But what of our accounts, those earnest calculations brought forward in every Simple Living book?
Animal Feed $150.00
On Hand $300.00
Jam Sales $60.00
Cow Sale $96.00
So at the end of two years, we owed about four hundred dollars, borrowed from two friends.
The usual narratives naturally stress the debit details to demonstrate how cheap the Simple Life can be, and of course, how principled they are. It's a bit like bragging about how little you paid for something, only in this case you're showing off moral ascendancy. To analyze contemporary books in the genre, a drug on the market from the '60s through the '80s, would be misguided zeal; they are too obvious and essentially trivial. I think it will be much more illuminating to turn to what is thought of as the original Simple Living book, Walden, by Henry Thoreau. I should say at once, however, that far from wishing that his readers would throw up occupations to go live in a cabin in the woods, he preached the Simple Life as a strategy, as a way of freeing oneself from the tyranny of getting and spending so that they might throw off conformity and conventionality to become more fully human, authentic selves. Understand that I am not his advocate; I think his ideas have some merit, but not much: the basic flaw in Transcendentalism is the thinness, the shallowness of its conception of the human condition.
Back to the accounts in "Economy," chapter one in Walden. I don't question his details. If he says he spent $8.031/2 on boards, I believe him; he's not deliberately hiding anything. And yet, there is a profound, subtle self-deception at the heart of his figures. When he says, "Nothing was given me of which I have not rendered some account," phrasing reminiscent of the ancient idea of submitting the record of one's life for judgment, there is a hint of pride, of haughtiness in the words which should make us pause: Could there be something missing, could the accounts be incomplete, could Thoreau be deceiving himself? To find the answer we must look at the "Baker Farm" chapter in which Thoreau tries to convert the Irish laborer, John Field, to the Simple Life, at one point telling him that he, too, works for a living, going on to compare his style of life favorably with the squalor of Field's cabin and the futility of his work "bogging" for a farmer. It does not occur to his sophisticated mind that he was able to choose his mode of life because he is privileged. His father owned a good business and Thoreau was highly educated. In order for a man to choose a materially spare life, he must have the resources behind him which will allow him to make a choice; he has to be so far from want that he can contemplate surrendering some of his comforts with equanimity, and he has to be educated enough to appreciate the appeal of simplicity. Complexity always precedes simplicity. John Field's situation and his inability to choose the Simple Life were not, as Thoreau thought, due to the fact that he was an ignorant Irish clod, but Thoreau could not comprehend their different situations because he was severely limited by a lack of sympathy with his fellows. That's why he appears at his worst - snide and condescending - in this passage. It cannot be an accident that this constellation of narrow, petty characteristics is common to so many Simple Living narratives. It is the greatest irony of Walden that Thoreau advocates a life of poverty as a means towards the appreciation of the finer aspects of life, when he proves in his own person that knowledge, sensitivity, full development of our faculties, all culture, in fact, depend on wealth created and recreated over generations.
So the accounts, even when accurate, are trivial and irrelevant, misleading and meaningless. I know that my accounts are true, but I also know that the most significant costs - our parents' educations, our own schooling, the constant efforts by parents and teachers to make us civilized citizens - those expenses that enabled us to live the life we did on the hill, are not in the bill.
There are credits, too, that are not in the accounts. I was forced to provide for my family directly by my own efforts, with no way of escape. I could not shirk my responsibilities, could not evade them by any formula of words or appeal to outside help. The wood had to be cut, the cow had to be milked, the water had to be hauled. I had to learn how to do those tasks and do them well, which meant learning and living by the rules of the natural world, obdurate and unforgiving. Practical realism, lessons in honesty. By an effort of will I taught myself the skills of survival, and in that dogged struggle I learned much about myself and tried to overcome my inadequacies. People do this every day in all sorts of situations, but I, whether out of weakness of character or a romantic imagination, had to undergo a trial by stark simplicity in which all surface complexities are stripped away and the confrontation is elemental.
There was so much that we learned, all that basic practical knowledge about living self-reliantly in a sparse rural situation, a great gain for all of us, self-reliance being a virtue under any circumstances. It certainly was good for our children, then, and later. They worked with us, in roles appropriate to their strength and understanding, in everything we did; they worked in the gardens, helped make and haul hay, carried in firewood, gathered sap, did stable chores, and of course, looked after themselves.
There was a metaphysical lesson, too. When visitors gushed about the beauties of our life I would sometimes recount the hardships, like the frozen water line, and then they would shake heir heads and admit it had its "bad side," No, no, I would say, you don't understand; it isn't good or bad, beautiful or squalid, it just is. They looked at me uncomprehendingly. What I was trying to say was that the directness and amplitude of our interactions with the natural world precluded judgment. We might respond with annoyance to a problem or with pleasure to a success but that was superficial - profoundly we were alive to the being, the "isness" of our life.
One other credit. That life helped us to become students. What passed for intellectual life at Tweedy was such a complacent sham that it was apparent to me even while I was there, but it took the parsimonious life on the hill, with its absence of distractions and surface complexities, with its long silences, with its tasks that forced me to think carefully and thoroughly, tasks that would show me, often in humiliating ways, the consequences of my thoughts in their destined acts, it was that life that cast an unsparing light on my past, showing that Tweedy, far from falling short in its mission of fostering the life of the mind, was actively subverting it, was in fact a bastion of anti-intellectualism - and I had been a part of it. If I remembered the pompous philistinism of the faculty with hilarity (once I fell off the milking stool, recalling a department meeting), I was not so amused at the memory of my own smug ignorance. Now we became systematic readers, and I began to write. This does not mean that I was less stupid or naive; intellectuality is not a synonym for intelligence.
So I took a teaching job (that's where I kept the cow in our garage), but I quit after a year and we went back to northern Vermont to run a tutoring school for teenaged boys who had trouble reading and writing. We rented a farm where we kept a couple of cows, a horse, pigs, chickens, and thus we fed everyone. The students worked with us on the farm and in the domestic economy of the house, so they were trained in practical self-reliance as well as academic subjects. We did not earn much money, but the way we lived enabled us to save enough to buy a farm where land was cheap, on Cape Breton Island in Nova Scotia, where we lived for thirty years until 2001, doing all the work with horses. The farm was the basis of our economy, but we also earned money from writing and from lectures Jo Ann gave in the U.S. after she began writing gardening books in the 1980s. Although we learned more about farming in Canada than we had in Vermont, because we were doing more and the conditions were very difficult, the lessons we had learned on the hill were the basis for everything we accomplished.
Because we lived as we did, hippie homesteaders in Vermont, and later Cape Breton, thought we were experts on the Simple Life (much as, I suppose, Corbin's disciples did) and they flocked to our door, but they soon saw that we were hopelessly ignorant: why did Jo Ann bake white bread? And use white sugar? Didn't we have a loom? Where were the goats? We were a great disappointment to them, and they went away muttering. Without intending to, we have puzzled many people over the years, and interestingly, it is the unsophisticated rustics who have expressed their puzzlement, sometimes in this curious form: standing in our kitchen door, purchases in hand (perhaps a slab of bacon, eggs, butter, etc.), a rough countryman looks around and sees a wood range and a gas stove, a hand pump at the sink, a chainsaw on the porch, and he knows we do not own a motor vehicle and we do everything with horses, and he wonders about our odd life.
Do you mind if I ask you a personal question?
(Groans inwardly) No, of course not. Go right ahead.
(Very earnestly) Do you believe in the TV?
Of course, it's a funny question, but there's a serious meaning in it that I avoided at the time by saying we never had one. Now I mean to decipher the meaning and answer it properly. In the questioner's mind TV was obviously the promoter of what even a rustic could see were the most blatantly dubious aspects of modern life, and by that symbol he was asking if our life were a deliberate rejection of modernity. Was there a reason for what we did, a set of principles, a religion perhaps? Although our lack of means constrained our choices, the only rule we have ever followed is to please ourselves. For instance, we liked working horses, so that's what we did. We never did anything "on principle." We never tried to live the Simple Life, we never thought we were showing the way to anyone. We certainly did nothing for the sake of conformity. Perhaps that's why we disappointed people; we confounded their expectations (inevitably clichs).
I had been fascinated as a boy, even into my teens, by the notion of living in a cabin in the woods just as Jo Ann had loved attending an old-fashioned Spartan camp in the Maine woods, so the ease, not to say blitheness, with which we took the move to northern Vermont is more or less explicable, if you add innocence, naivet, ignorance, and romanticism, but what were the springs of my determination to see it through to the end, to plumb its depths, to find out what it meant and explain it to myself? Curiosity had something to do with it, in the same way that lanes, woods roads, and chance forest openings have always been temptations to me, as if I had an obligation to explore them, to see where they end. And there was pleasure, of course, great sensuous enjoyment of every aspect, rough or smooth of the life, as is apparent in the descriptions throughout this book. But above all, more than anything else, our lives, the lives of Jo Ann and the children and me, were driven by my stubborn, imprudent determination, and the only light I can shed on that is contained in this story: my mother wished on the first star she saw every evening, on white horses, on wish bones and four-leaf clovers (she could find one anywhere), on three black crows, and on many other things I can't recall, and she had a penchant for a certain kind of fortune teller. Not professionals, not the kind wearing bandannas at fairs, or the ones you had to make appointments to see, like getting your hair done. No, what Mother sought and always found were amateurs, old ladies who seemed to lead quite ordinary lives, but who had the second sight, who had been born with a caul, whose fathers were the seventh sons of seventh sons. Then, sharing a pint of something would enhance the proceedings, the reading of the palm or the tea leaves, or whatever was going forward in those back kitchens in the old houses with high ceilings where the aging ladies would laugh and tell stories, ladies I was reminded of years later when I read the Yeats poem, "John Kinsella's Lament"
And O! But she had stories
Though not for the priest's ear
To keep the soul of man alive,
Banish age and care,
And being old she put a skin
On everything she said.
One humorous old lady I remember - she said her face looked like a "bag of tripe," it was so wrinkled - who lived up three flights of outside stairs in what had once been a rather grand house in Trenton, was a regular crony of my mother's, and one evening when I was twelve or thirteen, she was in deep discourse with Mother at the kitchen table, while I sat to the side, doing my math homework for the next day. I paid no mind to them or their conversation, but the old lady was watching me, and when we were leaving she said to me, "The fairies put something in your cradle." I stared. "Yes, the fairies gave you a rare gift. Do you want to know what it is?"
'Yes, ma'am," I said, because I had been taught to be polite.
The fairies gave you the gift of believing in yourself, and you'll always have it til the day you die, through thick or thin. You'll always believe that no matter what you do, everything will come right in the end.
"What a nice gift!" Mother exclaimed, all smiles.
But the old lady, after all, had the second sight. "Ah," she shrugged, "That's as may be, that's as may be." *