January 24, 2007
When I first sat at the table signing copies of the original edition of Meet Me at the Butterfly Tree, I was under the impression that I had written a book about Fairhope, sure, but one with broader appeal than that. There were tourist books about Fairhope already in 2001; books on where to eat and why to move to the toney bayside village. I thought I had written kind of a shorter Lake Wobegone Days with a Single Tax slant, a picture of a unique place with a personality that would appeal to people who really had no sense of different ways of looking at things.
In Fairhope, by far the most compelling chapters seemed to be those written by Bob Bell, my collaborator who had enjoyed a lifelong love affair with his own memories of the town in the 1940's and 50's. When people urged me to write a second book, I felt it should be gutsier, grittier; in short, it should tell of some of the iconoclasts who had changed their lives by moving to early Fairhope or changed early Fairhope by moving to it with their maverick ways intact.
Publishers, when I worked to get a reprint done after the initial 1,000 copies of Meet Me at the Butterfly Tree sold out, told me they felt it was a book that would have only local appeal, and they said the same thing about The Fair Hope of Heaven, the second book. It has a certain amount of charm, they said, but the world really doesn't need to know about Fairhope.
Recently I sold a copy to Dan Spiro, author of an excellent new novel called The Creed Room, and writer of a blog called The Empathic Rationalist, which is linked to this one. He has never laid eyes on Fairhope, and I'll venture to say had never heard of it before I wrote him about my book. He liked MMATBT and offered to write a review of it for Amazon.com, as two of my friends, including one who identifies himself as John Sweden when he comments on this blog, had done before him.
Imagine the little thrill I felt when greeted with a copy of his review this morning in the email box:
Butterfly trees, the authors tell us, refer to a species of plant that "attract butterflies, which alight upon them, sometimes all at once, creating a visual spectacle that is very pleasing to the human spirit." Notice the word choice: not that these trees are pleasing to the eyes, but that they are pleasing to the spirit. That is precisely how I would describe this book. For those, like me, who share its authors' values, we can't help but find this book and the town that it describes to be spiritually uplifting.
Meet Me at the Butterfly Tree is a beautiful portrait of a place. In this portrait we find a group of people, all of whom beat to their own eccentric drummers, who somehow come together like butterflies on a tree and light up their environment with love, encouragement, and mutual respect. I was particularly taken by the description of the School of Organic Education, which is the antithesis of the modern status-conscious, teach-to-the-test, mind-numbing school that has come to dominate our society in the era of No Child Left Behind. It is clear that the Organic school depicted in this book didn't need slogans to demonstrate its commitment to universal education. But nor did it need to stress test scores. Its faculty were the types who care about creativity, and who value learning for its own sake and wish to inspire students to do the same. The result, no doubt, is a community of lifelong learners -- not mere grade-grubbing pre-professionals.
I could criticize this book by saying that its initial chapters didn't fully grab my interest. But I've never been to Fairhope, nor any town remotely like it, and hail from one of the most self-obsessed, workaholic cultures in the world (the legal world of Washington, D.C.). So perhaps it simply took my mind's eye a bit of time to adjust to the portrait of a utopian town. Once the story turned to the Organic school and some of the more colorful characters who populated the town, I was entranced for the remainder of the book. At that point, you see, I realized what the authors were trying to communicate: if we want our lives to be clothed in beauty -- both as individuals and as a community -- we can find incredible guidance from the people of Fairhope and the philosophy embraced through its institutions.
Non-conformity, collegiality, creativity, playfulness, intellectuality, spirituality -- these are the values of Fairhope. Can they become the values of a community, not of hundreds or thousands, but of millions? Of billions? These are the questions I found myself asking. That's what a true utopian asks.
Take that, you provincial citizens of the rest of Alabama, you who think Fairhope is just a little upscale shopping center with pretentions to Art. Fairhope as it once was was a lesson for you all.