“How can a man hope to promote peace in the world if he has not made it possible in his own life and his own household?” —Wendell Berry, The Long-Legged House
In the concluding paragraph of our recent volume on “Becoming Instafamous,” we argued that “even in our age of abstraction, the need for moral exemplars remains.” Amidst the fragmentation and turbulence of our current social order, the search for exemplars—individuals and communities upon which to model our lives—becomes all the more necessary and urgent.
This week we bring you three pieces that participate in this search for exemplars, each representing variations on a particular theme: the way place can delimit and order our pursuit of the good life.
The first is an interview with Mark Sundeen, author of the recent (and really delightful) book The Unsettlers: In Search of the Good Life in Today’s America. As Sundeen explains in a brief conversation with WBUR, The Unsettlers tells the stories of three contemporary households that have dropped off the grid (both literally and metaphorically) to pursue the abundance of a life lived within the limits imposed by the natural order. From the founder of the Possibility Alliance in northern Missouri who has vowed never to set foot in a car again, to the mixed-race couple running a self-sustaining farm amidst the urban decay of contemporary Detroit, to the Montana couple whose resistance to the modern debt economy led them to raise their first child in a teepee on their organic farm, Sundeen gives voice to a set of imaginative off-ramps from the modern economic order.
And he does so as an interested party. In the first line of the first chapter, Sundeen tells us he was “looking for people freed from commercial civilization”—not merely to narrate their stories, but in order to find “direction for doing it myself.” Newly engaged to be married, looking to build a household of his own, and dissatisfied with the waste, meaninglessness, and tedium of modern work, Sundeen’s opening soliloquy captures one aspect of our collective restlessness well:
My aversion to getting a regular job was not the result of being lazy—although sometimes I am. Nor was it that I simply don’t like being told what to do—although I don’t. What I have never been able to tolerate is the prospect that my few years on earth will be frittered away filling out the form to verify that I filled out the previous form, or worse, toiling in the service of some enterprise that perpetuates the things I hate: war, corporate bullying, bureaucratic hoop-jumping, plunder of nature, and more hours tethered to electronic screens. I was willing to work, but I wanted my work to matter—to repair land and cities, to cultivate peace and justice. I wanted not the frazzled anxiety that follows eight hours of chair-bound button-pushing, but the bodily satisfaction employing hands, legs, and lungs in concert with the mind. I often felt helpless at the state of the world—climate change, racism, species extinction, poverty, war—and I wanted ways to address these things with my very life, to live in a way that was not just ethical but joyful.
In choosing his subjects, Sundeen avoided solitary hermits, temporary or part-time adventurers, and members of traditional religious communities (like the Amish). The stories he shares are about families who, after coming to see modern life as wasteful, meaningless, and cruel, have sustained alternative forms of life consistent with their values over a long period of time. What these households have in common, Sundeen tells us, is ironically “not what they’ve quit but what they’ve gained.” “They find true joy in their work,” he says. “They aren’t just suffering and renouncing. By living within limits, they find the sort of abundance that so many of us long for. And after that, the need for money and cars and big homes just seems to fall away.
Our second piece is a brief interview with James Rebanks, author of a fantastic memoir called The Shepherd’s Life: Modern Dispatches from an Ancient Landscape. Rebanks’ account of the social practices, forms of language, work ethic, family structures, and, crucially, legal structures that shape the lives of shepherds in England’s Lake District is interesting in its own right. But the main work of his memoir is to demystify the illusion of choice by describing the limits he lives within. He makes choices, certainly, but these choices are constrained by the very topography of the lakes and fells, and by the responsibility he feels to carry on a traditional form of life. The life Rebanks describes is fundamentally inherited rather than chosen.
This deference to the wisdom of inherited traditions leaves Rebanks, the Oxford-educated shepherd, with a fascinating and all-too-rare species of ambition. In response to the irony of gaining broad recognition with a book that celebrates the daily lives of seemingly unremarkable figures, Rebanks says only that his ambition is “to be a really good nobody.”
The life Rebanks describes is simultaneously romantic and exhausting. Quotations from Wordswordth’s Guide to the Lakes punctuate extended passages on the fickle bond between shepherd and sheepdog, or the prickliness of shearing sheep. Together, these passages mount a defense of labor as what it truly is—unending, physically taxing, creative, communal, rarely particularly profitable, and, at moments, immensely satisfying.
This story reminded us of the remarkable interview Josh Yates conducted with Wendell Berry and Wes Jackson for the summer 2012 edition of The Hedgehog Review. While Berry and Jackson are often inspirations for folks like Mark Sundeen and the people he profiles, their defense of agrarianism in late modernity is decidedly unromantic. Take, for example, the following exchange:
Yates: There are many people who are increasingly attracted to the local, agrarian vision you both advocate. One danger seems to be confusing a genuine recovery of reverence with the adoption of a well-meaning but shallow romanticism. How do we avoid the confusion?
Berry: By doing the work, and by liking it. I wrote an introduction to a book of photographs made in 1973; it’s called, “Tobacco Harvest, an Elegy.” And it shows my neighborhood—my children and I were in it—and we were exchanging work ...One of the members of that neighborhood was a small man who had been somewhat crippled by a childhood disease. In his working life, he probably never weighed 125 pounds, but he did as much hard work as anybody. We had a public showing of those photographs at my daughter and son-in-law’s winery. Old men stood in front of those pictures and wept. But this fellow stationed himself beside one of the photographs, and he was explaining it to people. I heard him say, “It was hard work. There wasn’t any way you could keep it from being hard, but you wouldn’t believe the fun we had.”
This interview contains profound reflections about the nature of friendship and meaning in the modern world. Far from the loose bonds between those who buy organic, free-range, locally-sourced products, the friendship Berry, Jackson, Rebanks, and Sundeen point to is borne of shared labor—of rows hoed in unison, of dry seasons endured together, of burdens borne on aching backs. A uniquely common life is forged among those whose daily labor is tethered to the life of the land.
Together, these writers extol the virtues of a life constrained by the limitations of place. Their accounts offer a counterweight to the rootlessness and abstraction generated by an endless cycle of work, watch, buy, and repeat. For all the manifold challenges these people accept by living off the grid, their lives are marked not by the burden of cynicism, but by the pursuit of joy. For the rest of us, their testimonies open imaginative possibilities for how we might pursue lives more rooted in the traditions, practices, and constraints of a particular people and place.