Last week I met this woman who wanted to become self-sufficient. That means she was looking into ditching her job, selling her house and buying an old cottage somewhere in the countryside with the aim of living off the fat of the land. And she was thinking of doing this in Finland. For those of you who don’t know, there is little fat in Finland. The summers are short and it can get real cold the rest of the time. It’s depressingly dark for a considerably long time each year. There are colder places in this world, but that’s not really relevant when you’re shivering in a hut somewhere with no electricity.
So it sounded completely nuts. And I loved the idea. I’d heard of some people doing that before here in Finland, not necessarily living completely without money, but at least cutting down considerably. Say, getting 80-90% of your needs through your own resources. Growing your own produce, making your own bread, spending a lot of time cutting wood, sewing your clothes, having a bunch of chickens in the backyard and a couple of goats for milk and cheese. Just like old days.
I wouldn’t be up for doing that. It would mean washing laundry without a washing machine, having to raise cattle and slave away in the garden till your fingers bleed. Carrying water from the well and never having a nice, long, hot shower. I’m way too used to my little comforts to give them up without a fight. I’m so spoiled that I think cleaning the floor with a vacuum is an irritating task, and I’m likely to get irked if I have to wait for a bus for any longer than five minutes.
But even so, if I were forced to, I would love the experience. There is something so fascinating about the thought of working for everything that you have. I know we sort of work for everything we have by going to work and getting paid, but it’s not the same thing. It’s not concrete. If I had personally done everything that it takes to prepare my meat casserole, wouldn’t I appreciate it a damned sight more? If I had hunted the animal, grown the potatoes, the onions and the carrots, made the broth, made the fire to cook the food, and whatever else it takes to prepare a meat casserole… wouldn’t it be a different casserole altogether?
The woods have always fascinated me. I love living in the city, but there is a side of me that would love to have a little nest somewhere deep in the woods where I’d pick berries, know all the animals and roots and medicinal plants and work my butt off just to survive. It would certainly be hard work, but wouldn’t it also be somehow terribly real? Somehow marvelously like being alive is supposed to be?
I attribute this folly to Thoreau. He was the original hippy who chose to live in what most people would consider poverty out of his own free will. He exchanged his worldly possessions for a life free from the bonds of money and status. As most people know since the movie Dead Poets’ Society, he went to the woods because he wished to live deliberately…
to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practise resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms, and, if it proved to be mean, why then to get the whole and genuine meanness of it, and publish its meanness to the world; or if it were sublime, to know it by experience, and be able to give a true account of it in my next excursion.
It sounds really good when you put it that way. One of Thoreau’s greatest contributions was the message that we have a choice. The fact tat everyone else lives a certain way, doesn’t mean that we are forced to do so. Isn’t it a brave act to search for alternatives?
I don’t know. As I said, I would never really seek out a lifestyle like this, but an experiment would be nice. A couple of weeks, at most months. Maybe not in the winter. An experiment like this should be mandatory for everyone. At least it would teach me to genuinely value my coffeemaker, my washing machine and the stove, not to mention the fridge, the television and most importantly, the dishwasher.