One of the reasons I stopped blogging on a regular basis was that I felt that the original premise of this blog, which was to make a radical experiment out of my life, had somehow gotten completely lost amidst the recipes and photos and dog stories. All those things are lovely, but what I set out to do when I moved here was to take a stand against the soul-less mall-and-freeway culture of larger America, to escape the housing developments eating up the hillsides of the Bay Area, and to find a place where I could live as self-sufficiently as possible, where I could cut my carbon impact to the minimum, and where I could build a life entwined in community. All of that got lost in the internet tsunami that became “lifestyle blogging.”
My itchiness about this issue came to a head a few months ago when I was approached to write for a new online Montana food and travel publication. It was very lifestyle-y. I was horrified. It seemed to me to be all about selling Montana, selling an idealized Montana, which appeared to be a state populated by young white pretty people making the kind of artisinal products that have come to represent what? The hipster ideal?
But my horror made me feel like a snob. Why was this so bad? People are just trying to make a living in a place they love and where jobs are scarce on the ground (something my long-distance high tech job frees me from). And yet, it all seemed so staged. There’s a substantial class divide in Montana, with plenty of people who move here with the means to start little, specialized businesses that won’t support them. Every town has one of those stores, that are so artfully appointed, and contain 15 carefully curated objects, and which can’t possibly support the person running it. One grows tired of the pretense that this is authentic, or artisanal or that it has some kind of meaning other than the horrific hollow ring of “aspirational” marketing.
It was the opposite of what I thought I’d been up to in this space for all those years. If that was what writing about living small had become, then I couldn’t continue, wouldn’t continue. I wasn’t in this for the Instagram shots, I’d been trying, this past decade or so (especially since Patrick died) to dig myself into a place, to build a garden and a community and a way of living that can sustain a person, and especially that can sustain a person through hard times.
And so, I’ve went back to the sources. Back to my foundational texts, — Gary Snyder, Wendell Berry, Joan Grussow, Thoreau. I’ve also been catching up with environmental thinkers who have been working in the 15 years since I left academia.
In particular, I’ve been immersed in Distant Neighbors: The Selected Letters of Wendell Berry and Gary Snyder. They are radicals, both of them, artists whose lives have been dedicated not only to their own works, but to the larger project of changing the way we think about the world.
Their correspondence begins while Berry was working on “my farming book” (Unsettling of America) and continues through to the present day. The letters are marvelous in the same way that I love the letters of Hannah Arendt and Mary McCarthy collected in Between Friends — they cover the whole range of friendship, from personal matters (Snyder’s letter to Berry explaining that he and Masa were splitting up is heartbreakingly tender), to critiques of one another’s work, to that most wonderful of all shared intellectual tasks, thinking through complicated ideas about the nature of the world.
They didn’t just retire to their farms to pose for the New York Times magazine artfully holding pitchforks. They took a stand. They are each opposed to the rapacious form of capitalism that is currently eating us alive, and they wrote and managed their land and worked with other like-minded folks to try to do what they could to bump that ravening machine off course.
And so, now it seems time that I reclaim the radical portion of this experiment. The part that wasn’t just about buying an old house and fixing it up, but that was about living within my means as an act of rebellion against a society that relies on consumer debt as fuel, about paying off my house and my student loan debts, about buying my freedom by getting off the wheel of consumerism, and then doing something with that freedom.