I did not go to the woods because I wished to live deliberately. I did not go to the woods. Rather, through dumb luck and improvidence, in the summer of 2014, I camped in a primitive yet stylish wooden structure that came with its own swimming pool and all the crab apples you could eat. (Not many, it turned out.)
My experiment in simple living was not a choice, not exactly. Let’s say I was reduced to a state of involuntary simplicity because I was involuntarily poor. To this day, I’m not sure what I would have done but for a flinty Danish woman in her late seventies—a longtime student of Zen Buddhism whom I’ll call N. Though we lived in the same town, we hardly knew each other when she offered to put me up at her compound, off a dirt track, set back from the road. I’ve never asked N why she did this. “You can stay in one of the huts,” she said, showing me to a pair of turquoise-painted outbuildings that were little wider than deluxe coffins. Registering the look of panic that crossed my face as I peered through a dust-filmed window, N upgraded me to her screened pool house in the garden, where I bunked until the fall.
When an early proponent of simplicity named Siddhartha Gautama quit his cushy abode in search of answers, he took nothing with him. When I left home, I clung to all the fugitive artifacts I loved: rocks the surf had battered to a pleasing smoothness, a crow feather that when held to the light revealed markings of Yves Klein blue, and scraps of paper with notes so faint they might have been written in invisible ink, as well as books, tea things, tattered sweaters and the bottom drawer of my file cabinet. On the way to nowhere, I’d also grabbed a bottle of Pernod from the pantry, since in a moment of deranged optimism I imagined I might host a dinner party in my eventual new quarters. Embarrassed to be so burdened, I waited until N, who was hailed throughout our small community as a model of frugality and non-attachment, left her cottage before I hauled in the lot.
In The Unsettlers: In Search of the Good Life in Today’s America, Mark Sundeen identifies six types of people who practice simplicity: the hermit, otherwise known as the single man or suicide candidate; the quitter, who eventually reintegrates himself into the mainstream; the person of means for whom buying a piece of land is easy; the religionist who has the support of a community; the moonlighter, who remains dependent on the free market; and, finally, the radical. The first five are of no interest to Sundeen. It’s the sixth type of escape artist that really fascinates him: the uncompromising homesteader and dissenter.
In the opening section, the author, aged 41, is engaged to marry a sensible Buddhist and lives in Montana, where the cost of land is beyond most writers’ means. When he envisions the future, he sees only the catalogue of misfortunes that await him: monogamy, baldness, literary obscurity and death. (“I was mid-list, mid-life, mid-forehead,” he writes.) Worse, the Zen meditation he has taken up isn’t calming him, and he fritters away precious time on the internet, clicking on stories about his more successful contemporaries. His answer to the problem of wanting too much, or wanting the wrong things, is the recon mission that shapes the book: to spend time with the scatterlings who have swerved away from material culture and fashioned for themselves a different way of life.
Sundeen’s pursuit of the rural sublime is more conceptual than it is practical. Though attracted to simplicity in the abstract, he is “repelled by the hardship.” He doesn’t even like pulling weeds! This is interesting since he’s no backcountry greenhorn, having worked as a river guide in the Utah canyonlands, slept in his car for months, bushwhacked up slopes in Alaska, and dumpster-dived with a Christ-like cave-dweller named Daniel Suelo, the subject of his previous book, The Man Who Quit Money. You’d think trailing Suelo would have finished off his interest in austerities. In fact, his travels with an anti-currency apostle only heightened his awareness of all that is wrong with big government and corporate America. When he looks around, he sees other Americans, “anxious at the erosion of their freedom and security” who, like him, “hunger for alternatives.”
The worthies he meets on his solitary journey include: a married couple in northern Missouri, renunciates of cars, electricity, computers and earthly pleasures small and large; a horticulturist—the descendant of sharecroppers—and her ex-school-teacher husband who transform an abandoned lot in benighted Detroit into a one-and-a-half-acre organic farm; and a pair of long-time organic farmers in Montana who run a successful business with neither computers nor mobile phones. Income inequality, earth anxiety, a longing for shelter from the existential squall: there’s no one reason behind the impulse to reject the status quo.
The dream of quitting an imperfect world for a better place is a leitmotif in America’s social history, one that began with the Pilgrims, and which cuts across ideological lines. Sundeen traces its roots to the back-to-the-land projects of the Sixties and Seventies, the New England transcendentalists and the Brook Farm gang in the mid-nineteenth century, and all the way to Thomas Jefferson, who cherished agrarian pastoralism and self-reliance. With its promise that we can control the contingent nature of our lives, the ideal of self-sufficiency speaks to people across the political divide, but the ones at the far ends are most apt to pursue it. And yet no matter how much we seclude ourselves the world has a way of intruding.