A Utopia of One’s Own: Heaven Is a Place on Earth by Adrian Shirk

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Close your eyes and imagine utopia. What do you see? A collection of cottages dotting a landscape of lush, rolling hills? A diverse city block populated by caring, creative people, who drop in for a shared supper every now and then? A group of industrious hippies whittling old-fashioned toys in the woods with wildflowers in their hair? Perhaps your imagination quickly slides into something more sinister. A domineering man at the front of an austere chapel, sharing visions of a malevolent god. Muddy feet, skinny arms, hunger. Either way, there’s sure to be a chicken coop in the mix.

Which of these images of utopia (or dystopia, as it may be) is the correct vision? Well, in the words of author Adrian Shirk: “Both, I suppose. It is always both.” In her new book, Heaven Is a Place on Earth: Searching for an American Utopia, Adrian Shirk examines the histories of utopian communities in the United States from the 1700s to the present day, all the while taking readers on her own journey to find a place (preferably, a communal one) to call home.

After her father-in-law has a debilitating stroke, Shirk and her husband find themselves navigating the complexities of the American healthcare system, juggling jobs in academia with the overwhelming commitments of caregiving, and caught in a never-ending spiral of financial miasma. Meanwhile, Shirk nurtures an anarchic yearning for “communities that had formed alternative ways of living in or under or outside of capitalism, or which had blurred the lines of public and private, of family of marriage, of labor.”

This longing motivates Shirk to visit and research dozens of utopian experiments throughout history, including the eighteenth century Shakers in upstate New York; the modern Simple Way community in Philadelphia’s Kensington neighborhood; rural communes of queer folks and Radical Faeries in Tennessee; Father Divine’s Peace Mission Movement and his cross-cultural banquets at Rockland Palace in 1930s Harlem; the Bronx rebuilding movement of the 1980s and 90s; and the duplicitous Rajneeshpuram of Oregon, infamously chronicled in Netflix’s Wild Wild Country; among many others. All of this traveling and research brings Shirk both closer and farther away from understanding what utopia is and whether, as Belinda Carlisle sings, heaven really can be “a place on earth.”

Shirk’s explorations are always personal. She’s less concerned with the “what” and “how” of these utopian experiments than she is with the “why” and the “how did it feel.” As such, she takes a broad view of utopia throughout Heaven Is a Place on Earth, sharing additional slivers of utopian moments in short chapter epilogues called “utopianotes.” The scenes in these tiny snippets range from a visit to her cousin’s farm in the Pacific Northwest rainforest to her teenage experiences of Portland Night School to a house-sitting trip in Hudson with a cat named Noodle. In one “utopianote,” after staying with near-strangers on a farm in Bolinas, California, Shirk writes, “These few details remain: the tap with homemade wine; the wild turkey meat the grandparents shared with us; the bee swarm that chases us across the onion crop, and the hours of picking onions; the trees swaying overhead when we walk to town, then to the beach; the fight [my husband] and I have in the guest house one night; [a friend] patting me on the shoulder on the front steps; the giant block of Tillamook cheese we slice from for breakfast; the YouTube video of First Aid Kit singing that cover of ‘Tiger Mountain Peasant Song’—first time we see it.” Shirk’s memories like these provide a lovely example of how our own personal utopias can be forged in places as quotidian as The Waffle House.

Searching is a familiar theme for Shirk. In her previous book, And Your Daughters Shall Prophesy: Stories From the Byways of American Women and Religion, she seeks spiritual role models throughout American history to guide her own religious expeditions. Women like astrologer Linda Goodman, abolitionist and activist Sojourner Truth, Louisiana Voodooist Marie Laveau, and the Latter Day Saint poet Eliza Snow are waypoints for Shirk as she tries to find her place in religious feminism. The same informed lostness is paramount in Heaven Is a Place on Earth. Pursuing a spiritual and physical place to rest in our world of insecurity is a perennial concern of Shirk’s. In a way, it’s all religion to this author. As she says, “there is something faith-based” about dreaming earnestly of new, better ways of living.

Shirk’s decision to base her research in the United States is intentional beyond her own geographic locale. The founding of America is tied up in utopian visions that were corrupted and hypocritical from the very moment the Declaration was signed. Shirk writes, “the United States begs specific kinds of questions about utopianism from its outset: how do we live together in a country founded on the idea (though not the practice) . . . of creating a society of coexistence and unity . . . while profoundly and defensively violating these principles from the get-go?”

This question of whether or not utopia is an inherently white invention is appropriately on Shirk’s mind throughout the book. Not everyone can afford to flee the city to the Catskills and make goat’s milk soap with their friends. The increasing atomization of Americans is perhaps most felt by people with privilege enough to live solo in the first place (read: historically, white people). Shirk acknowledges this, writing that it had “become extremely clear that, since I do not come from a multigenerational household, nor belong to a dense city block or other organic forms of interdependence, my and [my husband’s] lives will otherwise be (and already are) shaped by all the forces in the United States that, if left to work uncontested, will ebb toward isolation.”

Glimpses of dystopia seep through the book at every turn. Despite her consistent dedication to societal waywardness and inward inspection, impermanence pervades Shirk’s inquiries. She continually shows us how short-lived most utopian experiments are; but without their temporality, they seem to inevitably slide into the same power struggles, sexism and greed that they’re often created to escape. No matter their destiny, these types of communities spring up again and again—often, actually, on the very same coordinates, as in the case of New Harmony, Indiana, whose land has housed multiple incarnations of utopian societies. Throughout the book, Shirk writes candidly about her crumbling marriage and her tepid experiments in polyamory. Always, the backdrop of her husband’s burgeoning alcoholism, her father-in-law’s failing health, and Shirk’s own growing discontent underline just how close utopia is to its opposite.

All of this could make for a dismal, hopeless premise, but Shirk’s relentlessly optimistic outlook on humanity and her joy in the pleasures of life make for a more or less uplifting read. Though Shirk lacks a certain investigative gutsiness that could enrich her work (she admits as much, saying, “I generally feel more wary showing up at separatist communes where I’m not among the ranks,” meaning most of her travels are to white, Christian communities), her desultory, non-linear writing style matches her dreamy theme and is thereby productive by its nature.

In Heaven Is a Place on Earth, the constant question driving Shirk’s research is: “How can I live a life ‘in community’ in the United States today, one which is not primarily organized around private property and the acquisition of personal wealth?” How indeed.

Many of us living under late-stage capitalism are asking ourselves the same thing. Within six weeks of New York’s first Covid-19 diagnosis in 2020, I found myself furloughed from my job, managing the chaos of single parenting and virtual school for my two young children, living unemployment-paycheck to unemployment-paycheck, and fruitlessly searching for affordable housing. My obstacles weren’t unique, and overall I was relatively stable and exceedingly lucky. At the same time, seeing the expediency with which government payouts were made and moratoriums on evictions were declared stirred a vision in me. It was a utopian one: of a government whose priorities were in the right place and of a society whose needs for shelter and food were met unconditionally.

I’d hoped the baby steps toward a universal basic income we saw during the pandemic were a door into a future where the American norm would be “bread for all, and roses, too,” to borrow a phrase commonly used in the women’s suffrage movement. That is, a world where the essential conditions of living (the bread) aren’t dependent on overworking at underpaid jobs to line the pockets of the very few—and also a world where folks have the time and energy to engage creatively with the world around and within them (roses, too). Of course those temporary, quasi-utopian laws were a mere scrim against a dystopian scene: of deepening divisions between neighbors, of growing violent extremism, of untruths and half-truths repeated as facts, of unforgivable violence against people of color, of a warming planet, and of a global pandemic spreading with horrifying celerity. Even so, my life is richer for that dreaming, and our country had a taste of a positive collectivism that still lingers, delightfully, on the tongue.

For Shirk, the answer comes in purchasing a large communal home on property in rural Delaware County, New York—a community she names the Mutual Aid Society. But Shirk resists offering a blueprint for intentional group living in Heaven Is a Place on Earth. This isn’t a solutions-based book with action plans for private or grand-scale change. For that, read Utopia for Realists by Rutger Bregman. Nor is this a comprehensive, A-to-Z history of utopian communities (see Paradise Now by Chris Jennings) or utopian philosophies (see Black Utopia by Alex Zamalin). Instead, Heaven Is a Place on Earth is many things at once: part history, part ethnography, part travelogue and part philosophical memoir. The book, at its core, is intended to question the very pursuit of utopia. It’s a worthwhile pursuit because, as Shirk explains, “If we cast [utopia] as never worth thinking about, then we won’t—and we’ll stay right where we are, taping up the crappy cardboard infrastructure of the current system because utopian dreaming is only for losers.”

In the end, utopia is a living, breathing, imperfect thing that expands and grows with us. It’s always a reflection of our individual selves, of the larger communities we choose, and of the time and place we are born into. That’s not a failure of our collective dreaming. Turns out, it’s part of the point.

Carly Willsie is a writer, literary critic, and head of the Logan Nonfiction Program, a residency for journalists and documentary filmmakers. She lives in New York's Hudson Valley with her two young sons. You can find her on Instagram @carlywont. More from this author →