Image credit: kozyndan “Roughing It”, 2005
Since the Hipsters on Foodstamps article, I’ve been a huge fan of the Pinched series at Salon.com Having been occupied by my normal life through most of this past spring and summer, I had the time to catch up with the reading. The writing, while very well done, and the authors, who all seem like incredibly nice and humble people, seemed to depict a very romanticized notion of economic hardship. Seen:
“Uh, huh,” I said, distracted. I’d been crouching in front of our woodstove for 45 minutes trying to coax the smoldering pile of kindling to flames. The wood was wet and unseasoned, and the mausoleum damp of our house wasn’t helping. I could hear water plinking through the tin roof into the bucket behind the stove, where the worst of the leaks fall. When Rich’s statement sank in, I was amused at the perfect anachronism: my mustachioed husband in a flannel shirt complaining about sourdough starter. But then I realized I fit the picture, too. I wore rubber ankle boots, a skirt, a long canvas jacket smeared with mud, a wool hat and an apron. My plans for later that day: gather dandelion greens for dinner, heat water for my bath, scrub the wooden floor with a vinegar solution, and sweep out the outhouse. Yes, outhouse.” (Source)
Now, isn’t that something kind of beautiful? A plinking tin roof, unseasoned wood, dandelions, and a mustachioed husband? All I picture is the Frontierland portion of Disneyland (or at the Magic Kingdom in Disney World for sticklers) full of adults and no children, having the time of their lives, while playing with their Blackberries. Doesn’t that just sound like the kind of thing urban escapists look forward to after a rough week at work?
Now, in NO WAY am I making fun of the author, and the incredible ways she and her husband have found money-saving alternatives amidst the recession. (If you read all the way through, the linked article at Salon is chock full of recipes you might want to try at home…if you have access to nettle.) And the outhouse, whoooooo! That is FORREAL roughing it.
There is just something to be said about the types of vacations some people take when they want to temporarily embrace a “simpler” life. It’s borderline condescending, and one of the reasons why terrible films like Under the Tuscan Sun or that unfortunate (and essentialist) best seller, Eat Pray Love exist.
It’s a fairly common attitude many Americans have – to go “back to basics” after people with money/access/privilege just want a lil’ slice of life elsewhere. Whether it’s to feel “alive,” break out of work patterns, a need to find themselves…the list of potential reasons is a fairly long one.
But what is the draw to the “simple” life? Where we have the privilege to say, “Hey, I’m just visiting. Thanks for the nettle broth, locals! It was good as hell,” at any point, then leave. Are we responsibly entering and exiting these communities? If not, isn’t that a bit f–ked up?
The “basic” life in the country (or wherever that unnamed elsewhere may be) is not simple at all. As in the excerpt above, there are a number of tasks that require so much time and effort just to run a household. Food isn’t foraged, planted, or grown where I am. It’s in aisle 14, about 3 blocks from my house. It’s bought on the way home from work. Work is in front of a desktop, not in the middle of a field. No, things are simple here, not simple in the country.
I want to say what differentiates the rest of the world from us, crazy Americans, is that the majority of us don’t have a visual understanding of our dependence on the land. Its language is not something city dwellers/ apartment renters can pick up by ear over the course of a week or so when we visit these other places. Americans, unless you’re a farmer fighting Monsanto, many of us just don’t have that kind of relationship with any one area. And if we have no connection to a particular area, doesn’t that cut us off from the rest of the community, as well?
Being transient in any given place — the idea that we’re here for now, that we don’t have to build relationships — keeps us away from one another. That’s what I’m trying to get across. When you are not connected to the land, you are likely not connected to the community. Do apartment dwellers know more neighbors than not? Is this just something symptomatic of living in New York City, land of chosen anonymity? That may be why I feel it most.
Maybe that’s why in these hard times, we seek those “simpler” spaces which remind us of those vital relationships we are looking for; the one between space and people. When we search for “simple”, I think we’re looking for a time when what we said mattered, and we weren’t so isolated.
Maybe rustic vacations aren’t so bad after all, if they point to the lack of freedom we have in our daily lives. We get to examine just how dependent we really are on…various external systems. Maybe we find something familiar in what should have been, when we’re transplanted from routine and have actual conversations with (what my sisters like to call) real people. Only outside of our insanely consumerist lives do we see the more concrete connections between land and life.
There’s a beautiful song by Salidummay, a singing group from Kalinga, a mountainous province in the Philippines. Lots of rich ore there, so they’re always under the threat of land grabbing by foreign mining interests. The song ends something like this: land that fed me / land that raised me / land where I raised my own / this is the land I will fight for / land where I will die.
…yeah. This city life doesn’t really make me feel that way.