to Pinterest boards and Instagram hashtags, the word
"authentic" has passed from buzzword into the
realm of parody: think Portlandia-style farm-to-table
spreads, mountain-top selfies and any fashion shoot set
in Joshua Tree. But in Mark Sundeenís "The
Unsettlers: In Search of the Good Life in Todayís
America" (Riverhead, $26), three American families
ditch modern comforts and convenience ó including, in
some cases, supermarkets, cars and even electricity ó
to define authentic living for themselves. For "the
Luddite-curious," "The Unsettlers" offers
an in-depth and compelling account of diverse Americans
living off the grid. In each of the bookís three
sections ó Missouri, Detroit, and Montana ó these
homesteaders show us how the other half lives.
received my call in Moab, Utah, where he owns a piece of
land. Heís something of an unsettler himself:
"Currently I have a trailer and no house." Our
conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
You begin with Ethan Hughes and Sarah Wilcox, a young
couple who created an intentional living community in
Missouri. What made you want to write about them?
Theyíre very hard to find ó they donít have a
website, they donít have any social media, theyíve
never had any major news coverage. Iíd decided that
just living off the grid was no longer true dissent. I
was curious to hear from people who could go all the way
ó stop using cars, stop using the banking system.
Starting an intentional living community that forgoes
cars, cash and electricity feels pretty radical, and yet
you note a number of similarities that Hughes and Wilcox
share with libertarians and right-wing Christians, some
of whom are their neighbors. Was this common ground
surprising to you?
Totally surprising Ö and totally inspiring. I was just
so impressed that they were able to find that common
ground. Thatís something that I thinkís important
now that Trump is president. The divisiveness that he
engenders, it pits people against each other who
actually have the same values. Liberals and
conservatives both want to live with moral integrity,
but they have separate names for that. The right says,
"We want to have Christian values, family
values," and thatís interpreted as anti-other
religions or anti-single parents or anti-same-sex
couples. Liberals say, "We want to end racism, we
want to end bigotry, and we want to save the
planet," and thatís another way of living with
integrity. I think thereís a lot more commonality than
we tend to think.
In the Detroit section, you introduce us to Olivia
Hubert, who is African American, and her husband, Greg
Willerer, who re-envision their corner of Detroit as an
urban farm. How did you decide to investigate this
When I set out to write this book, I assumed it was only
going to be about white people in rural America, and I
was bored with that narrative. I wanted to see if there
were African Americans who were living by these
back-to-the-land type values.
At one point, while discussing urban farming, you
mention First Lady Michelle Obamaís White House
vegetable garden, which made me think of the idea of the
First Family as a reflection of the American family ó
the First Family as a family to aspire to. Do you think
that will change during the current administration?
Itís a little too soon to say. My prediction is that
thereís going to be a lot of people looking for ways
to live in resistance to this government. When I was
writing the book, I thought people might think that my
families were Chicken Littles, like, "Oh, itís
not so bad, we donít actually live in a Petrostate."
And now I think that they seem prophetic. Going back to
the land or growing your own food isnít the first
thing that comes to peopleís mind ó at this point itís
more like protest, and calls to your congressman ó but
the connection between radical simplicity and direct
action is there. Being a full-time activist is a
burn-out job ó the frustration, the anger, the
anxiety, the travel. What people like Ethan and Sarah
figured out was how to incorporate activism but also
find a kind of peace. Itís emotionally sustainable.
Activism never ends, and if you want to do it for your
whole life, you have to start rearranging your
consumption and getting your inner house in order.
In the bookís final section, you tell the story of
Steve Elliott and Luci Brieger, who begin their lives
together in a tepee in Montana and maintain a commitment
to back-to-the-land living for more than three decades.
What drew you to them?
The first two families left me with the thought of
"Well, sure, theyíre doing this with young kids,
but once those kids get older theyíre going to have to
compromise." But Steve and Luci had been doing this
for 35 years, and theyíd proven that you could stay
true to this radical vision but also succeed by more
conventional standards: They own land, they own a house,
and their kids are going to college.
A student of the Possibility Alliance in Minnesota calls
their way of life "practicing right livelihood in
the belly of the empire." After the experience of
writing "The Unsettlers," how would you
describe "right livelihood" now?
I used to have this feeling like, "Oh, If Iím not
farming, then Iím so bourgeois," which may be
true! But Iíve accepted that writing is what I love,
and that it actually may do more good in the world than
growing my own food. But I do other, difficult work that
I also love, and that includes some gardening, some
building. The last element is about being married, and I
talk a lot about that in the book: realizing that I was
embracing certain limits, and discovering that thereís
a deeper kind of abundance by doing so.
Apart from the narratives of your subjects, thereís a
thread in the book that investigates struggling with
your own ambition as a writer. Can you talk about the
decision to include that subplot?
I didnít summon the courage to put that in the book
until the very last revision. In a lot of books about
environmentalism or sustainability, thereís this
implied virtue. Thereís a million of these books:
"I went for a year without doing X."
"People who use this thing are bad, but Iím now
good." What I realized in the writing of this book
is that itís easy for me to be virtuous when it comes
to not wanting a lot of money or a big house or a big
car, because Iíve never wanted those things, but I,
like everyone else, have infinite appetites. For me, it
turned out those appetites were for acclaim and fame and
attention. I didnít want to be preachy and
self-righteous, so I felt I had to put that in the book.
You proclaim that "the confines of a cubicle is one
of the defining conundrums of our age, along with
wolfing a sack of potato chips while watching "Top
Chef." At times, while reading, I felt like a
voyeur, devouring passages about tilling the land from
the sterile remove of my office. Is there a danger to
that kind of remove? Should I feel guilty about that?
I wanted this to be a page turner, something that
someone who has zero interest in this stuff could buy in
an airport, and get to the end. Even if they donít
change a thing, but are introduced to Wendell Berry and
Gandhi and black food justice, thatís huge. Just
bringing these ideas into mainstream discourse seems
like a pretty big victory.
The book isnít prescriptive ó this isnít a how-to,
and you never once suggest that the reader should
renounce her worldly possessions and head back to the
farm ó but if you arenít intending to change hearts
and minds with this story, are you still, in some way,
hoping to influence them?
Iíd specifically like the well-intentioned liberal to
ask questions about their consumption and not just about
their political stance. People say, "Iím going
minimalist, Iím going to get rid of all my books and
CDs and records and just use a smartphone." Well,
OK, Iím glad that your house is less cluttered, but
youíre actually using more fossil fuels and doing more
harm with that smartphone than you would with a whole
library of books.
Each familyís commitment to the good life is inspiring
Ö and intimidating. As you say in the book,
"pulling a small thread ó asking where your
tomatoes or your drinking water comes from Ė causes
the whole system to unravel." For those of us who
are inspired to make a change, where do we begin?
I donít think you begin by depriving yourself of
things you love. On the one hand, this book is about the
ethical boycott of destructive industries, but on the
other hand itís about following your heart and finding
meaningful work. When you do work that you love, a lot
of these needs tend to fall away. I donít say this in
the book, but my personal feeling is that much of our
waste and consumption happens because people are doing
work that they donít like or they feel ethically
compromised by, and theyíre doing it for most of their
waking hours. Of course theyíre going to need a nicer
car, or an expensive vacation or drugs or a sense of
retreat or therapies, because theyíre unhappy.
Are there local organizations that inspired L.A. readers
Thereís at least three: the Los Angeles Eco-village;
the Urban Homestead; and Root Simple, run by Kelly Coyne
and Erik Knutzen.