by Linda Tatelbaum
About Time Press, 1997
1050 Guinea Ridge Road
Appleton, ME 04862
117 pages, $9.95 paperbackBuy this book from Powell's, an independent bookstore
In 1977, late by her own admission for the hippie back-to-the-land movement, Linda Tatelbaum moved to 72 scrub-wood acres in Maine. Unlike most hippie homesteaders – who endured a year or two of slug-eaten vegetables and no hot water before they loaded up their VWs and drove back to town – she stayed. Carrying Water as a Way of Life is a collection of essays that says little about how she stayed and much about why.
Linda Tatelbaum is still living in the house she and her husband built in 1977. Well, it's not exactly the same house. What was a one-room, passive solar house with no running water and no electricity has been built onto twice, has hot water, and boasts16 solar panels powering the TV, VCR, refrigerator, lights, and two computers. But that transformation from purely primitive to modern-but-off-the-grid is a big part of what Carrying Water as a Way of Life is about.
“The real truth,” says Tatelbaum, “is that it's hard to live by your own principles because of a little thing called change.”
America has a grand literary tradition of rediscovering the joys of simple living, expressed ultimately by a return to the land, which exists to nurture and teach us. But the bearers of those glad tidings rarely contemplate change; they seem never adequately to communicate how hard the simple life is, especially as we grow older and our view of what's important shifts.
The basic texts of the 1960s back-to-the-land movement were Thoreau's Walden and Helen and Scott Nearing's Living the Good Life. Thoreau wrote his paean to the gritty joy of living off the bounty of nature based on a whole two years of doing so, at the end of which he determined he'd learned all he needed to know and moved back to town. Even if we're willing to ignore the ephemeral nature of Thoreau's experiment, he facilely surmounted some obstacles rather difficult for his modern followers. For one thing, he picked a nice chunk of land nobody was using right then and squatted on it. For another, he threw together a 150-square-foot cabin – not many modern folks' idea of enough space to live – for a total outlay of $28.12. Finally, he lived a quick walk from the comforts of Concord. If things got chilly in the cabin, he could jaunt to town and cadge dinner from Emerson. But Thoreau made it all sound so simple and beautiful and, most of all, easy.
Tatelbaum starts, like Thoreau, with the story of building a place to live. But she tells us as much about the setbacks, the frustration, the tedium of building as she does about the joy. The satisfaction is there, as it is throughout the book, but a bit more tempered than Thoreau's advertisement for life in the wild. In Tatelbaum's world, Thoreau's $28.12 becomes “Lesson in economics: worked and saved for five years, then passed it to John in one huge check.” And that's just for the site preparation and concrete work.
Then there's the daily business of living. The other '60s back-to-the-land gurus, the Nearings, dealt with that. You just do it. Half the day is “bread labor,” the other half is devoted to higher pursuits. What could be simpler? There are a couple of things easy to miss in the Nearings' books. One is time – they lived in stone houses they built themselves. If you're not careful, you miss that they spent years building those houses. Another is just how hard they must have worked in those half-days. You don't raise all your own food, cut all your own wood, and make maple sugar or tend enough blueberries to supply your cash needs without putting in some serious labor.
But the main trick the Nearings pulled off was resisting change. When their neighborhood in New Hampshire got too trendy and crowded, they moved up the road to Maine. They never encountered the most demanding agent of change – children.
Having a baby was pretty much how Tatelbaum started out. And that's how she got her start on realizing that the pure simple life is mighty hard to live. Tatelbaum reveals how she found that life on the homestead does not create an exemption from the human reality of change.
It does, however, make a difference in how the change occurs and what shape it takes. For most of us, electricity is a given. For Tatelbaum, it is a debate. In a 1978 essay, she discusses the temptation of having the power line come down their road; they decide against hooking in. “Here is good,” she says. “Stay here.”
The next year, she's pregnant.
They lived another five years without electricity, continuing to carry water from the well, read, and – when Tatelbaum took a job as a college professor – grade papers by kerosene lamp.
Then they put in solar panels. Part of the reason: “From our son Noah's point of view, four birthdays without ice cream was enough.” But more than that was the realization that “five years of hauling water seemed long.” Carrying water may be, in some romantic sense, a noble endeavor. It also takes time. It's also just plain hard work. Finally, comes the realization that it's something done by most from necessity; if you've got a choice, choose the pump: “Did I value my principles so little that for cheap convenience I would turn my back on my beliefs? ... Years of gardening had taught me that change is the nature of things, yet I'd been resisting change in my own life, doggedly limiting myself to a worn-out definition of who I thought I was. ‘Getting power' gave me power, the power to accept my own changes along with those in the woods and fields around me.”
Tatelbaum's essays are quietly written, mostly with a touch of humor. They are a gentle chronicle of the struggle of building a house, carrying water, growing and preserving food, watching developers discover your quiet corner, living actively in a small community that is changing even faster than you.
She does not, however, even hint at the struggle as tragedy. But she also does not say, “Leave the world for this simple and free existence.” She tells instead the complexity of simplicity and the cost of living free. Through it all, though, shines joy in living that life, strength achieved through hard work and hard choices. There is no question that she loves the life she has made.
If you're thinking about trying modern homesteading, read Thoreau to get enthusiastic and the Nearings for assurance anyone can do it. But read Carrying Water as a Way of Life first, for the plain, complex facts.
Reviewed by Doug Pibel, a freelance writer enjoying a simple life in Snohomish, Washington.