Twelve by Twelve: A One-Room Cabin Off the Grid and Beyond the American Dreamby William Powers
Why would a successful American physician choose to live in a twelve-foot-by-twelve-foot cabin without running water or electricity? To find out, writer and activist William Powers visited Dr. Jackie Benton in rural North Carolina. No Name Creek gurgled through Benton’s permaculture farm, and she stroked honeybees’ wings as she shared her wildcrafter
Why would a successful American physician choose to live in a twelve-foot-by-twelve-foot cabin without running water or electricity? To find out, writer and activist William Powers visited Dr. Jackie Benton in rural North Carolina. No Name Creek gurgled through Benton’s permaculture farm, and she stroked honeybees’ wings as she shared her wildcrafter philosophy of living on a planet in crisis. Powers, just back from a decade of international aid work, then accepted Benton’s offer to stay at the cabin for a season while she traveled. There, he befriended her eclectic neighbors — organic farmers, biofuel brewers, eco-developers — and discovered a sustainable but imperiled way of life.
In these pages, Powers not only explores this small patch of community but draws on his international experiences with other pockets of resistance. This engrossing tale of Powers’s struggle for a meaningful life with a smaller footprint proposes a paradigm shift to an elusive “Soft World” with clues to personal happiness and global healing.
“A penetrating account of what it’s like to move to the margins in our particular time and place. It will make you think, hard.”
Bill McKibben, author of Deep Economy and founder of 350.org
“An honest, courageous, and authentic tale of one gifted writer’s attempt to find balance in a world in crisis. Reading this deeply human book has helped me to find a more genuine peace in the midst of the craziness.”
John Robbins, author of The New Good Life and Diet for a New America
“In this quiet, startling adventure, William Powers brings two worlds into focus simultaneously. He helps us see with fresh eyes the stultifying ugliness, homogeneity, and bankruptcy of a growth-addicted culture. And, at the same time, he helps us rediscover the beauty and liberation that radical simplicity can bring. In his engaging company, we look into the lives of sly, unobtrusive heroes who are building the new in the shell of the old.”
Joanna Macy, author of World as Lover, World as Self
“How much is enough? And what is really important? These are questions that William Powers runs into again and again in his time off the grid in the U.S. and overseas, but his humble and contemplative memoir handles them with freshness and honesty, recognizing that sometimes asking the questions is more important than finding the ‘right’ answers.”
Lester R. Brown, president of Earth Policy Institute and author of Plan B 4.0: Mobilizing to Save Civilization
“A true story of rediscovery of and reconnection with fundamental truths and values. Enchanting and heartwarming, Twelve by Twelve is a modern-day Walden.”
Dr. Thomas E. Lovejoy, president of the Heinz Center for Science, Economics, and the Environment
“Powers combines environmental writing in the vein of Thoreau with Zen, economics, warrior presence, and even a touch of dramas of the heart to present a holistic view of contemporary deliberate living. Readers interested in a simpler and more sustainable lifestyle will enjoy the flowing prose and concrete thoughts as they reflect on their own American dream.”
“For anyone who has considered that there must be an alternative to our busy, speedy, hungry, consuming world, this book shows us the way. William Powers’s deeply personal journey reminds us that a return to basics and a simple life may help us to rediscover ourselves, our communities, and the natural world we live in.”
Michael Ableman, farmer and author of Fields of Plenty
“Powers speaks with the authority of one who has seen the ramifications of the flattening world....Students of environmental and globalization ethics will be just as interested in Mr. Powers’ journey as the activist or layperson exploring how to motivate self and the world to move towards sustainability.”
The Washington Post
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Twelve by Twelve
A One-Room Cabin Off the Grid and Beyond the American Dream
By William Powers
New World LibraryCopyright © 2010 William Powers
All rights reserved.
THE SHAPE OF THE WORLD
"I KNOW A DOCTOR who makes eleven thousand dollars a year," my mother said.
I looked up, suddenly curious. "She's an acquaintance of mine," my mother continued, passing me a basket of bread across the dinner table. "Lives an hour from here in a twelve-foot by twelve-foot house with no electricity."
I noticed my father's empty seat next to her and felt my chest tighten. He was still in the hospital. We still weren't sure if they'd been able to remove the entire tumor from his colon. I'd come down to North Carolina from New York City, where I'd recently settled after several years in Bolivia, so that I could be with him as he recovered.
My mother went on: "She's a tax resister. As a senior physician she could make three hundred thousand dollars, but she only accepts eleven so as to avoid war taxes. Did you know that fifty cents out of every dollar goes to the Pentagon?"
"Hold on. So this doctor —"
"— Doctor Jackie Benton, she lives in a twelve by twelve house? That's physically impossible. That bookcase is twelve by twelve."
"She doesn't have any running water, either. She harvests the rainwater from her roof. Haven't you heard of her? She's a bit of a local celeb."
I stopped eating and looked out the window. The rust-colored sky above my parents' condo hovered exquisitely between orange and red. I could hear the hum of the refrigerator, the rush of cars going by. That distinctive sky momentarily brought me back to Lake Titicaca in Bolivia, beneath a similar red-orange glow, and the echo of a question a shaman had asked me: What's the shape of the world?
Something moved inside me. I looked over at my mom and asked, "Do you have any way of contacting Dr. Benton?"
"I have her mobile number," my mom said. "She keeps it off but does check messages every now and then. People are always trying to reach her. And that's made her even more reclusive."
JACKIE DIDN'T CALL BACK. As the days turned into a week, I left several unreturned messages on her voice mail. Meanwhile, when I wasn't visiting my father in the hospital, I asked others in town about this mysterious doctor. She provoked a range of opinions and was called everything from "commie" to "saint." As I eventually learned, Jackie had been a communist in the early 1970s; once, while counter-protesting at a KKK rally in Greensboro, five of her communist friends were shot to death by Klansmen. The police knew who did it, but the good-ol'-boy perpetrators were never prosecuted.
Jackie went on to marry one of her leftist friends, had two daughters, and settled into a life of doctoring; she mostly worked in the state system, attending to African Americans and undocumented Latin Americans in rural clinics. As a mother, she taught her kids symbolic tax resistance as they grew up — like not paying the telephone tax and taking $10.40 off her 1040 form each year, with a note to the IRS saying it was to protest defense spending — while leaving her more radical activism behind. She divorced but remained close friends with her ex-husband. When her daughters went away to college, she continued to work full-time but lowered her income to eleven thousand dollars to avoid paying any taxes at all.
Even those who were offended by her admitted she was a child of the South, sprung from local soil, and most people spoke of her with respect, whether deep or grudging. After all, she'd given up all that money, dedicated her life to serving the poor with her doctoring, and survived on the radical edge of how simply one can live in America. She'd also developed a unique blend of science and spirituality, creating a kind of third way that appealed to secular and religious perspectives alike. "Jackie's a wisdomkeeper," one of her friends told me. When I asked what that was, she said, "Wisdomkeepers are an old tradition, goes back to the Native Americans. They're elder women who inspire us to dig more deeply into life."
If Jackie had any wisdom, she was guarding it. You couldn't exactly look her up on Google Maps. Her dirt road didn't show up on any map. More than that, she wasn't living 12 × 12 just as an expression of simplicity. She chose those tiny dimensions, as she chose her tiny salary, for pragmatic reasons: in North Carolina, any structure that's twelve feet by twelve feet or less does not count as a house. It's considered to be a tool shed or gardening shack — if it's even considered. If you live 12 × 12, you don't pay property tax and don't receive electric lines, sewage, or roads from the state. So I was leaving voice mail messages for someone who, from a certain official point of view, was invisible.
During that time, a family friend in Chapel Hill invited me to run in a local 5K race. He said, "Come on, it'll get you out of the hospital and give you a
break from calling ... What's her name?"
"Right. Plus you'll love the place where they're holding the race."
As we drove in his SUV through Chapel Hill and onto the highway, he enthusiastically described the hills, forest, and lake of the race site, but I was baffled when we arrived at an industrial park. Sure, it was green. But the hills were landfills covered with sod, the lake artificial, the woods a monoculture. The place was spawned by AutoCAD, not Mother Nature. Like a bad toupee, it looked all the worse for trying to be something it wasn't.
I ran amid two hundred others past the high-tech military suppliers, between the human-made forests and lakes, and I realized it wasn't just the aesthetics of the place that bothered me, but what it symbolized: the Flat World.
New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman presents the phenomenon in a positive light in his best-selling book The World Is Flat. Technologies like the internet, he observes, are breaking down hierarchies. Thanks to bandwidth, companies can easily outsource certain jobs to India, China, and elsewhere; hence, people now compete on equal footing, according to talent, on a globalize economic playing field. World capitalism, guided by government incentives, will save us from environmental collapse, Friedman further argues, by inventing clean technologies to allow for the increased global consumption.
It's not an argument to be taken lightly. Though world inequality is unfortunately on the rise, the "flat" system has led to quick economic growth in certain countries like India and China. In our ever more interconnected world, environmental and human rights horrors can be more efficiently exposed. In theory, a world that's flat gives us previously unimaginable intellectual and economic freedoms, so why was I feeling the Flat World blues?
Friedman didn't invent a flat world, but rather his metaphor articulates a truth about the way we have come to imagine the twenty-first century. The metaphor carries a host of negative connotations: The world has hit a flat note. Industrial agriculture creates a flat taste, and multinational corporations flatten our uniqueness into Homo economicus serving a One World Uniplanet. A once-natural atmosphere has been flattened by global warming: every square foot of it now contains 390 ppm of carbon dioxide, though up until two hundred years ago the atmosphere contained 275 ppm (and 350 ppm is considered the safe upper threshold for our planet). Rainforests are flattened to make cattle pastures; a living ocean is depleted and flattened by overfishing; vibrant cultures are steamrolled to the edge of extinction. Have the well-rounded objectives of America's Founding Fathers — life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness — been flattened to a single organizing principle: the unification of greed?
When the 5K race was over, I left the awards ceremony and looked into the lifeless water of the lake beside Dow Chemical. Since returning to the United States, I felt something wasn't right with me. I'd been a squid out of ink, the joy squeezed right out of me. I closed my eyes and traveled back to Bolivia, to the banks of Lake Titicaca and the particular moment I'd remembered while sitting with my mother.
It happened just three months back. Two friends, she American and he British, were getting married. They'd lived in Bolivia for years, working with the country's indigenous people, and an Aymara shaman was going to marry them. Before the ceremony began, I stood with the shaman as we admired the most extraordinary sky, a rusty orange-and-red blend, and the famous Andean lake, which was the size of a small sea, its unseen far shores in Peru. We stood at thirteen thousand feet, and the light cast a gossamer shimmer over three distant islands. Above them, the jagged Andes.
The shaman looked out over the landscape and asked me, "What's the shape of the world?"
Farther up the lake, I saw the bride and groom mingling with other Bolivian and American friends, all dressed in their finest. About half the Americans lived and worked in Bolivia; the other half were just there for the week. Honamti, the shaman, was dressed in an olive jacket and jeans and looked nearly iconic, his long hair tied back in a ponytail, an ambiguous expression in his dark eyes.
"The world?" I finally said. "It's round."
"How is it round?" Honamti asked.
I showed him, putting my two pointer fingers together in front of me and drawing a downward circle.
"That's how most people imagine it," he said. "But we Aymaras disagree."
He was silent for a long moment. Alpacas and sheep grazed in the distance, shepherded together by an Aymara woman in a colorful, layer-cake skirt. A pejerey leapt from and plunged back into Lake Titicaca, sending out rippling circles. "We say that the earth is round, but in a different way," Honamti finally said, and he traced an upward circle, the opposite of how I'd drawn it, beginning at his belly and finishing at his heart. He traced the shape slowly. Amazed, I watched it spring to life in the landscape. His upward stroke began with the lake, curved up the sides of the Andes, and finished gloriously with the dome of the sky.
"And it's also round like this." This time he traced a circle that began at his heart and went outward toward the lake, finishing two feet in front of his body. And the earth took that shape, as the lakeshore curled into the base of the distant mountains and then into the sky's horizon, a perfect outward circle.
"And it's also round like this." Keeping his hands two feet in front of him, he traced a slow circle back into himself. The circle finished at some hidden place inside, the outward world circling into our inner world.
Somebody called over to Honamti; the ceremony was to begin. But before the Aymara man turned to go, I asked him, "Which of the three is it? What's the shape of the world?"
He answered by repeating: "What's the shape of the world?"
I opened my eyes: the lifeless Dow Chemical lake before me, Honamti's question/answer echoing in my head. Did the world have to be flat? Was it too late to imagine other shapes?
"YOU'RE A MAN WITHOUT A COUNTRY," my father said, looking up at me from his sickbed.
I looked out the hospital window: three smokestacks blew gray smoke into a gray sky. The backs of adjacent six- or seven-story gray-brick buildings. Beside me, the muted beeping of an IV drip; the smell of fast food and Ben Gay. Fluorescent lights and the television's flicker illuminated my father's slightly ashen face.
Suddenly, and despite the dreary surroundings, I felt a rush of love for him. He'd given me gifts of stability, diligence, and an appreciation for the power of ideas. He was telling me, his thirty-six-year-old son, that I was a man without a country not in criticism but out of love. He was right: acute culture shock had pushed me into a kind of exile.
I touched him on the shoulder, pushed the hair back off his forehead, remembering something from my childhood. One year, during the Fourth of July barbecue, he taught me how to grill London broil. On that humid day the forested spaces around our Long Island home were alive with box turtles. This was before urban sprawl defined the island, before our magical woods were cleared for McMansions. My sister and I found a turtle and brought it home and set it loose. Billy, my dad called over to me, I want to show you something. As I watched his hairy forearm expertly flip the meat, I loved him. The sound of fireworks in the distance; a red, white, and blue flag up on its pole, where my father raised it every public holiday. I felt organically connected to my home, my family, and our prosperous society; to the yard, the turtle-filled woods, the smell of meat grilling.
The sound of sizzling meat drew me out of my reverie, back to the hospital room: a Wendy's ad on TV, reminding me of the hospital's preferred food option. My father dozed off to the sizzle of burgers and a corporate jingle, and I walked through the labyrinth building, past hundreds of patients, to the source of many of their health problems and heart disease: greasy hamburgers. UNC Medical Center had outsourced meal service to Wendy's.
I brought a tray of burger and fries to a table by the window. Outside was a parking garage, its asphalt stacked five stories high, packed with vehicles — the source of many of earth's health problems. I checked my voice mail; still no response from Jackie. I considered calling her again but decided against it — I'd already left three messages. Beyond the parking lot, a monoculture of pines and the highway to the mall. I tried to feel something for the landscape, but it lacked shape.
Worse, doubt gnawed at me that the past decade of my professional life had been for naught. I'd labored incredibly hard as a humanitarian aid and conservation worker in places like Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Bolivia. Part of my job was to help people living on the borders of the rainforest improve their lives economically while defending their forest. I've got a toolkit: ecotourism, sustainable timber, nontimber forest products, shade-grown organic coffee, political organizing and advocacy. In the end, the logic goes, if the rainforest pays, it stays. If these folks earn their living from it, they'll protect it from the multinationals coming to cut it down, whether for mahogany, for soy and sugar plantations, or for iron, gold, and diamond mines.
I have helped create rainforest-protecting municipal reserves, indigenous areas, and community forests that have successfully resisted logging, mining, and industrial farming. But these efforts have been trounced by the global trend. Have I been merely rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic? From 1998 to 2008 the world's rainforests have disappeared at a rate of an acre every two minutes, approximately 1 percent a year. At this rate, in forty years we will have destroyed the last of them.
When I fly over the rainforest into these places, I feel the irony. Planes spew dangerous global warming gasses into the stratosphere that hasten the desertification that fuels rainforest decline. I don't want to get on the plane, and yet, I have to get on the plane.
I get on the plane. Below, there's West Africa's Upper Guinea Rainforest. There's the Bolivian and Brazilian Amazon, Central Africa's Congo River Basin Rainforest, Central America's Monte Verde cloud forest, and the final remnants of India's forests collapsing under the weight of a billion people.
Still, it's marvelous that we have some rainforest left. Sometimes, especially in the so-called megadiverse nations like Peru, Bolivia, and Indonesia, the strange green animal below stretches 360 degrees as far as I can see, bulging slightly in the middle distance, then softening out to the thin line of the horizon. That olive and lime green pelt sometimes looks so exquisite that I ache to reach down from the air and stroke it. It's like the back of an enormous animal we thought extinct but that still lives, reclining below in soft curvature.
But when this animal's side comes into view, I see the burns in its fur — ten-acre clear-cuts fed by logging roads like snaking arteries thick with virus. Sometimes fresh fires still burn, but I can't hear the monkeys' screams of terror under the plane's engine. When the fires are gone, there's a pure black deadness to the skin — and it's time to land amid the charcoal, the stumps. A million species flee or die; only one species moves in.
"ON THE HILLSIDES OLD CROPS DEAD AND FLATTENED ... murder was everywhere upon the land. The world soon to be populated by men who would eat your children in front of your eyes and the cities themselves held by cores of blackened looters who tunneled among the ruins and crawled from the rubble white of tooth and eye carrying charred and anonymous tins of food in nylon nets like shoppers in the commissaries of hell."
Excerpted from Twelve by Twelve by William Powers. Copyright © 2010 William Powers. Excerpted by permission of New World Library.
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Meet the Author
For over a decade William Powers has led development aid and conservation initiatives in Latin America, Africa, and Washington, DC. He is the author of two critically acclaimed memoirs about his time in Africa and South America, Blue Clay People and Whispering in the Giant’s Ear. His writings on global issues have appeared in the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Atlantic, Slate, and the Sun. A popular speaker and senior fellow at the World Policy Institute, he lives part-time in New York City.
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Author William Powers leaves the macrocosm of international development to examine the implications of living in a the 12' by 12' house of an environmental activist, off the grid. Ultimately it comes to mean more than all his development work. Elegantly written, and broad in scope. What a great read.