, or helping in the fields bringing in the hay. The fact that Charles went to Chosen Land, got a glimpse of the place I know so well, and sent me that photo… well, it meant a lot to me. The connexions we all manage to share still bewilder me.
Each year for the Glorious Sixth, I tell the story of my first time experiencing that celebration. Seth and I were both there, invited to take part in this awe-inspiring night. I’m going to pass on telling that story again this year. Instead, I’m just going to continue being glad that Charles went to visit this place I love so much, and I’m going to keep in mind Brother Arnold and Sister June today, and I’ll remember Sister Frances and Sister Marie, too. If you want to read the story, though, here’s a link to one of those past chapters. Brother Arnold tells me that early in the history of Chosen Land, “More love!” was a common greeting between the Shaker brethren and sisters. And so, to all of you, too: more love.
Photograph by Charles Pratt at Chosen Land, the Sabbathday Lake Shaker Community in New Gloucester, Maine. July 29, 2017.