Maybe it is a strange choice, in these days of fabulous luxury, to embrace an elemental way of life close to the earth. Surely only a lunatic would choose to abandon modernity’s conveniences in favour of a life steeped in nature’s raw juices, right?
It might be fun to camp out in the wilds for a weekend break from the city, or it could be inspiring to go on a shamanic wilderness quest for a deeper natural experience; but these forays into nature are enjoyable precisely because we return from them to the comfort of our cosy homes, are they not? Why would anyone choose to live full-time without electricity, gadgetry and the whole heavenly host of goods and services designed to make life easier, smoother, more satisfying?
Simplicity? We’ve just spent thousands of years emerging from that irksome state. Why return?
It’s a fair question. Most of us prefer ease and pleasure to hardship and pain, and there’s clearly nothing wrong with that. But I question the narrative that equates simplicity with hardship, and luxury with wellbeing. My hunch has always been that the opposite is in fact the case, and my radical life-choices were based on the belief that a simple life close to nature is more deeply nourishing and conducive to wellbeing than anything the modern world has to offer.
In the woods my world was abundant in natural beauty, peace, slow growth and quiet joys, and there I found that contentment is wealth. The simplicity within which to enjoy the elemental wonders of this infinitely precious Earth-walk was my greatest luxury. We are, as Thoreau put it, rich in proportion to the number of things we can afford to let alone.
But of course, living elementally—especially in cool, rainy Britain—also had its awkward side.
My daily life involved much that most moderns would find challenging, much that civilisation has, for thousands of years, been striving to iron out of human experience: plenty of exposure to the capricious weather; cold, mud, daily chopping of wood and carrying of water. And yet I found these elemental exigencies to be deeply wholesome, nourishing. Living elementally my feet of earth are of perfect weight to give balance to my wings of thought. I wouldn’t exchange one for the other. In so doing I would, like Icarus, lose the value of both.
Much more awkward than any physical challenges are the psychological factors of choosing radical simplicity: deep in the woods there very few distractions from the clamouring mind or the biting shadows of the heart. Modernity has created a vast culture and media to shield us from these unwelcome companions. Without its protection we are exposed to the disturbing contents of our own psyches in a way that can often be acutely uncomfortable.
Even more onerous still is the encounter with some very deep fears, those fears that are at the root the mysterious millennia-old campaign to subdue and control our natural environment. I don’t have names for these fears, but they are tremendously strong. Just look at what they have done to our Paradise Earth! Coming face to face with one on a dark night is really quite shocking!
It’s scary in the woods, as most fairy tales will tell you!
But one soon adjusts to the physical challenges, and personally I prefer to face as many of the painful contents of my psyche as I can. Better out than in. Moreover, it’s not as if the modern world is without its chores, irritations, even terrors!
On balance, I’m not sure that living elementally is actually any more inconvenient or scary than life in suburbia. It’s only the nature of the irritants and horrors that are different. And at least in the woods these irritants aren’t toxic, am there I’m not adding to the horrors through my participation in an insidiously destructive culture.
So I find myself glad to have stepped out of the matrix of human-centred technological involvements for a time, to have begun to re-inhabit a largely more-than-human web of relationships. What I gained most by this step were a renewal of my deep sense of belonging on the Earth and a restoration of my felt connection to the circle of life—the natural matrix of human existence. I believe these two priceless gifts are much more valuable than any of the comforts and luxuries I let go of in choosing to live as I did. They are also worth the journey through the shadows of the psyche this choice entailed.
Many would say that my journey was extreme, almost fanatical. Maybe it was. But only by contrast with the everyday extremism that passes for ‘normality’. Viewed instead in the context of the whole span of human existence, and in relation to the lives of all other beings on this planet, my simple lifestyle wasn’t actually very extreme at all. In fact, I was better off than most: I had a cosy shelter that I wasn’t having to work all week to pay for, enough clothes, plenty of wholesome food to eat and warm friendships unmediated by technology. Beyond these basic needs I found I really needed very little else. In fact, most other things only get in the way of that which makes me truly happy.
Maybe it’s not such a strange choice after all. Maybe what is strange is how few of us are yet willing to grasp the nettle of radical simplicity and imbibe the healing properties of its sting.