CHAPTER 10: THE REAL WORLD
"When are you going to stop all this nonsense and come back to the real world?" asked a friend. This is our ninth winter in the forest and we feel less inclination than ever to return to the way we lived before, and I wonder if we could even if we wanted to. Living in the forest has changed us, and the very way we perceive and react to the world around us has altered. For a while we imagined we could go back to the city whenever we wanted to, and it took several extended trips to shatter that myth. It was good to see our friends and relatives, but we had underestimated the subtle but deep changes that had taken place.
In the forest, for example, it was as if our ears had gradually become unplugged. They had become attuned to gentle sounds against a deep cushion of silence. There was the low sigh of the winds in the pines, the birds singing in the morning, the distant whistle of a train. The loudest sounds were an occasional plane overhead or us talking and laughing. But when we arrived in the city we were inundated by noise: a constant barrage of screeches, bangs and babble. At night when we tried to sleep there was the incessant click and whir of motors, compressors, blowers, and the omnipresent sound of vehicles.
Then there was light. At home the only artificial light was our propane lamps. There were no other house lights or street lights or vehicle lights. We would make mock complaints when the brilliance of full moon would burst through our windows, and on countless nights the stars would remind us of our childhood trips to the planetarium. It amused us to hear stories of people encountering real darkness for the first time, that darkness in which you literally cannot see your hand in front of your face. That was a darkness that had become a frequent visitor. But in town there were always lights glaring, flashing and blinking. We could no longer look out the window to see if dawn had come, and the night sky had dwindled to a pale image of its true splendor.
But these changes went deeper than the senses. Paradoxically, the further we had moved from town the more people mattered. In the forest to meet a friend on the road is an occasion. Everyone jumps out of their vehicles and visits. We find the people in the local area are particularly friendly and accessible. A trip to town for the mail can turn into a social occasion. We run into friends and we visit in front of the local café. We have dropped our old city habits in which it was normal not to know the people who surrounded us. When we go to the city we see more clearly than ever the invisible shields that used to envelop us there and which we erected to protect our little bit of territory from the intrusion of potentially dangerous strangers, but which also had the effect of cutting us off from our neighbors. We knew those shields were gone when, despite the fact that Jim had grown up in New York City, a stranger, after having watched the family on the subway, came up to us and said, "Youre not from around here, are you?"
We have become strangers to the very world we grew up in, and it can be painful. We are like molting crabs who have lost their hard shells. We cant stop all the impressions that pour in upon us when we go to the city. Since we have constantly questioned our own life we are compelled to question what we see there.
When I see a normal tract home in suburbia I cant be peacefully oblivious. Building our own house has opened our eyes. The suburban homes are built from the contractors point of view rather than from the owner-builders. They are too close together, sited with disregard for the sun, often poorly insulated, hard to repair, and much too expensive. But perhaps what strikes me most is how everything is so carefully delineated. Everything is in its place: houses in neat rows, trimmed lawns, sidewalks and sewers. There is nothing left to do but decide the color of the walls and pay for it all. The last corners of wildness have been routed out and an assault is made on the dandelions in the lawn. Its like a stage set waiting for the play to go on, but so much of what should be the real play of life has either been done by someone else or must be done elsewhere. There are no houses to build, food to grow, wood to chop or businesses to run.
We click on the lights, turn on the faucets, flush the toilet, flick on the TV, but in a few minutes the novelty has gone. None of it seems worth working for 20 or 30 years at a job we would rather not do. In our minds eye we can see our forest utilities: the solar panel and our small amount of electricity, the compost pile in the garden, and our pool of water and I cant help tracing these bigger and fancier utilities here in town. Does the light bulb lead to a nuclear power plant where human beings can never make a mistake? Does the flush toilet go to a multi-million dollar sewage treatment plant that still cant cope with all the pollution? Then, instead of going to my root cellar with its sacks of wheat and soybeans, I go to the supermarket, but with all its rows of gleaming packages its not that easy to find something that fits my rule of tastes better, is better for you and costs less. There are 50 feet of soda pop and another 50 of cookies and candy; there are chickens who never chased a bug, but were fed antibiotics instead.
But what bothers me most about this real world is how obsessed with money it is. Many individuals are not, but the world in general is. We are constantly being made to feel that we should applaud the big money makers with their billion dollar mergers, buy-backs, green-mailing, and computer playing of the stock market. The whole structure of our society is twisted out of shape so that a few can amass more money than they can possibly use to prove that they are somehow really somebody. Money has stopped meaning food, shelter and fuel and has become an end in itself. There are too many manipulators and speculators who produce nothing and impoverish many. Houses, food, clothing, schools and cars all become status symbols. Money becomes the meaning in life. It dazzles good minds with visions of a quick buck, as if that money is not coming out of someones pocket. When the rich man dies, does it matter how much he had, or whether he spent a million dollars on a painting and gave it to a museum?
And the obsession with money wastes time. College becomes a ticket to a good job and not a way to become truly educated. Time is gobbled up amassing money that is wasted on silly gadgets and pointless amusements. Time is one of the most precious things in life. We simply cant make any more of it. We cant expect to start living once we have security. There is no perfect fool-proof security except the moments we have already spent well. Time can give us the chance to search for an answer of what we are really about, and the answer cant be found in that real world dominated by money, but has to be searched for in the direction of reestablishing our connection with nature and with higher values.
What is the real world, then? Is it a place where every change has to be called progress, where good solutions have gone bad and we spend our time patching a failing system because its foundations are faulty? I see the real world in another way.
CHAPTER 11: SIMPLICITY'S GIFTS
People are curious about our life in the forest, friends bring friends, and one or two would even like to copy the way we live. But most come, look at our house and greenhouse with its inner room made from rough-sawn lumber and silently give thanks that they dont have to live like us. They dutifully "ooh" and "aah" at what we have done, but our basic systems frankly shock them, and any wisp of a dream to return to nature usually evaporates once they see how we are living out that dream in the concrete. To contemplate an escape from the city and overwhelming responsibilities, to consider making a radical change in lifestyle, to break away and dare to be different all bring a wealth of fantasies. But when they see what we have done they cant help but be disappointed because it looks so ordinary. Perhaps they thought they would see a passive solar house like the ones showcased in fancy home magazines, or that our bioshelter, because it does so many things for us, would somehow look special. But our buildings are really simple.
"If my wife had to live here she would feel worthless," one person said. People find themselves struggling with the way they think houses should be and what we have actually created. They have unconsciously accepted the economic hierarchy of our society. If you live in a cheap apartment you look forward to living in a fancier one. Once you get there, a small house would be a welcome relief from neighbors living on the other side of your wall. Then comes an inexpensive house in a better neighborhood, and so on up the economic scale. They tend to identify who they are with how they live. They value themselves more when they improve their living situation, and others automatically tend to value them more, too, without giving it conscious thought.
But our simplicity does not fit into this invisible value system. How can we stand it? How can we be unhookable to societys systems, both physically and socially, and still be happy? Where are the tangible signs of our worth? In short, just why are we doing this? Good questions.
At first economics seems the logical place to look for an answer. One dollar from that real world our friends talk about is transformed into 4 or 5 dollars out here. And thats a nice sort of magic. On an income where we have to look up to see the poverty line we are far better off than many people with larger incomes. We have a modest food budget, a minuscule fuel bill and no rent. But this kind of economics works best when our hearts are set on something else.
Think of it this way. A precious jewel needs a setting. The jewel with its many facets is our inner work of psychological, intellectual and spiritual growth, and simplicity is its setting.Time Warps
"Dont you use kerosene lights?" When I looked puzzled, the questioner elucidated: "Well, arent you trying to live in the 19th century?" No, were not, and we couldnt go back even if we wanted to. Not far from here archeologists found a 9,000-year-old sandal in a cave, but life as the owner knew it is gone forever. The endless herds have disappeared, and the wild edibles are uprooted and paved over.
One day a friend took some tools made from deer antlers and fashioned an arrow head of clear volcanic glass streaked with swirls of black that was so beautiful that it was really a work of art. If only we could recapture the past as easily, not to live in it, but to undo our mistakes. When the white man came to this country he found the Indians living in their earth lodges during the winter, hunting in the marshes that teemed with wild life, fishing the lakes and streams, and harvesting the roots of the epos and the seeds of the lambs-quarter and the wocus, the pond lily of the marshes. It was a life that had endured through the forgotten ages.
But the white man was not impressed. He brushed it all aside, for he was convinced of his own superiority. He wanted to tame these lands and civilize its people by making them over in his own image. And the Indians could not resist long enough or hard enough. There were too many of these strangers and they were too powerful. And their power resided not only in their guns but in their minds which could see nature from the outside, analyze it, and make it serve their needs. Was this newcomer blessed by the gods? Should the old allegiance to the mother earth be given to the white father and his wagons of flour?
Too late did the Indians see the poverty of soul that often lurked behind the white mans strength. The very ability the white man had to master to earth tempted him to lose contact with it. Then he wanted to own it, tear its riches from it, driven by demons of desire that were never satisfied.
The old ways crumbled. The earth lodges gave way to drafty board buildings. The wild plants went unpicked, and no money could make up for the loss of the land that had fed the spirit as well as the body. The language, culture, and very soul of the people began to die out. This was a tragedy for white man as well as red. Each had a gift the other needed. Science and technology could have made the life of the Indian better, but unrooted from the earth they have brought us all to the brink of disaster, and it was contact with the earth and its ways that the Indians possessed.
I dream sometimes of another future, of a past remade. In it the earth lodge would have slowly progressed and become an earth-sheltered bioshelter. The epos, lambs-quarter and wocus would have become the elements of a sustainable perennial agriculture. Is it really too late to try again?
The old earth is gone. But there is an even more important reason for not being able to go back. Our very way of looking at ourselves and the earth we live on is radically different from the way the ancient peoples perceived themselves and their place in nature. They were part of their mother earth and their whole existence was bound up in her. Their food and shelter were her gifts. She and they were one, and that union was unreflective.
But we have traveled far in the opposite direction. We see ourselves as separate from the earth. We have learned sophisticated techniques of taking, using and manipulating its riches, but in our haste for personal comfort and wealth we have forgotten the more important fact of all: we, too, are of the earth. We have forgotten our roots and dont even consider them important enough to include in our equations. Or didnt. But now we are beginning to see not only the benefits, but the ever-growing price of our progress: smog, polluted water, stripped forests and jungles, lost topsoil, nuclear wastes, the erosion of the very ozone layer that protects us from harmful rays of the sun, and even the threat of a nuclear holocaust.
No one could see what would happen when we first started the Industrial Revolution. No one ever considered that having electricity could be a problem; no one questioned our rising standard of living, and our successes encouraged ever-greater advances. But our systems that we once thought so marvelous are not viable on a long-term basis. But what are we going to do? We cant go back to that unreflective oneness with nature that our ancestors enjoyed, but we are at a crucial point in history where we all have to try to discover our own way of relating to the earth if we are to survive. White men came to this area a little over 100 years ago. That leaves him 8,900 years to go in order to catch up to the sandal-wearers people. Will we make it?
Once we drove deep into the mountains in Baja California to an isolated rancho. A middle-aged couple greeted us warmly, and delighted in showing us their orange grove, the spring that nourished the rancho, and their small herd of cattle.
And then their teen-age son drove up in the old family pick-up. He was going to school in La Paz and he was anxious to get on with life. Did he want to return to the rancho? No. Why? Because he wanted Education, Adventure, Culture and Opportunity. And those things were not present in the slow, natural rhythms of the rancho. I looked around that beautiful place again, and I was sad when I considered its future. What would happen to it if the young people abandoned it for the enticements of modern life?
But then I realized that what is happening now in Mexico had happened 50 years ago in the United States. That teen-age boy couldnt wait to have all the advantages he thinks Americans have, but what he couldnt see were the problems that went with them, not only in damage to our earth, but harm to the very structure of the family. The love of the land that ran so deeply in the veins of his parents was too unsophisticated for their son, and he could not see the treasures right in front of his eyes. But he is making a mistake, just as we all have. We must have nature and culture, and it is achieved by an inner work as much or more than any outer situation.The Psyche and the Simple Life
C.G. Jung, the famous Swiss psychologist, bought a piece of rural land on the edge of Lake Zurich and built a tower for himself out of stone. In the middle of a successful career he would leave the city, chop wood, start up a fire and cook a simple meal. Why? Because to be modern was not enough. He needed to return to the basic elements of life, and by "going back," by leaving technological sophistication behind for a while, by becoming a friend of the simple life, he became friends with quieter, more subtle, whispered melodies and harmonies. In letting civilization loosen its physical hold on him he found that its mental chains would fall away as well. By walking in the woods and stoking the fire while he listened to the wind whistle around his tower, by gazing at the stars and hearing animals scurry about he felt a new peace with himself, and he did some of his most important work there, as well. To go to his tower became a special time for him where he could enjoy simple pleasures, and it was an excellent opportunity for deep conversations and new discoveries. His tower grew over the years as an expression of his inner voyage towards wholeness that embodied both nature and psyche.
Jungs work meant a lot to us even before we moved to the forest. It had helped us understand each other and weather the stresses and strains of trying to carve out a new life. It eventually let us see a deeper meaning to what we were doing. We were not simply working with wood, fire, soil and water. We were working on ourselves, as well. Even the buildings we made have a symbolic dimension. Without us consciously intending it, like Jungs tower, they have grown as an expression of this inner work. The first house, perched near the top of the hill, is lightly touching the ground. It is nestled in the trees and affords us a view of the distant mountains. It represents our conscious desire that wants to get in touch with our roots, but comfortably and without a lot of physical labor.
But as soon as it was done, new desires welled up. We saw there was much further down to go. We had been further from the earth than we realized. The bioshelter is built right in the ground with logs and rough lumber. It has rich soil, plants, water and stores of food. But it is also cruder, less under our control and more difficult to manage. We cannot dominate nature but must come to a new relationship with it.
Today the top house, for that is what we call it, is full of books, music and art. We live there and study and write. But the down house is vital to our well-being. We need them both.Mindfulness
Not only were we more comfortable both economically and physically in the forest, not only did we grow in psychological awareness through our ups and downs, but we now had time for more important matters. The manzanita bush in bloom, the deep blue sky behind the vibrant green of the forest, the chunk of wood to be thrown into the fire, all take on a meaning of their own. They are real. A song from a bird high in a tree, the ripples on our pool, the sighing of the wind in the pines all try to speak to us. I think of Zen and a humble tea house with its grass mats, tiny fire and whistling kettle and of a simplicity that cannot be purchased, but must simply be enjoyed. Each spring new buds pushing forth, each summer delicate butterflies, each fall a carpet of pine needles and each winter a road jewel- strewn with hoarfrost. A coyote howls in the distance and we listen. Rain drops on the pool and we watch. Food cooks on the stove and we eat. Wood burns in the fire and we feel the heat. Simple. A child smiles, someone gets a hug, a song is sung, a walk is taken, darkness falls, the moon shines brightly. It is harder to be simple than it is to be sophisticated. We know what it is all about, but a hummingbird taps at the window. We keep our accounts in order, we plan out our days and months, but a rabbit freezes at our approach. We build our buildings, we plan our future, and a deer tiptoes through the brush. We have it all under control, we know where we are going, and a shrew bumps into my foot. We have answered all our questions and a crow laughs at dawn.Spirit
In the heart of this special simplicity I glimpse a child born in a stable. A man walks the dusty roads of Judea who had nowhere to lay his head. A man dies in pain. Then his friends meet him on the shores of the Sea of Galilee grilling fish over a charcoal fire, and they dare not ask him who he is, for they know he is the Lord.
The Catholicism of my childhood comes alive. Can it be true, really true, for me? The silence answers yes. I see a man in a tattered robe wandering in the woods, preaching to the birds and singing to Sister Sun and Brother Moon. I see monasteries refinding the simplicity of the early hermits and anchorites and the tiny communities that perched on mountain sides or in deserts. Brothers and sisters in the gardens and in simple dwellings gather to sing and praise the Lord.
I see the crystal brightness of the stars in the cold clear winter sky, and they invite me to turn within and find that God Who is all about me if I could only see.
CHAPTER 12: A DREAM
FOR THE FUTURE:
Treasures, Part III