When Mark Sundeen, looking for families to profile for his latest book, was introduced to farmer Luci Brieger, he explained that he was writing about the simple life. She barked back, "Nothing simple about it." Luci and her husband, Steve, are one of three couples featured in The Unsettlers: In Search of the Good Life in Today's America. Like Sarah Wilcox and Ethan Hughes, who founded the electricity-, car-, and computer-free Possibility Alliance in Missouri, and Olivia Hubert and Greg Willerer, urban farmers in Detroit, they live sustainably and ethically, operating largely beyond the reach of global capitalism. But as Luci suggests, and as Sundeen's immersive, entertaining work confirms, living simply raises its own complicated questions.
Sundeen sought out Luci and Steve because they've been at it the longest: they've been growing pesticide-free vegetables for thirty years, running a successful produce business (without benefit of cell phones or computers), building a home, and raising three children on the forty acres of land they amassed over time outside of Missoula, Montana. Luci is an almost stereotypical rural curmudgeon, razzing the author for his "big city" shoes and spouting angry declarations about people who "plug in and play electronic solitaire and look at porn." But her path to family farming is interesting and instructive.
Luci arrived in Montana at the dawn of the Reagan era to attend graduate school in environmental studies. She quickly became disillusioned by her program's remote conception of "the environment," which, in Sundeen's words, was "a place outside people's homes, populated by whales, owls, rivers, forests, and air. To protect these things, laws were passed to limit human activity such as mining, drilling, damming, and logging. Yet none of the laws offered advice on how humans themselves were to live better." Luci radically changed course after reading Wendell Berry's 1977 back-to-the-land manifesto The Unsettling of America. (The book was pivotal for several of Sundeen's subjects and for the author himself, who nods to it with his title.) She quit school to apprentice at a farm that was in the vanguard of organic agriculture and, later, the local food movement. There she met Steve, one of the farm's partners; together they have maintained an ethical business that has netted them enough to support their family.
Like Luci and Steve, Olivia and Greg had desires that couldn't easily be fulfilled by the existing framework of consumer culture; they too ended up creating the world they wanted to live in. Olivia, an African-American horticulturist born and raised in Detroit, tried establishing her career there in 2008, but her economically devastated, crime-ridden hometown, in Sundeen's words, "no longer had the distinct characteristics and advantages of a city." For five years, the city was the largest in America that lacked a national grocery chain. Greg's parents were from Detroit but were among the majority of the city's whites who had fled for the suburbs in the 1960s. A happy childhood, however, had instilled no love of suburbia in their son. Greg considered the suburbs "the greatest misallocation of resources in the history of the world": energy-guzzling homes, water-guzzling lawns, gas-guzzling cars required to go anywhere, not to mention the isolation and de facto segregation. Greg moved to the city. With swaths of it abandoned and property cheap, he eventually began growing, and then selling, his own food on vacant lots. He and Olivia met at the city's bustling farmer's market. They now run Brother Nature Produce, a farm that covers a block of the blighted neighborhood of North Corktown, supplying restaurants with gourmet organic greens.
Ethan and Sarah are the most hard-core of the author's pioneers. Ethan, who Sundeen describes as "hypnotic, disturbing, prophetic, inspiring," says, "The greatest conspiracy on the planet is that we need to oppress, kill, and pollute in order to get our needs met." He and Sarah, then pregnant, bought their eighty-acre homestead in La Plata, Missouri, sight unseen because it met a number of their requirements: a long growing season, ample rainfall, an easy bike ride to a college town and a train station (they do not use cars or travel by airplane). They started the Possibility Alliance, which has "virtually excised itself from the industrial system of food, fuel, and finance," hoping to attract permanent members to live on the land with them. Those who join are required to donate all of their savings elsewhere beforehand; they live in voluntary poverty (one reason is to avoid supporting the government by paying taxes). Ethan and Sarah, Sundeen observes, have "renounced nearly every benefit of being born into the world's largest economy."
The Possibility Alliance runs well-attended weeklong seminars and has hosted a steady stream of temporary residents. Not surprisingly, Ethan and Sarah have had a more difficult time attracting permanent members. Sundeen wrote The Unsettlers because he yearned for "a life more simple and purposeful than the one I actually led, cluttered with forms to fill out, machines that beeped, and pointless tasks performed for money." But the book doesn't present a clear path forward for readers who have themselves felt such yearnings who will certainly admire his subjects but wouldn't be able to live up to their standards. Luci is contemptuous of those who buy organic grapes shipped from Peru in the winter. Ethan's friends admit that they are stung by his judgmental attitude. I'd be scared to tell either of them how much I spent on my cup of coffee this morning.
In addition, their lives are difficult, and not just because of the relentless hard labor. How many of us would be as gung-ho as Ethan to bike twenty miles in a thunderstorm to attend a meeting? Even Sundeen admits that he is "seduced by the idea" of the simple life but "repelled by the hardship." We're in a moment when many Americans are worried that our country's core values are at risk; some will surely, as a consequence, search for ways to live more ethical lives. The Unsettlers offers inspiring and relevant possibilities; those seeking a guidebook to utopia will, like the individuals profiled here, have to draw it themselves.
Barbara Spindel has covered books for Time Out New York, Newsweek.com, Details, and Spin. She holds a Ph.D. in American Studies.
Reviewer: Barbara Spindel