The American quest for authenticity and a simpler life amid consumerism and the onslaught of modernity has long been a part of our nation’s history.
In his new book “The Unsettlers: In Search Of The Good Life In Today’s America,” author Mark Sundeen follows modern homesteaders who’ve gone off the grid and taken other radical steps to live differently. Sundeen (@), a correspondent for Outside Magazine, profiles three families who try to break away from global capitalism and live a more sustainable, ethical life.
Here & Now‘s Eric Westervelt (@Ericnpr) talks with Sundeen about the book and what he learned from writing it.
Book Excerpt: ‘The Unsettlers’
By Mark Sundeen
I was looking for people freed from commercial civilization, who might give me direction for doing it myself. Yet after a full year, everyone I’d met fell into one of five categories, none of which was exactly right.
First were single men. These guys had achieved self-reliance, but in cutting ties with the economy, they had also severed family bonds, the opposite of what I was on the verge of doing. I wanted blueprints for cohabitation, not hermitry.
Next I met people who, after leading a simple life for some period of time, decided to quit—Cedar’s parents, for example. After years of eking out a living growing food and selling stained glass at craft fairs, they both got full-time jobs and eventually replaced the barn with a beautiful on‑grid home. “We took poverty as far as we could,” her dad told me with a laugh. A friend of mine who birthed a baby in a school bus in a snowstorm on a mountain told me that tripping in the snow on the way to the outhouse one night—pregnant, shitting herself—was not what had finally nudged her and her husband to abandon the
homestead. It was the prospect of driving the kids forty minutes to school each day. People who quit the simple life were the rule; I wanted the exceptions.
In the third group were people who had launched their vision with considerable wealth or inherited land. I met a family who had deftly flipped a house in the suburbs before the crash, paid cash for acreage, and built an off-grid straw-bale house. I envied and admired them, but I couldn’t afford to replicate what they’d done. Perhaps the most famous modern homesteader is Ree Drummond, who spun her massively popular Pioneer Woman blog into a series of books and TV shows that extol home cooking and homeschooling. But Drummond acquired her piece of paradise by marrying into a family that ranks
among America’s largest landowners.
There were also those from a tradition of simple living, such as the Amish and the Mennonites. But you had to be born into such a culture. You couldn’t just join. And then there were the moonlighters. Western Montana and southern Utah, where I’d lived for two decades, were meccas for back‑to‑the-landers, as were Vermont and Northern California. But those places were all expensive now, and buying in these days—or even staying afloat—required working an outside job to support a homestead hobby. I admired the commitment of those who’d figured out how to make it work. But for me a crucial motivation for living simply was to gain more freedom, not to sprint on some treadmill just to pay the bank.
“What can I actually do?” asked the British economist E. F. Schumacher in his 1973 book Small Is Beautiful, in the face of intractable tentacles of industry. “In the excitement over the unfolding of his scientific and technical powers,” he wrote, “modern man has built a system of production that ravishes nature and a type of society that mutilates man.” Meanwhile, the wealthy were stripping the world of its cheap fuels at such a quick rate that poor countries would never get a fair share.
Schumacher’s solution: “We can, each of us, work to put our own inner house in order.” He viewed economics through a Buddhist lens, asserting that “the essence of civilization [is] not in a multiplication of wants but in the purification of human character.” Instead of productivity for its own sake, Schumacher heralded the Buddhist ideal of “right livelihood,” whose function he defined as threefold: to excel at one’s craft, to overcome selfishness by working in common cause with others, and to create useful goods and services.
Wendell Berry echoed this: “How can a man hope to promote peace in the world if he has not made it possible in his own life and his own household?”
So after a year of searching for the people who had taken Wendell Berry’s challenge to quit destructive technology, I found that I was equally interested in finding people who had taken his challenge to put their households in order.
Where to find homesteaders more radical, more committed, yet less isolated than the ones I’d met thus far? Not personally knowing any, I launched my search—where else?—on Facebook. Through a short chain of acquaintances I learned about a place in Missouri, the Possibility Alliance. Some people I met at an anarchist collective told me they had gone there to launch a monthlong bike ride devoted to service—a ride they’d all done dressed as superheroes. But in these instantly searchable times, it was surprisingly hard to find out more. The alliance was shrouded in analog mystery: no website or social media, no major press coverage. Was it a commune or a school or an ashram or a summer camp or a training ground for revolutionaries?
Gradually I gathered this much: Members of the Possibility Alliance used no electricity, cars, or computers. They lived by candlelight and grew their own food and rode bicycles and horses and trains. They lived in voluntary poverty rather than pay an income tax that financed war. Knowledge of the place spread by word of mouth.
I eventually obtained a phone number—landlines don’t require electricity—and after a series of messages spoke with Ethan Hughes, who, along with his wife, Sarah Wilcox, had founded the Possibility Alliance after they’d disembarked that Amtrak train in La Plata in 2007. He told me that the alliance hosted 1,500 visitors per year, some for a two-hour tour or a half-day course in canning or knitting, others for a weeklong natural-building workshop or a two-week permaculture course.
“People pull up in the train and are picked up by horse and buggy or by bike,” he said. “We call it ‘necessary simplicity.’ I don’t know how to build another planet, but I know how to simplify. It creates a myth. In the age of the Internet, people get bored. There’s this mystery. People track us down.”
I asked what sort of people showed up.
“All kinds. Catholic Workers and anti-religious anarchists, permaculturists and Buddhists.” At present they were so inundated with visitors that they could accommodate me only during “Experience Week.”
The price for the nine-day visit: zero. They operated strictly on the “gift economy.” I asked what that meant.
“I see objects and money like water,” he said. “It’s flowing. If in nature one tree kept all the water, everything downstream would die. By studying nature we see—” He stopped mid-sentence.
“The bell of mindfulness just rang,” he said. “Do you mind taking a moment of silence with me?”
Exceprted from THE UNSETTLERS by Mark Sundeen. Copyright © 2017 by Mark Sundeen. Published by arrangement with Riverhead Books, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC.