On Embracing Natural Simplicity
Maybe it’s 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 comforts and 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 week’s break from the city, or it could be inspiring to go on a ten-day shamanic wilderness quest for a slightly deeper natural experience; but 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 I’ve made some radical life-choices 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.
Unplugging quite fully from the matrix I’ve let go of my car and driving licence, bank accounts, utilities, phone-line and internet connection. I don’t have an email address, a flushing toilet, life-insurance or any electrical devices. I don’t possess any keys, require any passwords or have any batteries to keep charged.
My dwelling is a tiny roundhut deep in the woods between two mossy streams. I built it by hand using very basic tools and natural materials. Inside it is warm, dry, light and big enough to do yoga in. I cook food and heat my space with fire, with wood that I cut by hand using axe and bowsaw with prayers of thanks to the trees. I draw water for drinking, cooking and washing from a clear, spring-fed stream that flows just outside my felt-blanket door. I am outdoors most of the day, at work and at rest, and much of the year I go barefoot.
Immersed in the natural world, held in the Earth’s embrace, at home among the rocks and streams, the animals, plants and trees, I am in near-constant relationship with the elements, the seasons, sun, moon, stars and the web of life.
My world is abundant in natural beauty, peace, slow growth and quiet joys. In this place I find that contentment is wealth, and the simplicity within which to enjoy the elemental wonders of this infinitely precious Earth-walk is my greatest luxury. In this way I am, as Thoreau put it, rich in proportion to the number of things I can afford to let alone.
But of course, living elementally—especially in cool, rainy Britain—also has its awkward side.
My life involves 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 find that actually 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 lose the value of both.
More awkward 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 media to shield us from these unwelcome companions. Without its protection I am exposed to the disturbing contents of my own psyche in a way that can often be acutely uncomfortable.
Even more onerous still is to encounter 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, nor am I adding to the horrors through my participation in an insidiously destructive culture.
So I find I’m willing to step out of the matrix of human-centred technological involvements and to re-inhabit a largely more-than-human web of relationships. What I gain most by this step are 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 do. They are also worth the journey through the shadows of the psyche this choice entails.
Many would say that my choices are too extreme, almost fanatical. Maybe they are. But only by contrast with the everyday extremism that passes for ‘normality’. Viewed in the context of the whole span of human existence, and in relation to the lives of all other beings on this planet, my lifestyle isn’t actually very extreme at all. In fact, I’m better off than most: I have a cosy shelter, enough clothes, plenty of wholesome food to eat and warm friendships unmediated by technology. Beyond these basic needs I find I need little else. In fact, most other things only get in the way of my that which makes me truly happy.
However, mine is not a way of life that I imagine many people will consider particularly appealing any time soon. Things might have to get a lot more uncomfortable in suburbia before serious amounts of us are willing to grasp the nettle and imbibe the healing properties of its sting.
The bones of this piece were written with pen on paper by the dawn’s light one morning during my years in the jungle. Emerging from retreat has been interesting, but I can already hear the devas calling me back in again…