Get Uncomfortable

It’s true: I’m leaving. Misty too. At the beginning of April, we’re putting on our backpacks, finding a highway onramp, and leaving behind the greatest city I believe this country has to offer. We plan to be on the road for a year.

I’ve done something like this before, and so has Misty. But there’s a big difference between this trip and any trip either of us has done: this time we’re not coming back to the city. We’re not coming back to our old lives. We’re ready now to slough those lives off; there is a map of life that is drawn with the wheelruts of our thoughts and habits, and we are preparing to walk off the edge of it.

Once I’d decided this, it took me well over a year to realize what it was I’d decided. I was fooled by the past: I’ve gone on the road before, so for a while I only prepared myself for a fun, fluffy trip like the last one. But this really isn’t the same. We’ll be doing a lot of the same day-to-day things—hitching rides; sleeping in our tent just wherever; traveling all over the country—but with a complete difference in direction and motive. The difference isn’t just in where we end up at the end; it changes the whole trip.

On the Year of Adventure, I was tooling around somewhat aimlessly, seeking out anything new, whatever would add to the breadth of my experience of the world. That was the right thing for me at that time, because I had only the dimmest understanding of what was out in the world and how it all connected together, and the best way to learn was to see. Now, though, both of us have some understanding of the world and our place in it, and we both realize that what we need now is depth—specifically, deeper knowledge of how to live the way we want to live. Because there’s a lot to know about living off-grid in the country and growing your own food, and we know practically none of it. We need to get an education.

Our basic plan for how to get that education is to spend the year going from one off-grid community to another. We’ll stay for a week, a few weeks; we’ll do farm work in exchange for a place to pitch our tent and a spot at the dinner table.

We have a semblance of a schedule worked out. You’ll notice it starts out solid and quickly gets sketchier. This is on purpose. We don’t yet know what it is we need to learn: we’re leaving space to discover as we go what our questions are and where to find the answers.

  • April: Go live in a forest for a few weeks. We hope to use a minimum of words there. A good goal is that when we come out, cars, roads, and buildings should seem very bizarre to us.
  • Early May: Stay at The Draw for about a month. We only have about two weeks’ experience each with the place that we’re imagining we might live at long-term. We need a more substantial visit to find out if we’re right for the place and it’s right for us requires a more intense visit.

    Also, to make up for leaving Minneapolis inauspiciously on April Fools’ Day, we’ll stop back in town for the May Day Parade, which will also be a much better way to really say goodbye to a city that’s been good to us.

  • Late May, tentative: Go to Nigigoonsiminikaaning (“Otter-cub Berry Place”) for a four-sunrise fast in the old Ojibwe style with my teacher from language table.
  • June: Stay at the Possibility Alliance, a permaculture community in Missouri, and go to the Feral Futures gathering in Colorado again. (Also, a stop-off at my college reunion.)
  • July–August: I plan to go to Crowduck and properly learn how to clean a fish. Then we’ll head further west to other communities. We don’t know what communities yet; we’ll hear of places as we go.
  • Fall: Spend a while at Willow’s brother’s community in California.
  • Winter: Mexico? Arizona? We know some places.
  • Spring: Keep going.
  • Late spring, or summer: If The Draw did turn out to be right, start a season-long internship there, which would lead into living there.

A conversation ensues:

“Okay, and then how long are you planning on living at The Draw after you’re done?”

Er, well. Permanently.

“Neat! Permanently for how long?”

Permanently, like, for the rest of our lives, if that works out for us there. If it doesn’t, then for the rest of our lives at some other place out in the country where we can live off the land. We don’t intend to come back to the city. This is what I’ve been trying to say.

This, it always seems, is the wrong answer. I am looked at as though I matter-of-factly said, “After a few years we just hang ourselves.” There is an approved storyline here, and most people don’t realize they’ve memorized it, but it goes something like this (title: “Bright Young Person Changes the World”): We go out on our journey of discovery, and we discover Many Significant Things. Then we bring this knowledge back home to the city, and translate the knowledge into some action that Changes the World. Changing the World is defined in a very strange; narrow way. Recognized ways to Change the World include: working at a non-profit; starting your own non-profit; writing a book that raises consciousness (in other Bright Young Persons); and leading a “social movement”. Once we choose one of these, we have found our True Life’s Work, and all that remains is turning it into a paying job: which, being charismatic Bright Young Persons, we will surely achieve through government grants and/or book royalties and/or speaking honoraria. We will pursue this True Life’s Work until we retire to a comfortable life and travel the world looking like those beaming silver-haired couples you see on cruise ship advertisements.

The reason people have memorized this is that it’s the dream of every good progressive. Surely this story is the highest life goal one can hope to accomplish.

And now you two tell me you want to go live in the country and just be fucking peasants?

Everything you’ve learned will be wasted. You can’t Change the World from out there—the world is back here in the cities where all the people are. Your life will be nothing but shoveling horse shit around. You should leave that to the horse shit shovelers and go to a university or a think tank where your polished middle-class intellect can be appreciated and find a use. If you go out and live on a farm no one will pay you a paycheck. You’ll be poor. Jesus Christ, you won’t even have a retirement fund. You might as well be one of those people who live at the dump in Rio de Janeiro. You owe it to the world to Change the World. And if you go live in the country, you can’t Change the World, which makes you selfish and contemptible.

No. You know what? No. That is why the entire story is wrong.

We can change the world from in the country, and we’ll be doing a better job of it than anyone whose contribution to the world consists of teaching other people how to change. Because we’re changing the world in the most fundamental way there is: we’re changing ourselves. One person living a carbon-negative lifestyle is worth more than ten thousand op-eds in the New York Times about how to green your investment portfolio.

Let’s look at that approved story again. Throughout all the possible variations in it, there’s a damning constant. It’s this: at no point are we ever expected to give up the slightest bit of our middle-class amenities. At no point do we ever risk any loss of status or income. We change our opinions, our favored political candidates, some of our friends, the name of the organization our career is at—but at no point are we ever challenged to fundamentally change our way of life. This is a fatal problem when the issue we’re trying to solve is a direct result of our way of life. The story’s most successful ending is that we become the new Bill McKibben and Al Gore: either of whose air miles alone outweigh all the environmental damage I’ve done in nearly twenty-eight years of living an extractive lifestyle in cities.

This world will not be improved by people who always choose whatever option allows them to stay comfortable. We need to overhaul our selves. We need to understand that we have been wrong, and then we need to refuse to be satisfied until we are right.

This will be uncomfortable. But you need to do it. So do I. While the world is burning, we all do. If we don’t, it is a true and deep failure.

So even if Misty and I did nothing else but just grow food and eat it while building the soil rather than depleting it, I’d count us successful. The world needs topsoil.

But in fact we intend to do far more than that. We’re going to be up to a lot more than drudgery out there.

The Draw is a working farm but also a teaching farm. People come there from a lot of different places to learn about the wisdom in the way they’ve planted their land. Since there are only two adults there right now, the amount of time they can take off of farm duties to teach is limited, but with more full-timers it’s possible there could be more classes. Misty imagines bringing kids from the city to teach them how nature works.

Up there there’s also a winter. I intend to write books while the crops are sleeping.

And there’s something else that’s exciting to me: last time I was in touch with the Possibility Alliance—that permaculture community in Missouri—they told me about an idea they were piecing together for a continent-wide network of post-petroleum communities. The kinds of places where they might not even have a car or electricity. (The Possibility Alliance does without both, and has a lot of common cause with its Amish neighbors.) The point of the network would be to connect people who are hungry to learn about this way of life with a community to learn from, and the more people who learn that these communities are real and actively lived in by people with fulfilling lives, the more of these communities will get founded. Plus, I bet we could have a modest little trade route carried by whatever contrivance is least polluting in each situation; perhaps trainhopping students traveling from a community in California could bring olive oil to The Draw, and later that year Misty and I might hitchhike to visit there with wild rice to return the favor.

Also, please don’t imagine we’re going to be alone out there, with just each other and some screaming kids for company. (They don’t scream that much.) (They scream some.) The Draw is just ten miles from touristy Bayfield and, more interestingly, seven miles from the Red Cliff Reservation; even with just a loose connection to the reservation, the kids have already learned some hoopdance skills. Moreover, interns stay for the whole summer, people pass through from all over the country, and they have a telephone. And let’s not forget: humans aren’t the only people. I expect to make friends with several other species, and to find the friendship at least as interesting and rewarding as many human friendships.

Yes, we will be poor. In monetary terms. But with all the rest of that, who cares? I could have a career as a computer programmer. I could pull down $60,000 a year and eventually have a house with a nice vegetable garden that I use to supply a little garnish to the food I buy from the local Co-op. I could vote for the Green Party every time they’re on the ballot and I could go on camping vacations every time I have a couple weeks free. And every day I could be complicit in using coal to power my computer and the ISP’s computers and the factories that manufacture the computers, and every day I could realize that I’m still just taking and taking, even if I’m taking a little less. Another thing I could do is hang myself.

At this stage in humanity’s history we don’t need talkers. We need doers. There are so few people out there on the land. The knowledge of how to work it in a sustainable way is not being passed down. Whatever is lost may eventually be relearned through the hard, slow evolution of ideas, but the time spent waiting will be difficult and there are no guarantees. There are people alive who are the last to know something that may improve the lives of millions if the knowledge survives until it’s necessary again, on the downslope of our society’s decline. This kind of knowledge comes from living it, and is preserved through living it. No Washington environmental lobby can take even the first step toward replacing it if it is not kept alive.

So we will learn, and we will invite topsoil to build up, and we will live simple lives full of simple joys and simple sorrows. And we will not have any need for the city, and except to visit, we will not come back.


While we’re on the road, I fully intend to keep up this blog, much like I did on the Year of Adventure. I also plan to write decently regularly once we get settled down into the homesteading life. Anything that might attract more people out of the cities. Oh, I suppose I’ll also be doing it because people who care about me read this and want to hear about my life.


By the way, I plan soon to be writing fewer enormous essays. It’s just they kept coming out that way because it seemed very urgent to write all my current big complex thoughts before leaving.

File under: plans


Mary Troxel

It’s too bad my grandmother didn’t leave a diary behind. You are describing her life. But what you are leaving out is that as you age, you will need things that our rotten, spoiled, culture now provides, and that you have announced you will do without–modern dentistry, which pretty much guarantees that you’ll need to learn how to gum down your food someday in your later years. You won’t go to a doctor or receive any care if you fall and break a bone. You can set it using a tree branch or something. You will have nothing for pain, and by the time you are as old as I am, if you should live that long, you will have experienced much pain. Getting old is not for sissies.

Mother Nature did not protect my poor grandmother, who lost her teeth in her 30s from lack of care. She had 12 kids because she didn’t know about something called birth control. She was careworn. She was old at fifty. She welcomed the modern things that came to her later, after she had lost everything she had tried to accumulate in her life. She would have said Good luck, Nathanael, but be prepared to repeat my life. The good and the bad. You can scratch some food out of bad soil, you can watch animals suffer because of lack of veterinary care, you can be cold, sick, and half starving and watch the same for your kids. But I suppose you can smile to yourself about your lack of gasoline in your lives, and city cares, and be happy if you are willing to take all that bad with the good.

I wish you well. You may do it. If anyone can do it, it will be you. But do not think that you will have the life you could have had, and the world will truly be poorer because of that. Grandma

Chuck

Where did I say I was going to refuse anything to do with modern dentistry? Where did I say that I would set my own broken bones? Where did I say that I was going to refuse to use birth control and make Misty bear me twelve children?

I don’t intend to repeat the past exactly as it was! That would be impossible anyway. But more to the point, I recognize that some of what our culture has achieved is useful for achieving a good life. Yes, our culture has screwed up royally on several fronts. But while it lasted, it’s also created the germ theory of disease, the recipe for decent anaesthetics, Daniel Pinkwater books, and other things that make life better. Some of these discoveries were achieved through violent means (and some weren’t) but keeping the knowledge of them alive doesn’t need to be.

In fact keeping useful knowledge alive—no matter how it was gained, as long as it can be used in a just way—is one of the most useful things we can do at this point in history. I tried to say that.

I can see why you’re concerned. You saw what your grandmother went through, and you’ve heard of other accounts like it, so you figure it’s the usual experience for people living off the land.

But living off the land doesn’t require living in the Badlands, having twelve kids, and never seeing a doctor. Those are things we’ve learned to avoid. I don’t intend to repeat those parts of the past.

The future will not be like the past. It will be similar in some ways, but there will be very important differences because of the ground we’ve trodden since then.

Mary Troxel

Sorry, Nathanael. I just assumed that since you were so anti energy that you’d not go into medical facilities that run with electricity, etc. And you would do without factory made things, such as pills. I guess it would be a bit extreme, and I guess you can use some modern things, even if you are contributing then to some global warming. My misunderstanding. You aren’t quite as extreme as I had thought. And I certainly didn’t expect you to ignore birth control–no way! You and Misty have knowledge that my poor grandmother didn’t have. I was just pointing out that my grandmother had more on her plate than she could handle. But it’s a good thing she had at least six kids, since my mother was number 6, and without her neither of us would have ever existed.

Anyway, when we go to Crow Duck this summer you two can explain more about what you’re doing–I still can’t separate it from the hardscrabble life I always heard about from my mother and grandmother. Grandma

Chuck

It’s true I’d prefer to avoid those places when I can, and go to places that are less energy-intensive. I believe there are probably some pretty modestly run clinics around, though I don’t get sick often enough at this age to really know where to find them. But if it’s a choice between a big fluorescent-lit hospital and, you know, dying, I’ll go to the hospital.

Hospitals, energy-intensive as they are, are still a way for us to preserve our current knowledge of treating illness into a future where, hopefully, we can use the same knowledge even with less energy available to us. I’m for them changing drastically, but I’m also for them continuing to exist and stop unnecessary deaths while we wait for that to happen.

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Dave

I think I get it now. Us carbon whores who do nothing for the ‘future’ are subsidizing your medical dental parachute. In turn you are subsidizing my eco-apathy by engendering the future. It’s a deal. If your vision proves prescient, I certainly would be the slacker in this equation.

Chuck

I wouldn’t call it a symbiosis like that. In my ideal future the “medical dental parachute” takes on a different form that no longer needs bailing out by carbon whores. But that’s a whole other post.

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alfi

alfi

well in my perspective, what you are doing now is so good and impresive. We do need really to choose which the modern life provimede our life. My goal someday is also having my own farm. Here in our country, farming is being a new trend. Like Korean, we are a communal society. Community based farming, home industry or even tourism is one of goverment’s project. One tourism i have been visited before is organized by community based tourism organization. The leader is an ex immigrant from Korea. You can make it as a trend too tho. I am lucky to have you and misty (actually wanna communicate with her too^^)as friends from other side of world. So inspiring~ keep going !

Chuck

I’m really curious about farming and Indonesia—I’ve just been (finally) writing another letter to you, and before I even read your comment here, I wrote a bunch of questions about farming and other stuff in the letter. It’s interesting, my impression of Indonesia was that it’s a very urban country, so I didn’t know how much farming actually happened there. Sounds like there’s a pretty developed farming culture, if tourists come just to see it, huh?

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alfi

alfi

ahahaa.. Indonesia is not all urban invaded land. Metropolitan cities such as jakarta and Batam might look like american LA or New York. But in the sub-urban or outside java island, we have farming lands. Some of them are community based farming land. I have one friend whom family has own farming. The farm not only plants dragon fruit and sell the raw fruits to the market but also make a farming program such us cooking class and sell the cake or biscuits too by social media. Today i just randomly searched about farming in Indonesia. i found out one farming with english program. I believe you are interested on it link says this

Chuck

You know what, I think we even talked about this in one of our letters, and you told me then that Indonesia isn’t all one huge city, and I managed to forget. I feel especially like the good old Ignorant American at the moment…

That farm looks interesting (I got Google to translate the article). People are doing some similar things around here. If I ever make it to Indonesia, I’ll have to make sure to visit a farm like that, or go WWOOFing, or something.

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