JULY 23, 2013
IN SOUTHERN NEW MEXICO, “Land of Enchantment,” Virgin Galactic is currently building the world’s first commercial spaceport, where those able to make a $200,000 reservation will soon have the chance to explore the lower atmosphere. It’s an incredible example of what corporations are capable of today: flush with cash, able to attract talented employees with promises of endless resources, they have moved into territory once fully dominated by nation-states.
Thirty miles from Virgin Galactic’s spaceport, Wendy Tremayne, a modern-day homesteader, is peeing into a litter box in her home and using the runoff to water her plants. She and her partner, Mikey Sklar, have remodeled a mobile home and patched together various outbuildings with papercrete — a mix of pulped paper and cement over rebar — on their property in Truth or Consequences, New Mexico. The two moved from New York City in 2006 to build their own off-the-grid homestead and pursue what they have termed the “uncommodified life” — a life not governed by branding and marketing but inspired by a DIY ethos. The Good Life Lab, Tremayne’s chatty account of their “radical experiments in hands-on living,” is part memoir, part how-to guide for those who might join their movement.
Activists, cultural critics, religious leaders — all have argued that everything is for sale, that rampant capitalism and a global run on sustainable resources have led to unchecked commodification. It’s a criticism that has been playing out for decades in America, increasing in fervor whenever an economic downturn leads a few more people to look askance at capitalism’s promise. Among those who see what a crippled economic system has wrought, there are often some who choose a different route, one that leads them, as they say, back to the land. Tremayne is part of a grand American tradition of abandoning urban commercialism to grow food and build houses far from the crush of city life. While the term perhaps conjures images of idealistic men and women of the 1970s, all denim and bandanas and long hair, the first major back-to-the-land push came right before World War I, when economic upheaval caused more than a few city dwellers to long for basic food security, sparking a farming craze. The movement swept the country again during the Great Depression, sometimes aided by New Deal policies that encouraged sustenance food production.
“It has often struck me that homesteaders tend to produce as many texts as they do vegetables,” Rebecca Gould writes in her 2005 book on homesteading and spirituality, At Home in Nature. And as a new rash of memoirs suggests, these modern Thoreaus are just as capable of producing a heroic number of texts as their forbearers. Tremayne, in titling her book The Good Life Lab, explicitly links herself to the legacy of Helen and Scott Nearing, a professor and a musician, respectively, who in 1932 left their jobs in New York and headed for Vermont. The Nearings purchased a farm in the Green Mountains that would become their full-time residence in 1935, and over the next two decades erected multiple stone buildings, grew most of their own food, harvested and sold maple syrup for cash, housed thousands of curious visitors, and published several books chronicling their exploits. In 1952 they left Vermont for Maine, where they repeated many of their successes, again building, farming, and writing. And the Nearings certainly made time to get their thoughts down. Part of their prescription for the good life, as they called it, involved making time for their “avocations,” such as music or writing. Their 1954 volume Living the Good Life became a veritable bible for a wave of boomers looking to grow their own tomatoes and make their own granola 20 years later, when the Nearings eased into the role of éminence grise for the homestead movement.
Tremayne is likewise concerned with making things, even referring to the people who embrace the DIY ethos simply as “makers.” It’s a form of what Dona Brown identifies as “producerism” in her 2011 book Back to the Land: The Enduring Dream of Self-Sufficiency in Modern America. A history professor at the University of Vermont, Brown points to the phenomenon of “preserving artisanal skill, personal autonomy, and household self-sufficiency in the face of a rising tide of mechanization, monopoly, and consumerism.” Thus Tremayne and Sklar design and build structures on their one-acre plot, grow much of their own food, use homemade herbal remedies as medicine, and rely on solar power and homemade biofuel for their energy needs. This allows them to participate less in the cash economy (one of the goals of their “decommodified life”), but also, Tremayne believes, animates their lives with greater awareness of the quiet brutality built into our globalized market. “Our current economic system,” she writes,
doesn’t encourage deep thinking, because that leads to seeing the enormity of the cost of the human labor and natural resources that bring us cheap goods. But as makers of things, your quality of life actually hinges on your understanding of the larger world, and so a deeper interest in life naturally blossoms along with your skills.
In New York, Tremayne worked in public relations and Sklar was a computer programmer on Wall Street. Tremayne, unhappy in the PR world, quit her job in 2001 and headed to Burning Man — that Nevada desert incubator of people “finding themselves” — where she decided to become a yoga teacher. She returned to New York just hours before the Twin Towers fell and soon met Sklar at an event for New Yorkers dealing with the emotional aftermath of 9/11. Eventually the couple decided that New York real estate would be like “metal shackles attached to long chains, tied to desks inside the cubicles that fill the city’s skyscrapers.” When Sklar left his job on Wall Street his boss told him, “I don’t know how to process this — no one ever quits.”
Tremayne’s cubicle reference is apt. As Dona Brown notes in her history of the movement, white-collar workers, especially those with relatively high-status but low-paying jobs, have long been the primary candidates for striking out for the (literal) fields. Scott Nearing, for instance, was a professor who was blacklisted for his then-radical socialist politics. Tremayne flips the usual calculus of “Can I afford to quit my job?” — and who hasn’t spent a bored commute crunching those numbers? — to “What is the cost of a job?” What does one gain from eating out because there’s no time to cook, from wearing expensive clothes, from the daily vacations one finds in the sipping of vanilla lattes?
Unlike the Nearings, who describe a typical day’s food intake as fruit for breakfast, then vegetable soup and boiled grains for lunch, and raw vegetables for dinner, Tremayne is no ascetic: she begins making her own wine after realizing that she and Sklar have spent nearly $3,000 on wine annually. She also stresses making healthy, local foods so delicious that you don’t secretly pine for a Twinkie. What emerges from Tremayne’s breezy, friendly prose is a narrative quite different from the Nearings’s exhaustively detailed accounts of crop selection, terracing gardens, and constructing vegetable cellars. Tremayne gets heavily involved with local medicinal cures, which she sells through the couple’s online store. She grows her own food and spends time watching sunsets and feels deeply connected to the seasons and the earth. (She is a practicing Sufi — in one incredibly eerie scene, Tremayne is buried alive with nothing but an air tube in order to commune with the planet.) But Tremayne and Sklar are as likely to dole out advice for finding great blogs, meditating, recycling batteries, and avoiding debt as they are to discuss the land. The Good Life Lab, then, is as much a guide to consumer awareness as it is to homesteading.
That’s not to say Tremayne’s financial advice should necessarily be taken wholesale; the two cash out their 401(k) accounts — they don’t trust the country’s “dying banking system” — in order to put all their money into purchasing tools and land, one of the more apocalyptic ironies of the book. Her homestead is digital, as she notes, which puts them in a bit of a double bind; “The digital homesteaders,” she writes, “use technology, tools, and equipment to create a lifestyle less entangled with money … and yet these things require money to obtain.” When it comes to the Mac laptops that can be seen in photos throughout the book, Tremayne argues that connecting with a larger audience and like-minded collaborators overrides the small impact of their individual consumer choices: “Some solutions designed to repair a modern world come with the aid of the technology it spawned.” Point taken, although it raises obviously larger concerns about the world of the “individual makers” Tremayne would like to see replacing corporations. The notion of an artisanal iPod strains credulity. She advocates buying older models and, whenever possible, repairing instead of trashing your gadgets. But it’s never clear where these older computers would come from if no new ones were made. The moral quagmire of the smartphone — that these devices are often assembled under dubious labor conditions, giving pause to many conscientious consumers — is a discussion that may have added depth to Tremayne’s simplistic critique.
Well-made, however, is the homesteader’s larger assessment of the nature of consumerism, of that which drives us to hoard needless things and sacrifice happiness for the money to buy them. Indeed, the couple are thoughtful about their concessions to the mainstream: Tremayne owns up to the fact that they’re not living entirely outside of the US economy — death, taxes, and data plans are as real for them as they are for the rest of us. Just as the Nearings tapped trees for maple syrup to sell for cash, Sklar is busy whipping up for-sale temperature controllers for perfectly cultured homemade yogurt, which hardly seems the worst sin. (He also publishes his designs online for free, providing an alternative to buying his kits.) After all, no one is perfect: it’s often noted that Helen Nearing, an avowed vegan who referred to domestic pets as “slaves,” occasionally ate ice cream and once owned a cat.
“The center of life routine,” wrote the Nearings in Continuing the Good Life, “is surrounded by a circumference of choice.” When introducing her book, Tremayne says that by pursuing a homesteader existence she and Sklar chose “a life free of pointless drudgery.” As college graduates across the country emerge into saturated labor markets, having taken on thousands of dollars in student debt for a liberal arts degree, one can understand the temptation to follow Tremayne’s lead. Of course, the vast majority of people who read her book will not be moving to mobile homes in New Mexico to compost their feces, just as the Nearings found that while many visitors came to the farm, few chose to run their own. That doesn’t mean, however, that the Nearings’s boarders were not inspired by what they saw. The couple writes, “Driven by whatever urge, motivated by a wide variety of interests and convictions, all human beings, early in their lives, are possessed by the wish and the will to live a satisfying and rewarding life.” There are many roads to satisfaction, from homesteading to buying a ticket into space, and the advice underlying both Tremayne’s and the Nearings’s books ultimately has less to do with composting and more to do with deciding what you are willing to sacrifice to live as you choose.