Emerson believed that nature was a better teacher than history or man-made authority. Wordsworth saw “mind” at work in daffodils and ferns, artwork underway in every forest. And this is what Thoreau means by “Nature is a greater and more perfect art.” More perfect than what? Than anything we are capable of crafting from plastic, from iron, from words. I’ve felt the truth of those eternal sentiments since I was a boy, years before being blessed by Wordsworth and Thoreau. At the age of ten, I needed to leave home in order to punish my father for some perceived injustice or other. I crept down the block and disappeared into the pine forest, barefoot and wearing a backpack stuffed with survival gear and crackers. That pine forest spoke to me of simplicity and purity—of haven—long before I had an accurate notion of complexity and contamination. And what worries me now about Ethan is that when it comes time for him to run away in order to make me ache, he will not have a pine forest whispering to him about sanctuary and salvation. If I’m lucky he’ll flee to the Museum of Fine Arts and lose himself in quite a different, albeit lesser, breed of sanctuary. If I’m unlucky he’ll walk into Harvard Square to befriend the pierced vagabonds huddled in a reek at the entrance of the T. What I want for him, really, is religion, and not that species of belief available cheaply in every one of Boston’s churches, but the religion that is already a part of him, pulsing within him—if only he is allowed to experience it as such.
The connection between children and nature has taken on considerable urgency in recent years. Evidence is accumulating that access to outdoor experiences is vital for children’s physical and mental health. The absence of such opportunities manifests itself in ‘Nature Deficit Disorder’, a term coined by the American writer Richard Louv in Last Child in the Woods (2005). Viewed from this perspective, Winnie-the-Pooh and the biographical elements the book imports from Christopher Milne’s life are an informative case study of the connections between a child and a landscape. Inside the house, Pooh is just a stuffed animal being dragged along by a cartoon boy; outside, all comes to life.
Neither of these pieces could fairly be classified as back-to-nature romanticism. And I’m all about the deep, powerful connection with natural landscapes. But while reading these, I couldn’t help remembering something Steve Hagen said about our notion of the simple life:
I once spoke at a retreat in which people had gathered to examine, among other things, the idea of simplicity — more precisely, living the “simple life”. One of the speakers was a woman who had spent a number of years living in the countryside in Wisconsin, raising a family. Many years ago, she and her husband decided that they would go off to the country and live a simple life. By choice they didn’t have a phone. They didn’t have electricity. They didn’t have plumbing. They raised two children. And they surely led a simple life because, having so limited their activity, they made few demands upon their environment and upon the world.
Most of us at the retreat probably had a clear sense of what is meant by a “simple life”. It meant living unpretentiously, humbly, and efficiently; above all, it meant being self-sufficient and not tied into or dependent on some massive, external “infrastructure”. Yes, we all knew what the simple life was, even those of us who didn’t live so “simply”. But as we discussed the idea of simplicity, we began to see a great deal of complexity in it. After all, here were our friends, clearly leading a simple life — we all recognized that they did — but when it was time to do the dishes, they had to have already cut some firewood, which had to already have been cured and hauled into the house. They then had to stoke a fire, pump their water from the well, heat the water on the stove, pour it into a pan, and regulate its temperature by mixing it with more cool water from the well. Then they could do their dishes — after adding some homemade soap.
By contrast, those of us who don’t live quite this “simply” load our dishes into the dishwasher, add store-bought soap and push a button. Yet we most often think of the lifestyle which includes a dishwasher as being the more hectic and complicated one. We call the first lifestyle the simple life, the second a rat race. But where’s the simplicity? Where’s the complexity? Clearly they are two. But if they are two, how are they two?
So, yeah, I awoke at around 4:30 Wednesday morning to the sound of one of the dogs bonking the bedroom door with her nose, freaked out by the shrill chirping noise the smoke detector makes when the power has been lost. The snow had started falling the previous evening, and being heavy and wet, it had downed trees and power lines before ending late Wednesday.
At least one day off from work, no Internet or TV to distract me, roads impassable under twenty inches of snow, so I says to myself I says, might as well make the best of it and catch up on some of my reading! I bet I can knock out at least a couple books before this is over!
Actually, what I spent the majority of my time doing was going outside with a pitcher to collect snow to melt in the several cooking pots on top of the woodstove for all of our water-related needs. That is, when I wasn’t trudging out to the woodshed through thigh-deep drifts to collect four or five logs at a time, aiming to keep a supply of about twenty on the back porch. Or using a combination of snow shovel and sumo-wrestler stomps to flatten down something like a path through the snow for the dogs to walk on. Or walking to the end of a seventy-or-so yard driveway to shovel out the snow in front of the cars so that we could leave at some point. Or monitoring the frozen foods on top of the stove so as not to overcook them. Or “relaxing” in the tub with a pot of warm water which has to suffice for washing hair, bathing and shaving. Most of this stuff, of course, needed to be done while there was daylight enough to see, which meant that much of my reading was actually done by flickering candlelight, making it a bit more difficult. Long story short, I’m still on the same book I started reading on Monday.
I realize that because this was only a short-term situation, it was thus prone to a lot more ad-hoc scampering around. With planning, it could surely be done a lot more efficiently. But it definitely reminded me that it’s not so much a case of “simple” living so much as it is having your horizons sharply truncated. Your world may get much smaller, but it doesn’t really get less busy.
The book I’ve been reading, by the way? Ian Mortimer’s The Time-Traveler’s Guide to Medieval England: A Handbook for Visitors to the Fourteenth Century. Fascinating book, but goddamn, between that and Old Man Winter’s wrath, I’ve never been more thankful for modernity than I am this week.