MARCH 19, 2017
MARK SUNDEEN BEGINS his newest book, The Unsettlers, on a mission. “I wanted to see if living along lines of radical simplicity brought a deeper, truer relationship to land, livelihood, economy, and spirit,” he writes in its opening pages. This quest is an old one, of course, shared by American seekers going back hundreds of years. “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately,” wrote Henry David Thoreau in 1854’s Walden, “to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.”
Thoreau is perhaps Sundeen’s most prominent predecessor, but his book’s subtitle — In Search of the Good Life in Today’s America — also alludes to the second most famous book in the canon of simple-living narratives. In Living the Good Life, Scott and Helen Nearing recount their move from New York to Vermont in 1932, during the Depression. “[W]e thought of the venture as a personal search for a simple, satisfying life on the land,” they wrote, “to be devoted to mutual aid and harmlessness, with an ample margin of leisure in which to do personally constructive and creative work.” The Nearings’ book — part manifesto, part practical guide to building and gardening — was self-published in 1954, and remained virtually unknown until its rerelease in 1970 immediately made it the bible of a new generation of back-to-the-landers. Beginning in the late 1960s, uncountable thousands of young people began streaming out of the United States’s cities on their own search for a simple, satisfying life. “How could they resist the all-pervasive, life-consuming monster which they believed urban America had become?” wrote journalist Robert Houriet in 1972. “The only option was to split.” With its mix of rural communes and Nearing-inspired homesteads, the back-to-the-land movement of the 1970s was the largest and most radical of these periodic, ruralward surges. At least, so far.
A few years ago, I began research for a book on the back-to-land movement — a subject I knew surprisingly little about, given that I was raised in a geodesic dome my city-born parents built at the top of a Vermont hayfield in 1971. During the course of my reading and interviewing, I was continually surprised by the echoes I found of the goals and motivations expressed by the idealists and utopians of previous eras. And, as helpful friends forwarded me articles about rooftop farms, Tiny House communities, and off-the-grid CSA (community-supported agriculture) operations run by Wesleyan philosophy majors, I also became aware of a new wave of utopian movements underway in our own time.
In The Unsettlers, Sundeen takes what is perhaps the first stab at formally chronicling this newest wave of American utopianism. In this deft, impeccably reported book, Sundeen offers a fresh look at the recurrent American urge for the “simple” life. While he doesn’t attempt to describe the movement as a whole or to quantify or categorize its participants (it may be too soon for that kind of big-picture analysis), he goes deep instead of wide. By taking us into the lives of three couples whose unconventional lifestyles stem from their deep commitment to the environment, nonviolence, personal health, and community, he examines those choices from both an ideological and practical point of view. As Sundeen makes clear, these journalistic questions were also personal: “I was looking for people freed from commercial civilization, who might give me direction for doing it myself,” he declares. The answers he eventually finds are well earned; by copping to his own romantic ideals but remaining flexible enough to examine them and their impact on his real life, he gains personal insights that feel honest and weighty.
Sundeen’s journey takes him first to northeastern Missouri, to the 80-acre, formerly Amish farm bought sight unseen in 2007 by Ethan Hughes and Sarah Wilcox. Hughes and Wilcox’s project, the Possibility Alliance, is an attempt to live entirely according to their ecological and ethical ideals. “I don’t want my freedom, comfort, and mobility to require killing, polluting, and exploiting,” Hughes tells Sundeen. In practice, this means that the people of the Possibility Alliance — Hughes, Wilcox, their two children, several long-term residents, and the ever-changing number of visitors and students in their permaculture workshops — grow much of their own food, live without electricity or electronic devices of any kind, and commit as much as possible to using bicycles and public transportation instead of cars. Wilcox and Hughes home-birth and homeschool their children and deliberately keep their income below the poverty threshold in order to avoid paying taxes that contribute to war.
Sundeen is honest about how taken he is with the Possibility Alliance’s way of life. He himself is newly married, at the end of a “two-decade bachelorhood,” contemplating domesticity, and looking to utopians like Hughes and Wilcox for a guide. His wife Cedar was raised, like me, by ’70s-era back-to-the-land parents, providing him with both a useful example and an occasional source of culture clash. In the PA’s Hughes, he finds, “a model of how one might live the good life as a husband, a father and an activist.”
But his journalistic eye doesn’t stop him from noticing the downsides to this attempt to live in total purity. For one, complete adherence to the group’s strictures seems almost impossible. Getting to the farm from the train station requires a six-mile bike ride, rain or shine; the closest town with a shopping district is 28 miles away. While the PA’s residents drastically reduce their reliance on combustion engines, only Hughes manages to swear off cars altogether. Sundeen describes the meeting in which the group confronts the fact that, after eight years and scores of visitors and committed friends, almost no one has become a full member. The Possibility Alliance shares a central problem with so many utopias in every era: its leader’s relentless insistence on correct behavior as he defines it, at the risk, as Sundeen puts it, of “conflating his [own] agenda with concern for another’s well being.”
For idealists like Hughes, this confidence in their own vision is a two-edged sword. On one hand, their extreme, internal sense of rightness is what gives them the ability to imagine, articulate, and then bring about in miniature their perfect version of the world. But it’s this same stubborn sureness that can blind them to the very real experiences that have shaped other people’s priorities, and it can lead them to dismiss choices different from their own as insufficiently moral. That insistence on total purity is ultimately antithetical to widespread adoption of its best ideas. It’s also a lonely, isolating way to live. “You think your world is the only way, yet there are so many worlds,” one friend gently tells Hughes. “The PA is not the solution. It’s one experiment that you are called to try.”
One question that recurs in the literature on simplicity movements is why so few of these enterprises last. For exhausted, disappointed visionaries, the danger of burnout is high. “People who quit the simple life were the rule,” Sundeen writes at the outset of his quest. “I wanted the exceptions.” For his case study in longevity, he turns to Luci Brieger and Steve Elliot, whose Lifeline Farm in Montana has been growing and thriving for decades. The couple lived for years without electricity or running water, and Brieger birthed her first son in the cozy teepee that served as their home for a decade. Elliot and Brieger’s farm was founded at the tail end of the 1970s movement; the fact that they themselves deny inclusion in this demographic just gives them one more characteristic in common with many of the ’70s-era back-to-the-landers I’ve talked to. After years of relentless, backbreaking work, Lifeline Farm grew into a successful vegetable and dairy operation — one of the countless, small, pioneering, organic farms that helped create and drive today’s $43.3 billion organics market. Brieger and Elliot, like many of their peers, have a complicated relationship with this success. Their fierce protectiveness of the “small is beautiful” ethic that first inspired them eventually led them to rebel against “Big Organic” by dropping their formal, USDA organic certification — though none of their growing standards — in favor of a co-operative regulatory group whose defiant label reads simply, “HOMEGROWN.”
Like the vast majority of their homesteader contemporaries — not to mention Thoreau, the Nearings, my parents, the PA’s founders, and Sundeen himself — Elliot and Brieger are white, well educated, and from relatively comfortable economic backgrounds. They are people whose radical choices are being made from a position of privilege, for better and worse. This theme of the privilege underlying utopia recurs throughout The Unsettlers, but never more directly than during Sundeen’s journey to a new frontier in the story of American agrarian movements: the city. In a twist on traditional back-to-the-land narratives, Sundeen heads for the expanding farmland of downtown Detroit. There, he finds the farmers behind Brother Nature Produce. Along with most white Detroiters, Greg Willerer’s family had moved to the suburbs in the 1960s, but Greg moved straight back to the city as soon as he could. Like the PA’s Hughes, his restless desire for a moral, meaningful life led him through various projects — punk music, anarchism, environmental activism, teaching — before landing on farming.
Sundeen juxtaposes his portrait of Willerer with that of his wife Olivia Hubert, who is African American. For Hubert’s family, the white flight that made Detroit a majority-black city was in many ways welcome. When the racist redlining practices that had put some neighborhoods off limits to them vanished, for example, they could purchase a home wherever they liked. But Hubert was born at the start of the crack epidemic that decimated families and communities. She grew up a sheltered child of middle-class parents who encouraged her interest in gardening in part because it kept her safely at home. Hubert followed an educational trajectory that eventually took her to London and an internship with the Royal Horticultural Society, acquiring a professional skill-set that included propagating orchids and pruning elaborate topiary. Like many “simple lifers” past and present, Hubert sees herself as having been born into the wrong era, her personal inclinations running counter to every influence of her community and family, to which she nonetheless remains firmly committed. Back in Detroit, she found herself vastly over-qualified for any available horticulture work and saddled with student debt. Her curiosity about Detroit’s burgeoning urban agriculture scene drew her into a farmer’s market meet-cute with Willerer, but also into the movement’s overwhelming whiteness.
Sundeen offers a useful (and, in back-to-the-land literature, badly needed) history of African-American agrarian self-sufficiency movements, from Booker T. Washington’s emphasis on truck farming to the invention by a Tuskegee professor of today’s ubiquitous CSA model to the Nation of Islam’s 1,500 Georgia acres, purchased in 1999 “with the ambition of someday providing one meal per day to each of America’s forty million black people.” Clearly, the impulse toward self-sufficiency and land is in no way reserved for white people, and yet such people — not just white, but well educated and well off — have made up the overwhelming majority of Americans putting these ideals into practice, in every era.
Considering this same phenomenon underway in Detroit, where the presence of largely white urban farmers in a largely black city deserves some careful examination, Sundeen and his characters posit theories: racist lending and real estate practices, historic and current; the related lack of capital; the complex relationship with farming still felt by a people once compelled to field work by force. But it’s Hubert who quietly offers one essential answer: farming is an uncertain undertaking, and “white farmers [are] more likely to have a financial cushion to fall back on in lean times.”
The evidence for this is all over Sundeen’s own narrative, in the form of five- and six-figure inheritances received by white farmers (including Lifeline Farm’s Brieger and Elliot) who are otherwise living hand-to-mouth. It’s this wider kind of privilege — the kind that comes from generations of comfort and security — that is most relevant when trying to understand why practitioners of “the simple life” are drawn from such a narrow demographic. Considering his own youthful “dirtbag life” of “pretend poverty,” Sundeen writes, “It wasn’t until I spent some time in Detroit […] that I fully realized that what had felt for years like the renunciation of privilege had in fact been just another means of exercising it.”
Again and again, privilege proves impossible to uncouple from utopian undertakings. Sundeen describes the Possibility Alliance’s Ethan Hughes as growing up lower middle class, but also as inheriting $100,000, which he promptly gives away. Though I share Sundeen’s admiration for Hughes’s generosity and commitment to, in his words, treating money “like water,” it has to be said: growing up in a family where a $100,000 inheritance is even a possibility carries its own reassuring power. On a subconscious level, unattached to your personal bank balance, it allows you to feel that the danger of true destitution, for yourself and for your children, remains safely at a distance. Confidence like this is itself a form of privilege.
So is community. When Ethan says things like, “Instead of insurance we have relationships, beautiful interdependence,” he’s clearly thinking at least in part of the friends and family from whom he and Sarah requested and received $50,000 to finish financing the farm. (Many of the donors were people to whom he’d previously given away his own inheritance.) Not every community would be able to offer the same support, no matter their love and idealism.
I don’t say all this with the sense of aggrieved disillusionment with which some critics note the Nearings’ undisclosed income or Thoreau’s reliance on his mother for his Walden meals. Recognizing invisible sources of support doesn’t discount or discredit the hard work and real austerity of these attempts to live free from hypocrisy. But it does allow a deeper understanding of what makes such extreme rejections of mainstream systems possible, and for whom. Examining the hidden currents that keep many experiments in radical austerity afloat reveals what allows some people to achieve a success that may remain out of reach to others with similar ideals but without the comfort of invisible safety nets. It illuminates the degree to which security within a dominant culture is what lets some idealists openly critique that culture with their very way of life — and to do so in safety, relatively unmolested. It helps explain why the demographic of utopian seekers of the kind Sundeen chronicles has remained more or less unchanged for centuries.
The privilege that enables simplicity movements also helps explain their problems with longevity. Like a surprising number of back-to-the-land kids — including myself — the son born in Brieger and Elliot’s Montana teepee now lives in Brooklyn. “Somehow we raised a metro kid […] with upscale hipster taste,” Brieger tells Sundeen. She’s joking, but she’s also genuinely baffled. When she and her husband had worked so hard to build a life of simple, moral self-sufficiency, how could her children want anything different? Perhaps it’s because, when you haven’t chosen it yourself, feeling poor sucks. Of his wife’s determination to leave behind some of the discomforts of her own childhood, Sundeen writes, “she never wanted to feel [poor] again, nor did she want her future children to feel it.” He adds, “Voluntary poverty is still poverty.”
But not exactly. Voluntary poverty is voluntary. People who chose it can usually choose their way out, and so can their kids, who have inherited their parents’ support networks and confidence. Of all the back-to-the-land kids I know — born in cabins and domes, raised with handmade toys and hand-me-down clothes, who spent their childhoods hauling water and reading by lantern-light and trekking to the outhouse in winter — almost every single one went to college and into the career of their choice. Their parents’ radical decisions to step out of the mainstream did not damage their own inherited claim to social access in any serious way. Voluntary poverty, with its basis in privilege, turns out to carry none of the devastating intractability of real poverty.
Radical simplicity movements don’t last, in part, because one of the things privilege allows is the ability to leave behind a hard life more or less at will. It would be a mistake, though, to interpret a loosening of strictures as a failure of ideals; or to cynically dismiss attempts at extreme self-sufficiency as merely a rich kids’ lark. In fact, a period of intense, ideologically driven experimentation followed by another period of practical reassessment turns out to be a very effective method for bringing radical new ideas into the mainstream.
That’s certainly what happened in the 1970s, anyway. Even as back-to-the-landers installed plumbing or moved into town, their values often remained unchanged. Communes became alternative schools or environmental centers; lessons from teepee homebirths became advice for women laboring in hospitals; eccentric solar and wind-power tinkering became pioneering green technologies; counter-cuisine staples like yogurt, soy milk, and homebrew moved from food co-ops to supermarkets; never mind organic and local foods, the still-increasing demand for which is helping support today’s young farmers.
Regardless of whether or not their experiments persist in their current forms, I can’t wait to see the legacy of Sundeen’s characters and of the thousands of others who are right now undertaking similar, hopeful, flawed, and thoughtful projects across the country. As Sundeen observes, “They find true joy in their work. They aren’t just suffering and renouncing […] [They] found their calling and heeded the call.” If you’re lucky enough to have the kind of privilege that can’t be lightly discarded, the kind that gives you the freedom to take risks and make mistakes and learn from them, then what a way to use it: to identify the world’s most urgent problems and to turn your daily life into an attempt at solving them, for your own benefit and for those who come after you. If that’s not a good life, I don’t know what is.