A book for Luddite-curious city dwellers: Mark Sundeenís ĎThe Unsettlersí

March 13, 2017 

Thanks 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.

Sundeen 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.

Q: 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?

A: 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.

Q: 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?

A: 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.

Q: 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 family?

A: 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.

Q: 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?

A: 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.

Q: 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?

A: 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.

Q: 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?

A: 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.

Q: 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?

A: 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.

Q: 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?

A: 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.

Q: 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?

A: 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.

Q: 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?

A: 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.

Q: Are there local organizations that inspired L.A. readers should investigate?

A: Thereís at least three: the Los Angeles Eco-village; the Urban Homestead; and Root Simple, run by Kelly Coyne and Erik Knutzen.



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