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Erik Reece’s book ‘Utopia Drive’ searches for utopias and finds two in Kentucky

Erik Reece, author of "Utopia Drive"

Erik Reece went looking for utopian communities past and present in his new book "Utopia Drive."
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Erik Reece went looking for utopian communities past and present in his new book "Utopia Drive."

Erik Reece’s home is in a wooded lot well outside Versailles, and even outside Nonesuch proper. His house is on Clear Creek, down a narrow drive that in other parts of the state would be called a holler. Reece and his wife, Melissa, have dogs and chickens.

It’s a great place to be alone, Reece says, although his latest book is not about the joys of solitude. Instead, Reece is writing about attempts, past and present, at creating the ideal community of people living and working together.

“Before I set off on my utopia travels, Melissa repeatedly voiced half-serious concern that I would not return, that I would find a group of like-minded people and disappear into my own world-mending reveries,” Reece writes. “But there was really never any chance of that. ... I want to be left alone to read and write and to wander the woods around my house. I belong too much to my own utopia of solitude that consists of me, my wife, my dogs, and a few dependable neighbors.”

Just now, he is experimenting with not replacing the cellphone he dunked in the creek in an effort to live more in the moment and in his own particular location and off the map of social media.

Reece decided to wander the utopian communities of the eastern United States — from Pleasant Hill in Mercer County and the Abbey of Gethsemani in near Bardstown to New Harmony, Ind., (the country’s first secular experiment in utopianism) and Oneida, N.Y. (where John Humphrey Noyes and his “perfectionists” scandalized the neighborhood with their open attitudes toward sex).

Erik Reece is experimenting with not replacing the cellphone he dunked in the creek in an effort to live more in the moment and in his own particular location and off the map of social media.

He drew a kind of utopian line down the Mississippi in deciding not to explore the West. Reece decided he didn’t have a feel for the physical and emotional geography of the West, and exploring every failed utopia across the lower 48 began to sound like a project that could drag on to unmanageable tedium for writer and reader alike.

He found similarities in his search. Noyes and his “perfectionists” were, Reece points out, almost entirely like the Shakers except on the point of sex. Everyone worked, women enjoyed an almost unheard-of degree of freedom for the 19th century — and were definitely given the better part of the curious sexual customs — and children were raised by committee.

For the Shakers, sex was a distraction. For the perfectionists, sex also was a distraction. The two groups simply dealt with it in different ways. The Shakers slept six to a room and kept even conversation between men and women limited.

The perfectionists, meanwhile, warmly welcomed visitors with lemonade and strawberries and cream, which is far from the debauched welcome expected by visitors. They had sex, but it was differentiated between that done to increase the population and that done simply for fun, and men were encouraged not to climax.

The Shakers, so dedicated to eliminating frippery that they dug up flower beds, nonetheless made some of the most endearingly beautiful and simple buildings — connecting with their environment in a way that Reece finds commendable.

One of the funniest passages of Reece’s book discusses the trash-talking the Shakers did when the children they took in turned out less than pious. The rebels were called “flesh-pots” and “puffs of trash.” One orphan “left this Society for the whole (sic) and pit from which she was dug.”

A Caroline Whittymore was dubbed the “Harlot of Harrodsburg” and was kicked out of the village. She returned briefly, drunk, with her boyfriend and a horse pistol.

Reece finds several thriving utopian communities in Virginia. At Twin Oaks, residents work 42 hours a week and are provided with free food, housing and health care. Each member can own as much as they can fit into their private room. The rest is communal.

‘Utopia Drive’ is me trying to write an optimistic book.

Author Erik Reece

Reece also tries to recapture the spirit of the Trappist monk Thomas Merton, who famously had an epiphany binding him to the rest of humanity while at the corner of Fourth and Walnut in Louisville. Reece goes looking for the moment, seeking to share in the epiphany. He doesn’t find it.

Merton’s presence at Gethsemani was both a boon for the community — the famous monk’s writings brought in a lot of money, particularly for his autobiography “The Seven Storey Mountain” — as well as a trial. Merton liked to talk, be alone sometimes, dabble in liberal politics and explore the traditions of other religions.

Merton’s utopia was something he was still seeking when he died of accidental electrocution in Thailand in 1968.

Although Gethsemani still stands, doing business in Kentucky bourbon fruitcakes and fudge, it’s tougher for Reece to find the remnants of some of the other grand social experiments.

“It’s usually the religious ones that are more successful,” he said. “A lot of these communities lasted a lot longer than people give them credit for.”

The first Pleasant Hill leaders were named in 1813; the final living member, Mary Settles, died at Pleasant Hill in 1923.

“Utopia Drive,” although not without dark moments and strange practices among the various utopian communities, is different from “Lost Mountain,” Reece said.

At a book fair after “Lost Mountain,” in which he chronicled mountaintop coal removal, was published, he was sitting next to Kentucky author Bobbie Ann Mason. Mason, while talking up Reece’s book to passers-by, told him privately: “That is the most depressing book I’ve read in my life.”

Reece took that as a compliment.

“Utopia Drive,” he said, “is me trying to write an optimistic book.”

Cheryl Truman: 859-231-3202, @CherylTruman

If you go

Erik Reece will read from and sign his new book “Utopia Drive” at a launch party at 6 p.m., Aug. 26 at the Morris Book Shop, 882 E. High Street.

More information: Morrisbookshop.com; (859) 276-0494

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