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Monday, January 14, 2013

Meet "Wanderer" (and it isn't me)

As I hope the previous post showed, we met a whole host of interesting people at Nan'ao.  AJ, the boss, who retired from his computer engineering job to start the farm.  Sam, his son, who quickly took interest and before the age of twenty has already completed a permaculture design course (one of my goals for this trip) and is now doing various cultivation experiments on his own land.  You Hsin and Hwang Yu, who gave up lucrative but unsatisfying careers in sales and chemistry, respectively, to be closer to the land and their loved ones.  Michelle, who out of concern about peak oil and environmental justice issues, decided to follow her parents into farming.  Everyone I met, whether long-term worker or short-term volunteer like myself, had story that I found moving and an outlook that I could identify with.  Rarely do I feel so in-tune with one person, let alone ten or fifteen.

Much like at Sadhana, the atmosphere was always a joyous one, filled with banter, laughter, and music.  Nonetheless, in any group of a sufficient size, there's bound to be someone that stands a little aloof.  In many cases I feel it's me, but this time, it wasn't.  


Meet Jin-Hong, English name "Wanderer."  I didn't really take much notice of him during the first few days.  First off, he lived off on his own, rather than at the farmhouse or at the volunteer dorm.  Second, only appeared irregularly, while many of the other staff showed up for every meal.  Third, he rarely spoke; or rather, in fairer terms, he was simply only about one-fifth as raucous as the rest of us.   It wasn't until Michelle's agricultural English lesson, where everyone present introduced themselves and gave a brief explanation of how they became interested in farming, that I got to hear his story.  

The same 1000km "Huandao" trip around the country that I recently finished on my bike, he did on foot.  It took him ninety-three days.  Behind him he pulled a cart with his few possessions and a trash can, into which he deposited all the of litter he came across on his way, dumping it off at 7-11s or police stations or wherever else he could.  During that time, he often asked himself "What does it mean to be an environmentalist?" and came to the conclusion that, for him, it meant living the simple life.  

Needless to say, Mingyu and I were both intrigued.  I have been trying, in the words of Thoreau, to "simplify, simplify" for years now.  Perhaps even a decade.  I gave up TV.  I gave up soda and juice.  I gave up meat.  I gave up animal products*.  I gave up cars.  I gave up new clothes.  I gave up my apartment, my job, and about 75% of my stuff.  I'm trying to give up plastic, trash, beer, anything I don't need.  Recently I heard that someone named Diogenes once said to Alexander the Great, "I am far richer than you, my lord, for I have disdained more than you will ever own."**  I nodded my head in assent.

* Then took some back, then gave them up again, and am still vacillating.
** Though extensive googling hasn't provided any confirmation. 

Though enviably without the tinge of martyrdom that (I feel) seems to color so many of my actions and so much of my writing, Mingyu leads a similar lifestyle.  Soap rather than shampoo, cold water showers, laundry by hand even when a machine is available, the fewer gadgets the better, no sense of shame about sleeping on floors or crapping in the woods.  Eventually, once he returns to Korea, he wants to build his own house and design everything in it, from the furniture to the appliances to the pottery.   

Thus, the three of us more or less hit it off immediately.  After chatting for a while after the lesson, Wanderer agreed to let us check out his house and introduce us to his "simple life."  


The next morning, Wanderer led us on a ten-minute bicycle ride from the farm volunteer dorm to the place he's currently renting.  Despite being over a hundred years old and pretty much totally barren, it gave off a sense of beauty and comfort that's hard to find elsewhere.


Upon entering, the first thing you see is the living room.  No furniture to speak of, just a floor entirely covered with rocks and pebbles (which he gathered from the beach nearby), leading seamlessly to a fireplace in the center, and some driftwood to sit on.  This is where he does almost all his cooking.  No gas and no electricity necessary, only straw from his friends' farms and downed branches from the forest immediately behind his house.  


The bedroom.  He put his bed together out of bamboo and straw.  For a pillow, he uses: more straw.



In addition to learning farming, he's been practicing his woodworking skills.  His kitchen boasted a handmade cabinet made from salvaged wood, several handwoven baskets, necklaces made out of coconut fibers, and a  bunch of "silverware." 


A bag made out of leaves from the betel nut tree.


Even the little bit of plastic that is necessary - namely, a few wires and light switches - is thoroughly obscured, wrapped with or buried under natural materials so that it need neither be seen nor touched.   


After a brief tour, we got down to business.  I chopped some veggies for a salad, throwing on some bananas for flavor and texture. 


In the meantime, Mingyu and our host put together a small fire to roast sweet potatoes.  The night before, the three of us had bonded while discussing those terrific tubers. Whether you cook them over your own fire or buy them in a market and carry them with you to your campsite, it's easy to appreciate how cheap, tasty, healthy, and satisfying they are.  


In the afternoon, the three of us and another one of Wanderer's friends talked permaculture and natural farming while using rakes, shovels, and hand-scythes to clear about fifty square meters' worth of weeds off of his driveway, leaving him space to build a tepee.  Later this year Wanderer plans to walk from southeast China up to Tibet, so he's currently taking primitive skills classes to learn everything he needs to know about sheltering and feeding himself on the journey.

(Moments after this picture, the rake fell forward, passing just inches away from smashing Mingyu's $1500 camera into smithereens.  Careful with those antics, boy!)


Then it was time for dinner again.  "Five color soup," he called it; an ancient Chinese dish where the color of each ingredient represents one of five elements of the earth. Sounds nice but, to be honest, I don't think it'd be a bad thing if Wanderer planted a little herb garden.



Mingyu took another crack at the fire but had some trouble.  Wanderer, having lived this way for six months now, got it roaring pretty quick and then built an impromptu stove out of stones.  For about an hour we sat in the dark, alternating between chatting and sitting in silence, listening to the crickets and feeding the fire.


After the meal, we stuck around a little longer, singing songs to the accompaniment of chopstick-drums and imagined ukeleles.  My awkward and tone-deaf contributions: Bright Eyes' "Bowl of Oranges," itself simple in composition but so wonderfully full of both sorrow and joy, and the folk song "500 miles," a sure staple of each and every American vagabond. Finally, Wanderer left us with brief mediation on gratitude. Through the simplicity he lives in he has come to a deeper sense of appreciation for even the most basic things - the stones, the wood, the fire, the smoke, the electricity that he uses so sparingly.  I agreed heartily; albeit more for friends and fortune than for the basic physical elements and processes that make my (and any) life possible, several times in the past months I've found myself swept away by feelings of gratitude, all of them deeper, more potent, more meaningful than any excitement or adventure I've come across.  To rephrase Dioegenes' words above: Perhaps one is rich in proportion, not to the number of things he has, but in proportion to the number of things he is truly, palpably, grateful for.

The night left me with a lot to think about.  I'm often pulled back and forth between two thoughts - that I'm not doing enough, and that I'm doing far more than is required of me.  Which one is it?  How much is enough when it comes to environmentalism?  If one frames it in terms of sacrifice, it's easy to say: that's not my duty.  But if environmentalism is about love, respect, and regard for other living beings, human and nonhuman, present and future, it seems that there should be no end to what one is willing to do.  Isn't that the case with a parent, a child, a sibling, a friend or sometimes even a pet?  What wouldn't we give up or change about our lifestyles to save a loved one?

I'm not exactly any closer to having found the answer, but seeing Wanderer happy at home in the environment and choices he made for himself did leave me with a sense of comfort and security regarding my own efforts. For one, I was once again reminded that I'm not alone - indeed, far from it - in my quest for a kinder, happier way of living.  More importantly, while I admired his way of life, I didn't quite feel jealous of it; it seemed to me that each of us has a role to play in our own way, doing  whatever it is that feels right and honest and true. Cycling seems to have chosen me - or at least my mind and habits and dispositions have come together such that out of all the choices that opened up to me over the past couple years, cycling seemed to be the best one.  All I can do is keep it up, hoping to share my thoughts, beliefs, and passions with everyone I meet.  Hoping to intrigue, inform, inspire, just like Wanderer and so many others have done for me. 

7 comments:

AZ said...

Wish I could have joined in on the Bowl of Oranges part of your song session. You certainly intrigue, inform, and inspire me, Kroy!

Seth Conger said...

very interesting experience. Keep up the blogs. Love hearing about it.

anna said...

oh i so envy you!!! keep up the blog mike! so inspirational!!! :)

Andy said...

I think you can feel pretty good about your environmental effort. When you are more eco-friendly than 99.9% of people (as you seem to be) I think you can rest assured that you are doing your part.
In my opinion, your efforts will be better spent helping the other 99.9% of people be a little greener than trying to eek out a little more sustainability from yourself.

Mike said...

Thanks for the words of encouragement, everyone.

Andy, I definitely agree with you. I closed my TED talk with the quotation "rather than one person taking ten thousand steps, wouldn't it be better for ten thousand to each take one?" After all, even if someone has to be pushed a little to take the first step, there's every possibility of them taking the second, third, or hundredth all on their own. And in their own way.

That said, I don't want to let the idea that "I'm already doing more than most" become an excuse I use to take the easy path. For me, it's not about being better than anyone else (though subconsciously there may be a good deal of this), but about doing what's right, good, fair, honest, or whatever at every turn. I'm embarrassed by how moralizing that sounds, but it's the truth about how I interpret things these days.

Thought-provoking comments, contentions, and criticism always welcome!

SandfordWrites said...

Mike you are a great guy. All of us could do more like this Wanderer fellow. We are getting there whether through rewilding or permaculture and living a simple life. It`s nice to read your blog to be reminded that I am not alone.

More and more people are adopting this life.

I want to meet his Wanderer fellow. I am always looking for allies practicing primitive skills. I will probably have to go to Taiwan to speak with him.

I will send this blog to the Maine Primitive Skills folks. They will like it.

Take care.

Mike said...

Greg, of course I thought of you when I met this guy. Sorry Iou didn't post a link directly on your page! I'm glad that you're tuning in and that you got to see this.

It does feel good to know that people all over the world are into this - Korea, Taiwan, the USA. These skills and ways of thinking will be as important in the future as they were in the past.

Don't plan on visiting Wanderer in Taiwan unless you're going to do it soon! In not too long he's heading to China to walk to Tibet. I wonder how he'd feel about having company...