An entry in Encounters
One of the challenges of attempting a life in the margins is the sense of alienation it can, at times, produce. Granted, a life lived within the confines of society’s dominant ways and thoughts can be alienating as well—even more so, in many ways. Still, the simple fact is that in divorcing oneself of the myth of progress, spurning a great deal of material wealth in efforts toward voluntary poverty, believing that society is in the beginning throes of contraction, and limiting your intake of the newest and shiniest technologies, you tend to alienate yourself to some degree from a good many people. If, like me, this is a somewhat new project for you, then it’s likely that you’ll find yourself navigating tricky ground with at least some of your friends and family as you try to live your life in accordance with your beliefs while not becoming completely inscrutable to those you’ve known for years.
I’ve struggled with these challenges, though I’m blessed in that most of my friends and family seem to have taken my odd behavior in good stride. I suspect some of this is due to a sympathy toward my core beliefs, even if the expression of them skews somewhat radical, while some is due to the fact that I’ve always been at least a bit odd and contrary. Whatever kick I’m on at any given time is typically suffered with good nature, and for that I’m grateful.
What I do miss in my attempt to live a life of less is a partner. While I’ve done some dating over the past four-ish years that I’ve been farming, I find it a bit of a challenge to find people who understand the sort of lifestyle I’m trying to live and are either interested in pursuing a similar lifestyle or who simply are sympathetic to it, even if it’s not exactly their ideal. It’s not that I can’t find people who believe we live unsustainably as a society, but that it’s more of a challenge to find people who are interested in or are already taking the next steps of living with much less. I can’t help but feel that the term “voluntary poverty” is a bit scary to a number of people out there, though perhaps this is as much my own sense of self-consciousness as anything else.
It’s within this context that, just shy of two years ago, I found myself hiking the trail up Neahkahnie Mountain, not long after moving out here to the coast for my third farming apprenticeship. I hiked alone, climbing the mountain for the first time, shouldering a backpack with some water and food in it. It was a spring day and the sun shone, though I hiked mostly in the cool shadow of trees. I kept a steady pace with matching breath.
Hiking is something of a meditation for me. I’ve written about this before, in The Rhythm of Contemplation, but as I fall into a steady pace of hiking and breathing, my mind tends to wander and explore various corners within itself, tracing out paths much as my body follows the forest path, though not with such a singular focus. Sometimes I find myself thinking out some new bit of philosophy or insight, while other times I fall into a contemplation of lingering personal issues or frustrations. Hiking up Neahkahnie that day, my mind took the latter path. I focused in on a complex and somewhat unresolved relationship from a year ago, allowing the frustrations that had arisen from the relationship to pull me toward depression, even mild despair. Wandering through the trees, engrossed within my own mind, I felt an intense alienation and loneliness, wondering if I would ever find a settled place and a partner, good and meaningful work, a life which felt right.
I had only recently moved out to the coast, relocating for the third time in two and a half years. I made these moves in service of broader goals: learning to farm, finding meaningful work and a meaningful life. But that didn’t change the fact that each move proved a challenge, further heightening my sense of alienation and divorce from the social world, and further unsettling my life. I wanted desperately to find a place to stay and familiarize myself with, but that place continued to elude me. I wanted a partner, and she also continued to elude me. In that moment, then, out on the trail and surrounded by intense beauty, by an incredible amount of life, I couldn’t help myself from falling into the confines of my own mind, blocking out the abundant world around me and indulging in a great loneliness. I felt I might never have what I wanted. I questioned my decisions, this life I had chosen to lead.
I stared at the ground, at my feet, placing each of my steps carefully but automatically, avoiding rocks and roots and keeping a firm footing. I could see the ground, but not really—I was in my own head, lost in pity and frustration, in the dark paths that the hike’s physical rhythms had opened up to me. I imagined human touch, physical intimacy, and the longing for it clawed at me. I wanted all these things that I didn’t have at the moment, and I couldn’t see all I did have.
At that moment I looked up and ahead, along the shadowed trail beset on each side by high-reaching Douglas Firs and Western Red Cedars. One of those firs towered on my right, moving in close as I continued to walk along the path, its trunk deep and wide and covered in vibrant green moss. I didn’t think about it, made no conscious decision; I simply reached for the tree. In that moment of intense sadness, I turned and reached and hugged the trunk of that tree, pressing against the rough bark and soft moss, and I felt relief flood me. The tree comforted me as well as any human could have and for a startling moment, it was as real and alive to me as any friend would be. It mattered not that the tree was of a different composition than flesh and bone, a different species, in many ways an alien being.
Trees are alive, of course. They have power and spirit. They are creatures of this world, the same as humans are, the same as any animal. And yet, despite my love of them and despite my joy in their presence, I don’t tend to gain a comfort from them the way I do a friend, or a family member, or a lover. I know there are some people out there who feel that intense a connection to trees on a regular basis, but I’m not one of those people. Sometimes I’ll stop to touch a tree, to feel its bark, to rest or lean against it and I’ve even been known, once or twice, to speak to a tree, though I’ve never heard a response. Hell, I’ve hugged trees more than a few times in my life. But never when I felt the way I did that day, in that dark moment, in desperate need of comfort from another creature. I sought that tree out, not even thinking, and I felt as connected to it as I would anyone. Even as it happened, it shocked me.
I stayed against the tree for a few moments, shifting my head to place my forehead against the cool and damp moss, taking deep breaths, self-conscious enough to glance down the trail to see if anyone else was coming into view, able to see me in my arborous embrace. Thankfully, no one appeared. I was left alone with the tree and its comfort.
After a few minutes, I stepped back, placed my hand against its trunk, thanked the tree. I felt infinitely better. I did not feel nearly so alone, nearly so destitute. My loneliness and self-pity dissipated and the incredible community around me came into focus, reminding me that I wasn’t alone, even if it at times felt that way. I continued my hike, buoyed and thankful. Blessed. I stayed alert and aware of the life around me, even as I continued to think and meditate, to allocate a portion of my attention to the inside of my mind.
Since that day, I’ve stayed here on the Oregon coast. I’ve moved a few times, but each time only down the road, not to some other town or region. I’ve been building a life, integrating into the community, meeting people and making friends, establishing myself. I don’t know that I’ll stay here—it’s very possible, but not assured. I have yet to find a partner. I still find myself lonely at times, and I even occasionally question my decisions, wonder if I’m on the right path. But almost every day I’m surrounded by other life, some of it human and much of it not. That’s always a blessing. It’s always a comfort. It’s always a confirmation that I’m on the right path, wherever it may be leading. Yes, there are still human relationships I yearn for and that I hope to eventually cultivate. But they’re not the only source of comfort and connection. They’re just one amongst many.
I don’t know that I’ll ever feel such a striking and intense connection to a tree again. But I love knowing that it’s possible—that in dark moments, a greater number of species than I might otherwise have imagined can provide me deep and true comfort. I love that sense of connection, of being intertwined, of transcending unnecessary and imposed boundaries. Flesh and bone, bark and pith—it’s all the structure of life, all from the same source. It’s all connected. It just sometimes takes a dark moment to realize it.
A major storm hit us today, dropping multiple inches of rain–including one particularly insane stretch of a downpour–and sweeping heavy winds across the farm. Facing such inclement weather, Brian decided to fire up the hot tub, which sits under a roof as part of the farm’s solar bath house but is otherwise exposed to the outdoors, making it a particularly alluring experience on a night such as tonight. The extreme comfort and relaxation of soaking in hot water contrasts nicely with torrential rain and driving wind–the discomforts of a particularly cutting storm.
While the rain had tapered off by the time I was soaking, the south wind had kicked into high gear. Occasional, loud gusts would swirl around me, the air cool and insistent and charged with an uncommon power. As the gusts hit, I found myself sitting up in the hot tub, exposing more of my upper body so I could feel the air–that energy, that coolness–and revel in the juxtaposition between it and the hot water that otherwise engulfed me. This juxtaposition of sensations reminded me of the often-noted idea that to appreciate something, you have to experience its opposite. The comfort of that hot water was, in a certain way, offset by the blustery cold of the wind. By raising my body from the hot water to feel the cold wind, I better appreciated and experienced both sensations–either one heightened by the contrast with the other.
The way the hot tub is heated, at least in the winter, is via a wood-fired stove. Water siphons through an intake pipe near the bottom of the hot tub, heats as it circulates through a pipe in the stove, then streams out of an opening above the intake. The water continually circulates, slowly heating the entire tub. The water coming out of the stove eventually becomes extremely hot and, as you sit in the tub, a layer of that very hot water forms at the top of the tub if you’re not circulating the water yourself. This layer makes itself particularly apparent when you sit up, as your upper body passes through that hot layer, creating–for me at least–a tightening of the chest and a brief moment of discomfort and shortness of breath. It’s not so extreme as to feel dangerous, but it provides a juxtaposition between the hot and the very hot, the comfortable and the uncomfortable.
As I experienced these contrasting sensations–the differing levels of hot water, the hot water and cold wind–I couldn’t help but again think of the ducks. The storm-heightened comfort of the hot tub seemed another version of my musings on the ducks. Their seeming ability to stay comfortable in the storm (and based on my observations today, they were plenty enjoying the storm) spoke, I imagined, to their enjoyment of it. Similarly, I spent the rainiest stretch of the day in my yurt reading, with the wood stove going, luxuriating in the warmth and the deafening sound of rain pounding upon my little home. This was the height of comfort for me: another good book, a dry wood-burning heat to contrast the drenching rain outside, and the understanding that the deafening roar around me was cold, nasty, driving rain that I did not have to be in. I had my warmth, I had my shelter, and I had my comfort even as all the opposites raged outside.
This, then, is part of the beauty of living simply, even of living in what can be defined as poverty. By living in a yurt–a very simple structure–I stay connected to what is happening outside. I hear the wind and the rain, I feel the cold and damp if I don’t have my wood stove cranking and I can very easily bring in a warm summer’s night breeze by opening the door and cracking the dome on the roof. Outside activity is accessible to me. In most houses, that isn’t the case at all. Rain often cannot be heard at all, unless it’s particularly heavy, and it’s the same for wind. What’s happening outside can easily be a mystery. Climate control, as well, can negate the impacts of the heat and the cold, keeping an even temperature at all times. In fact, the act of heating or cooling a space is often not an act at all, but an automation, maintained by machines with only the barest of provocation of humans: the turn of a thermostat. I can certainly heat my yurt, but it involves me actually building and maintaining a fire, and is thus a conscious act rather than an automation. As such, it helps to keep me in tune to what is happening around me. It makes me think about my comfort and to take responsibility for creating it.
I think this is good. And I think climate control is in many ways bad. In attempting to automate comfort, we lose sight of it. In living in environments in which comfort is a constant, we forget what comfort is. When it’s always 72, you cease to appreciate it. When it’s always warm inside while cold outside and always cool inside when hot outside–and you never play a direct role in making it so–then you often cease to even understand what hot and cold is. You become a slave to constant, moderate temperatures and your body loses much of its ability to adjust to anything else.
We’ve built, purchased, engineered and automated comfort to such an extent in our society, I think we’ve lost sight of what comfort is. We need the contrasts–the juxtaposition of comfort and discomfort–to keep us attuned to the reality of comfort and to allow us to appreciate it. We need cold mornings so we can burrow into–and fall in love with–our warm beds. We need the sound of rain on the roof–not to mention an occasional, or perhaps regular, drenching–to appreciate being warm and dry. We need, too, the actual act of creating our comfort so that we can understand it as something we do for ourselves, rather than something that just occurs, automated, always. Comfort is special and resonant and it can only remain that way if we don’t normalize it, don’t automate it, and allow ourselves to be uncomfortable at times. We need that juxtaposition so as not to slip into a life of sleepwalking, divorced from sensation and severed from true contentment.
Today was supposed to be a particularly stormy day for us here on the Oregon coast. Up to two inches of rain was forecast, along with high winds. I found myself looking forward to this. While we’ve certainly had a fair number of rainy days since fall set in, we haven’t had a two-inches-of-rain sort of day. I imagined hunkering down in my yurt, the wood stove fired and keeping out the chill, listening to the pounding rain as I immersed myself in a good book.
While the storm didn’t end up being quite the rager as originally predicted, I did find myself hunkered down in my yurt for the first part of the day, along with the aforementioned good book, the hot stove, and the sound of rain all around me. We didn’t get the advertised two inches and the winds didn’t kick in until later in the afternoon–and weren’t as bad as predicted, either–but the rain was heavy enough to turn at times cacophonous and create a mesmerizing aural and visual backdrop.
Within that visual backdrop, not far from my yurt, were the farm’s eight ducks. (It used to be 14, but one or more raccoons recently gained a couple meals from the flock, sadly.) As I noted on Twitter a few weeks back, our ducks and chickens have different, distinct reactions to stormy weather. While the chickens tend to huddle under a tree or simply give up and go to bed early when it’s particularly rainy, the ducks grow ever more active and ecstatic as the rain increases. A torrential downpour and furious wind seems only to encourage them–to set their stubby tails wagging with greater energy and frequency, thier beaks digging beneath grass and weeds with ever more purpose and conviction. When I let them out of their house this morning, they ran out into the wet, cold and wind with a joy and abandon I couldn’t help but find contagious. They bobbed their heads, wagged their tails, searched for bugs and quacked heartily at each other.
As I watched, I couldn’t help but to wonder what it might be like to be a duck in a rainstorm. Their joy spoke to something natural–to a sensation that surely must fulfill whatever innate sense they hold as to what it is to be a duck. And I couldn’t help but wonder if being a duck in a rainstorm is not unlike a heightened sense of me being myself in a warm yurt in the same rainstorm. As I curled up later that morning with a good book, a fire crackling in the wood stove and heat radiating from it, listening to the rain hit my yurt but staying dry within, I felt a deep comfort from knowing what could be and having, instead, the opposite–existing within the best definition of coziness: a small warm space protected from the cold and wet beyond. What if being a duck in a rainstorm is simply a greater version of that sensation? Imagine the wind whipping around you, the rain drenching you, but your body being impervious to it. The rain runs harmlessly off your feathers and the wind slips around you, no better able to penetrate those feathers than the rain. You are warm and you are in your natural element–wet, perhaps a bit muddy, but comfortable. Not only is the wind and rain unable to touch you, but it invigorates you. Its power and primacy is potent, yet it brings you only comfort and joy. The raindrops feel good as they slide off you, providing a pleasurable sensation engrained deep into your genetics, triggering that sense deep within that comes whenever you bob upside down in a body of water, searching for food–perhaps even mystery–flowing that water over you, eating and drinking and feeling, engaging. To be a duck in a rainstorm–is it like a long, hot shower or a soak in a hot tub on a cold night? How does that feel?
I wish I knew. I know I like to be in a small, warm space when it’s raining outside, able to hear the hit of those drops but not having to feel the discomfort of being cold and wet. I know I like being in effective rain gear in a storm, able to feel the vibrations of the raindrops hitting my gear and feel the wind against my face, pressing against my body, but not suffering the cold and wet discomfort of being exposed. But what would it be to be naked and invulnerable? To be able to feel it so much more directly, yet still maintain your comfort?
Surely it would be exhilarating.
When I watch our ducks in the rain, I feel that–small and incomplete, but joyous just the same. I stand in the rain long enough for a smile, for a few moments of shared pleasure, and then I retreat back to my warm home–to my good book and the muted echo of rain and all that infrastructure of dry comfort.