Since reading an article in this month’s “Atlantic” (https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2017/04/lessons-of-the-hermit/517770/) about a fellow in Maine who lived as a hermit in the woods for 27 years, I’ve been thinking about how I frame my own understanding of the concept, and progress on steps toward realizing it. I’ve also been looking for a way to frame the point of the ‘real’ on my spectrum of the ‘ideal’ when it comes to a specific notion of self-sufficiency, and that’s kind of where this ended up straying as I wrote.
It’s worth noting that there’s no word that really fits what I’m aiming for. As I note below, ‘hermit’ or ‘recluse’ doesn’t do it, nor does this habitation or state suggested by ‘hermitage’ have much appeal. Can one find seclusion in nature? I would argue that Wendell Berry has managed to find that, and I certainly take him as a role model. Can one be a nomad across a known expanse, and thus diffuse a love of place a little broader than one mountain or one valley? I think so. My redoubt is not a literal fortification, but a place to feel settled as silt settles in calm waters.
I tend to assume nature, self-sufficiency, and seeking a hermetic life are interdependent. I don’t see the point of attempting to realize any one of them without the others. Before I continue though, let’s be clear on how I’m using the words:
Nature: that portion of the Earth which is not of human construct. In that sense, it can mean both environments which have never seen impact from human endeavors, or those which have been abandoned by humans in the past, and which have come to a new homeostasis.
Self-sufficiency: the honest ability to independently see to one’s own needs, ideally relying only on what nature provides.
Solitude: (it’s interesting to me that both ‘hermit’ and ‘recluse’, as defined in English lexicons, define one who seeks a solitary existence, but both note religious motivations. As I’ve seen them used, ‘hermit’ suggests one whose desire for solitude is not understood by most, but is not necessarily pejorative. ‘Recluse’ is much like hermit, but has a pejorative character.) For me, seeking solitude has no particular religious trappings, and is a state of being minimally influenced by the presence of other human beings. It is to be alone geographically, physically, and energetically.
With these definitions in mind, I look at all situations where any one or two elements are missing to be insufficient. They all, in some measure, support one another.
- Without nature, there is diminished opportunity for calm and to be centered in oneself. The human construct is one of past-future-orientation, constant distraction, and willed numbness to filter out the omnipresent flood of sensory input and information.
- Without self-sufficiency, one is likely dependent on money, employment, and consumer capitalism, which sums up the caveats of American culture.
- Without solitude, one is immersed in the influence of others, an influence that distorts and distracts in both positive and negative ways. Writing as a sensitive introvert who gathers his energetic and intellectual resources by being alone, solitude is something I am usually challenged to get enough of.
- Nature without solitude or self-sufficiency isn’t really nature, and often comes packaged in the form of trails, parks, campgrounds, and even wilderness areas. As such, it’s tainted with the excessive input inherent to human presence; and untenable in that one ends up a kind of ‘nature urchin’ (riffing off the term ‘street urchin’, and my disdain for smug claims to live apart from the system, while subsisting on that system’s luxurious waste stream), relying on the refuse of civilization and the property of others to survive. This is my primary disagreement with the lifestyle embraced by hobos, ‘travelers’, and the subject of the “Atlantic” article when it comes to living a solitary life.
- Self-sufficiency without solitude or nature is pointless. It’s a lot of work to be self-sufficient, and it isn’t of much utility if you are just replicating on principle that which can be had for work and money. Most urban dwellers I know pursue self-sufficiency as a kind of hobby, imagining a dystopian day when this unpracticed skillset will magically become useful, and that they and theirs – equally as magically – will be able to escape the urban context as the rest of metropolis’ inhabitants are frantically attempting the same.
- A hermit’s life without nature or self-sufficiency strikes me as a state of perpetual frustration and torment.
After two years’ effort, I don’t pretend to have achieved any one of these elements, but am gradually increasing all three, balanced against one another.
I spend a lot of time dry camping within 30 miles of Bozeman. I make a point of maintaining a zero footprint wherever I am, whether that’s boondocking off a forest service access road in the Bridgers, or enjoying the windblown and lightly populated desolation of a BLM campground at one end of Bear Trap Canyon. I do not mistake these places for nature, and accept for now that this long tether to Bozeman is one step along the path. You can’t commute from nature, and the trick in even getting to my definition of nature is that it’s inherently inaccessible, and so the human construct of roads is a necessary trade-off.
One of the hardest realities about self-sufficiency (and related concepts like simplicity, off-grid living, and tiny homes) is that it assumes the consumer choices enabled by at least moderate financial comfort. Poor people don’t get to choose, which is an essential reality of capitalism. All the things I’ve achieved have required money above and beyond what’s needed to continue a baseline of creature comfort for two adults and two teenagers.
It would be dishonest to pretend I could have achieved any of this without the momentum of nearly 20 years spent working in the so-called New Economy of 21st century technology. Like so many others who have chosen to downsize (a corporate term so quaintly adopted into mainstream culture) or simplify, few who do so burn the bridge that could take them back to what they had before. As I see it, I work toward the trio of nature, self-sufficiency, and solitude as a reasonably happy alternative to the likely impoverished life of living on Social Security in financially enforced cohabitation with others as a means of surviving retirement in about 20 years.
But, on to the nuts-and-bolts of self-sufficiency…
food: I tend to avoid anything that requires much refrigeration or cooking. This is partially because I’m a minimalist, and partially because I have nearly daily access to hot food during or right after the workday. I keep enough dried and canned food on-hand in the trailer that I could sustain myself for about a week without visiting civilization. This is nowhere near self-sufficiency. There is little in the way of edible forage to be had near the locations I prefer, and the only reasonably accessible food would be fish from nearby rivers. I could also kill bunnies, which I’m very averse to doing, and I have yet to develop practical hunting skills such as skinning and gutting animals.
water: I could collect and purify my own water, but that effort would be unreasonably expensive given my circumstantial tether to urban resources. There’s no particular utility in pushing farther into this area unless I was to have spans of a week or more where dedicated resources expended to get water exceeded the effort of local procurement and purification.
shelter: I have one of the best 17′ fiberglass travel trailers available, and one which offers the best value for extended habitation in the winter.
heat: like water, is one of the more challenging pieces. I have a propane-fueled furnace in the trailer. 18 months ago, as I was able to set up from October to March on a 2-acre lot, I used both propane and a modest gas-powered generator during the coldest nights. The generator served the two-fold purpose of not only supplementing heat via a 1000w mica panel heater, but also charging the batteries in a canyon location that only got about 5 hours of sunlight each day. I’d love to heat off solar, but to do so in Montana’s winter, I’d have to have a whole separate trailer and bank of solar panels dedicated to that end. Such a solution would cost as much as $4000 to do right.
electricity: I can generate my own power, and the more I use the solar power setup, the more I derive value from the $1000 upfront expense that was involved.
waste: I have the means to see to my own eliminatory processes without using water or public facilities, though I have not yet dedicated myself to that effort.
hygiene: I’ve realized simple hygiene elements like brushing teeth, sponge bathing, and targeted odor control, all with minimal water usage. Actual showering and bathing is another matter, and I still rely on urban amenities via workplace for that level. I harbor no illusions that seeing to this level of hygiene is unrealistic right now due to the quantities of water involved (20-50 gallons), heating water, and managing waste water. I often reflect on the utility of streams, waterfalls, and hot springs in this regard.
Of the three aspects, I’ve probably been most successful in achieving a desired level of solitude during my episodic periods of hermit-practice. Winter is a challenge, particularly as this past winter I couldn’t spend any time playing hermit from the beginning of December to the end of February, due to danger inherent in towing my shelter over icy mountain passes. The most dedicated stretches of several weeks at a time the rest of the year mean that nearly all of my non-work hours are spent with few to no people within hundreds of yards. There have been occasions where, aside from the passing vehicle on an access road, this has extended to perhaps a mile or two. Unless they’re making an uncommon level of racket (shooting, ATVs, especially loud dogs), hundreds of yards is quite sufficient to feel quite isolated from other human beings.