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.
While each of Sundeen’s encounters offer insight into the homesteading experience, it’s the married couple in Missouri whose forswearing of modern life seems the purest expression of radical idealism. Ethan Hughes and Sarah Wilcox are the founders of the Possibility Alliance, an eighty-acre farmstead and school dedicated to simple living and nonviolent social change. By divesting himself of his inheritance, Ethan, along with Sarah and their two daughters, embraced voluntary poverty, and the couple require permanent members of the collective (at last count, just one) to do the same. Since acquiring their farm in 2007 for $160,000—raised through donations—the Hugheses have all but managed to extricate themselves from the free market. They get by on $9,000 a year, obtained through a “gift economy,” meaning they give freely and accept whatever students, guests, and donors wish to offer (or not), and manage to tithe 20 percent of their take to other causes.
In the spirit of Gandhi, members of the Possibility Alliance do not ride in cars because they are boycotting “the fuel industry that waged wars and destroyed indigenous people.” They milk and butcher their own cows and goats in “resistance against feedlots, subsidized genetically modified corn, slaughterhouses, plastic packaging and supermarkets.” And they light their three-hundred-square-foot straw-bale and mud-walled home with candles so as not to support the electricity cartels. To put things in perspective, consider this: the monks at the Monastery of St. Anthony, just inland from the Red Sea, whose founder lived first in a cave and then in the open desert, brought in a generator in the late Nineties. Which raises the question—who would actually want to live this way? Would you really care to throw in your lot with people who forsake art, recorded music, theater, and also irony, in favor of “sustainable and self-created entertainment”?
The Hugheses profess not to mind their constraints, with Ethan observing, gnomically, “In limitations we find abundance.” That may be so, but Sarah, who trained as an opera singer, has “feelings of isolation and loneliness.” To an outsider it seems evident that she feels isolated because she is isolated. The couple’s archaic existence is an example of localism taken as far as it can go, which isn’t terribly far. (On account of transport logistics, the family rarely leaves the farm.) Yet it’s hard not to admire the Hugheses’ achievements. They aren’t selling themselves—an internet search turns up just one picture of the couple, in which they look like the kind of people with whom you’d like to have a cup of coffee, until you remember, sadly, that they only drink herbal tea because they can grow it at home. They don’t need your money. They don’t seem to care about proving their relevance. To meet the world on such terms could lead to a pretty good life, if not a particularly happy one.
Then again maybe happiness, as it is commonly understood, is beside the point. As Sarah tells Sundeen, she feels she is doing “the right thing,” given the circumstances. “If the whole world were living like this,” she explains, “I would definitely go sing.”
The summer of my quasi-dispossession I courted reclusion. Every morning at first light I went to an abandoned barn where I sat for hours in meditation. In this barn were two black cushions and nothing else. The place was an empty shell. At midday I went back to the pool house and fixed lunch and then I took inventory of my things, to make sure none of my useless talismans had gone missing. When the light failed I read for a while by flashlight before crawling under a heap of duvets—I was always cold—and going to bed.
It seemed a more natural way of being in the world: rising with the sun and turning in when darkness fell—and wanting nothing, or so I told myself, apart from a bunch of old things to which I clung. For all the time I spent in silence, my mind was a galloping horse. The days drew on and, slowly, in the absence of an internet connection or cell-phone network, the din in my head subsided. Autumn settled over the quietening garden.
Late one night, I was awakened by thunder and storm clatter on the rooftop. Rain gusted in, then sheet lightning struck across the swimming pool and irradiated the interior of the pool house. Wrapped in a duvet, I bounded through the garden, past the vegetable patch, the crab-apple tree, the casket huts, bare feet slurring against wet earth and windfall, toward N’s cottage. As she opened the front door, I washed in like a piece of driftwood.
Since I didn’t know N very well—she was a loner and I hate intruding—I hadn’t spent much time in her spare little house. She showed me to the bathroom so I could towel off, and it was then my eyes fastened on the flat-bottomed tub with high sloped sides that occupied the center of the floor like a piece of sculpture. It made me happy just to look at this simple luxury, and also to want something again, without attachment. I thought about that longing later that night as I turned over on the monkish, back-wrecking pallet in the guest room.
“The comfortable life is a slippery slope toward a consumer life,” Sundeen writes, pinpointing a problematic truth. Yet a society that consists only of “producers” is reminiscent of a subsistence economy. Nor are such societies particularly egalitarian. Think of the Puritans, who restricted luxury goods to the wealthiest among them through sumptuary laws intended to uphold the “virtue” of the poor.
Nevertheless, after I checked out of the pool house and moved into my own place, I tried to live simply. For a few weeks, I kept the lights off after dark and acted as though the house didn’t have a wireless connection. My hearing grew so acute that I took to unplugging the fridge during the day because its hum upset my nerves. It wasn’t long before I got restless, finally succumbing to the distractions of consumer life.
That winter I would from time to time drop by to see N. (This is the only way to get in contact with her since she rarely checks email, doesn’t answer the phone, and her voicemail doesn’t take messages, even though the recorded greeting—“Leave a messsaggggee! Love youuuuu allllll!”—suggests otherwise.) Our town is near the ocean, and sometimes I joined her on beach walks at dawn. From friends, I’d heard she’d been a great beauty and a model at the couture houses of Paris in the Fifties. She arrived in New York in 1958, she said, wearing a loden-green Chanel suit of boiled wool. It was amusing to imagine N in a Chanel suit, since she no longer bothers about her appearance and favors loose, rumpled garments that look homespun. When younger, she was reputed to have had an excellent and colorful love life.
She wasn’t much interested in revisiting her glamorous past. Nor, for that matter, the more recent past—with one exception. Now and then she made glancing, fantastical references to a farm, in northwestern Appalachia, whose land, she revealed, she had worked for thirty years. Where was it located? She waved a hand. West of Asheville. Actually, it was in Buncombe County, in northwestern North Carolina, and formed part of the French Broad River Valley. At its highest elevation, on top of a ridge line, you could see clear to Asheville.
During one conversation she talked of enormous greenhouses. A wood stove, jury-rigged from a cider barrel, that in winter needed to be stoked night and day lest thousands of seedlings die. Fields of echinacea plants. Masses and masses of sunflowers. “Endless sunflowers! All I had to do was put seed in the ground and they grew!” She cultivated medicinal plants to treat the sick and vegetables to feed the poor. Helping others came naturally to her. N’s parents were doctors and her stepfather was a neurologist, as well as a leader of the Danish Resistance.
Others joined her, living in old log cabins she bought from her neighbors and transported to the property, 248 acres, acquired over time, of “phenomenally fertile land, black soil, fantastic.” She had woodlands that extended high up to the ridge line, a trout pond and a waterfall. Shamans and medicine men and master cabinetmakers and dervishes and a famous drummer from Senegal materialized through word of mouth. It wasn’t a commune or a utopia—no, no, just N and whoever else turned up.
One day last autumn I went to see N, with Sundeen’s pastoralists in mind. Like Thoreau, she has just three chairs by way of furniture. Two rocking chairs and a wood-frame sofa, to be precise. Much of the space in her one-story cottage is occupied by herbs in pots and tinctures in small bottles. Plants were strung up to dry. For years, she said, she lived in a log house with a wood stove, a cold-water tap and an outdoor privy. She didn’t mind the primitive conditions. And anyway she was born in a cold climate, on Funen, the island off the coast of Denmark that is home to Hans Christian Andersen’s birthplace—fitting for a woman whose life had the quality of a fable.
I wondered if the simple life as it is enacted by people like N and the subjects in Sundeen’s book, the life that leaves no time for retrospection because the greenhouse must be up before the ground freezes and the goats require milking, nudged its exemplars into a more detached frame of mind. Perhaps, in self-forgetting, day after day, they could see beyond the hardships of such an existence and perceive their lives and the cycles of life and death and love and suffering as part of a whole.
N told me that in the winter of 2005, her older sister and mother and dog—part Malamute, part tundra wolf—all died within a few months of each other. When she got back to her North Carolina homestead in the spring, she thought, “Will I be able to do this again next year?” She let the question hang in the air. A moment later, she murmured, pro forma, “It really was a very good life, you know.”
“Thirty years of unalloyed goodness?” I asked.
N went silent. The front elevation of the cottage has a bank of south-facing picture windows that give onto the garden. Because of its disposition, the interior is mostly cast in gloom. You catch yourself, as I did then, staring into the bright trees, as if everything vital were receding, just beyond human reach. In the center of the overgrown garden, now reverted to pasture, in front of the unheated barn where I sat all through the spring and summer and into the winter of 2014, there used to be a Japanese maple with seven-pointed leaves of a red so deep they were almost blue. I loved it beyond measure. One morning the tree was gone, and all that was left was a hole in the ground.
For a flash of a second, the sun glanced through the plate glass and N, raked in morning light, was transfigured into a much younger woman. “Of course not,” she said at last. In 2009, loggers shot off their rifles in front of her house at midnight. Someone had poured sand in their machinery and since N lived nearby, they wrongly assumed she was the culprit. There had also been trouble with men hunting on her property. And then, in the spring of that same year, a man let himself into her house while she was asleep and beat her into a coma with a walking stick. Because of the loggers, because of the assault, because she was 71 years old at the time, because she found running a quasi-commune taxing, because “I knew there would come a day when I could no longer carry the wood, turn the soil, hoe the garden,” she quit North Carolina soon after she was discharged from the hospital, and moved here.
If it had been totally up to her, she said, she wouldn’t have left just like that—she deferred to the wishes of her two daughters—but when you come right down to it, in the grand scheme, where she lived was of no consequence. She meant, I suppose, that there is no safe haven “out there,” no fortification against the cruelties and absurdity of existence. Sooner or later we will all be made simple.
If given a second chance, N told me, she would spend less time in the dirt and more time training her mind. “To live a meaningful life,” she reflected, “you don’t have to isolate yourself.”
By journey’s end, Sundeen arrives at a similar conclusion. “I had gone searching for how I could forge the good life as part of a family,” he writes, “but I had tried to do the searching by myself.” He and his wife have different visions of the future: she wants grad school and community; he agitates for removing to the desert. Trying to decide on a course of action, he asks: “Weren’t education and art—as much as Jeffersonian agriculture—the pinnacle of what civilization has to offer?” He invokes John Adams, who enjoined his sons to master the sciences so that their children could “study painting, poetry, music, architecture, statuary, tapestry and porcelain,” and surprises himself with the answer. From his wife’s Zen teacher, Sundeen procures an indulgence to quit meditating and devote himself to his art. He has reversed his stance, it would seem, now advocating Enlightenment values over simple-living ideals. But the deeper reading is that he has developed a more capacious view of life, learning to dwell in what Keats called negative capability: “uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.”
“Creating a replicable model,” one Possibility Alliance supporter tells Sundeen, is not Ethan Hughes’s “primary dream”; instead, “it’s more an allegiance to how things should be.” The same could be said of The Unsettlers, which dispels the idea that a meaningful life must conform to a single vision. The dichotomies we create between such fixities as education and land, culture and agriculture, interdependence and self-reliance are, the book suggests, ultimately hollow constructs. It goes without saying that not every simple life is a good life, and many good lives are frightfully complicated. Perhaps the most we can hope for are glimmers of clarity, sometimes shared, sometimes solitary, when the questions fall away and the business of being alive becomes plain and simple.
A philosopher friend once told me about a colleague who was an advocate for home-schooling until she realized there was a need for homeschooled children to meet together for classes. He cited her reaction as an example of the paradox of simple living, adding that we want to reject technology and social structures, but once we do we find ourselves recreating those very structures because they meet human needs. “Adam Smith,” he concluded, annoyingly, “Wealth of Nations, Book I, Chapter II.”