American essayist Norman Cousins wrote: “Death is not the greatest loss in life. The greatest loss is what dies inside us while we live.”
Personally, I’ve never been content sitting still, surviving for survival’s sake. Evidence is found in the roller coaster of my academic career, which was marked by significant change every few years. My scholarship, teaching, and service were characterized by unpredictable, nonlinear, seemingly chaotic swings from one topic to another. The adventure of new experiences always trumped the security of the bricks-on-a-pile approach revered in the ivory tower. A primary point I made in every course I taught: It’s always more difficult to do the right thing than to do the wrong thing. In fact, you can usually tell the right direction simply by the difficulty of the choices you face.
For working outside the mainstream in a dysfunctional system, I paid in expected ways, including financial. But I benefited in ways I could not expect and cannot fully describe. A rich life comes from taking risks, and the risks range from physical to emotional. I’ve had a rich life.
Most recently, I’ve thrown my heart, soul, and every last dime into the mud hut. I suspect it’s the consummate lifeboat, and it illustrates how improperly talented but thoughtful people, working together, can develop a durable set of living arrangements. And in the desert, no less. If we can make it work here, I suspect it can work just about any habitable place on this blue dot.
The response from the masses: I’m insane. I suppose this should have been expected from a culture characterized by sheer insanity. As with nearly everybody in this culture, I was born into captivity (hat tip to my friend Tim Bennett for the perfect descriptor). I spent most of my life in the zoo that is contemporary culture, drinking and feeding at the troughs of indulgence and denial and playing with toys that substitute for reality (albeit poorly). To a great extent, I’m still in the zoo, still immersed in the culture of make believe.
I’m attempting to pursue, and encourage, agrarian anarchy in this small valley. We’re at the edge of empire, but we’re still part of the American Empire. David Graeber explains the general idea in his analysis of the Occupy movement:
The easiest way to explain anarchism is to say that it is a political movement that aims to bring about a genuinely free society — that is, one where humans only enter those kinds of relations with one another that would not have to be enforced by the constant threat of violence. History has shown that vast inequalities of wealth, institutions like slavery, debt peonage or wage labour, can only exist if backed up by armies, prisons, and police. Anarchists wish to see human relations that would not have to be backed up by armies, prisons and police. Anarchism envisions a society based on equality and solidarity, which could exist solely on the free consent of participants.
Graeber’s description offers a worthy ideal for civil society. Serious pursuit of this ideal would go a long way toward allowing us to regain our humanity. Whether is goes far enough depends on the human. I’m wondering if living on the edge is good enough for me, whether instead I should leap from the edge into the abyss.
There is another challenge, perhaps as great and certainly as important as the one I’ve undertaken here at the mud hut: making it work on the road, thus engendering full expression of the human animal. Imagine a minimalist approach to the road and to the wilds surrounding the road. Imagine the exhilaration of abandoning a lifeboat to swim in frigid, shark-filled waters. Imagine the wonder of full immersion into the world, surrounded by every element of the human condition and every element of nature.
Ultimately, barring our own near-term extinction, full immersion into the world is exactly where we’re headed. I could show the way, as I’ve shown the way by exiting empire. And although I suspect the number of followers would be similarly disappointing, I would be taking this step for myself, not for others, as is the case now.
Nature calls. She calls all of us, though most of us have managed to plug our ears to her siren song. For a few, though, the temptation is supreme from the ultimate temptress. She’s kind, playful, passionate, courageous, strong, and whimsical. Can I pursue her? Can I capture her spirit, as she has captured my heart? Can I find the human animal within me before I breathe my last breath? Nature, as always, is amorally indifferent to my (therefore unrequited) love. But touching her and, more importantly, having her touch me, seems a one-way street: Once ensconced in her embrace, there’s no going back.
At this point in the age of industry, perhaps any attempt to venture into the wild is pure fantasy. Culture certainly suggests as much, while indicating that a step away from my current living arrangements is one large step on the short path to a bygone era. Bygone for a reason, says culture: There’s no going back to nature. That’s just crazy talk.
Last month, commenting on my new love, I wrote, “Nature provides all I need, and all I’ve ever needed.” If I believe myself, shouldn’t I attempt to prove it? Or, to put the scientific spin on it, shouldn’t I attempt to disprove it?
Can I find my way into a world that is brave and new and as old as humanity? More importantly, should I?
Taking this step will almost certainly shorten my life. As I’ve pointed out many times in this space, (1) birth is lethal and (2) some things are worth dying for. Whereas I’ve no intention of becoming yet another starry-eyed Messiah destined for a violent farewell, neither am I interested in a sedate, risk-free life. Like most people, I’m trying to find the line Cousins inferred, the line between living outside — in the world — and dying inside. And, of course, doing the right thing, regardless of the inherent risks and challenges.
Next-day update: A new ad has been posted in the CLASSIFIEDS section (click the tab above, or here).
This essay is permalinked at Island Breath.