I returned to America after a decade of aid and conservation work in Africa and Latin America. Abroad I had seen, starkly, the grave impact the global economic system was having on our environment, and I began asking myself a daunting question: Can humanity transition to gentler, more responsible ways of living by replacing attachment to things with deeper relationships to people, nature, and self?
Fortunately, I stumbled upon someone with some clues: Dr. Jackie Benton. When I met this slight 60-year-old physician, she was stroking a honey bee's wings in front of her 12-foot by 12-foot, off-the-grid home on No Name Creek in North Carolina. She struck me as someone who had achieved self-mastery in these confusing times, but the question of how she'd done this would prove to be a riddle intricately connected to the house itself.
She invited me to housesit while she was traveling. Unexpectedly, I changed plans and moved into the 12x12 for a season. Perhaps there's a "cure" in the practice of curiosity. With no electricity, piped water, or any of the conveniences I was so accustomed to, I was forced to see everything anew. The first puzzle: How in the world was I to bathe?
Jackie didn't leave an instruction manual, an "Idiot's Guide" to living in a 12 x 12. There was no shower, of course, and the creek was still too darn cold. But so was the rainwater Jackie harvested from the two gutters running off the 12 x 12's roof. I took one bucket shower, cursing as I cupped freezing rainwater over my head, before I discovered a five-gallon rubber diaphragm on her back porch labeled "Sun Shower." The directions were on the side of it, and I followed them, filling up the rubber bag and letting the morning sun heat it. Midday or evening, I strung it up in a tree beside the 12 x 12 and felt the positively hot water stream over my body, which became a sensuous daily pleasure. I appreciated every bit of that hot water, and it was all the lovelier knowing that its energy came directly from that day's sun, producing no dangerous greenhouse gasses. And the runoff watered the gardens; nothing was wasted down a drain.
I began to appreciate water. It felt so immediate. Instead of being invisibly piped into my home from some deep aquifer or distant reservoir, it fell from the sky into the pair of 150-gallon tanks beside the house. When I arrived they were full; when I left, ditto. All of my dishwashing, laundry (I followed Jackie's lead and used only biodegradable soaps), bathing, and cooking water simply came out of the sky, passed through my hands, and then went directly back into the earth to water the food I ate.
Less appealing was the dilemma of the toilet. Instead of a flush toilet, I discovered that Jackie used a five-gallon composting toilet under the porch out back. It featured a regular toilet seat, but there was no chemical-filled cesspool below ground — just a standard white bucket. Throw some fresh-smelling cedar chips in after every use, and there's absolutely no foul odor. The conundrum occurred when the bucket started to fill. And fill. How to dispose of it?
I fingered the spines of Jackie's scientific books until I came to one with a rather nonthreatening title: The Humanure Handbook. For 21st century homesteaders like Jackie, it's the bible of composting toilets. So many designs! True to Jackie's simplicity, she'd chosen the simplest model, the concealed five-gallon bucket, the contents of which, The Humanure Handbook informed me, I was to simply compost. Yes, in 14 weeks human feces are soil just like any other soil and can be ploughed back into your garden. So I carried the bucket over to the compost pile, intending to follow the Handbook and dump it right over my egg shells and carrot peels. But at the last minute I couldn't go through with it. The science notwithstanding, I felt queasy over the aesthetics; I grabbed a shovel and buried the contents deep in the woods.
Adjusting to life without electricity was relatively painless. I've worked in subsistence economies around the world and have gone for short stints without electricity. The only oddity was that I was in the heart of the world's richest nation — but living a subsistence life. No humming refrigerator, no ringing phones (I decided to go cell phone-free in the 12 x 12), and none of the ubiquitous "stand-by" lights on appliances — those false promises of life inside the machines. Instead: the whippoorwill's nocturnal call, branches scraping quiet rhythms in the breeze, and groggy No Name Creek. Looking east from the 12 x 12 toward the creek and into the ink-black night, without the slightest glimmer of industrial society, I thought, Could I really be inside the borders of a high-tech superpower? To the west, I could barely make out the Thompsons' porch light, and José and Graciela's lights cast a glow on the trees above their homes.
Fire replaced electric light. Sparks from outdoor fires would briefly escape gravity and reflect off the creek, before disappearing into the massive dark sky and the flaming white points of the stars above. Most luxurious of all, each night was blessed with the glow of candles. On the 11th night, I noted in my journal, I lit the candles without even thinking about it. I simply came in after a hike, struck a match, lit them, and began cooking, candle lighting having become as automatic as switch-flipping. The house glowed from the inside like a jack o' lantern. Sometimes I'd step outside and look in through the windows, a dozen or so candles inside, as cheery as a birthday cake — the 12 x 12 point lit with primordial fire amid dark woods.
But you don't have to live in a 12x12, off-the-grid house to find personal happiness and contribute to global healing. Even in large cities — I now live in New York — I've found it is possible to maintain warrior presence and scale back from overdevelopment to enough, by planting a windowsill or community garden; doing yoga; walking and biking; and carrying out at least one positive action for others every day. We decide what gets globalized — consumption or compassion, selfishness or solidarity — by how we cultivate the most valuable place of all, our inner acre.
As I cultivate that acre, it naturally links with others. There is enormous hope for more mindful internationalism. One million community groups, NGOs, and other grassroots efforts have sprung to life around the world, the biggest upswell of people power ever. Thinking of this, I feel new questions bubble up: If we are globalizing, why not globalize a reverence for the still, the small? Can we globalize planes with "butterfly wings:" planes that run clean? Can we globalize maladjustment to empire by linking those one million soft spots within the flat? While the current global economic downturn might challenge us in the short term, in the long term it might get people to turn away from a life of excess and live on less, closer to the earth.
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William Powers has led development aid and environmental initiatives in Latin America, Africa, and Washington, D.C. The author of the memoirs Blue Clay People and Whispering in the Giant's Ear, his essays on global issues have appeared in media including the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Atlantic, and Slate. He has been interviewed on programs including Fresh Air and Living on Earth and is a senior fellow at the World Policy Institute. Powers lives part-time in New York City.
Books mentioned in this post
William Powers is the author of Twelve by Twelve: A One-Room Cabin Off the Grid and Beyond the American Dream