Radical Simplicity and the Fourth Step -
Complete Book Online

By Tyra and James Arraj. 154pp, large format, 7 3/4" x 11", double columns, paper, $17.95. Printed copies are available. Copyright 2004 Tyra Arraj and James Arraj. ISBN: 0-914073-11-7 (Also includes The Treasures of Simple Living (1987) and A Guide to Valuable Resources, Important Information, and Exotic Tidbits (2004))

A note to this edition: We published The Treasures of Simple Living in 1987, and have left it much as it first appeared. Radical Simplicity and the Fourth Step updates that story, but more importantly, tries to describe and distill how living in the forest changed the way we saw the world we had grown up in, and convinced us a better way of living was possible. Jim and Tyra, the forest, Summer 2004

 

Table of Contents:

Radical Simplicity
Homeschool
Our Own Homeschool
Doing What You Really Want to Do
Home
Elizabeth’s Cabin
The Institutionalization of Housing
Solar Electricity
The Children’s Forest
The Mystery of Nature
Cities
Quiet and Time
Book Production
The News, the Media and Advertising
Food
Real Fast Food
Bread
Walking Water
Health
Exercise
Transportation
Science and Technology
The Vulnerability of Large Institutions and Large Technology
The Industrialization of the Earth
Money
The Limits of Money
Money, Art and Beautiful Things
The Myth of Being Rich
Waste, Scarcity and Consumerism
Foreign Aid
Overpopulation
The Earth and the World
Is American-style Capitalism the best we can do?
Enough
Earth Rights
Winter and Travel
Institutions
Governments
Corporations
Baja California and the Four Steps
Hunter-Gatherers
Farmers and Herders
The Science Revolution
The Dream of the Fourth Step
The State of our Minds and Hearts

 

Radical Simplicity

It is a little after 8:00 a.m. in the morning on a day in mid-April some years ago. The weather forecast is for sun with the temperature going up into the 60s. A friend has just dropped us off at the beginning of a forest service road ten miles north of Chiloquin, population 750, in south-central Oregon, and we are getting on our cross-country skis. We want to go home.

Tyra has our cat in her knapsack, I have some blocks of cheese, a half pound of butter, and some other food, and lunch for the trail. Home is five miles away, following a maze of logging roads, and we are getting an early start to take advantage of the crust on the snow that formed during the cold of the night. It has been a big snow winter here in the foothills of the Cascade Mountains with up to six feet of snow on the ground. The spring thaw has begun to reduce it, but there is still plenty. It looks like it will be weeks before we will be able to drive in.

The ski trip goes well, and we reach our place in two and a half hours, and start the yearly ritual of getting it running again. I start a fire while Tyra begins melting snow for drinking water. Then I start knocking out the forest of poles that have been bracing the roof during the winter. And for the next few days we work our way through our list of chores. Tyra sets up the kitchen with the dishes and food stuffs that she carefully packed away in the fall so the creatures wouldn't get in them. We trap two pack rats the first night, catch wash water off the roof, dig our way into the root cellar to see what supplies we have left there, and set up our solar panels. Luckily, our bank of four golf cart batteries still has a charge on it and comes up to full charge quickly. We set up our inverter to convert the DC current of the batteries to normal 120-volt AC.

We dig some scraps of glass out of the snow to replace two broken windows, and start wrestling our old snowmobiles from the drifts they are embedded in. We make tofu which requires getting our balky generator running so we can blend the soaked soy beans and express the soy milk. We bake bread, and make yogurt from the starter we have brought in. Life starts to get normal, or at least what passes for normal out here in the middle of the forest. Soon the seemingly endless days with their sunshine and deep blue skies will be upon us that make this place such a joy to live in.

We have had many of these home comings over the years, and the last minutes of these trips are always filled with suspense. Would our buildings be standing after the heavy snows? Usually they escape with minor damage, and we would be filled with a rush of gratitude to have such a sanctuary to come back to.

No matter how far away from the forest we have traveled, and no matter the time we have spent living in more normal ways in town, we have always come back to the forest. The forest is like an ongoing experiment in which we have a chance to look at our lives and change them if we wish, and also look at the world and its social structures where we have just been, and try to see them from the outside, as it were, with the eyes of what we call radical simplicity. It has been more than 26 years since we moved to the forest, and 17 since we wrote The Treasures of Simple Living. It is time to update the story and try to articulate what we have discovered about radical simplicity.

 

Homeschool

As the children got older, homeschool turned more and more into independent study and projects. They had the basic skills of reading and writing, and in final analysis it was up to them to supply the desire to learn that is at the heart of all education and find their own way. John was the kind of quick, verbal student whom teachers often love. Elizabeth was more visual and hands-on. She liked to express herself by writing, poetry, and painting, and living in the forest and doing homeschool didn’t prevent them from showing typical teenager traits – sometimes with them being fun to be with, and at other times plugged into their music, and imagining how much better life would be when they were living somewhere else on their own.

John did go to school once. We were back east taking care of Tyra’s father and he decided he wanted to go to the local high school. He figured out what clothes to wear and what running shoes to buy in order to fit in, and off he went. But it was going to take a lot more than clothes for him to truly fit in. We never did hear much about classes. We heard more about him running with the cross-country team, and the most about the cliques of students that tormented those that did not fit in. He wasn’t getting tormented himself, but it bothered him, and he tried to defend the outcasts. He wasn’t used to that kind of socialization. After 6 weeks he had had enough. "Fine," we said, "just go around and thank your teachers." One said to him, " You can’t just leave," and John replied, " Watch me."

Then the kids took up volunteering. Elizabeth worked for the Red Cross and Easter Seals and was given a paying job helping in a day care center. John worked in the physical therapy department of the hospital and then in a soup kitchen for the homeless. Volunteering became a way to make the transition from home to the larger world. Too often, however, they would complain about how underutilized they felt in their volunteer jobs.

One winter when John was 17 and we were traveling in Baja California, Tyra said to him, "What are you going to do with yourself?" He gave it some thought and decided he wanted to go to college. Would all the warnings now materialize that we had been given about homeschooling over the years – that it wasn’t real schooling, and he had no diploma, and therefore no educational future – come home to roost? Not at all. He crammed for the high school equivalency diploma he needed to get in, passed with high marks, and within a few weeks was sitting in a classroom at the local college. He got excellent grades right from the start and was eventually to graduate from the University of Oregon. But he didn’t really enjoy the process. There was just too much time memorizing things for the coming test, and then forgetting them, and too few genuine intellectual challenges. Elizabeth tried college, too, several times. If the class was about something she loved, like painting, and had a practical approach to it, she did well, but the more theoretical it was, the more she lost interest until she finally decided it simply wasn’t worth the effort.

We used to tell the kids, the best thing that college can do for you is that later in your life you won’t have to go around saying you could have made something of yourself if only you had gone to college. By actually going, you got to see it for what it is, and can get on with your life. The second best thing about going to college is that it provides a diploma that is useful for applying to certain kinds of jobs, often not because the college education is particularly relevant, but simply because the people doing the hiring find it a convenient way to cut down on the pool of applicants by making a college diploma a prerequisite for the job. What did homeschool do for the kids? It made them independent-minded, or perhaps more accurately, allowed this aspect of their personalities to emerge. And it manifested itself not only in school, but in other parts of their lives.

Town, that is, the normal American way of living, attracted them just as the forest had attracted us, as the other side where the grass was greener. And so they went and lived it out, both the conveniences and the searching for jobs and being concerned about money, but I like to think they had an advantage. They knew that something else could and did exist, and they didn’t have to embrace the life they saw uncritically. They could struggle to bring these two ways of living together, and find their own.

All the years of home schooling, as well as a good part of a lifetime spent in classrooms had taught me something, as well. It was to make a very clear distinction between school and education. This distinction was to give rise to all sorts of thoughts. What would happen, I wondered, if every school from kindergarten to the graduate school closed tomorrow? Would we irrevocably become dumber and dumber? I doubt it. We are spending billions and billions of dollars on education, and not getting much in return. And every time the question of why the schools are performing so poorly comes up, we hear the same old tired answers: they need more money, better teachers, a return to basics, more testing, etc., etc. But these things never really solve the problem, and we are never going to solve it unless we look at it in a more radical way.

We don’t need better schools. We need to become genuinely educated. And schools, although they were set up for this purpose, have turned out to be a very inefficient way to educate people. Most kids start off with the desire to learn, which they do by imitating the things they see around them. They master, for example, the incredibly complex task of learning how to speak before they ever go to school. And they will continue this process of learning, and enjoy it, if we let them. Instead, we put them into schools, and schools, despite the fact that they were created to educate people, have an uncanny knack of smothering kids’ love of learning. Why? It is because we are dealing with an institution, and the bigger and more centralized an institution becomes, the more it puts its energy into its own self-preservation, and the less into its original purpose. Schools get fixated on buildings and budgets and salaries, and endless regulations. Then, they are simply not fitted to do the job they were created for. A mother and father, sitting with their child for a little while every day, can probably do an equivalent or better job educating a child than the school can do in an entire day. And the rest of the day could be filled with other opportunities to learn. Much the same could be said about every level of education.

So why do we put up with the school system? A big part of the reason is because it is there. We imagine that the way things are are the way things have to be, and we just go along with them. But we don’t have to. Education is about the mysterious and wonderful act of genuinely coming to know something, and this, in itself, has very little to do with school, especially the mass-minded places that schools have become. It is an interior creative act that springs up from deep inside ourselves. We want to know, and we want to keep on learning, and it is enjoyable to do so. So what can we do? We need to take responsibility for our own learning, and for that of our children, and we really can’t give that responsibility to the schools. This is the central lesson of our home schooling adventure, and perhaps of the whole now well-established home school movement.

 

Our Own Homeschool

Tyra claims that I didn’t figure out what I wanted to do when I grew up until I was 40. In some ways that is not far off the mark. Here we were in the forest, sitting in our own house in a beautiful place that our son, John, once described to someone as "go to the middle of nowhere, and turn left." And we had a chance to do what we most wanted to do. There was really no job description for it. We wanted to take the experiences and inner adventures that had meant the most to us in our lives, deeply reflect on them, and write about them. It was our own kind of homeschooling. I can just imagine us showing up at the employment office and saying that we wanted a job that would allow us to spend weeks and months studying about Jungian psychology, and eastern religions, and how they relate to Christian mysticism and metaphysics. And we wanted to write about these things and share them with others by writing books and publishing them, ourselves.

The dreaming, reflection and research came natural to us. We got books and articles from all over the country through our local library’s interlibrary loan service. Sometimes they even made the last part of their journey in our backpacks as we skied in, or in our friend’s logging truck. Then came the writing in which we tried to express as simply as we could the journeys we had been on, but we were complete novices when it came to turning the manuscript into a finished book. Let me summarize the story of our first book to illustrate how many things can, and did, go wrong.

November 1983. Our manuscript on C. G. Jung’s psychological types and William Sheldon’s body types and a down payment go off to the printer. Happy to see it go after countless revisions and rewritings. Learned the difference between local printers and specialized short-run book printers, and the large disparities in quotes for the same job. Found a good price from a company who will do typesetting and printing, have the latest computer equipment with spell-checkers, free copyright, marketing advice, etc. Inspected a sample copy. (Here our research was to prove to be not nearly thorough enough.)

January 1984. Initial print-out arrives. I find spelling and grammar errors I missed in the manuscript. But I also find over 300 errors introduced by the typesetter, as well as a number of deletions. It is maddening to attempt to root out all the typos hidden in the tiny nooks and crevices of each page. My eye just jumps over them. What happened to the spell-checker?

June 1984. The page proofs finally arrive. Disaster. Illustrations slapped in the middle of the page, ignoring all manuscript indications. Tables and diagram titles not typeset. Many typos. Countless phone calls follow. Good thing they have a toll-free number. No front matter or bibliography proofs. Vastly increased cost estimate due to the printer underestimating the amount of pages.

July-October 1984. Page proofs bounced back and forth. Each page becomes a battleground. On one page five errors are corrected and three new ones are introduced. Bibliography finally arrives with over 70 errors. Cover proofs arrive. A bad joke. Printer wants to use microscopic print on the spine. Claims that the letters of the front cover title can be no more than 3/8 inches high. Wants more money for the cover. Does no design work, but simply wants to slap the title and the author’s name on. Claims he never agreed to our ownership of the negatives. Luckily, we find his initial letter. Then wants to charge an exorbitant sum for them. More negotiations. More time goes by. Depression sets in because the book symbolizes the new direction we want to go in.

October 1984. Page and cover proofs completed. They promise to try to get the book printed before Christmas.

December 1984. No books.

January 1985. Still no books. Claim the printing equipment has broken down. Nightmares of law suits flit through my mind.

Mid-January 1985. Claim the cover came out wrong and they have to do it again.

February 1985. No books. Apprehension growing that they will somehow mess up the printing job.

March 1985. No books. They have been shipped somewhere else. Sorry. Luckily, in the U.S. and not Hong Kong.

April 1985. The books have finally arrived! They come shrink-wrapped and in good condition. We take a good look. They will pass a normal inspection, but our eyes have become sharpened through constant proof reading. There is uneven inking on several pages, a few typos have slipped through to be immortalized. Our time, energy and money have become depleted just when we face the biggest hurdle. What are we going to do with all these books?

Postscript. We never did hear anything about marketing advice, but nine months later we received the copyright form in the mail blank except for title and author. Would we please fill it out- and send it back to them? The title was wrong, and the author's name misspelled. They hadn't changed too much. But it didn't matter. We had registered the book ourselves long ago. We were learning.

We didn’t ever want to do that again. We sent out review copies, and flyers to bookstores and individuals, and a trickle of orders began to come in. We had told ourselves if only we survive the first book, then the door would be open for all the books we wanted to do in the future, and even while we were waiting to see if there would be a first book at all, we were writing the second one. Writing worked best for us in the morning. If we got up at 6:00 am or 6:30 and worked until 10 or so, then our creative brain power was gone. It was time to get out of the house, wander down the garden path to check on the greenhouse, do homeschool, or get out the hammer and nails.

The first year we went off to Baja California in the Datsun hatchback, we found ourselves on a deserted beach on the Sea of Cortez early one morning before the sun came up, sitting in the open hatch with its little light, and working on the type book. Our work was portable, and we always carried it with us. But most of all we carried it inside us, and so we wanted to get up and do it.

But we needed to have more control over the type-setting process. In La Paz we heard of a typesetter, and tracked him down on the far side of the city. There in his shed was an old linotype machine, and all it took was one look at a sample page where the words crookedly marched across it to know that that wouldn’t work. We contacted a typesetter near home. Her work was beautiful, but too expensive for us. Then we decided to look at electronic typewriters. These were the days before computers had gotten better and cheaper, and the most obvious choice for what we had in mind. After a lot of agonizing, we finally bought one with a three-page memory. We would type in the text, print out a proof page, make the corrections, and type the final copy. Despite the fact that this was not really typesetting at its best, doing the book like this was a dream compared to what we had gone through. No typos except the ones we made. No waiting for someone to do their job. We sent the camera ready copy off to a short-run book printer in Michigan, and within weeks we received back a well-printed book called St. John of the Cross and Dr. C.G. Jung: Christian Mysticism in the Light of Jungian Psychology.

Going from working for others to our own tiny business, and then to writing books, and thus turning into work projects we really wanted to do for years helped us to reflect on work, itself.

When I go traveling or even shopping in town, I can’t help but notice how many jobs exist that really don’t adequately compensate the people who do them: health aids and teacher’s aids, gas station attendants, store clerks and cashiers, restaurant employees and farm workers. These people work hard at important jobs, and yet their take-home pay barely allows them to survive. This is absurd in a society that is as wealthy as the United States, and one in which all sorts of excessive consumption is taking place. It is simply a sign of an unjust economic system where the deck is stacked against these low-income workers. This is one of the worst effects of a ruthless capitalism which squeezes people when it can, and often generates hefty profits which are then squandered. It is as if the economic system is built on the premise that there needs to be millions of workers who will be forced to take any job that comes along in order to eat and have a roof over their heads. Therefore, they will have to tolerate the part-time and the rotating shifts, the lack of benefits, the lack of any provisions to take care of family emergencies during their work time, the absence of health care and day care, the often grueling days, and the noisy and dismal work places.

Work, we realized, is not a job. We are made to work hard with our heads, hearts and hands, doing what is really in us to do. It is about discovering the things in life that most energize us and make life worth living. This is the kind of work that carries us along on the good days, and on the bad ones, when we really don’t feel like getting out of bed. Work is certainly not about money first of all. And even if we choose it, it is not necessarily easy. Real work demands discipline and perseverance, and challenges us, and thus makes us grow.

Work is not a burden to be avoided, but rather a natural and integral part of life. But this way of understanding work is quite different from having a job. Work is simply doing what we have to do to fill our basic needs as well as all the activities that make up a full and interesting life. Building a house is work. Baking a loaf of bread is work. Studying is work, as is digging in the garden, playing an instrument, teaching our children and cooking a meal. Unfortunately we have narrowed the definition of work down to things we do for money, things we would often rather not do at all. We should happily work the day away not because we have to, but because we want to whether there is a paycheck at the end of the week or not.

Most jobs, on the other hand, are unbalanced. If we don’t even like what we are doing how can we expect to do well at it? And even if it is something that we like to do in itself, it is often surrounded by foolish rules and regulations. In short, the work itself is bent out of shape, and therefore loses its natural satisfaction. Indeed, we often know how to do the work better and more efficiently, but either no one wants to listen or we have no incentive to improve things. By turning work into jobs we have alienated ourselves from a good portion of the joy we should be finding in it. Work is not intrinsically connected with doing the same thing all day. When we look at work this way it becomes an obstacle to living, rather than the very way we live. Do we really need to use our fresh morning energies commuting, and spending the whole day in the office or factory, and ending up without the time and energy we need to work on the other parts of our lives? Do we really need to spend our time and energy doing work that other people have chosen for us, and doing it in the way they want us to do it? Even if we love our work, doing it to excess is harmful to us and to the people closest to us.

But you can say that if I don’t have a job, then I will have no place to live and nothing to eat, not to mention money to send my kids to school, and so forth. But this is true only if we continue to look at things in the same old way. Let’s imagine that you have a piece of land, and have built a house on it yourself out of local natural materials, and have a big garden, and it is all paid for. Then your monthly bills would be a fraction of what they would be otherwise, and you would be free to choose a job that you enjoy more, and limit the time you spend on it. And with your free time you could work on creating the things you need and want. You might decide to homeschool your children, or build a greenhouse, or take up painting. You might even find a way to make some money doing work you care about. The point of breaking the job cycle is not to lay about doing nothing, but to have time and energy for genuine work.

No matter how wealthy we are, we cannot escape the fundamental law of doing for ourselves and hiring others to do more and more for us. The logical outcome of this kind of not doing is illustrated by a story from a book I happened to pick up in the library one day about Princess Diana and her boyfriend Dodi vacationing on one his father’s yacht where the staff’s job "was to make it unnecessary for Dodi or Diana to lift a finger, arm or foot to get whatever they wished for – a towel, drink, newspaper – so that full energies could be spent on pleasure, on talk and sunbathing, on their computers or mobile phones, or reading the news clippings on their trip that were faxed in daily." (The Bodyguard’s Story, Trevor Rees-Jones, p. 67)

It is hard to imagine a more perfect formula, not for complete pleasure, but for psychological discontent. Those who are being served are being robbed of the personal satisfaction that comes from actually doing things, a satisfaction that cannot be achieved in any other way. By hiring everything out we lose contact with basic human realities without which it becomes harder and harder to maintain our psychological balance. This kind of not doing is a regression to an infantile state born not out of powerlessness, but a misplaced sense of power.

 

Doing What You Really Want to Do

We had started off with a list of six books we wanted to write, and some six or so years later we were coming to the end of that list. Tyra, who had been intimately involved in every book, if not writing it, then discussing it endlessly with me and shepherding it through the whole editing, typesetting and publishing process, really wanted to do something different. But what? Finally, after a lot of soul-searching she decided she wanted to make videos, not videos of family events or hiring out to do weddings, but videos about the work we were doing. There was only one small catch. She had never even held a camcorder, and we still didn’t have a TV. She eventually bought an S-VHS camera, along with a tripod, monitor, etc., all of which had to be hauled around. That was my job. She gingerly took it out of the box and started taking shots of the local neighborhood and the family. After about a week of that, I said, "This is looking good. Let’s go start on our first project," which was to be a video on the American psychologist, William Sheldon. We ran about, packed our gear, went to Rhode Island to see the old Revolutionary War house where he had grown up, and started filming the places and people in his life. It was another case of learning by doing. Ultimately, not much of this early footage was usable, but we had put the goal first, and then that forced us to learn what we needed to learn in order to reach it.

That winter when we went off to Baja California Tyra and I would get up early in the morning and wander down the beach filming the pelicans and egrets, and whatever else we could find. We had dreamed about going to visit the cave paintings deep in the Sierra de San Francisco some 500 miles south of the border, and decided that this would be a wonderful way for Tyra to get a lot of experience using her camera. So with our two teenagers and two of their friends, a guide and a few mules on which were strapped the camera, the tripod, and a car battery so she could review what she was filming, we hiked down into the canyon where the Cueva Pintada, a masterpiece of rock art, and other rock shelters were to be found. We spent four enchanting days in this secluded world of prehistoric art.

One of the projects we most wanted to do was a video about the French philosopher, Jacques Maritain. Our plan was to go to Europe and make the video on a shoe-string budget with our two teenagers, two tents, and a mound of baggage. The Maritains must have been looking out for us from above. We found ourselves, for example, in Paris, camping in the Bois de Boulogne and subsisting on bread, jam, cheese, milk and eggs as we wandered around the city, taking the metro and filming the places in the Maritains’ life. One night a thief slashed the kids’ tent wall and stole some of their clothes while we slept on undisturbed in our tent with all our equipment. But the video eventually got filmed in Paris, Kolbsheim near Strasbourg where the Maritain archives were, and in Rome, Princeton, and elsewhere, and it was a deeply satisfying experience.

Tyra was to eventually get a digital camcorder – a move I applauded not only for its better pictures, but because it was so much lighter – and she has done more than 50 videos ranging from talks at conferences to full-fledged documentaries like the Maritain video. Her new skills got us involved in many fascinating adventures all because she had decided that this was what she wanted to do, and started doing it. There was no one’s permission to get, no grants to apply for, no schools to attend – just her determination to do it.

 

Home

We used the bioshelter for many years. We lived in it in the beginning, and later turned it into a guest house and a workshop, and we were always growing things. But it suffered from some fundamental flaws. It was cut into a south-facing slope to capture the sun for the greenhouse, but the north sloping part of the roof directed water towards the hillside which would eventually defeat our gutter system and seep down, and wet the back wall in places. And the earth of the hillside, itself, exerted a never-ending pressure on the building, trying to ever so slowly push it southward. The earth did shelter it, but the heat the building captured tended to be lost through the extensive glazing, and through the bermed walls, themselves.

Eventually we decided it was time for it to go. We kept the root cellar, and gave it its own entrance, turned part of the building into an open-air workshop, and decided to build a much smaller greenhouse/guest house on the same site. While the old building had been 28 feet x 50 feet, the new one was only 16 feet x 24 feet of which the planting area was a single 5 feet x 24 feet bed. In went the home treated poles, then came the beams, and the roof rafters made from our own tree trunks. This was to be a building made from the natural materials of the site, and salvaged from the old bioshelter and elsewhere. For the roof we built 4 feet x 8 feet boxes out of the planks that had sheathed the bioshelter, filled them with old pieces of styrofoam from salvaged docks, thermal shutters, and packing material, dragged them on top of the rafters – we had left part of the old building in place while we built the new one to serve as a kind of scaffolding and staging area – nailed on salvaged plywood to close the boxes, and laid new roofing roll over everything. The walls had a footing made from the rocks from our outdoor garden area mortared together, followed by a vapor barrier, and then strawbales that stacked between the poles, bales we had bought from a farmer for $1 apiece. And we covered the walls with a mixture of sifted red rock from the site and cement. When our friends heard that we were building a greenhouse, they supplied the glazing in the form of big pieces of salvaged plate glass that they had stored away, waiting for the right project to appear. With all the free materials, which of course had been paid for in the past, the new building cost us $200.

We never were great builders. Most people could do better, given the chance. But building had become an integral part of our lives. There was something about it that was liberating despite the hard work involved. It was much more than economics. It was a sense of empowerment that said we could take charge of our lives. The building became a boat on which we could sail off to explore our lives. It was a temenos, or nurturing protective surrounding which encouraged us to do the things most in us to do.

What is a home? It is a space within which we live, a space where we work, and dream, and create, and relax. It is a special place where we are surrounded with what pleases us, a space that gives us an indefinable freedom that goes far beyond building codes and what the neighbors might think.

We are made up of many parts, and our surroundings should reflect those parts. A quiet room, or corner, to meditate. A place for music and dancing. The kitchen for creating new delights. A place with lots of pillows for reading. A table for messy arts and crafts. A shop for woodworking. And a spot in the sun where the cat hangs out. A flower box in the window, or a greenhouse. Having a sumptuous living space has very little to do with money. It has everything to do with vision. We have our needs, and to be able to express them in our homes is a special joy. To create our own temenos is to create the environment where deeper, hidden, obscure parts of ourselves can have the chance to come out.

 

Elizabeth’s Cabin

One year when our daughter Elizabeth was 17, she decided to build a cabin on the other side of the hill about a five-minute walk from our house. She used the same method she had used to build her room. She treated short poles, set them in the ground, and built an insulated floor on top of them. Then she built the walls while they were laying down on this platform, and called everyone down to help her lift them up and put them into place. Then came the roof, and pretty soon she had her own little 12 feet x 16 feet home. This was an unexpected dimension of homeschooling, a kind of training ground for being independent.

One winter when we were back east with Elizabeth, looking after Tyra’s father, and John was in school in Oregon, he called us and said that he was making good money shoveling people’s roofs in town because they were having so much snow that they were worried about their roofs collapsing. "You better go check on what is happening in the forest," we told him, because we were certain to have much more snow there, and so he snowmobiled in with a friend, and found 6 feet of snow on the roofs. The top house was OK, but as they shoveled the office roof between the two kids’ rooms, they had to throw the snow up to the top of the piles resting on the ground.

But the little trailer we had camped in in California, and had lived in when we first moved to the land, was flattened, and Elizabeth’s cabin had probably taken the impact of a cascade of snow from a big white fir nearby, which had put so much weight on its roof that it snapped one of the posts holding up the platform, and sadly the whole building was crushed. We salvaged the materials, and used them in other projects, and realized that a full pole building where the poles went from the ground to the roof might have survived better. Throughout all these adventures we couldn’t help but think about what housing meant.

Buying a house is often the biggest single purchase we make, and as such we spend a significant part of our time and energy working in order to pay for it. In some ways we could say that much of our lives revolves around this kind of purchase. But let’s try to look at in a new way. Just what is shelter? We need to be warm and dry and have a place that serves as a protective surrounding that psychologically shelters us, restores our energies, and encourages us to develop our various talents. In short, we need our own space that we can shape according to our own needs.

But is this really what housing in America offers us? Housing size has been getting bigger even while family size has been declining. Our homes are becoming more elaborate and expensive, and paradoxically families seem to be spending less time in them, especially since we have to be out working to pay for them. Does it have to be this way? No. There is nothing in the intrinsic nature of shelter that demands what we see in new housing developments across the country.

It is entirely possible to build a house for a fraction of the cost of today’s dwellings, and most people are capable of doing it themselves. In fact, there are people who have devoted themselves to showing us how to do it. We can make a house out of earth, or wood, or stone, or straw, or out of just about any natural material that we can find close to where we want to build a house. The problem with building our own homes is not technical, and in a deeper sense it is not even economic. The biggest obstacle is psychological and social. We have grown up in buildings that strangers have built according to rules that have little to do with shelter, itself, and for motives that have much more to do with their own gain than with our needs. Building our own home evokes images of architects and contractors, carpenters and electricians, real estate agents, mortgage bankers, and building inspectors. But none of them are necessary, and each of them has his or her own agenda that usually does not coincide with our own.

 

The Institutionalization of Housing

The process of taking one of our basic needs out of our hands and commercializing and industrializing it, and then selling it back to us, happens in all parts of our lives. Drive through any community, and it is filled with contractor-built, bank-financed homes and apartment buildings. We literally don’t get to own our own homes unless we are lucky enough to survive physically and financially long enough to pay off our mortgage on our house. Then later on the same building usually gets sold to someone else who starts the whole process all over again. In such a system many people can’t afford their own homes at all, and most of us spend a disproportionately large part of our income buying homes or renting. Someone else is in charge of the whole process from start to finish, telling us what we can build, how to build it, and what materials to use. Even when kind-hearted people build low-income housing, the costs remain high despite the final price being subsidized from money coming from elsewhere. We have created a web of rules and regulations and economically self-interested institutions that get between us and having our own homes. If we give this housing industry a grade on how well it meets the nation’s need for healthy, inexpensive, nurturing shelter, it would have to be a failing one.

Building codes exist for our own good, or so we are told. They protect us from mistakes or shoddy workmanship which could result in our harm. But they have the effect, as well, of accelerating the institutionalization of housing. The same rules applied to a contractor building a house for resale are applied to an owner-builder building a little house on a remote piece of land. The codes end up intimidating people from building their own homes, sometimes forcing them into contortions in which they massively remodel their home from within to avoid the codes when it would be cheaper and faster to build a new building. The codes make people feel that they cannot lay their hands on their own homes, that they somehow need permission from someone else, that someone else actually owns their home – which, unfortunately, is too often true. It is ironic, but not surprising, that codes actually promote bad housing by keeping on the market old, often toxic, buildings built before the codes went into effect and now valuable because of the difficulties placed in the way of building new homes.

Zoning is also imposed as something for our own good, and it can do some good, but it is often applied in a unilateral and unreflective way that brings in its wake bad consequences. We then have forest zoning that excludes people, but does nothing about the destruction of the forests. We have marginal land of no agricultural value that now needs special and expensive hearings to determine whether it can be lived on. Then the codes step in and demand conventional flush toilets and septic fields, or in jurisdictions where composting toilets are allowed, they still demand somewhat smaller leach fields to treat grey water. Again the result is to discourage people from building their own homes.

With institutionalization comes the monetarization of housing which expresses itself, for example, in what is a common investment strategy of buying up homes and renting them out. A reasonably priced home that comes on the market goes, not to the first-time home buyer, but to one of these investors who is primed to move quickly and has the financing in place because he or she already owns 5 or 10 houses or more, and is sometimes connected to the real estate world, as well. And the houses we do purchase are usually bought on credit so that the bulk of the money we spend on them goes to the mortgage lenders in the form of interest.

Instead of this kind of institutionalization, home building should evoke another whole set of images: finding a piece of land that we can really care for; spending time there to get to know it, finding a house site on it where we can have sunshine, drawing up our designs and digging in the earth, and watching the building grow from the work of our own hands. The home that results from such a process is truly ours, and we have grown in creating it. It speaks to us in a different way than buildings built by others for profit. It is an act of economic liberation whose repercussions will echo down through our years living there.

But why is there so little of this kind of liberative housing in this country? We have been sold another whole view of housing: big house with lots of wasted space, homes with no one in them, elaborate kitchens where no one has time to cook, workshops where nothing gets made, houses that are meant to proclaim that we have somehow made it, and achieved the American dream, as if we can truly realize the dreams that matter by purchasing them. And since we lack the imagination for truly radical housing, we have structured our society accordingly. We tolerate the high price of land, and the layers of bureaucratic rules that convince us that even if we want to build our own home out of natural materials, the way would be strewn with obstacles.

We have to dream of taking home building back into our own hands. A piece of land, some simple building materials, and a little imagination can be the ingredients of us making our own homes for a fraction of the cost of the ones we live in now. We can orient them to the south to capture the sun, put some space between them, surround them with gardens.

After 20 years our original house was showing a lot of wear and tear. We figured it took many times the punishment of a normal house in town because we were there all day, tracking in the dust or snow, and thinking nothing of bringing in one of our projects and doing it on the living room floor. Add the creatures trying to devour it, and live in its walls, and the great weight of snow in the winter, it was time for a make-over. And bit by bit we did just that. We checked and repaired the insulation in the walls, we put in a new floor in the kitchen and living room, and we built a moveable thermal wall to cut the house in half lengthwise so we only had to heat the original part of the house during the colder weather.

But naturally this was all too straight-forward and reasonable. The roof of the old office had begun to sag a bit, so instead of simply repairing it, we let our fantasies get the best of us, and that’s how the sunroom was born. I got out my chainsaw, and with the help of a simple attachment, cut 4 big beams which we bolted to the beams of the original part of the house some 12 feet above the office floor. Someone gave us a bunch of unused storm windows and Tyra would go out on the roof early in the morning before the sun got too hot, and frame a place for another window. She loves windows! Finally there were windows in all 3 walls, and 11 windows in the roof. This was totally impractical, for we had to cover the roof with plywood when we left in the winter, and even cover it with a tarp for our occasional summer rains, but it was fun. We can lie on the couch on the sunroom floor and watch the clouds sail by, surrounded by plants, stained glass, and a fountain made out of abalone shells. This was fantasy building at its best, and while we kept an eye on safety, we let our imaginations have full reign.

 

Solar Electricity

We now have four solar panels, as well as a generator for shop tools, and for occasionally recharging the battery bank when the days grow short and the storms roll in. The panels are rated at a little under 50 watts apiece, so let’s say that on a sunny day when the sun is actually shining directly on the panels, they put out 200 watts over 7 or 8 hours during the course of the day. Therefore, our total electrical generation comes to about 1 kilowatt hours a day in the summer season. At the cost of 7.5 cents per kilowatt hour buying power in town, we are running on about 11 cents of electricity per day. This powers 2 full-spectrum fluorescent AC electric lights, Tyra’s video editing equipment, a laptop computer, and during the summer season we have plenty left over to watch a movie on our 13 inch monitor and VCR. We don’t use any electricity for refrigeration. Instead, we have a little propane one that came out of a recreational vehicle, and often buy a block of ice when we get groceries, and keep the ice chest in a small shelter made of strawbales.

In town a small apartment with a refrigerator and an electric stove might use 360 kilowatt hours per month, or 8 to 10 times as much. A lot of this energy goes to the refrigerator which is usually notoriously inefficient, especially when its compressor is mounted on the bottom so its heat heats up the refrigerator box, and the whole unit is placed, as it often is, right next to the stove. But the electricity used by this apartment could be pared back significantly with more energy-efficient appliances and light bulbs. The same is true for the prodigious energy uses of industry and agriculture where more efficient motors, pumps, and air conditioning systems and so forth could allow our productivity as a nation increase while our energy use decreased.

The switch to alternative forms of energy like solar electricity is not about destroying the quality of our lives, but simply reducing the waste that we are not paying attention to, and weaning ourselves from fossil fuels which adversely impact the earth. The comparisons between the amount of electricity we use in the forest and what happens in town is not some sort of inverted snobbery because we, ourselves, are using a lot more electricity when we are in town, but simply a statement that we can all use a fraction of the electricity we currently consume, and never notice a diminishment in the quality of our lives.

 

The Children’s Forest

Not long after we moved to the forest we found ourselves with one of our neighbors on a forest road lined with tall stately old growth ponderosa pines trying to convince an official from the Oregon Department of Forestry not to cut them. We got nowhere. In fact, we got less that nowhere, for one day we were driving home along that same stretch of road and I saw it was blocked by a tree. I got out and started walking towards it. Just then a giant tree began to fall down the road towards the truck where Tyra and the children were. It was like a disaster taking place in slow motion. They ran, and luckily it crashed to the ground, missing the front of the truck. The logging had begun and no one had thought it worth their while to put signs out on the road. Whose forest was it if not the timber company’s?

This was our introduction to the destruction of the old growth forest all around us that went on for many years, a forest that was a part of what had once been one of the world’s most magnificent ponderosa pine forests. The U.S. Forest Service was cutting away, and we made a video with the wild life biologist of the Klamath Tribe to describe how the habitat of creatures like the pileated woodpecker was being fragmented. But some of the land owned by private parties and timber companies appeared the hardest hit. Not far from our house an absentee owner sold the timber to a logging outfit which proceeded to turn it into something that resembled a war zone. Another private owner told me that he might as well cut his beautiful piece of forest because everyone around him was cutting. A timber company that owned still another stretch of old growth forest destroyed it, and then sold the land to another company which promptly green-certified it as a source of wood from an ecologically managed forests. Even the private land owners who lived on their land couldn’t seem to escape from the desire to profit at any cost. One of them who also had another beautiful piece of old growth cut it, and then cut it twice more as the money got frittered away.

But the biggest land owner around us was the Oregon Department of Forestry. When they planned to cut directly to the south of us we met with them as members of a local conservation group that had been started by two local women heart-sore at all the destruction. After a series of meetings, the Department claimed that they had actually altered the cut, but still it was sickening to hear the angry buzz of a chainsaw, and then a cracking sound followed in a few seconds by a tremendous crash as one of the forest giants died.

Then one day a few years ago we were driving on a road close by that went through one of the last and best pieces of old growth forest, when we saw that it was being marked by the Oregon Department of Forestry to be cut. This was the beginning of what we were to call The Children’s Forest because this 500 acres of forest was managed by the Department for the State Land Board and the money was to go to Oregon’s schools. The rationale was that it had to be cut because money had to be generated for the schools, never mind that they had found a pair of nesting northern goshawks there, and most of the old growth around The Children’s Forest had already been cut, and never mind that the natural heritage of our children was being destroyed in their names. Thus began a long series of meetings and studies that eventually involved the Governor’s office. We tried to encourage people to write and urge the saving of the forest. After about three years, principally due to the objections of the Governor’s office, the sale was finally modified and more of the big trees were saved, and new guidelines for the State forests in this area were put in place.

Life in the forest is not some Disney movie or nature documentary where the arduous filming of a year is condensed into half an hour. But over the years we have come to know something of the forest creatures simply by being here. The grey jays and stellar jays come for the crumbs that we put out. The rabbits nibble in the garden and are in no hurry to move when we come by, as if to say it is their garden as much as ours. A bear in springtime takes a drink at the pool by the greenhouse and leaves its paw print on the window in the door. Some elk crash across the road as we are on our way to town, leaving us with a special glow. In the fall a vee of Canadian geese flies over close enough that we can hear the beating of their wings. At dawn a coyote howls, and in the evening the bats who nest in the wall of our house come out to skim over the surface of the pool, helping to keep the top of the hill clear of mosquitoes. On a hot summer’s afternoon a Cooper’s hawk takes a bath in our pool, and in the morning we go out and are met by the slightly demented laughter of a pileated woodpecker as it loudly drums on a tree.

 

The Mystery of Nature

While it is undoubtedly true that people are destroying nature, our goal should not be to somehow keep nature pristine by making sure that people are kept far away from it. Nature is not some documentary in which people never appear. We are meant to live in intimate contact with it. True nature, in the form of ecosystems intact enough to still be functioning, renews and stimulates both our bodies and minds. It is capable of continually showing us new faces of her living mystery. But we have turned from nature as an all-embracing fount of life, and imagine we can subdue it and confine it like the sterile plantings at the shopping mall. Even if we succeed in dominating it physically for a time, we pay a great price later. Our knowledge is simply too fragmentary to suppose we can rush headlong into vast experiments with our physical and psychological health, and with that of the planet, itself.

We are meant to spend our days in contact with nature, and experience the sun on our bodies, and hear the birds sing and contemplate the stars. Nature nourishes a deep part of our soul beyond the sphere of our rational calculations. When we become disconnected from nature we become disconnected from ourselves. Our muscles and instincts atrophy, and our senses go dull. It is as if there is a vast school of life that we have ceased to attend, and are even forgetting about its existence.

There are two fundamentally different attitudes about how we should relate to nature. They became more evident to us through The Children’s Forest project, and they are at the root of conflicts about ecological matters around the world.

The first is part and parcel of our normal capitalist market economics. It sees nature as a series of resources to be exploited for individual personal gain. The forests contain so many million board feet of lumber, the oceans have so many millions of tons of fish, and the earth has so much copper or precious stones, and people should be free to go and get them and enrich themselves. Therefore, the resources of the earth go to the clever, or the lucky, or the well-connected, or the daring, or even the industrious, but in an atmosphere created by this first fundamental principle which says that nothing should stand in my way of taking the earth’s resources for my own profit and pleasure. If I am fortune enough to own a grove of giant redwoods, then I can cut it down to fuel my empire with mergers and acquisitions. Or if I am lucky enough to encounter a pod of whales, I can slaughter it and enrich myself.

Even the institutions that we have created, supposedly to moderate some of our worst acquisitive instincts, are infected with this attitude. We have the forest services, for example, which despite all their rhetoric, have spent decades trying to facilitate the timber industry, and we have governments at every level who see nature as another source of revenue to be exploited, especially by those who have contributed to their political campaigns.

It is this blindness of our own institutions that is one of the most disturbing aspects of the present ecological struggle. As soon as one of these short-sighted government-sponsored plans to exploit nature fails due to growing public awareness and opposition, another one is hatched because the underlying attitude remains intact. And unfortunately, only a few of them need to succeed for part of our natural heritage to be destroyed. These destructive institutional desires are like the many-headed monster of Greek mythology which when one head is cut off, new ones immediately take its place. The result is that ecologically concerned people, no matter how many victories they may have, are always on the run to put out the next fire. What is needed is the careful and thoughtful examination of this inner attitude towards nature.

The second fundamental attitude is often less conscious and more a deep-rooted feeling or instinct. In it nature is a mystery, a mysterious world that we need to relate to and allow it to respond to us, as well. It is a web of living beings in which we are a part, and while we need to utilize it in order to live, we have no right to destroy this web for our personal profit. Nature is more than a series of objects which we can manipulate. It is a communion of living beings, and we are part of that community. Any violence against nature does violence to our deepest selves and diminishes us.

It is the clash of these two attitudes that underlies the ecological struggles that are taking place everywhere in which a global capitalist economy, thirsting after economic growth defined in terms of increased consumption, faces a thin but determined network of ecological activists. It would appear to be a very uneven struggle with a foregone conclusion except for the amazing fact that more and more people all over the world have a growing conscious sense of their need to look at the earth differently. Even the corporations and institutions that often act so destructively are made up of men and women who cannot escape the pull of this second attitude.

The choice is not between economic bounty which destroys the earth in the process and doing without. We can have both, that is, a nature preserved and restored, and a higher and better standard of living. But to do so we need to have vision and imagination.

 

Cities

I am not much of a fan of cities, in part, I think, because I grew up in New York City during a time when it was claiming to be the largest city in the world, and in part because nature has been banished from them. I remember all too well the countless hours I spent on the subway going to school, and the lack of nature as the last farms and the overgrown vacant lots I used to play in disappeared. I used to joke that living in New York was a sufficient and obvious explanation for why we moved to the forest.

Perhaps I have carried my reaction to the city to an extreme because even when I am staying in smaller places I can’t see any reason to have my neighbors right next to me, still less on the other side of a duplex or apartment wall. I don’t want to hear their rides honking for them in the early morning, or try to figure out why the trash collectors and street sweepers have to wake up the whole neighborhood at 5:00 a.m. "This is nothing," someone might say, "compared to what is happening all over the world as it becomes more and more urbanized." And that person would be right.

Not long ago Tyra and I flew from La Paz in Baja California Sur to Mexico City, and spent some time there and in Puebla doing some research and seeing the sights. The streets of Mexico city were crowded not only with traffic, but countless booths had been set up on the sidewalks, and blankets were spread in the plazas as the people who pour into the city from all over Mexico try to earn a living. The population of Mexico City is now around the 20,000,000 mark and so it takes its place in the first rank of the megacities that are growing up in the less developed parts of the world. Certainly there is poverty and pollution aplenty, but what struck us most were the vast crowds of people who filled the metro, and how civil they were. At one station we saw a line of people 8 or 10 people abreast as far as we could see, waiting to gain access to the platforms and the trains. The sheer number of people there was a good symbol of the mind-boggling number of people in the city.

In Puebla we stayed downtown in the historic center of the city with its churches and palaces, and the wonderful Palafoxiana Library created in the 17th century. But we were overwhelmed by the noise of the traffic that bounced off the stone buildings, the incessant horn-blowing, the fumes and the giant loud speakers of the merchants that blasted us as we walked by.

The megacities springing up around the world were not planned. They are fueled by the poverty of the countryside, and the growth of population, and they have been expanding at such a rate that they struggle and often fail to provide clean air and water and other essentials for their people. They are the result of our distorted economic systems that have made it impossible for people to flourish where they were. These people want, as is only to be expected, to move from a hand to mouth existence as landless laborers or small farmers, to having a chance to educate their children and live something of the life they have been seeing on the television set in their village. But it would be much better if they could be helped to meet their needs where they are rather than being uprooted.

 

Quiet and Time

While megacities were growing up around the world, the population of the forest was declining. Over time people who lived in the forest left for reasons of health, or jobs, or other life changes. Finally, our neighbor who tended to the roads left, as well, our kids got older and went off, and we found ourselves alone in the forest. New families were prevented from coming because the zoning regulations had changed, making it very difficult for anyone to live on the land, even if they had owned it before the changes, unless it already had a dwelling on it. By the time everyone left we had been living in the forest so long that this life had become quite ingrained in us. We never felt lonely. We had each other, and the peaceful, beautiful forest. Winter was another matter. Eventually one family did move in, and struggled to keep the road to the highway open with a drag pulled behind their pick-up truck. That was a tough job that was hard on both them and their vehicle. By then we had taken to spending long parts of the winter either traveling, or in Baja California, or with our daughter in town.

With the loss of the little trailer crushed by the snow, Tyra decided she wanted a meditation hut to take its place. Since by then there were just the two of us at home, the joke became just who was she trying to get away from? The result was an elegant yet tiny hut 8 feet x 8 feet, a kind of Pacific northwest version of a Japanese tea house in which we sat on the floor in front of a wall of south-facing windows, both things making the building seem much larger than it was. This was a full pole building with peeled poles for beams and rafters, and textured plywood for the interior walls, and it is a place that invites reflection.

We need these kinds of place in town, as well, comfortable places to sit, away from the streets next to a little garden or fountain, where we can go with a friend and have a good heart-to-heart talk without being interrupted, or when lunch time comes, go to eat.

Invariably one of the first things people say when they come to visit us is, "It’s so quiet here." But we all need the chance to try to listen to our inner sounds, feelings and inclinations without being constantly distracted, to listen to what the various parts of our inner selves are saying.

Simple living is the setting. It is not primarily about building houses and growing gardens, but finding the optimum conditions for creating genuine human beings. Therefore, it swims against the tide of a society given over to money and consumption at any price.

Realizing our creative potential demands time, but free time is becoming one of life’s greatest luxuries. Time is taken up by everything except time for ourselves to truly reflect about our lives. But even if we succeed in rearranging our lives, we then face the even greater challenge of figuring out what to do with the time we have made for ourselves.

 

Book Production

Tyra not only filmed and edited her videos, but she duplicated them and even made the covers. I envied her ability to only make the copies she needed. With the books it was different. Even though we were creating our own camera-ready copy we were still ordering 1,000 copies, and there the boxes of books would sit while the orders trickled in. Years would go by, and there were the boxes.

Wouldn’t it be great, I mused, to print only a few copies at a time? For a long time this seemed a totally impractical dream, but then one day a friend who ran a local print shop got a digital copier. This was just the thing for printing the inside of the book. We could now print one crisp copy at a time.

The cover posed a bigger challenge. We had settled for simple two color covers on our books in the past in order to keep the costs down, but now we began to dream of full-color ones. We cut and folded a blank cover out of heavy white stock, printed the front cover, back cover and spine separately on our ink jet printer, assembled the pieces, had the width of the book cut to size, and then laminated it all. The result was attractive, but it was too time consuming – 17 steps! – and expensive. Lately we have been printing the cover on a color copier on heavy stock and simply glue it to the stapled-together text, and then trim the book to size. This book was printed that way.

Why bother? The most important part of the answer is not economics, but a sense of empowerment that comes from holding a book we dreamed up, wrote, typeset, and physically produced. Perhaps this is our response to the large-scale mass-minded media that surrounds us.

 

The News, the Media and Advertising

The news, if we let it, will dominate our days and nights. And isn’t it fitting, since it tells us how things are going and to be a responsible citizen we need to keep current? Actually, no. The news doesn’t tell us how things are in some objective, dispassionate way. Sometimes it inundates us with horrendous events reported over and over again to the point of depression even when there is nothing new to say. Often it wastes our time with trivia, and acts like it is part of the entertainment industry, and lets itself be driven by its advertisers and the bottom line. Because it is. Even on a bad day, billions of people are going about doing good, and by its harping on the latest disaster or threat of war it gives us a distorted view of life.

We certainly enjoy a good movie or novel, but that kind of enjoyment is hard to come by. The world is filled with marvelously produced movies and television shows, magazines and books – from a technical point of view, that is. The problem is they are often deficient in heart. Great production values, wretched content. We end up carrying an interior dialogue with the creators of these kinds of things during those minutes before we eject the cassette or throw down the book: "Would you take your mother to see this?" And for actors who are entirely capable of acting well and moving hearts, but who allow themselves to play in productions unworthy of them: "Are you really that desperate for rent money?" There is no excuse for not exercising good judgment and conscience.

And the advertisers? Well, at least we understand that they are trying to sell us something even if it is something we don’t need and which is often harmful to us. But when the news blends with the entertainment industry and advertising, we are presented with a world that is hardly appealing, and instead of us watching or reading more, we are driven by self-preservation to protect ourselves against them, for we can’t allow ourselves to passively sit back and imbibe everything the news-entertainment-advertising people are serving up. We need to limit our consumption of their unhealthy food and find alternatives that actually inform us, and re-create us.

 

Food

I am in the supermarket, and as I get my basket and start down the aisle I see it is lined with cases of soda on one side, and snack foods on the other. Is this an accident? I don’t think so. Soft drink companies and fast food places have become omnipresent in the U.S., even insinuating themselves in our schools, and they are rapidly expanding throughout the rest of the world. But they are leaving in their wake not only tooth decay, but growing plagues of obesity, diabetes, and other diseases. Similar products fill our supermarket shelves.

I keep on going to the fish and meat department. The salmon looks good, but then I wonder whether it is artificially colored and comes from a fish farm where the level of contaminants is higher than for fish caught in open waters. The selections of meat makes me feel ambivalent, too. I think of all the grain that has been fed to the animals, and how they are increasingly confined in factory-like buildings. I remember the stories I have read about how unsanitary our modern slaughter houses are, and abusive to their workers. How healthy can this meat be with its saturated fat, bacteria, chemical residues and antibiotics?

I go on to the dairy section and look at the cheeses, but here I worry about whether the cows have been given growth hormones. Since we use sacks of nonfat non-instant milk for our milk and yogurt, I actually called the company that made it, and they told me that they ask their dairy farms not to use growth hormones. Well, at least that is something, and I will have to take my chances with the cheeses until I find some that are labeled "hormone free." I recall that Monsanto that produces the growth hormone has threatened companies that refuse to use treated milk and label it accordingly. That is bizarre. Most of the yogurts have no live cultures in them. What is the point, then? It is easy to make our own and add unsweetened apple sauce or fresh fruit.

I go on to the fruits and vegetables which should be the least problematical place in the store. But again, I am concerned with whether they still have the residues of pesticides on them. Are they the result of the exploitation of migrant workers here in the States, or in Mexico and elsewhere? How can I forget seeing the black plastic huts the Indians from mainland Mexico were living in as they worked in the fields in northern Baja California producing tomatoes for the American market?

What I am finding in the supermarket, I realize, is the result of an increasingly industrialized and centralized food-production system. One day we were in Medford, Oregon in the Willamette Valley on the west side of the Cascade Mountains, famous for its fruit orchards, and we went into a big supermarket for a few things, and asked if they had any of the wonderful peaches that are grown in the area. The produce manager said they did not. They weren’t allowed to buy locally because all the buying was directed from somewhere else.

Fewer and fewer corporations have an ever-growing share in the production, processing and distribution of food. Why is this happening? Is it because in that way I am going to be offered a better product at a better price? My trip to the supermarket disabuses me of that notion. Is it because it is only in this way that the hungry of the world are going to be fed? This can’t be the answer, either, because this same system is disrupting local agriculture all over the world as it displaces local food growing with export-oriented crops. What the corporations are doing are putting themselves between me and the food in order to enrich themselves, and it doesn’t matter to them what happens to the quality of the food in the process. And they are being subsidized in doing this by the federal government and are driving the local farmers and ranchers out of business.

We need to get the production of food back into our own hands. I am happy about the small amount of food that we actually grow ourselves. I go into my greenhouse for some fresh salad greens. Outside the rhubarb flourishes – just about the only thing that does! – and I bake pies. So gardening is one of the major steps to take, no matter how limited our circumstances are. But as a community we need to think about where our food is coming from. Just what things, for example, are being produced in our local area? Is there a farmer’s market nearby, or a food co-op, or a fresh produce buying club? We need to reconnect with our local food producers. I think many of them would be happy to try less toxic ways of producing food if they were assured of a market that not only paid them a better price for their fruits, vegetables, and grain, but also truly appreciated what they were doing.

 

 Real Fast Food

We prepare almost all our meals ourselves, and find that cooking is not a chore, but often a nice break from our other activities and one that doesn’t take much time and energy. Cooking is not just a matter of economics. It allows us to take charge of what we eat, and it is both convenient and fun. A few minutes with a knife, peeler and grater produces a delicious salad of whatever is on hand: green leafy things, tomatoes, cucumbers, grated carrots, and on and on. Add a topping of olive oil, squeeze some juice from a wedge of lime, sprinkle with feta cheese and some sliced olives for a special treat, and the result is hard to beat. How hard is it to grow sprouts, or make tofu or sauerkraut? Not hard at all.

Pizza is another favorite. Making pizza from scratch is no big deal, either. Tyra mixes the dough. I grate some mozzarella cheese and slice some olives. She assembles all the ingredients, and pops it in the oven. A few minutes later it is done. Out in the forest we tell our guests, "This is the best pizza for miles around!"

 

Bread

We always baked our own bread in the forest. By the time the kids were 8 and 9 they took turns doing it. For years we baked in a little gas oven we had bought for $20 at an auction, but as it got older and more decrepit we began to dream of a new oven, perhaps even with a baking stone – that is, a slab of stone that went in the bottom of the oven that would help the loaves bake better. But the new stoves we looked at were still just metal boxes, and both they and the baking stones were expensive.

Then we remembered an earthen oven we had seen, and decided to build our own. We made an earthen platform outside near the greenhouse. On top of the platform we placed some slabs of soapstone from a small boulder that a friend of ours had found in the mountains and had cut for us with his chainsaw. Later these were covered with fire brick. We made a mound of dirt on top of the platform in the shape of the interior of the oven, and then plastered it with an adobe-like mixture of the red rock dirt from the site, and some clay we found in a road cut. When the shell was partially hardened we cut out a door and chimney hole. When the shell was completely dry, we removed the earth, and there was our new oven.

To bake, we built a fire in the oven, and after a couple of hours, raked the coals out and swept out the ashes. We used a soda can which we had cleaned of paint, and filled with water that dripped out of holes in its bottom to provide steam, and then in went the bread. This was the moment of truth. Could we actually make an earthen oven that would be as good as the store-bought gas oven? The bread that came from our new oven was better, the best we had ever baked, and the oven opened up a whole new world of bread-baking for us. We took more time to knead our bread, and timed how long it rose, and at what temperature. We made French baguettes, sourdough rye bread, and pita bread which we popped into the oven when it was the hottest, and three minutes later it had risen into pockets and was ready to take out. In went the loaves. The mass of the oven retained the heat, and gave them a final boost in rising, and the steam from our little soda can helped the bread form a wonderful crust. Anyone for lunch?

 

Walking Water

We still don’t have a well, and so we don’t have running water. Tyra calls ours walking water because in the summer we bring in drinking water in 5 gallon white plastic buckets, the kind that bakers get their doughnut filling in, and carry them into the house. In winter we fill those same buckets with snow, and put them near the stove to melt the snow. Having water in this form has made it easy for us to notice how much the two of us use. It comes to about one bucket a day, including rain water from the roof to use for hand and hair washing.

When we stay in town we are using many times that amount, and hardly noticing. Water consumption in the U.S. is estimated to be 70 to 80 gallons a day per person. Once we went to a meeting on the water problems that San Diego was facing where all sorts of innovative solutions were advanced from enormous cisterns to desalinization plants. But what was never seriously considered was that water problems of the city could be solved by conservation. Neighboring Tijuana used only a fraction of the water per person that San Diego did, and we couldn’t help but think about our 5 gallons, which is probably a figure closer to what many of the people of the world use, and they often have to carry it from a distant well or lake. Whether it is the case of industry, or agriculture, or personal use, the greatest untapped source of water we have is the water we now waste. Much of our water slips away unnoticed with leaking pipes and inefficient irrigation systems. Industry could recycle the water it uses. Agriculture could move to drip irrigation systems, and we could turn to more efficient forms of toilets, shower heads and washing machines, and change the kinds of plantings we have outside our houses. Our current prodigious use of water has little to do with our actual needs, and much to do with our lack of attention. We weren’t using a bucket of water a day to prove a point. It was simply because we didn’t need any more, and using a fraction of the water we used in town had no real impact on the quality of our lives.

 

Health

We spend enormous amounts of money on health care, while at the same time we as a society poison our food, water and the very air we breathe and make ourselves sick. The modern medical establishment can and does do some remarkable things, and can literally save our lives from infectious diseases and accidental traumas. But many times it is working to undo the damage we have done to ourselves, by our failure to eat properly and exercise, and what we have done as a society by allowing industry to destroy and pollute the environment.

But mainstream medicine knows more about illness than health. It defines health as the absence of illness, and it knows much more about an aggressive medicine of intervention by surgery and powerful drugs with harmful side effects than it does about creating the optimum conditions of nutrition, rest and exercise, and the peace of mind and spirit so that the body can heal itself. We have created a medical institution that drains more and more of our resources, fails to care for a significant portion of our society, and has become a major factor in the spread of disease in the form of ill-advised surgeries and prescriptions, malpractice, drug reactions and hospital-spread pathogens.

The larger the medical machine becomes, the more it arranges itself in complicated hierarchical structures and specialties, and the more expensive and impersonal it becomes. It begins to suffer the faults of all large institutions that use more and more of their resources on perpetuating themselves. The medical profession becomes bogged down with paperwork and lawsuits, and the quest for higher volumes of patients treated ever more quickly in order to meet its economic goals. The result is the individual patient and his or her need for a personal relationship with the doctor comes under increasing pressure. At times the medical establishment acts like it is an army assembled to defeat death at all cost, but one that is overlooking the person who is dying.

Hospitals symbolize for me what is wrong with the mainstream medical establishment. They have begun to scare me, for they seem to be more like places of disease than of health. I simply don’t want to go to one. They are filled with rules and regulations, mindlessly observed, and I am afraid of being depersonalized and treated like just another body that is being processed through the factory, and even more importantly, I fear the damage to my health a stay there will do. I don’t want to catch some new disease, or be harmed by some ill-conceived or poorly carried out medical procedure. I don’t want to breathe canned air, eat bad food, and be hidden away from the sunshine. I want to be able to sleep without being interrupted. I don’t want to be refused visitors while a constant stream of hospital employees come in and out of the room. I want to be in control of my own illness and healing process. I don’t want to be told that the doctor or nurse, or whoever, knows best, and is going to determine what the treatment is, how long it is going to take, and when I can leave the hospital. I don’t want to take prescription drugs, either, for I fear the side-effects. They are conceived by giant pharmaceutical companies who, for all their science, consistently bring to market things that prove to be harmful to us. They have a vested interest not in our health, but in making money from our illnesses. And I don’t want to be beggared by a few days in the hospital. Medical costs continue to mount while at the same time over 40 million people have no medical insurance whatsoever. The medical establishment is reeling out of control, and yet it has no time to stop and reflect on what it is doing.

Medicine ought to emphasize health, and not illness. It is about what we eat and drink, and the air we breathe, and the kinds of individual needs our bodies have. This kind of medicine treats our illnesses, but in ways that doesn’t set off ever-widening ripples of serious side-effects that then have to be treated in their turn. It takes seriously the Hippocratic oath that says, "First do no harm." It is willing to truly talk to those who are sick, and be candid with those who are dying about the limitations of what it has to offer. It believes in the healing power of living without stress and anxiety, the benefits of laughter, and having our families around us when we are sick, the need for sunshine and exercise, and the freshest, most nutritional food. It makes use of vitamins and herbs, and when it comes to us dying, allows us to die without turning our death into a technological extravaganza that tortures our bodies, clouds our minds, empties our wallets, and hinders us from preparing ourselves spiritually for death.

 

Exercise

Despite our intentions, when we are in town we simply don’t get the exercise that we do in the forest. We go for walks, and that’s about it, while in the forest exercise is built-in. Skiing home provides the first shock to our muscles, and then comes wrestling the poles that have been bracing our roofs, hauling wood and water, building, and a thousand other things that twist and flex us in a thousand ways, and help us to get back in shape. Exercise becomes an integral part of our lives, not because we are inclined that way or are disciplined, but because it flows from our lifestyle.

 

Transportation

Everyone says America has a love affair with cars, and the rest of the world seems to be following our example. But while I own a pick-up truck because it would be very difficult to function where we live without one, or even in most places in the country without becoming a second-class citizen, I am not enthusiastic about it. Cars are too expensive to buy and maintain. As in the case of other large institutions, I can’t really expect the auto industry to look after my interests. They have, after all, given us cars that explode in fire balls, tip over, and whose tires fall apart. Cars play a major role in global warming despite the self-serving denials of the oil companies, and on top of all this, more than 40,000 people a year in this country alone are killed in vehicle-related accidents, and many more seriously injured. Once again, this is another irrational system that we are supposed to take for granted as the way things ought to be.

We need to focus first on how we structure our workplaces and schools, and see how much travel we can eliminate from our lives. Then it is entirely within our technical capabilities to build efficient public transportation systems, and even to redesign cars to be safer, more fuel-efficient, and much less polluting. Why don’t we do this? It is because we have a massive automotive industry, aided and abetted by a government that thinks not much farther than next year’s models, and seems incapable of radical change.

 

Science and Technology

Sometimes people visit us out in the forest and seem to be saying to themselves, "Look at all this sophisticated technology – solar panels, a computer, video editing equipment, etc. – when we thought these people were trying to live in the 19th century, or somewhere." But going back in time was never what we were trying to do.

We never saw ourselves as having a phobia about technology. In 1988, after 10 years in the forest, we got a telephone. The phone crew brought in a giant cable laying machine and spent weeks burying 5 miles of wire so they could install 3 telephones. Lucky for us the $40,000 bill was paid for under the Rural Electrification Act.

We had thought about getting a computer many times over the years, but always found reasons to procrastinate, and kept on turning out the camera-ready copy for our books on our electronic typewriter. But by the end of 1997 we wanted to create an extensive website that we had been fantasizing about and had already sketched out on paper. With a computer we could also refine our typesetting, as well, and even do some digital video editing. The problem is we don’t know anything about computers, not even how to turn one on and off. For the winter we have rented a house about an hour and a half east of San Diego, and after research and agonizing about what characteristics the computer should have, we have ordered it from one of the leading mail-order companies. It comes, but with the wrong hard drive for the video work we are contemplating, and then promptly and irrevocably crashes. This is not a good start. And it is certainly a very good reason to procrastinate some more. But no computer means no website, and so we go to a big discount electronic store and buy a Sony desktop.

The next weeks weren’t fun. We were way over our heads, and when something would go wrong, we would blame ourselves, often correctly. But it took us a long time to realize that some of the problems we were facing were built into the hardware and software we were using. We were on the phone with tech reps for hours who ranged from the friendly and competent to the clueless. Later a computer savvy friend compared computers to the old Model T Fords where you would have to stop every few miles and fiddle around with something. But we did build the website that winter, (www.innerexplorations.com) and took real satisfaction in publishing it in the spring, but it was a lot more traumatic than we had expected.

We had gotten a service contract with the computer which we didn’t have to use until the zip drive went out. We finally got it repaired, but then it crashed again. So we called up to have it fixed again. But the seller had sold the service contract to a third party which took the attitude that their job was to avoid fixing anything by blaming the user. They ended up telling us that the computer was infected by an undetectable stealth virus, and we needed to remove all the data from it – now without any zip drive – and reinstall the operating system before they could help us. We had the machine checked by a local computer expert. There was no virus, just a defective zip drive. When we complained to the company we had purchased the computer from, they made all sorts of promises which they never followed through on. These kinds of experiences are, of course, all too common.

Donald Norman, senior technical advisor to Hewlett Packard, once said that the computer "is a technically-driven device made by technologists for technologists who don’t know any better." (Newsweek, March 16, 1998) This is certainly confirmed if you ever try to read the Help section of one of your programs.

The computer is a remarkable scientific and technical creation, and will continue to progress in power and breadth of applications. But that doesn’t mean that we have to imagine that it was designed for the ordinary user. It wasn’t, and it still isn’t, and could use a thorough make-over to banish out of sight much of what we consider central to operating computers today.

But these are not really the most important issues. Science too often leaves us with the sense that it imagines itself to be the highest form of knowing, and even the only real one. With computers this arrogant attitude takes a particularly acute form; if it is computable, then it is real, and if it is not, it’s not. Computers imitate a particular aspect of human intelligence, our ability to make logical connections. But there is much more to the mind than that, creative inspiration, intuition, and feeling, for example.

With the telephone and computer we could connect to the internet, publish the website, and share our work while we continued our simple life in the forest. Technology and nature can live in harmony.

 

The Vulnerability of Large Institutions and Large Technology

Interdependence and interconnectedness is an essential part of our human nature. We are part of the whole community of living beings and need each other for our physical, psychological and spiritual well-being. But our social natures are abused and misused when our institutions loose their human scale. It is amazing, as I mentioned before, how polite people are in the metro of Mexico City, but the ability of people to be able to endure such situations does not justify creating such megastructures in the first place.

These megastructures are not only inherently opposed to the human spirit, but are unstable and vulnerable to accidents and deliberate disruption. One minor freeway accident ensnares hundreds if not thousands of cars in a traffic slow down. One small defective part or miscalculation shuts down the electricity to an entire region. One crazed individual with a gun terrorizes an entire city.

We tend to look at these things as accidents that ever more refined technology or security will eventually eliminate. But large scale technology itself is vulnerable to the same sorts of accidents. The space telescope is sent into orbit defective. The space shuttle crashes. A nuclear power plant’s enormous boiler is put in place backwards. Software is distributed world wide with holes in its security. In short, even most intensely scrutinized technology is found to have serious flaws in it. The answer is not better technology, or more scrutiny, still less more investigations to fix the blame for the accident. Large organizations with their large technology will make mistakes just like individuals will, but a mistake in a large technological system can affect thousands of people. The answer is not in more organizations, and more technology, but in rethinking the scale at which technology is applied, and community is lived.

 

The Industrialization of the Earth

We have been racing to reshape the earth itself to better serve our needs. But we simply don’t know enough to carry it out without serious harm to ourselves. We replaced the family farm with agribusiness, and the horse with the automobile, but we didn’t foresee the consequences of these actions.

If we call technology the application of science to accomplish our desires, then it is clear that technology in itself is blind. It can be applied to transportation or weapons, food production or germ warfare. It cannot, therefore, be left to itself, or left to giant institutions to decide what to do with it. Technology in the hands of large organizations will mirror those organizations, and they imagine that technology can only exist at their kind of scale, and serve their kind of purposes, and this kind of giantism serves the few at the cost of many. We have the ability to make the earth flower while we employ ever more sophisticated technology and much smaller scales than we are used to. We can use the sun to power and heat our homes. We can turn plants into fuels and plastics, and water into hydrogen to power engines, and wean ourselves from destructive fossil fuels. The problem is not technology itself, but our lack of vision of what to do with it, and make it serve our genuine needs.

 

Money

We had lived on very little during our first years in the forest, something like $200-$300 a month, and a good portion of that went to car insurance and a major medical policy. We were driving an old pick-up, and our clothes came from a thrift store. We bought nonfat non-instant milk powder by the sack, rice and soy beans in bulk, and when we had to come up with some extra money for things like putting some second-hand corrugated metal roofing on the bioshelter, we dipped into our savings.

But we were never poor. Luckily we did have some savings, and we ran the woodworking business which covered our day-to-day expenses. And we had our families who were generous with their gifts, and were there to help us if we needed it. We knew we could always run the planter box business more intensely, or go back to the world we had grown up in and find jobs. Not having a lot of money was not the same as being poor in our minds. Poverty was something that people suffered when they literally did not have the basics they needed for their lives. Nor were we struggling on the margins of our society with our noses pressed against the window, looking at all the shiny toys on the other side, and wishing we were there to enjoy them. We had been on the other side, and could be there again, for that matter. What we were doing was running an experiment: "Living thin," we called it, and "Knowledge or comfort." Later when we had more money, we asked ourselves, "Does this mean that we have to move to town?" And the answer came quickly. We hadn’t moved to the forest for economic reasons, but rather because we were searching for another kind of life, and the forest was the place for us to carry out that experiment, money or no.

 

The Limits of Money

The stock market symbolizes how irrational our economy has become. The challenge of meeting our basic physical needs has turned into a garish global casino. Then we affect surprise when the frenzy to win drives people to put their ethical considerations aside and cook the books, or trade on inside information. The whole idea of a global economy demands careful scrutiny, for in final analysis it is people, one by one, who matter, and as individuals we don’t need a global economy, but rather ways to sanely address the question of food and shelter.

Money has very definite limits that stem from the uses to which it can be put. It is essentially connected to physical objects, for it was created as a way to facilitate their exchange. But we can only utilize so many things. We can only eat so much, be in only one place at a time, wear so many clothes at the same time.

Our attempts to exceed these natural limits are driven by our inordinate desires, or put in another way, our psychological and spiritual needs cannot be fulfilled in this manner. When we try, the result is material excess and disappointment. We want to be someone, to be cared about and admired by others, and we imagine that having more things will allow us to fulfill our interior aspirations. But they cannot. It is time to move on.

We have to stop trying to monetarize life, as if every thing and activity can have a dollar sign attached to it. We even say, "Time is money." But time is like life itself, and we only get a certain amount of it, and ought to spend it on better things than accumulating stuff we don’t need.

 

Money, Art and Beautiful Things

When we were growing up, art was a Monet, or a Van Gogh we saw in a museum, never mind that Van Gogh had only sold one or two pictures in his life and his brother had to support him. We never thought of that. Art was something rich people collected, and then donated to a museum where the rest of us could see it occasionally. We did love beautiful things, however, and liked to have them around us. Didn’t we need money for them? Wasn’t art, then, one of the exceptions where lots of money made a difference? Not really. Some of our works of art came as gifts from nature: a shell picked up on a beach, or a manzanita branch tried by fire that we turned into a door handle. But these things didn’t fully satisfy us. What about really great art? Was this limited to the rich? One day we got the answer, not in some auction room, but in a meadow near our house. It came in the form of a 6’ pine root that had been weathered gray over the years, but whose resin had preserved it from decay. It was so heavy we had to create a sled and drag it with our truck to a hole we had dug, and placed it upside down. But this was a world class sculpture, given to us by nature, herself.

But what about art we made ourselves? If we weren’t master builders, we certainly weren’t artists, either. But we did love rich, vibrant colors. We had gotten to play with colors when we made candles years ago, and then when we made simulated stained glass for our mirrored planters. But then we discovered a special kind of stained glass called dalle de verre. Dalle de verre came in 8 inches x 12 inches slabs of glass 1 inch thick. You could laboriously saw it if you had the right equipment, or score it with a glass cutter and then whack it with a hammer like we did, and hope for the best. You better have your goggles on! Then we faceted the edges of the pieces with a hammer and chisel, arranged the pieces, and glued them together within a wooden frame with a mixture of sand and epoxy resin. The first window we made went into Tyra’s meditation hut. For the next one, we decided to use dalle de verre with accents of slag glass. Slag glass was thick chunks of recycled colored glass, often with fissures and bubbles, which were like glass jewels. This window was 2 feet x 3 feet, and we cast it right in the dirt near the greenhouse, and impatiently waited for it to harden. Unearthing it and cleaning it was like finding a treasure, and it is a real treasure for us, our own work of art.

 

The Myth of Being Rich

The myth of being rich is one of the most powerful myths of our modern world at whose altar worship not only the rich who ought to know better by experience, but the media who exhibit no wisdom about the matter, and too often the poor at whose expense the rich are often rich. We can leave the language and culture of our ancestors behind, but we still cling to the myth of being wealthy.

Being rich is supposed to somehow make life better. In some mysterious fashion the rich are supposed to be happier, smarter – at least about money, somehow deserving to be blessed, but not as much as we deserve it. And all the time we know these things are not true, we believe them anyway, and hope against hope they will be true for us. But being rich simply means having more money. Period.

 

Waste, Scarcity and Consumerism

I go to the dump and back my pick-up right up to the big container to off-load. It is a perfect time to reflect on what I am throwing away, and what fills those enormous bins. A large percentage is kitchen waste and yard material. These kinds of things should never really end up in the landfill to being with. They should be composted as close to their source as possible. But most of the things I see there shouldn’t be there, either: a TV, a microwave, plastic toys, a doll, building materials, and so forth. It is really the final resting place for all the things bought at the giant discount stores. It is as if there is a giant conveyer belt from the stores through our houses to the dump. Actually the conveyor is a lot longer than that. Raw materials are being mined and harvested, factories are belching pollution in places like China, the products are being shipped thousands of miles, they are filling our store shelves, spending some time in our homes, and ending up in the dump. Well, not quite, because the dump has run out of space and all this stuff is getting hauled to Washington.

I take real pleasure in giving the crumbs of our bread to the jays in the morning, and feeding our compost pile with kitchen scraps and peelings, and using the rich organic water that comes from washing the dishes on our garden. Later the compost and the ashes from the fire go down to the garden, and all our human waste is composted, as well.

I am a lot less happy with the constant flow of bulk mail and packaging materials, that I will not burn for fear of the chemicals they contain. I’ve taken to throwing out a lot of unsolicited mail right at the post office, but the bulk of our trash is this kind of paper and containers. Recycling, of course, is part of the answer if the recycled materials are actually reused, but we have a backwards recycling system in this country where the burden is put on the consumer and the recycled materials look for a user. We need to start at the manufacturing end, and make recycling or composting an integral and essential part of the production of things. This is no more that common sense. No one has the right to produce large quantities of things without a rational plan in place of how to dispose of them when their useful life is over. This includes not only paper and packaging, but appliances and vehicles, as well.

But neither does anyone have the right to destroy nature in order to extract raw materials, or to pollute the air and water and land in the manufacturing process. And no one certainly has the right to destroy the health of those who work for them and carry out uncontrolled experiments by placing in the environment all sorts of chemical compounds or genetically modified organisms that could have toxic consequences. The fact that all these things are routinely done illustrates how twisted out of shape and short sighted our basic institutions have become. They allow individuals and corporations to affect us all with us having no say in the matter.

But isn’t it true that all this talk of simple living close to the earth flies in the face of the fundamental fact that people go hungry and are in want simply because there are not enough resources in the world? No. Despite how many people there are in the world, there is no physical scarcity as if we have reached the earth’s limits, and there is literally not enough food and other basic resources to go around. What we do face is an unequal distribution of these resources. People go hungry because they don’t have access to the food that exists, even right around them, or could exist. Human want is much more a human problem than a physical problem, and can’t be solved by throwing money at it.

 

Foreign Aid

The richer nations spend billions of dollars helping the poorer ones, or so we imagine until we start looking at where the money actually goes. These billions in aid begin to shrink if we subtract the money that must be spent in the donor countries in particular ways, or that goes to support a whole aid industry which becomes unwieldy, like any large institution, and begins to look to its own perpetuation and comfort before the needs of the people it was meant to serve. More of these billions have to be subtracted because they are stolen by corrupt government officials of the countries whose people are supposed to profit from this aid. Further, we can hardly consider money well spent that goes for gigantic projects like dams that will inundate the land of thousands of poor people, or highways that speed deforestation.

The donor countries are masters of unsustainability, and therefore what they export to the poorer nations of the world will be bits and pieces of this same unsustainable lifestyle. Consciously or unconsciously they will try to make people over into their own image and likeness. How can sustainability and a life close to the earth come from the unsustainability of the rich nations? Their aid, then, tends to dislocate the lives of people in the country they are trying to help. They think they know the answers when it is entirely possible that the poorer nation that still lives closer to nature makes more ingenious use of local resources, and consumes a fraction of the materials and energy than they do, actually has much to teach the richer one.

We have moved far away from economic sanity when a very small coffee farmer in the highlands of Central America is listening to the radio in order to hear coffee prices on the New York commodity market. The global economy has focused whole developing nations on producing crops for export at the cost of local food production. This is a perversion of the natural order of things that serves the better off, both in the more developed and less developed countries. When such trade becomes primary, we have lost contact with our basic economic roots. If we have no ensured access to the necessities of life, then we are forced to sell our export crops even when it is not to our advantage.

 

Overpopulation

The only way to clarify the contentious arguments about overpopulation is by bringing fundamental principles to bear. What is the carrying capacity of the earth? It depends on what kind of life we are aiming at. If we wanted to return to being hunter-gatherers, the world is grossly overpopulated. If we want 20 million plus megacities, fed by agribusiness and biotechnology, despite the cost both the cities and the technologies will exact on our health and that of the environment, that is what we have now, with more coming in the future.

But if we want to live in harmony with nature, we are already doing a poor job for a whole variety of reasons, and our numbers just make it harder. But the more developed countries cannot sit at the table of humanity and continue to hog the world’s resources while holding forth on overpopulation. The first step towards addressing population issues is making sure that each person has access to the earth’s resources that he or she needs.

 

The Earth and the World

We have to make a fundamental distinction between the earth and the world. Let’s call the earth nature, herself, and the world how we shape nature according to our desires. This distinction allows us to see that the world rests upon the earth, and is our own creation. Therefore the world does not have to be the way we find it. It is the result of our actions and those of countless other human beings. The world is not the real world in the sense that we have to accept it and come to terms with it because this is the way that things must be.

The earth, in contrast, is a nurturing temenos in which we are meant to live. It is the living web of life that has given birth to us. It is not a passive storehouse of raw materials that we can exploit in any which way. Rather, the earth is a living community of creatures among which we are meant to flourish. It can suffer great damage from fire, storm and volcanoes and immediately begin to restore itself. Within the historical memory of human beings it has shown a great abundance in its trackless forests and jungles, its immense herds of animals and schools of fish. It is only human beings who are so intelligent and yet so disordered as to threaten life on earth, itself. So we have every right to choose the earth and embrace it while finding the world distasteful. The world is of our making, and we can do much better. We create the world by shaping the earth with our hands, minds, hearts and desires. Therefore when we look at the world it reflects what is inside us. We can and must talk about better ways to build our homes and grow our food, but we cannot avoid the difficult question of our inordinate desires. These desires, far from remaining locked in the depths of our hearts, continually color our behavior, and we need to tame them and redirect them if we are going to find better ways to live.

 

Is American-style Capitalism the best we can do?

If American-style capitalism is compared to the kind of socialisms that existed under Communism and which were economically ineffective and abusive of human rights, we can clearly see why the world is choosing capitalism. But the yardstick against which we should compare capitalism is not these defunct state socialisms, but rather, the human values that any economy is meant to serve. When seen in this light, capitalism definitely has a shadow side.

We are creating a global capitalist economy of great intricacy, and great fragility, as well, and doing it, at times, in an atmosphere of manifest destiny, as if this were the way that things had to be. What we are not doing is spending enough time reflecting on the human values that this economy is meant to serve, and the absence of this reflection leaves a vacuum that is quickly filled by less worthy goals.

We need to question the economy we are creating from a vantage point outside of that economy itself. Do we really need or want, for example, a global economy in the first place? A global awareness of the human race as a whole is a valuable attainment, for we are one human family before we are separate nations or races. But this global awareness does not demand in itself a global capitalist economy. Do we really need large waves of money sloshing daily around the planet, waves often generated by speculation, and capable of dislocating entire local economies? Do we need larger and larger corporations which concentrate economic power into fewer and fewer hands?

Economy in its root sense means acquiring the basic material things we need to lead a human life: food, shelter, energy, and so forth. But this is something quite different than a quest for a so-called higher standard of living, which really is, for the most part, the unending quest for a higher level of consumption. Our material needs are finite. After a certain point we are simply embellishing them, and not long after we begin to embellish them, we begin to distort them, twisting them out of all recognizable shape and making them the carriers of our own disordered desires. We need shelter: warm, dry and pleasant to be in, but we don't need 30,000 square feet trophy homes. We need light, but we don't need nuclear power plants in order to have a light bulb.

 

Enough

When we first arrive in the forest, usually on skis, we truly enjoy what we have brought in our packs and what we find there. "Look," we say, "at how much fire wood we have, or how many buckets of water. There is a jar of peanut butter, or some olive oil." We go down to the root cellar, and exclaim about the treasures we find there, and bring up a can of soup. Add to this three carrots, half a head of lettuce, some cheese and a loaf of bread we have packed in. At that moment these things are more exciting than a whole supermarket. They take on a new value, and we savor them. The birds begin to peck at the crumbs we put on their feeder, water trickles into the little pond by our door, and soon the frogs will be serenading us in the evenings. The road will melt out and we will be able to bring in whatever we want, but for the moment we are grateful for what we have.

The best thing that the United States can do for the world is to say enough, to say that we have enough things, a high enough level of material consumption, enough food, housing, and money, and now we are going to turn our attention to other things like helping less fortunate people here and abroad. Such a declaration could begin to transform the world in a way that foreign aid and being a superpower can never do. It would begin to take the pressure of over-consumption off the earth and allow it to begin to heal itself. It would allow the reallocation of material things to those who have too few of them, even in the developed nations. And it would free affluent people from the tyranny of useless consumption that takes their attention away from what they ought to be doing.

 

 Earth Rights

I have always thought that one of best things we can do with money is to buy land, tools and materials, and build our homes, grow our gardens, and create furniture, art, and whatever we need and desire, in short, use the money to get life back into our own hands so we can truly do things for ourselves.

But we can really think more radically than this. The earth, itself, truly belongs to all of us, and we should not have to purchase it at great cost. The land, itself, should provide many of the resources we need to build a house and grow a garden. The human race is one family derived from the same ancestors and possessing a genetic unity. It is also the fruit of a long process of evolution so that we are literally interwoven with all of creation. From these basic facts flow important consequences. All human beings are born with certain human rights, but we also have what could be called earth rights. We have a right to interact with the earth in order to fulfill our basic needs. This is a right to breathe fresh air, drink clean water, and eat healthy food.

These earth rights are so fundamental that they come before the rights of private property. I cannot tell a child that she must go hungry because I own the land and the food that is growing on it. Private ownership rests on the foundation of earth rights. It is one way to try to work out in practice how these earth rights play out in daily existence.

But earth rights cannot be abstracted from the nature and rights of the earth, itself. Every creature has a right to exist both in itself, and in regard to us, for in a broad sense they are our brothers and sisters, and make the human community possible. This is a fundamental ecological principle we must live by.

Other living creatures give up their lives so that we can live, and we ought to look upon their sacrifices with gratitude, and with a sense that we should take no more than we need, and waste as little as possible. This sense of treading lightly on the land and conserving it is the best way we can serve ourselves and others, and be in harmony with the earth, itself.

 

Winter and Travel

The forest is not some sort of paradise far from the world’s problems. I wish it were. Rather, for us, it serves as a very tangible symbol of the possibility of another way of living. But this particular experiment is carried out on the margins of our society because this is where we found inexpensive land and the physical and psychological freedom we needed to experiment. We do leave some of the people problems of town behind because there are no people nearby, but we face physical challenges, and most of them center around winter.

Winter begins around mid-November with the first real snows that stay on the ground, and well before that time comes we are making our preparations. We build up the wood pile and stock the root cellar, and we start taking out all the things we need for our book and video projects over the winter, as well as our Baja California gear. By the end of these preparations the summer season which stretches from April to November is drawing to a close. The storms of rain, and especially snow, are beginning, and they combine with the shortening days to make us want to turn on more lights just when our supply of solar electricity is diminishing.

The lack of sun casts a shadow over our mood, and it goes together with an equally difficult issue. There are still no maintained roads out here, and this has led to all sorts of adventures, most of which we would have skipped if we had had the choice. When our neighbor who had been keeping the roads open with his logging truck retired, he found an old military surplus World War II 6-wheel-drive Navy truck to which he attached a homemade plow, but even this couldn’t always do the job. One day, for example, when he and his wife had gone to town in the 6-wheel drive truck, with a little pick-up following behind, they came back late in the afternoon and started up the 8 miles of forest road that led to their place. We were monitoring their progress on a CB radio. The first miles went OK, but the road was increasing in elevation and the snow was getting deeper. All through the evening they tried to keep on going until by 2 in the morning they were still 2 miles away from their house and they were stuck. They sat out the rest of the night in the pickup, and the following morning we called for help, which came in the form of a friend on a small snowcat who brought them the rest of the way home. Later we all skied down and helped them get the vehicles free.

Wheeled vehicles are just not made for these kinds of conditions, but sometimes the alternative didn’t work perfectly, either. One year we had gone traveling, and decided to go home in the middle of the winter. We had parked one snowmobile 10 miles away in the case of such an eventuality, but as we made our way up into the forest, we discovered that someone had forced a truck up the road, swerving back and forth in the deep snow, and cutting ruts. This made the snowmobile trip an exhausting stop and start affair, and we arrived home tired and sweaty. We walked into the house, only to find that the top of a tree had snapped off and crashed into the roof. Its broken branches were poking through the ceiling like daggers from whose ends water dripped onto the floor. But this was not the worst of it. The impact had broken loose one of the beams that held up the roof rafters, and cracked the other, and the whole roof threatened to come crashing down into the living room. The first thing we did was to get up on the roof – gingerly – cut the tree up, and thus get rid of all that weight. Then we jerry-rigged a way to lift up the beam, roof and all, by jacking it up inch by inch, hoping the whole contraption would not give way and bring the roof down. Finally, we had it back in place, and nailed and reinforced it. That year we decided it would be more fun to ski out and go to Baja California for a while!

Another year we had been out on the road once again, and it was late February when we began to ski in, following the logging roads that led to our house 5 miles away. We were afraid our phone might be out of order, so we told our daughter not to worry about us if she didn’t hear from us. So much snow had fallen it was hard to distinguish the road from the rest of the forest. After a couple of miles we lost the road and had to backtrack a little way. After another couple of miles we were about a mile from home, and it had taken us some four hours of increasingly difficult skiing to reach that spot as the snow got deeper. The light was just beginning to go, and we got lost again. This time it was harder to rediscover the road. We searched about, and found it again, but we were shaken. It was very clear to us that we could be in serious trouble if we got lost, or if one of us twisted an ankle, and couldn’t go on. It would be a long ski for the other person out to the highway where they would have to try to flag down a vehicle. No one was going to come look for us, at least for a while.

We arrived home with the last of the light. It was about 32 degrees inside, and the stove wouldn’t draw. There was about 5 or 6 feet of snow on the roof, and I had to cut steps in it in order to climb on top. Luckily, one corner of the stove pipe was showing, and I cleaned it out and got the fire going. We were sweaty from the trip, and now we were getting chilled. We found a package of inexpensive dried soup, and brewed it up. It tasted delicious.

The next day we looked at the work it would take to shovel the roofs, and what life would be like marooned in this world of snow, and the possibility that a new storm would wipe out our ski tracks, and decided that it would be easier to ski out and stay with our daughter in town.

Why bother, is the obvious question. Was living in the forest worth this? Our place in the forest was not just a building. It was a search for a way of life in which the answers were not already spelled out.

Winter was a great excuse to indulge in our love of travel. Actually, it would be more accurate to say we loved to fantasize about travel, and imagine all the beautiful places we would see, and the things we would learn, and the fascinating people we would meet, whatever the time of year. We would convince ourselves that we would actually make the trip, and do it on a shoe string budget. This got us into all sorts of predicaments. There we would be, for example, pulling our handmade trailer through the L.A. traffic while one of the kids kept saying, with ever greater urgency, "I have to go to the bathroom now!"

But travel did hold rich rewards for us. One year we set off in the spring with the kids in the little Datsun hatchback and 2 tents on a trip across the U.S. in order to meet people in the fields that we were writing about. Elizabeth had just gotten her driver’s permit, and this was going to be her big chance to really learn how to drive, and drive she did – in all sorts of conditions. The trip stretched to 11,000 miles over several months, and while motels were a rarity and eating in a restaurant was a big treat, we kept on going, and came home with a rich treasure of experiences.

Another time we had gone over the Cascade Mountains to the Willamette Valley and spent the night at the guest house of a monastery while I did research in the library, but the bed sagged, the doors slammed, the price was high, and we were disgruntled. We were back in the world of freeways, motels, and expensive stick-built houses. Off we went to visit our friends who were natural builders. They had created a tiny cottage out of cob, a mixture of earth, clay, sand and straw, which is formed into loaf-like lumps and used to form a wall. There they were in their tiny home they had made for $500. They cut up vegetables for soup, and brought out bread they had baked in their earthen oven. What a contrast, and what a wonderful example of how to live lightly on the earth.

Our trips were like traveling to another country, one that used to be our home. We might see, for example, the California freeways lined with new developments of homes all crowded together as we drove to Baja California. And we might get involved in a minor traffic jam as we went through Los Angeles.

For a while we actually did try to convince ourselves that we could find some other place to live in the U.S. during the winter. We drove through southern Nevada and saw whole communities sprouting up in the desert. We visited the greater Tucson area where whole suburban communities, complete with shopping centers, were popping up. We took a wrong turn in Phoenix one day, and saw new homes built right to their property lines as if they had no connection with each other, or with nature, itself. We even looked for land out east of San Diego. Perhaps, we said, there might be something that has escaped the never-ending development that had engulfed the city and was turning it into another Los Angeles. Two pieces of land stick in our minds from those searches. The first was an old mining claim that was not even on the market. It sat on a high rocky ridge, with a beautiful view looking south toward the Mexican border not far away. It was probably unbuildable because of the code requirements for septic fields, it was punctuated here and there by mine shafts, and every night 200 illegals made their way through the valley below as the Border Patrol pursued them.

The other piece was out in the mountains just before they fell off into the desert. It was an attractive piece of land with a seasonal creek and some large oak trees. But out there the gentle San Diego winter weather had been lost in the wind and cold, and people came to ride their motorcycles and go 4-wheeling. All it would have taken was one bureaucrat having a bad day, and telling us that we needed a properly engineered road to our building site to have turned this piece of land into a nightmare.

Living in the forest had changed us. We simply couldn’t take all this as normal. We had lost what tolerance we might have once had for all the crowding and rules and regulations. All we wanted, we told ourselves, was an inexpensive piece of land where we would be free to build a house and enjoy the sunshine in the winter, in peace and quiet. But this, we realized, had become an ever-more elusive dream. The dream went like this: you sketch the design of a house you would really like to live in; you buy a piece of land that doesn’t cost you an absolute fortune; you choose building materials that please you, and then you simply build the house. It is a dream that is about more than money, and it is about much more than a physical building. It is about freedom from having to live in the way this society dictates: the way it puts money first, the high prices, the lack of imagination, and its seeming complacency about accepting that many people will simply not be able to afford their own home, or will do so at great economic sacrifice. But even more, it is about freedom for life, a home, a garden, a studio, all lovingly created and all paid for, and all becoming the nurturing and protective surroundings that allow us to express the things that are deepest in us, and unleash our most creative energies.

 

Institutions

Life in the forest taught us to see the social structures of our society in a different way. If we could build a house, even with our lack of experience, or the kids could do homeschool and actually learn something, or if we could generate our electricity from the power of the sun, and create alternatives to so many other things, then how necessary were the complicated institutions we had grown up with?

It is important to see what this question is not about. It is not about doing away with the necessary interdependence of people, the vital role that our parents, families and friends play in making us who we are, and allowing us to live the life we lead. Without a wider community that embraces people we do not personally know, where would we be? These people have designed and fabricated the solar panels we use. They cut and milled the lumber for our first house. They grow the grain that we eat. Simple living, therefore, is not about opting out of the human community. Rather, it is about looking at our social structures and examining them in terms of the purposes for which they were originally created in order to see whether they actually serve those purposes. If they don’t, we should reconstruct them from the ground up, if necessary, making them no more complicated or extensive than they need to be. The starting point is to see, as we have been seeing, that school is not education, work is not a job, money is a means, not an end, a home is not a lifetime financial responsibility, science and technology need to be informed by our ethical values, nature is not just a stockpile of raw materials, and simple living is not just about economics, but is a deinstitutionalization of our lives so we can live more fully and with more satisfaction.

What are institutions? They are social structures that we create in order to help fulfill our needs better. We want our children to be educated, for example, so we create a school and send them to it. But these structures have a way of taking on a life of their own. For a school we imagine, reasonably enough, that we need teachers and a building, and we have to be concerned about the qualifications of the teachers and the safety of the building, and find ways to determine how well our children are learning, and so forth and so on. But these structures can easily begin to harden, and become less responsive to the goal for which they were set up. The students come and go, and so do the teachers, but the building remains, and more importantly, rules and regulations that were created to help the institution function. The institution begins to turn in on itself and look more to its perpetuation than to the purpose for which it was created. More and more energy is spent on administration and maintenance. And after a while we have an institution that consumes enormous amounts of resources, but produces mediocre results.

In fact, institutions have an uncanny way of defeating the very purpose for which they have been created. Then we have schools that extinguish our children’s love of learning, hospitals that spread disease, churches that turn people away from God, food that poisons us, etc. And they all claim that they really cannot do anything other than what they are doing. But that is because they imagine that the way things are are the way things have to be. Institutions are simply not good at radical thinking that looks to the original goal and asks how well our present structures are reaching it. That is too threatening, for it might mean that they would have to seriously consider fundamentally altering themselves, and they are too busy perpetuating themselves to do that.

Institutions are made up of people, and these people are prey to inordinate desires like the rest of us, and now they have a new arena and a lot of money and power with which to indulge themselves. Thus we find petty tyrants enforcing mindless regulations, bureaucratic empire builders putting fancy meals and pleasure travel on their expense accounts. The institution becomes an entrenched interest group taking for granted the very people whom it was meant to serve, while it serves its own interests. Institutions have the overriding tendency to impose uniformity. They do this because it is simply easier for them to make one rule and impose it on everyone, and they give little thought to how it squeezes and disrupts the lives of the people under their sway who possess many different types of personality.

We can tinker with our institutions and alter this or that regulation, or this leader or that one, but we will never get to the heart of the problems we face until we look again at the purpose for which they were created, and honestly assess how well they are doing their jobs. But we have to go beyond this. We need to look to ourselves, and take responsibility for our lives. It is we who have the primary responsibility to see that our children are educated, not the teachers at our schools. We have the primary responsibility for our health, not our doctors. We can’t give our lives over to someone else.

Here we arrive at the heart of the matter. We are meant to live life directly, and as fully engaged as possible. We would hardly imagine that someone else could love our children for us, or exercise for us. But in every area we have been talking about the more we do for ourselves the better it will be for our physical, psychological, intellectual and spiritual health. We need to educate our children, choose the work we want to do, help make the buildings we live in and grow part of the food we eat, entertain ourselves, try to keep ourselves healthy. And we need to make our institutions reflect this need to live directly.

 

Governments

The problem of governments, like that of the U.S., is not just this or that particular leader, but its sheer size that causes it to drift away from the people it is meant to serve, and to be co-opted by a few people with their own agendas. Then the government supports tyrants, imposes a self-interested exploitive capitalism on others, robs social security, tramples on the bill of rights, resorts to violence to get its way, and on and on, all the while complaining that it is misunderstood, unloved, and doing it all to serve the people.

All the faults of the institutions we have been seeing find their supreme exemplars in governments, whether local, state or federal. Governments start off like the rest of our social structures with a positive purpose, which is to help us live together in harmony and prosperity. But as governmental structures grow bigger and more cumbersome, before too long they are demanding, and taking by force, if necessary, more and more of our wealth, and spending it in ways we don’t approve of. And instead of fostering peace, they become the actual instigators of wars in which they force us to fight and die in.

In democracies, we might want to argue, the people have the final say. But in actual fact democratic governments, like most institutions, have a way of following their own agendas, and they develop their own momentum and drag the people along in their wake. A genuine democracy demands we have an actual say in what is being done in our names, and this has to start in our own lives. Everything that we can do as individuals should be done by us personally. Everything we can do as families should be done in the family, and so forth in regard to larger and larger communities that make up our society. We don’t really need strangers thousands of miles away telling us how to live out our lives. However well intentioned they are, they simply can’t get it right. We can’t hand over our responsibility for peace and prosperity to someone else, but we have to work for them right where we are.

But does the minimization of government mean anarchy with no one in charge? Quite the opposite. We have to be in charge, and instead of an ever proliferating mass of rules and regulations we have to exercise our intelligence and common sense. Written laws are meant to be simply more or less accurate reflections of the way things ought to be, but common sense and values tell us how to behave even if there are no written laws about the subject.

We are a society that has more and more laws, and more and more people are involved in the administration of civil and criminal justice. We have more lawyers and prisons, and are always desirous of more police. But these are not indications of an especially just society. Justice cannot only come from the outside with the creation of a law, its enforcement and the punishment of the lawbreakers. That kind of justice is the last resort. The justice that is more fundamental is the kind we exercise in our own lives all the time. We decide to do or not do something because it is the right thing to do. It is simply not enough to be outraged and punish those who transgress our laws. We need to ask the difficult questions of why they are behaving the way they do, and how they can be truly restrained from repeating this behavior, and how the punishment can fit the crime and lead, if possible, to genuine changes in their behavior.

 

Corporations

The basic idea of a corporation is fairly straight- forward. A group of people combine their resources and efforts in order to create a certain service or product. But corporations are much like governments. The larger they become, the more layers of bureaucracy develop, and the less responsive they become to the rest of society. In short, they become institutions that lose sight, if not their obvious goal, of creating and selling a product or service, then their other responsibilities. A corporation may be a legal person, but the people who matter are the real ones who work there and who are served by it. But corporations often tend to serve themselves in the persons of the few people who gain control over them and use them to enrich themselves and gratify their desires for power, and generally inflate their egos at the price of the workers, the small stockholders and the consumers. Thus their leaders compensate themselves at exorbitant rates, and pamper themselves even while they treat their workers as disposable commodities. They sometimes manipulate the finances of the corporation for their own gain, and are willing to produce harmful products simply to enrich themselves. In their desire for profit they blind themselves to ethical considerations, and their duties in regard to society and nature.

 

Baja California and the Four Steps

Ever since that first year when the family had crammed into the Datsun hatchback and had gone to Baja California, we had continued to go there for part of most winters. It was the closest we came to fulfilling our winter home and tropical island fantasies because the real tropical islands we had visited were just too hot and humid for us. The weather in Baja California, in contrast, while it could be brutally hot in the summer, in the winter was much like the summers we enjoyed in the forest. The temperatures were often in the 70s and 80s during the day, but cooled off at night, and the humidity was low because Baja California is mostly a desert.

From our first visit we enjoyed modern Baja California – La Paz with its waterfront, its beaches filled with people from the U.S., Canada and Europe, but another Baja California called to us. This was the Baja California of the little ranchos, the old missions, and ancient Indian tribes now extinct. And over the years we slowly learned something about this world. The ranchos with their small herds of goats or a few cattle, and a tiny orchard or garden, if they had water enough, had a certain elemental or archetypal quality that fascinated us. Their dwellings were often palapas, or huts made with a pole framing, reed walls and beautifully thatched roofs made with the leaves of the fan palm. This was a wonderful world of friendly, self-reliant people with their ranchos often scattered in rugged rocky settings that could, on occasion, be strikingly beautiful. It was a traditional way of life that stretched back to the era of the missions more than 200 years before, missions that had given birth to the much better known missions of Alta California, that is, the California of the U.S.

In the ancient homeland of the Guaycuras we would visit caves with their floors covered with ashes and with the debris of their daily lives still scattered about even though the Indians had been exiled from these places for more than 200 years. It felt like they were out hunting and gathering, and we would soon see them climbing up the slopes.

Years of these kinds of adventures helped clarify our thoughts about the long road we humans had taken from its beginnings before recorded history to the present. We began to think of this road in terms of three steps. The first step was the world of the hunter-gatherers like the Bushmen of the Kalahari Desert in southern Africa, the Guaycura of Baja California, or the Klamath Indians of the area where we live in the forest. This is where we had all started from. This was the dawn of the human race where each day we were in direct and prolonged contact with nature.

The little ranchos with their gardens and herds represented the next, or second, step in which a major transformation had overtaken the human race as it went from being hunter-gatherers to small farmers and herders. The third step was the modern world all around us, the world we had grown up in, the world that is driven by science and technology.

Baja California became a microcosm of these three worlds. We would be staying in La Paz with its stores and airport, telephones, satellite TV, and internet connections, and then we would become time travelers. A couple of hours on the road would bring us to a rancho that still preserved the age-old pattern, and a hike into the hills from there would bring us to a cave on whose floor were still the stones the Indians had used to grind their seeds. This time travel helped us realize precisely what we were not trying to do in the forest. We were not trying to go back in time. We couldn’t do it even if we wanted to. We couldn’t live the life we saw in the more traditional ranchos, still less that of the Indians who had preceded them. We didn’t have the skills for it, either.

But more importantly, we lacked their way of looking at things. The road to the past was closed to us because we had changed inside. There had been an evolution of our consciousness within, and our social structures without. But it hadn’t been a smooth evolution. Each of the major transitions had been traumatic. The coming of the missionaries and the Spaniards to Baja California had meant the end of the Indians, due principally to infectious diseases, but it would have meant the end of their culture in any event. The newcomers simply could not see any value in the language, culture and religion of the Indians. The life of the Indians was, in their eyes, simply barbarous and primitive, and meant to give way as soon as possible to little European-style villages grouped around the missions.

The ranchos that had taken the place of the Indians had survived for generations, but now they, too, were changing under the impact of the world of modern technology exemplified by La Paz, or Los Angeles. Pick-up trucks had taken the place of mules, the children of the ranchos went off during the week to study at government-run boarding schools where they sometimes had instruction via satellite TV, and their older brothers and sisters went to town for higher education and jobs.

We began to feel the difference between our old friends the abuelitos, or grandparents, on their little rancho whom we described in The Treasures of Simple Living, and our younger rancho friends. The abuelitos had lived in their own skins, as it were, satisfied with their lives of herding their goats in the desert and living in their palm-thatched hut. They lived with the earth, were of the earth, but some of our younger friends were caught between these two worlds, and were struggling to make the transition to the third step. At times we could feel their half-conscious desires to move on to the third step as they looked at our pick-up with its 4-wheel-drive and filled gas cans, and us with cash in our pockets. They were sending their children off to school and to town to work so their children could make that transition even if they themselves didn’t fully get there.

But, thanks to the sacrifices our parents had made, if we had had the best of the modern world, and then had moved to the forest, and if we were not going back to step two, or one, where did that leave us? We were trying to go forward, we realized, to a new way of living, a fourth step, and this meant trying to understand where we had come from.

 

Hunter-Gatherers

Hunter-gatherers lived a very direct sort of existence. They met their essential needs by going out day by day to find food and drink. They created the shelter and tools that they needed. There was little specialization. Each person had a good sense of how to do all the essential tasks, although the men were the primary hunters and the women did most of the gathering. This kind of life was often nomadic and carried out in small bands. Leadership emerged out of the band by consensus, rather than being imposed from the outside. There was a natural sense of the carrying capacity of the land and how its resources must be conserved. This instinctive ecological sense led to moving about to utilize the seasonal resources and letting the depleted areas recover. It also led to the limitation of the size of the band.

This kind of life was in harmony with nature, but it was not a harmony that came about by a conscious reflection on nature, but it was much more an unconscious life within nature. Hunter-gatherers were nature’s children who received everything from her bounty and suffered in times of scarcity, but never imagined a life outside of nature, still less opposed to it. They were at home on the earth. They ran and worked and laughed and sang without constantly counting the cost. They lived life without being besieged by worries about what was going to happen in the future. They lived life directly in contact with nature, and at the heart of the life of the hunter-gatherers was their immersion in nature. It was not just that they had to go out day by day to find food and water. They lived within the great round of nature. They took what nature offered and did without when nature withheld. They moved to respond to nature’s moods and created tools to harvest nature’s bounty.

The very lifestyle of the hunter-gatherers limited their possessions and their social structures. Why collect possessions if they only had to be left behind when the band moved on? Why steal since everyone would know who did it, and most everything could be readily fabricated anyway? There was no need for someone to tell others what to do. Everyone already knew what to do. Nature was bountiful, and if there was dissension in the band or between groups they could drift apart.

They lived not only in nature, sleeping under the stars, but they lived within the unconscious of nature, and the hard walls of the ego that separate us from it were unknown to them. They swam in this unconscious like fish in the sea, and the unconscious and nature were one. The thought of standing outside of nature, still less of dominating nature, was unthinkable.

 

Farmers and Herders

But the unthinkable began to happen. The next stage was that of the small farmers and herders. Somehow the idea of the cultivation of food and the domestication of animals was born, perhaps out of necessity due to increasing human population, and it was a very revolutionary idea that was to transform the earth. It allowed people to stay in one place longer, to accumulate more possessions, to engage in more extended trade, which gave them an impetus to develop their skills in counting and record-keeping, which in turn played a role in the development of writing. This was a world of increased specialization, and it also fostered the emergence of more elaborate forms of society and government.

While most people still lived in a close relationship with nature, waiting on the rains to begin planting and caring for their crops and animals, a fundamental change in their psyches had begun to take place. They began to emerge from the great round of nature, and thus increase their ability to stand outside it and try to direct it. It was reflective thought and self-direction that fueled this emergence. And some of this new-found energy was put to good use in discovering new ways of cultivating and breeding plants and animals, in irrigation, in a more elaborate material culture, and in the creation of larger societal structures like villages and towns, and so forth. But the emergence of the thinking and willing ego had a negative side, as well. This new energy could be projected on or usurped by individuals who took it to themselves and became chieftains or kings who imagined they had some right to rule over other people, and increasingly, instead of nature directing what people did, these individuals decided for others according to their own desires and inspirations. Thus, we have grandiose building projects and wars of conquest. The seed of a separation from nature was growing.

Food became less varied and nutritional deficiencies increased, as well as injuries due to repetitive movements of activities like grinding grain. But the biggest drawback was the rise of institutions. Where, for example, did the military come from? Among the hunter-gatherers men could be as vicious as any found in later stages of human history. But their conflicts tended to be self-limiting, man against man or band against band, carried out by people who did not specialize in warfare and often would settle for a more or less symbolic war with minimal casualties. But with the coming of more complex and populous forms of society, especially farmers who now had more and more possessions, there was a need to protect these possessions, and some men became devoted to defense, first on a temporary basis and then permanently. But a standing defense force could easily be led to believe by the new kind of leaders that were emerging that they must take offensive action against potential enemies. And so war as we know it was born.

 

The Science Revolution

What existed in embryo in the minds of the farmers and pastoralists finally flowered with the development of the sciences of nature. With the sciences we have finally emerged from nature, and can stand outside of it and systematically reflect on how it functions. This allows us to utilize and dominate nature with ever greater power, and so we fancy ourselves more and more the masters of nature, altering and shaping the earth, itself. We can see nature as an object whose workings we understand and can make serve our own intentions. We live in a world of increased specialization and ever-more elaborate societal structures that have the effect of separating us farther and farther from nature. We have greater and greater technological power, but we literally don’t know what to do with it, and end up using this power to create a consumer society centered on things that are often frivolous and sometimes downright destructive.

There is nothing wrong with the sciences of nature in themselves, but they cannot tell us what we should do with them. They are blind in regard to the purposes to which they should be put, and we have failed as a society to truly reflect on the goals we should be pursuing. We have created a society that habitually teeters on the brink of catastrophic wars and ecological destruction. We have the power to end hunger, and instead, we indulge in prodigious waste. It is as if we have created enormous mechanisms that blindly blunder forward, flattening everything in their paths, including ourselves.

Each of the basic elements of life we have been examining could be held up and viewed against the background of these three stages. Then we would get a sense of the evolution of our human structures and hopefully an inkling of how they could evolve even further. Let’s look at some examples.

The education of the children of the hunter-gatherers took place in a very natural and organic way. The children saw their fathers go off to hunt and their mothers gather seeds and roots. They heard them discuss the day’s adventures in great detail around the fire in the evening. Soon they began to imitate their parents. The boys hunted small animals with their miniature weapons. The girls helped their mothers prepare food, and soon accompanied them to find it, and were taught the value of the different plants and where and in what seasons they could be found. School was daily life, itself. Learning happens naturally by imitation and individual instruction. The evenings were filled with story-telling and dance that conveyed the inner life of the band to the next generation.

Education among the early farmers and herders could not have been much different. But as society became more complex, and arts and crafts proliferated, and especially with the advent of reading and writing, the ability of parents to educate their children was outstripped if the children wanted to learn these more specialized skills. So apprenticeships and scribal schools grew up. And the world began to be divided between the educated and the uneducated in a way that had never existed before. Eventually parents saw it as a goal to have their children educated in ways they were not, and were willing to expend their time, energy and money so their children could go to school.

This process only accelerated as we become a scientific society. We now have educated elites with increasingly rarefied specialties, and parents worry whether their child can get accepted at the more prestigious primary schools, or even preschools, so they can begin their long ascent up the school ladder.

Work among the hunter-gatherers was simply living life, itself. It was the direct pursuit of food, and water, shelter, ornaments, and whatever else was needed or desired. If I had what I needed or desired, then I could sit and talk with my friends, or sleep, or play or sing. Unemployment was unthinkable. Life was all around me to be lived.

With the early farmers and herders it must have been much the same. There was always work to do. But as society became more complex, and people were separated from the earth and its bounty, people became more manipulatable. We then have the long sorry spectacle of sharecroppers working for landlords, or the farmers working for the bank, or children toiling away in mines and factories.

What is the common denominator? Once we lose our living contact with the earth and its fruits, we are less in control of our lives. Others often step between us and the earth and dictate what we should do. Our lives, under the guise of being bettered, are fragmented and taken out of our own hands. The homes of our ancestors, sometimes crude and harsh, sometimes simple, beautiful and elegant, yield to our purchased houses built by other hands that we must pay for for long stretches of our lives. We have traded access to earth and our skills to live in close relationship to it for the housing problem, and the school problem and the unemployment problem. But the root of these problems is not having our lives in our own hands. These problems are the direct result of the institutionalization of life. As a society we hinder people from their connatural activities of feeding and sheltering themselves, and then discover we are faced with problems which we can’t seem to solve.

In government we see the same pattern. Among the hunter-gatherers it is minimal and consensual. Each person has his or her own say. Whatever government is needed is the work of the group. But as society grows away from these roots, governmental structures evolve and become institutionalized. We end up with the chief, or the lord, or the king, who acts like he or she has a divine right to rule over others. Even today when we have an elected president, this person is so separated from the people by party and politics and the sheer size of the governed body, that he or she sits in an office somewhere and makes decisions for millions of people who have no effective say in the matter.

The trajectory is clear. We have created larger and larger social structures that have alienated us from our most fundamental needs and desires. This process is not inevitable. It is not intrinsically related to our genuine growth, or even to our advance in science and technology. It has come about in part because as a society we have never really thought about it.

The biggest mistake we can make at this point is to imagine that all this is about a return to the world of small farmers and herders, or even to that of the hunter-gatherers. There is no going back, because even if we could do it physically, we cannot do it psychologically. We need to go forward and take the fourth step. Then education, for example, is not seen as ever more quantities of information, which we must organize and retrieve and manipulate more skillfully. Information is not knowledge. We need to decide what is worth knowing, what goals knowledge is to serve. We do not need to be constantly told by others what these goals are, for we are capable of figuring this out ourselves. Education has to come out of the schools and be centered in our minds and hearts.

We are literally facing a choice that could determine the fate of the earth. We can continue with our mindless step three industrialization of the world, and our institutionalization of society. But this leads in the direction of the destruction of nature, and the dulling of the human spirit. But there is another choice in which we reflect on our human institutions, and even more fundamentally still, ask ourselves about the meaning of human existence. The fourth step is going to be different from the others, not only in content, but in how it comes about. It cannot just happen. It demands our conscious decisions and our interior efforts to come to a new vision. We need to see where we have been and decide where we want to go. What was good and is still good in the lives of the hunter-gatherers and the small farmers and herders? What is good in the world we have today?

If we look at the same matter from the inside, we can see how our egos have slowly emerged from the unconscious, but we have allowed the process to go too far. We have become separated from the life-giving energies of the unconscious and nature, herself. The ego and the unconscious must come together to create a new wholeness, and this is a process that we must enter into freely and consciously.

Our consumerism, and our idolization of those who have amassed great heaps of possessions is but a sign of our lack of development. We are still glorying in our ability to have things. Past generations worked very hard so we could have the things they didn’t. They moved from the small farms and villages to the city so we could go to school and become white collar workers, and have modern appliances in their kitchens and indoor plumbing. They wanted us to be able to eat meat and sliced white bread and have a cleaning lady come in, and join the country club. They wanted us to start a business in the garage and end up running a giant corporation. In short, they wanted us to have a better material life. But we have carried their aspirations to excess. We consume beyond all reason and proportion simply because we can, and we don’t know what else to do. We have arrived at the goals our parents set, but we have no goals of our own, so we keep on going, piling thing upon thing, with each new thing giving us less satisfaction.

What we need is a new set of goals that would embrace a return to the earth, and a voluntary simplicity. We need to embrace nature with our hearts and hands and turn our time and energy to the pursuit of more satisfying and fulfilling ends.

 

The Dream of the Fourth Step

The dream starts with the earth. We have to go back to the earth, whether it is forest or plains, mountains or jungle, a river bank or desert. We need to go there and watch how the sun arcs through the sky, and how the prevailing winds blow. We need to reacquaint ourselves with the plants and animals that live there. Then we can begin to imagine what it would be like to build a home and live there, a home that would emerge naturally from the place and use its earth and stone and wood and fiber.

The fourth step is a step into the future in which we bring with us the best of the three preceding steps. From the world of the hunter-gatherers we bring their direct contact with nature and their intimate knowledge of it. This must be a nature that in some way still exists on its own terms, and not just on ours. It can’t be totally confined and domesticated. It needs to be free and wild, and not completely subjected to our norms of what is useful.

From the second step comes a love of a particular piece of land and its careful cultivation where we lovingly tend it to make it bear fruit. We coax nature to express itself in new, yet harmonious ways with orchards and gardens, and fields and flowers.

From the third step we take science and technology as an expression of amazing human inventiveness and ingenuity, but now serving more worthy goals than consumption at any price: renewable sources of energy, non-polluting forms of transportation, better thermal glazing, and so forth.

In this fourth step we take the best of the past and put it into a new context. If before the evolution of our social structures was something that more or less just happened to us, now we need to choose the kind of world that we want to live in. We need to freely choose to deinstitutionalize our lives, and take personal charge of them again. We need to live in contact with the earth in our own homes free of the constant economic burden of continually paying for them. And within this setting we need to bring forth the riches that are within us.

Is this a complete fantasy? I don’t think so. It would take no more effort than what we are doing now, and would be much more satisfying. How can we afford to do this? How can we not? Presently a large portion of the earth’s resources are wasted or misallocated. The way the world is right now is not the way it has to be. What would it take to live out this dream? The material things are actually quite simple: some land, a home we build starting with the natural building materials that are in the area, water from a well or spring, or a cistern or pond, some space for a garden or a little greenhouse, some solar panels or another renewable source of energy.

But the non-material obstacles for realizing such a dream are daunting. We need freedom from the myriad of social structures and their rules and regulations that impede these kinds of dreams. But these obstacles are compounded by our social conditioning that reaches into our minds and hearts, and tells us about the large homes we really need, the large pieces of land we ought to own, even if we have no use for them, and the consumer lifestyle that is supposed to make our lives worthwhile because of what we have, and how we do not have the ability to do for ourselves.

To live simply is to be able to put down these kinds of social and interior burdens, and to ask ourselves just what we want to do with our lives. Do we really believe that we should run about, amassing more and more things as if this is the highest goal imaginable? Do we really believe in money as if it confers some personal value on us? Such an outlook not only deprives others from what they need, it prevents us from fulfilling our genuine dreams.

Life is much more than this kind of mindless accumulation. It is to give us time to spend with our family and friends. It is to allow us to work with our head and heart and hands. It is to express our creative energy and to enjoy the beauty of the earth. But just who is going to take this step? The most likely candidates are people who are already enjoying the benefits of the third step. Instead of striving for ever more things, they are the ones who can say "enough," and set the example that the world needs.

The fourth step looks different depending on

where I am standing. If I am one of the few hunter-gatherers left, then I am thinking of physical and cultural survival. Under the onslaught of the dominant culture, the world of nature that I live in is disappearing and the new world for me often leads to cultural disintegration and loss of soul. If I do think about another way, it can take the form of a dream of an escape to pristine nature far away from the modern world. Unfortunately, that is hard to come by.

If I live in the second step I still have a lot of company, but my lifestyle is under great pressure to change to the modern world of step three which has stretched its tentacles into the farthest reaches of the globe. If I stay in my village, I can be made to feel that I am a backward second class citizen. If I go to the city, then sometimes, despite my poverty and its crowding and pollution, I see this new world in the glow of the light of opportunity. Instead of herding goats and barely having enough to eat, I am driving a taxi or selling shoes. If I can do this, just think of what my children can do after they have gone to school. The dreams I have are the dreams of making it in the third step. But I pay a high price for this dream.

If I started in the third step, then I am often spending my time, energy and money to make my way up to the higher rungs of step three, to the better jobs, the bigger house and the new car, and the portfolio of investments. Talk of another step can feel like a personal criticism of my goals and values.

But one day I arrive at a moment when I look around me and wonder if the life that I am leading actually makes sense. I have many of the things of the third step that are supposed to make up the good life, but is my life really good? It is then that the fourth step can begin to appear when I voluntarily begin to simplify my life, or alter my work habits to spend more time with my family, or serving the community, or look to the neglected parts of my own life. The fourth step begins to come out when I feel an inner sense of loss when I hear or see nature being wantonly being destroyed or people suffering under economic or political tyranny so a few can indulge their inordinate desires for wealth and power.

 

The State of our Minds and Hearts

As more and more people reach the top of step three, the need to discover the next step becomes more pressing. If we don’t, then all that energy will go into the creation of ever more ego aggrandizement as if somehow more money, more power, more sex, and more fame will make us really real. It will not. It will only drive us to greater paroxysms of self-indulgence in the midst of a world filled with people in genuine need. Ego inflation leads to unbalance, and eventually self-destructive behavior because we can’t figure out how it is that we can have so much of what the world considers important and still be unhappy.

We have abundant information about the state of the world: the destruction of our forests and fisheries, global warming, the extinction of species, resource depletion, and so forth, but we also have a great deal of information about how to create alternatives less harmful to the earth and ourselves. The Resource Guide that follows provides some examples of this.

But our ability to change is hindered by the very institutions we have created to help us. Having grown in size and complexity, they sweep us along in directions we would rather not go, and induce in us a feeling of helplessness. Therefore, our first task, if we are to advance to the fourth step, must be a radical questioning of these institutions and how well they are doing their jobs. Hand-in-hand with this questioning must go wide-spread experimentation in creating genuine alternatives.

But as immense as these challenges are, there are even greater ones. The transformation of our social structures depends, in final analysis, on the transformation of ourselves. The state of the world reflects the state of our minds and hearts. A radical process of deinstitutionalization is extremely important because without it people, driven by their inordinate desires, will seize the helms of our giant institutions and create havoc. To counteract this age-old phenomenon we need to shake off our social conditioning and reduce and restructure our institutions so that they are again centered around individuals. But in final analysis we will not be able to do this without the transformation of our minds and hearts. We live in a world which is constantly magnifying egotism, an egotism driven by the passions for money, power, sex and fame. The ongoing work of personal transformation is to wean us from worshipping at those altars and give us the clarity necessary to live by higher values. There are many paths leading to this kind of transformation: from selfless serving of the people around us, to meditation and contemplation. These paths lead to a deeper understanding of the meaning of life which, in turn, allows us to create better ways of living.

What would life in the fourth step look like? What is at the heart of the fourth step, and how do we actually take it? It is a new way of seeing. This seeing begins when we look at the institutions that dominate our lives, no matter how big and powerful and pervasive they are, and we stop accepting that since this is the way things are, this is the way things have to be. Instead, we ask the question of whether they are really doing the jobs they were created for, and to the degree that they are not, we liberate ourselves from them and begin to use our minds and hearts and hands to create better alternatives.

See also:

The Treasures of Simple Living

and

A Guide to Valuable Resources, Important Information, and Exotic Tidbits

and

Readers' Reactions to Radical Simplicity

 

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