Sunday, 17 January 2016
Fumbling Toward Independence
I’m not saying the modern world doesn’t have its advantages – obviously, I keep a blog, and you’re somewhere far away reading it. I can also buy armfuls of inexpensive food, speed down the road in a metal box and download more cat pictures in an hour than I could look through in a lifetime. It comes with a price, however: having these things means burning through resources at jaw-dropping speed, using the world’s land, sea and air as an open sewer into which we can flush all the wastes. A different kind of waste comes out of the mass media, which loudspeakers and ubiquitous screens make increasingly difficult to escape.
Nor can the pros and cons of our society be easily separated. The glowing screens that allow us to talk across a planet also distract us from talking to each other, and the easy commuting means more jobs moved to places you have to commute to. The cheap food allows more Westerners to die from obesity rather than hunger, and people in poorer countries to multiply until there are now many more hungry people than a century ago. I’m not saying the technological and social benefits aren’t important, or debating whether they are “worth it;” I simply don’t assume that fixing our problems automatically means doing more of what we’re already doing.
Thus, I study the past to see what worked better. Our elderly neighbours grew up without electricity, cars or mass media, and I see how different their village culture was from our own frantic and lonely society. I read diaries and letters from a century of two ago, and see a complexity of thought and language that gives college students trouble today. The writers – in colonial America, Victorian Britain or 20th-century Ireland -- might have been farmers, but they often grew up reading the same classics as their forebears -- Hesiod and Sophocles, Livy and Marcus Aurelius, Aquinas and Dante. Now I’m reading these works one by one, and teaching what bits I can to my daughter. For that matter, I’m learning how to genuinely read again, and not just scan text on a screen.
We try to learn the ways people used to provide for their own basic needs rather than relying entirely on companies and governments, so we built a chicken coop, got bees, grow a garden, and learned to forage wild plants and mushrooms. We have make our own pickles, sauerkraut, beer, bread, wine and jam, and have taken courses in tree grafting, oven building, blacksmithing, wood carving, and so on. We fail a lot, but we have fun learning.
Sometimes, though, I hear from someone who doesn’t just want to gain ideas for their own cooking or home-schooling, but wants to escape to a new life. They tell me about their meaningless office job, their tedious commute, the destruction of the landscape and the horrors of the news feed. They have read my blog, seen the pictures, and they want to find a place just like this. I sympathise and write back, but that usually means disillusioning them.
See, everyone starts with some common misapprehensions. Firstly, many people seem to crave a sudden and absolute abandonment of the daily grind, the way others fantasise about the Zombie Apocalypse or the Rapture. Their descriptions seem to resemble what we usually see in advertisements, where someone runs joyfully out of their cubicle throwing papers, their old life falls away like petals, and they stage-dive into The Environment. In reality, almost no one simply moves to the country and starts over, or if they do, succeeds for very long.
People generally need homes, food, sterilised water, heat and other necessities, and will sooner or later need medical assistance. Most of us these days are used to driving a car, having electricity, broadband, and mobile phone reception, and many other amenities we never think about, because we have never been without them. Every new convenience has a price, not just for the machine itself, but for maintenance, power, and the infrastructure to make it work for you.
As I write this, our heat pump is out again, and we’re stoking the fireplace in a cold house – things usually pick the depth of winter to break down, and so far the electricity, plumbing, boiler and septic tank have also had problems. It sounds self-evident, but the more of the modern world you take with you, the less you will be getting away from the modern world, and the more you get away from everything, the more you have to do without.
Me, I work one of those office jobs in Dublin, and my wife works another. Our daily commute on the bus is worse than most – three hours a day – but that’s where I write for newspapers and magazines, something that doesn’t pay a living wage anymore. I have four hours a day when I’m not at my job, on the bus or asleep, and that’s my time to do all the chores, give lessons to my daughter, take care of a garden and animals, and practice all those crafts I named a few paragraphs ago. We live more independently each year, but it takes time and work, and it’s a life lived inside the cracks of a boring normal one.
It also involved some chance, something we rarely take into account when judging the choices of others. It so happened that my wife’s family had land here, so we moved, accepting the cost of living far from friends and family, along with the benefits of owning land and having neighbours to learn from. Other people ask me how they can do the same as we did, but their life comes with a different set of fortunes and hazards that we didn't face.
Secondly, many want to wash their hands of the world’s idiots and go it alone -- the “self” in self-sufficient. We like growing and making more of our own belongings, but we would like to be less isolated, if anything – modern people live lonely enough lives as it is. Look at a city and you see millions of people alone in their cars, absorbed in screens and cocooned in a bubble of smart-phones and earbuds, unaccustomed to making mental or physical space for anyone else. In such isolated states we grow ever-more self-absorbed, and fantasise about being even freer from the oppressive proximity of our fellow man.
I say we are “learning to be more self-sufficient” or some such phrase, in the same way that one can learn to be healthier or kinder, but total self-sufficiency is barely possible and not necessarily desirable. Hermits were historically rare and willing to tolerate hardship, and while we read inspiring accounts of their lives, we don’t hear from all the ones who weren’t inspired or didn’t survive.
Humans are social animals, and tend to need company – and many tasks require a group of people cooperating anyway. Even Thoreau, who wrote so beautifully about living in the woods, lived near town and had a mother to do cooking and laundry. The mythology of the self-sufficient man came about in our own era by people who lived with the surplus of fossil fuels.
In our case, we built a house for our extended family, three generations under a roof, and that means more compromises – I’d love to raise a daughter without a television, for example, but it’s not just my house, so we just limit her time and monitor what she sees. I’d love to home-school her here, instead of just after-school lessons, but she needs kids her own age and I have to pay bills. People who try for this kind of life must not be too infatuated with the purity of their vision – the more ambitious it is, the less it can be done alone. Conversely, the more people you have with you – assuming you’re not a dictator -- the more everyone has to compromise.
Thirdly, I find, people’s yearning to get away from it all rarely comes with a map or plan to get there, for “there” is often not a place but an imagined state. In this world, though, everywhere is somewhere, and in this day of internet and airports no place is very far from anywhere else.
The rural Ireland many Americans picture was disappearing even when I first visited 16 years ago, and the country has changed far more in the time we’ve lived here. It lives on in the elderly people around us, but they are disappearing one by one. I take photos of the thatched homes and horse carriages because they are beautiful and represent the focus of the blog, but I don’t show photos of other things that are also near us: McDonalds and malls, pornography and tabloids. Our local area includes people who are said to deal drugs, drivers who cut you off and teens who spray graffiti on 300-year-old bridges. Wherever you go, people will be human, and some will be unpleasant.
Even out here, my daughter absorbs celebrity gossip and pop fads by adolescent osmosis, and we have to negotiate like any middle-aged father and tween daughter: You can listen to Adele, but not Nicki Minaj (how do you even know who that is?) and you have to sing old songs with me later. You can watch a television programme, but read part of a book after that, and then we’ll play cards. She doesn’t need to grow up innocent of the internet and pop culture, but she can know how to live without them.
I hear from people who embrace a new and harder life mainly as a big rude gesture to their old one. Some seem to imagine themselves sitting on a mountain of tin cans and guns waiting for The Big One, and will one day stand on the rubble above the pleading hands of the sheeple who wouldn’t listen. Other, more empathetic souls seem to mourn our species’ path of destruction, and want to do penance for the sins of others. Either way, they seek a new life not for its own sake, but out of an imagined revenge on the people around them, and I don’t see such impulses cultivating a healthy community. Moreover, if that kind of enforced austerity really worked, dieters would lose weight, and they don’t.
A more independent life need not be a distant redoubt to purchase but a state to accomplish, and getting there should ideally be done in small steps, with the support of friends, and be reasonably fun and not overly complicated. Take food, for example: when my 11-year-old makes herself egg drop soup, grabbing eggs from the coop and herbs from the garden, she is saving money that might have gone to buy pre-packaged meals, and saving the energy that would have gone to grow, ship and process them. She learns to do things herself, bonds with other kids who cook, and can use this as a stepping stone to learn other things. To make egg drop soup yourself, you don’t need to move to another country, or start a farm, or stock up on cilantro and balsamic vinegar, and your creations don’t need to look like those of those television chefs who trained for decades and don’t display all their mistakes.
Or take growing a garden: Growing your own garden won’t provide all your food, but it doesn’t have to – just the vitamin-rich vegetables that are costly to ship and expensive to buy, while cheap grain and staples can be purchased. Other skills are the same way, whether they involve growing a hedgerow, weaving baskets, nailing a shed together, making jam, fermenting kim chee, playing chess, singing, or keeping animals in the shed. To actually live a somewhat self-sufficient life you need a lifetime of skills, and learning them takes a lifetime. Luckily, you have one, or at least part of one left.
Such activities can be fun, allow your family to eat when someone loses their job, gives you barter material in case something happens to money, offers an opportunity to talk to neighbours, cost little to learn, and have almost no disadvantages. What they won’t do is change everything … because nothing will.
You see, almost no one ever genuinely starts a new life; they might try, but they are bringing themselves along for the ride, and they remain who they are. The life you want will not be a location to which you can drive, but a state you can work to attain. You will not be able to change anything but yourself and your surroundings, and then only in tiny increments, and often nothing seems to change ... until one day, you look behind you at the path you've taken, and you see how strange the rest of the world appears in the distance.