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August 24, 2014

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We have artificialized our lives and our interactions nearly completely.
It makes us insane.

Thoreau knew the antidote.
Aldo Leopold knew the cure.
Wilson's Biophilia provides the etiology.

We need starry nights, campfires, morning light, water and greenness, the companionship of our tribe, big silences, shared dangers and tangible accomplishments.

Every time my vacation ends and I return to work at A Well Known Computer Company, pick up the schedule and the pressure and the intricate meaningless business urgencies, swim in commute traffic, it feels like going insane.

Which piece?

The Last True Hermit. I'll edit the post to include the link.

Best quote:

"I did examine myself," he said. "Solitude did increase my perception. But here's the tricky thing—when I applied my increased perception to myself, I lost my identity. With no audience, no one to perform for, I was just there. There was no need to define myself; I became irrelevant. The moon was the minute hand, the seasons the hour hand. I didn't even have a name. I never felt lonely. To put it romantically: I was completely free."
The thing is, joel, this guy was not living naturally. Not just because he survived by stealing, but because he had no tribe, no social world.

Though he still read a lot. I wonder if the reason he didn't become (more) insane was reading, that it gave him enough sense of the human world to keep going.

Thanks Doc for adding that link.

I'd grant that he's not living 'naturally', but I guess the point is what is 'natural'? (which is one of those words we append to things to mark what's right without actually having to defend it.)

I love camping by myself in wild areas, but I'm not sure nature is what is needed here. I think people need time to be alone, to think and to get past thinking to not thinking.

Long distance driving can do it. The practice of art or music. Meditation.

I went to Yukon Territory one summer. It took longer for me to drive home fro the airport through a massive traffic jam than it did to fly from Whitehorse to Vancouver. And yes I did feel like I had returned to insanity. Still feel that way. It is insane to destroy the planet with climate change so that people can be stuck for hours in cars.

But I think it is possible to get that feeling of sanity at home. My front porch is a place of sanity for me, especially if one of the dogs is sitting with me.,


I spent the some of the better parts of my young manhood camping in what were then fairly remote parts of western Ontario -- canoe country, far from roads (yes, always in the company of between one and six boon companions).

On such a trip, you can tell that you've achieved a sort of centeredness when you no longer feel much need to talk to your companions -- when the driven-ness all drains away, and it might be a couple hours beween remarks, and a whole conversation might be one pointing, and the other saying quietly "Yes, I see it." It might take the entire first week of a two-week trip to attain that state. Returning from such a trip always felt like a tremendous loss, as awareness and clarity gave way to distraction and reaction.


It's "civilized" life that makes us nuts: that screws up our day/night cycle with artificial light, that jacks up our cortisol and with artificial stresses and our adrenaline with artificial urgencies and our testosterone with artificial enemies, that contrives hyper-stimulating food that tricks us into eating beyond the body's need and hyper-stimulating images that fool us into arousal, civilization that blinds us with artifice until most of us cannot identify the native plants or birds in our immediate surroundings (and so mostly do not see them at all).

Solitude in large doses was a commonplace until the 20th century, even among those living in clans or tribes or small towns -- perhaps moreso among men than women. Hunters and farmers are often alone with their thoughts for much of the day.

Many of the people I know today are unable to deal with solitude at all, and have to turn on a TV if they're alone in a house. I think that's less sane than your hermit -- his "there was no need to define myself" has a bodhisattva ring to my ears.


Now, I agree that humans are social animals, so that a single human with no societal context at all is, in a way, outside the definition of "human". But there's a big difference between a secure role in a tribal society in a spacious natural world and the engineered continuous insecurity of homo economicus in an anthill like the one in which I currently reside.

I am aware of the fact that I have sought out this online community, this self-selected society, as the audience for the screed above. No, I'm not a hermit.

Joel, if you'd ever like to make a guest post, be my guest!

But there's a big difference between *a secure role in a tribal society in a spacious natural world* and the engineered continuous insecurity of homo economicus in an anthill like the one in which I currently reside.

Joel, I wouldn't want to live in an anthill either, but I was wondering if you had a specific tribe in mind or whether your reference is to some ideal that has yet to materialize on this planet.

It is interesting that people in developed countries today are so often enamoured of returning to the (often merely imagined) simpler life of the past. Whereas those actually living the "simpler life" today can't wait to get away from it. Possibly because so frequently those longing to get away from the modern world (whether briefly or long term) are blithely assuming that they get to keep a lot of the products of that modern world -- from tools to health care.

So someone is going to have to remain in the modern world to make their simpler life possible. Just as Thoreau's retreat to the simple life was only possible thanks to Emerson's generosity.

The grass may well be greener over there, but it still has to be mowed.

"I don't like what I see in the society I'm about to enter. I don't think I'm going to fit in. It's too loud. Too colorful. The lack of aesthetics. The crudeness. The inanities. The trivia."

other than the wore "about" in the first sentence, I have agreed with this my whole late teen to adult life. I read this and am reminded of Don Henley, "The Heart of the Matter". As beautiful as the song is the words on a page are powerful:

These times are so uncertain

There's a yearning undefined

.....people filled with rage

We all need a little tenderness

How can love survive

in such a graceless age?

The trust and self-assurance that lead to happiness

They're the very things we kill, I guess

Pride and competition
cannot fill these empty arms

And the work I put between us doesn't keep me warm

I am always touched by this verse, in a way that I believe matches the feelings of Knight. Imagine, that was 30 years ago. How much further have we come, in the wrong direction, in that 30 years?


Whereas those actually living the "simpler life" today can't wait to get away from it.

Folks say this, but I'm not sure it's true.

There's a difference between a "simpler life" and poverty. Sometimes I think they get conflated.

In any case - in 1960, there were about 3 billion people on the planet. Today, there are about 7 billion people.

The experience of the spaciousness of the natural world, of silence undisturbed by human technology or interference, will likely be increasingly rare.

Also - thanks joel for your comments in this thread, I find them thoughtful and moving.

When I spoke of the "simple life" I was thinking primarily of those, on one hand, who talk about "getting back to nature, and living on the land." Versus those, on the other hand, who have been living on subsistance argiculture, and find working in a sweat shop (and living in informal urban housing) to be a serious set up in their quality of life.

You can characterize the latter as coming from poverty. But the reality is, if you are living the simple life, and don't have a significant backstop of wealth (or at least a wealthy society) to fall back on in case of need, you are almost always living in poverty. Even if you have taken advantage of the wealth you started from to buy lots of tools and such to make your "simple life" more viable.

In general, I think when folks talk about people being damned happy to be getting away from "the simple life", they are talking about people who are moving from a less complex / less technological, but poorer, society, to one that is more complex and technological, but wealthier.

Which seems, to me, to conflate social complexity and technical sophistication with wealth. Which, again, to me, may be a somewhat simplistic analysis.

All of that aside, when folks talk about simplifying their lives, they are not necessarily talking about getting "back to the land". Mostly, IMVHO, what they are talking about is experiencing life at a more essential, and less trivial, level.

Spending time in truly wild places is an excellent way to do that. Voluntarily checking out of the sort of crazy consumerism we all are immersed in is another. Taking a break from the ten million yammering media voices that shriek at as 24/7 is another.

The thing I find most regrettable in the hermit's tale is that, once again IMVHO, it's becoming harder and harder for the odd ducks among us to find a place to be. Whether that's in the woods, or not.

The guy's story reminds me somewhat of the stories of the desert fathers, who (for a wide variety of convictions and motivations) came to the conclusion that the world was FUBAR, and the best thing to do was just go live in the desert. Make a few baskets or sandals to sell for whatever tiny amount of money they needed, then spend the rest of their time confronting and contemplating ultimate realities, to the best of their abilities.

I think it would be quite hard to do that, nowadays. Not for the obvious reason that it's an inherently challenging thing to do, but just because the world has become so noisy and filled with the artifacts of modern human life.

I may have told this story before. When I was in my early 20's I lived with a group of people that were in the process of planning their great move out of society. My part was to be to help fund the initial move, then follow when my unfortunate circumstances allowed me to leave the state.

We got them all packed up one day and they moved on down the road, Northern Oregon, and then Alaska fishing village, the back to Arizona, then to a homestead in Arkansas. Gaining and losing people on the great adventure. Finally I went to immerse myself in the simplicity of craft works and farming for the stand. No phone, potbelly wood stove, caring community.

The second day I was there they took me to the county seat (walk a few miles, then hitch to town) where I was told to fill out a bunch of papers. They were the welfare and food assistance forms, that I didn't complete. This caused a huge rift because "everybody" living in the mountains on Federal land they had homesteaded lived off the government. Heat assistance, food assistance, welfare and, come to find out, they made practically no effort to live off the land. When I pushed as to how they got to this point from the days on the mountain in Arizona where we started, I was asked to leave.

I went home to Dallas, got a job, went to college and wondered if anyone really lived on their own. Could be, I just didn't know any of them.

I have a good friend who was involved with two different homesteading-ish projects, both in rural southern Indiana.

The first was a bootstrap goat farm, which took place on derelict land that used to be a hippie commune. It was my buddy and a friend of his, and the friend's wife and kids.

They made a decent go of it. I think my buddy's friend is still at it, some 25 years later.

The second was when he went and lived in a pole barn for a while, probably a year and half or so. Also on derelict land, i.e., land that somebody owned, but nobody used or had used for any particular purpose for quite some time. Wood stove made from an oil drum, I think he basically traded his own homegrown dope for money and basics.

Not recommended, but for some folks it's just the article.

I also have extended family members who, after building an extremely successful small business in the northwest, decided to buy 80 acres on the side of a mountain, a few miles away from the big town where their business is and where their city home is.

Goats, chickens, berries, produce. Hubby is a natural born redneck country boy, and basically just lives on the farm. Wife spends half her time in town, engaging in various social pursuits and keeping her hand in the business, and the rest of her time on the farm. They grow a lot of their own food, and they like being out in the country where the wildcats and the snapping turtles play.

The hippies have gotten a lot more competent over the last 50 years.

Marty, your story sounds like what I know of Thoreau. Just substituting the government for a individual patron. It is, as Russell's friend illustrates, certainly possible to set up and make a living doing very basic agriculture stuff. But it isn't the way the back-to-the-land folks seem to ususally end up.

However, wj, if you come across a willing individual patron I would be more inclined to take her money.

Further adventures...

I spent a week or so visiting my buddy in southern Indy a while back. He was living with friends in a small hippie commune at the top of the watershed near Bloomington. He traded mechanic and tradesmen labor for his room and board. While there, I stayed in the common building, which was basically a big kitchen with an outdoor shower. It was the first thing the hippies built when they bought the land.

When I was there, around '80, they'd been there about 10 years or so, and had built their own houses, according to their own designs, whims, and skill sets. Some were quite nice, one was a geodesic dome.

That community is still there. They're all grandpas and grandmas now. It's a great place.

I also have an acquaintance who, after a career as a DB admin, followed by a career as a trader in and restorer of vintage drums, bought some acreage in NH up north of Concord and is basically living the independent hippie farm girl life. Grows her own food, heats with wood that she cuts on her own property, blah blah blah.

In between traveling around with her partner, who is a drummer of some international reputation.

The urge to go find your own way and do your own thing is a pretty strong one. Living off the land to a greater or lesser degree, through your own labor and intelligence, is one way to do it. Lots of folks do it and find a way to make it work.

My family members with the 80 acres have a waiting list of folks who want to go live with them and trade labor for a stake in their project.

russell, the common thread from all of those stories is the accumulation of basic needs, mostly before the move. I do know a few people that I believe live pretty much off the their land. But pretty much is a strong qualifier.

They all have some money.

The successful existence of a commune since 1980 something is remarkable. The only ones I know are ones that centered on artisan endeavors or some other singular business that provided income from the outside world.

McTex :

I was wondering if you had a specific tribe in mind

Yes, as it happens. My own.

I grew up in a little Iowa town, surrounded by woods and streams and fields; my Mom's folks had a small fishing cabin on a river a couple hours away, with an outdoor pump for water and an outhouse up on the hill; my father's parents had a 1930s-modern summer house on a nearby lake. I spent weekends and occasional weeks at both places, and was allowed to take the kayak upriver alone at sunrise (be back for breakfast!), or to tramp the local ponds and marshes alone in the snows of deep winter, fooling about with ice-fishing gear. Dad and I spent fall weekends out on the marsh, from the dark before dawn until sunset, watching and calling wild ducks at which we very occasionally shot. (The objective was not so much game in the bag, but to spend the day outdoors together and present in the moment, watching, and at that we were almost always successful.)

For thirty three years I've lived and worked in Silicon Valley, because it's tough to be a practicing computer engineer in Iowa. I've loved California's Sierra forests and wildernesses and the redwoods and the seacoast, and the chance to live and work with people from fifty different cultures, but it has never been home. Over the next couple years I'm engaged in cashing in my chips and moving back to rural Iowa.

I'm looking for a house on that same lake, in a community where people in the grocery still stop me and say "Aren't you Joel Hanes's son?", to watch the sunrises and sunsets and the autumn flocks of ducks and geese on the lake, to fool around with small boats, maybe to do a little sailing, maybe some fishing. My motivations are very much in line with Yeats's "The Lake Isle of Innisfree":

...
I will arise and go now, for always night and day
I hear lake water lapping with low sounds by the shore;
While I stand on the roadway, or on the pavements grey,
I hear it in the deep heart's core.

The reason I'm sharing all these whimsical tales is basically to counter this, from wj:

It is interesting that people in developed countries today are so often enamoured of returning to the (often merely imagined) simpler life of the past. Whereas those actually living the "simpler life" today can't wait to get away from it.

IMO there's a perception that wanting to live a simpler life by way of doing stuff for yourself - living on and working land - is some kind of romantic fever dream.

That's not necessarily so. Yes, it requires money, just as everything else in the modern world does. It also requires a basic level of commitment, and a generous handful of clues, both of which are not always in evidence.

Most folks that do it combine it with other income streams, just like almost every small holding farmer has done, for basically ever.

Some folks just like it, so that's what they do. Some are quite good at it.

Nothing wrong with it.

My overall point, above and beyond what the hippies are doing these days, is that the goal of simplifying your life - regardless of whether that takes the form of "living off the land" or not - is really freaking hard these days, because there are 7 billion of us on the planet now.

We're very noisy animals, in every sense.

I was just trying to point out that, as you said, going to the simple life requires that you start with some capital -- which you gained somewhere else, living and working in the modern world.

I've got no problem with people wanting to simplify their lives. In fact, I think one of the pathologies of our modern society is that so many people have lost the concept of "enough." We don't really need more and more and more stuff.

But just try convincing someone that, once they have enough to support some reasonable lifestyle, anything else is just score-keeping -- and that your "score" really isn't that important in the great scheme of things. After all, do you really need to impress others with how important you are? (And if you really do, what does that say about your basic level of insecurity?)

Yes, as it happens. My own.

A worthy goal, well described. Hope you get there. I have a comparable plan--we have a house in a rural golf community NW of Austin on Lake Travis, still to be paid for. Very quiet, decent golf. Our closest friends have or will also retire there. Slow pace of life. Access to the city when wanted or needed. Five years and counting.

so many people have lost the concept of "enough."

This.

This cautionary first bit of Wendell Berry's "Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front" explains:

Love the quick profit, the annual raise,
vacation with pay. Want more
of everything ready-made. Be afraid
to know your neighbors and to die.
And you will have a window in your head.
Not even your future will be a mystery
any more. Your mind will be punched in a card
and shut away in a little drawer.
When they want you to buy something
they will call you. When they want you
to die for profit they will let you know.

russell, those desert fathers were also notorious for getting into each others' hair. Not to forget the shoutfests of pillar saints that were spectacular enough to draw crowds of spectators. ;-)

so many people have lost the concept of "enough."

Kinda, sorta. I'm unclear on how many is "so many" or what *enough* means. Paris Hilton is a poster child for monied excess, but is a net worth of 5mm* *too much* if someone works hard and wants to travel and do stuff when he/she can finally put it down? 10mm? Is there a line out there?

Conspicuous consumers are out there, at every level from the debt-laden wannabe to the uber rich. So what? Why worry about people like that? Why even have them on your radar screen?

*I don't have 5mm and never expect to, but if I did, I'd quit what I'm doing.

Postapocalyptic Nostalgia

Oh take me to a land where green trees grow
That far and strong their roots and branches spread
Let lush moss carpets serve me as a bed
As lullaby a crystal clear creek's flow

To be away from here where bad winds blow
And nitric acid turns the rain to red
The lakes and rivers? All of them are dead
Cherenkov makes them in the darkness glow

'Before' and 'After', nothing in-between
What really happened on the Day of Doom?
All that is left are dreams of what has been

There was a world that was not filled with gloom
Few are still here that have her wonders seen
And with them goes all mem'ry to the tomb

going to the simple life requires that you start with some capital

wj, thanks for your replies here. I don't mean to pick unnecessary nits, but what I want to say is that going "back to the land" requires, in nearly all cases, some capital.

Unless you want to squat in an abandoned pole barn, which is not for most folks.

On the other hand, simplifying your life can easily cost nothing, and may in fact save you a lot of money and/or free up other, non-monetary resources as well.

Joel, thanks for the Wendell Berry, he's a favorite.

For the record, for me personally "simplifying my life" usually means taking stuff to the Goodwill so I have room for the new stuff.

those desert fathers were also notorious for getting into each others' hair.

Yes, some were motivated less by a desire for spiritual exploration and more by generally cranky anti-social temperaments.

Not yet a Buddha, as they say.

There's a lot written about and by the desert fathers, they're an interesting crew and worth finding out about.

those desert fathers

Allow me to introduce you to my guru

on Lake Travis

I've crewed a sailboat race or two there, and enjoyed margaritas at The Iguana Grill after; I can see why it appeals. I hope you make it.

Also I hope that the rains come and refill the lake so that The Sometimes Peninsula once again becomes The Sometimes Islands.

I hope you make it.

Thanks. I think we are on track. Thanks for the thought on rain. Yes, we could sure use it.

Should you ever return, drop me a line.

I spent several years in my late 20s to early 30s sporadically employed, and I had friends who wondered how I got by on so little. My total monthly expenses were in the $600-700 range. They admired my "simplicity", to some extent, but I would explain that my ability to live that way was still in part dependent on the consumer society around me. If everybody lived like that the economy would collapse.

I'm unclear on how many is "so many" or what *enough* means. Paris Hilton is a poster child for monied excess, but is a net worth of 5mm* *too much* if someone works hard and wants to travel and do stuff when he/she can finally put it down? 10mm? Is there a line out there?

I'd say that there isn't a problem if you are trying to make more because you have something you want to do with it. (Or just because you love what you are doing, and it happens to pay very well. Warren Buffett comes to mind.)

I was thinking more of those who are frantically working to get "more", for the sake of having more. More than they have. More than others have. Not because they have any particular use in mind for it. just because they want to have more.

Think of someone who insists on having a 30+ room mansion. Not because he has a use for all that space. Just because it shows how important, or successful, or something he is. If he had a huge family living with him, and needed room for them, that would be different. If he routinely had guests over and used the rooms for them, that would be different. If he had some other use for all that space, fine. But to have it just to have it?

Marx' most capital error was to not recognize that 'having more than my peers' is a fundamental driving force in humans (at least once the basic needs are satisfied but see below) and that there is no upper limit to that. It works at 11$:10$ as well as at 11bn$:10bn$. In some regions in Africa the 'filthy rich' are those that have half a hectare of land and send their kids to school with shoes on their feet. In a certain building project in NY the disgusting have-nots earn 100,000$+ and have to be kept out of sight of their betters that use the front entrance.


Sorry, I seem to have left italics on somehow.

Why worry about people like that? Why even have them on your radar screen?

The urge some folks have to get more and more and more and more bugs me not at all, until it creates problems that actually do affect me and everybody else in the world other than them.

The extremely rich bug me not at all, until their interests conflict with mine, and those of everybody else in the world other than them.

Both of those things actually happen, all the time.

I just feel a need to point out that the other rural folks, the farmers, many timber company employees, ranchers, sheep raisers and so on also live off the government, have done so for much longer than the hippies, in many cases are grotesquely destructive of public owned resources, and, in the end, have cost the taxpayers much more than the hippies ever did.

.There are quite a few hermits on the island where I live. Mostly they live on SS disability. Some combine that with sales of marijuana. They live in old trailers, old Winnebagos, or cabins they built themselves. They use rain barrels for water, car batteries to run their DVD players. They poop in the woods. They burn wood, They repair their leaky roofs with blue plastic tarps. They have old cars that just barely run. So far as I can tell, it's a choice. They are quite different from each other but have the common feature of being eccentrics who don't fit in well, thus being unemployable. They have figured out how to survive without having regular jobs due to being unable to get or keep one. There's a young woman, a Viet Nam vet, a very alcoholic old woman, and a pair of brothers who are probably autistic. I met these folks through dog rescue; they all have, or had, dogs! I think that there are probably lots of folks like them up the dirt roads in the woods.

I spent several years in my late 20s to early 30s sporadically employed, and I had friends who wondered how I got by on so little. My total monthly expenses were in the $600-700 range. They admired my "simplicity", to some extent, but I would explain that my ability to live that way was still in part dependent on the consumer society around me. If everybody lived like that the economy would collapse.

Conspicuous consumers are out there, at every level from the debt-laden wannabe to the uber rich. So what? Why worry about people like that? Why even have them on your radar screen?

Why? For one, those who have succeeded tend to have undue influence on public policies that tend to promote their interests at the expense of others. Having attained success, they just about always desire to pull the ladder up behind them. I tend to believe, as both biblical testaments repeatedly aver, that accumulation for the sake of accumulation is a grievous sin.

Yet here we are with "greed is good".

Two. Another thing about the "simpler" life is its reliance not only on benefactors (be they public or private) but a whole infrastructure of social relations and social capital that lies behind the scenes. Who smelted the iron for the commune's plow? Who raised the towers for their cell phones? Pulp mills are kinda' necessary to have mass production books. Where do blue tarps come from?

All of these take immense organized social effort. It is an effort that all too often goes unrecognized in the nostalgia for "the simple life".

To me, the simpler life is simply "the better life". If we could all agree as to what that would be, well, we'd be a whole lot better off. But mostly, let's find a way to get all a decent standard of living and take some of the edge off the physical, emotional, and psychological strain to survive in this modern age.

PS: Good luck to you on Lake Travis, McKinney. My tastes run more to Lake Chatcolet and Circling Raven is just up the road.

Lake Chatcolet

Wow. Just wow.

Wish my family was there.

I've spent some time camping on Pend O'Reilles, and I think that's one of the most beautiful areas in the lower 48.

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Whatnot


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