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Epicurean Simplicity

Epicurean Simplicity

by Stephanie Mills


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781559636902
Publisher: Island Press
Publication date: 03/01/2003
Edition description: 1
Pages: 209
Product dimensions: 5.75(w) x 8.50(h) x 0.70(d)

About the Author

Stephanie Mills has been engaged in the ecology movement for more than thirty years, and in 1996 was named by Utne Reader as one of the world's leading visionaries. Her books include Whatever Happened to Ecology? (Sierra Club Books, 1989), In Service of the Wild (Beacon Press, 1995), and Turning Away from Technology (Sierra Club Books, 1997). A prolific writer and speaker on issues of ecology and social change, Mills lives in the Great Lakes Bioregion in the Upper Midwest.

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Epicurean Simplicity

By Stephanie Mills


Copyright © 2002 Stephanie Mills
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-61091-241-9



In this book, I relate the pleasures, as well as the virtues and difficulties, of a perhaps simpler than average North American life.

Like Henry David Thoreau, I should not talk so much about myself if there were anybody else I knew as well. Also like Thoreau, I believe that a [wo]man is rich in proportion to the number of things [s]he can afford to let alone. Some needs are absolute. Along with every other human being, I need a minimum of 2,000 calories a day, about half a gallon of water fit to drink, a sanitary means for disposing of my bodily wastes, a way to keep reasonably clean, something muscular to do for at least some part of the day, and a warm, dry place to sleep. To that biological minimum I would add intercourse with more-than-human nature and the means to a life of the mind. Meeting those needs as sparingly as possible makes abundant the kind of riches that can't be owned.

The pleasures and riches of simplicity, it seems to me, arrive mainly through the senses, through savoring the world of a given moment. Hence my invocation of Epicureanism, a Hellenic "be what thou art" philosophy premised on the trustworthiness of the senses. It was a philosophy that extolled simplicity and prudence, and it had its detractors. Because Epicurus, the school's founder, did say, "I am unable to form any conception of the good from which has been eliminated the pleasures of eating and drinking, the pleasures of sexual love, the pleasures of music and eloquence, and the pleasures of shape and pleasant movements," the philosophy scandalized Roman patriarchs, church fathers, and the rabbinate of the first few centuries C.E. The fact that epicurean has become synonymous with gourmet, or even gourmand, is partly the result of early censure of the principle that pleasure could lead to the good. From the third century C.E. onward, Epicurean translated as "loose liver." To refute that canard and reclaim Epicureanism are among the aims of this work.

Most of the pleasures I experience and describe are the pleasures of twenty-first-century country life. This is not farm life, or self-reliant backwoods life, but a writer's life enriched by the kind of mid-range natural history encountered on a patch of "waste" land in the upper Midwest, the region that includes Michigan, Minnesota, and Wisconsin.

My surroundings aren't pristine, but they're not currently required to produce anything or to be anything but self-willed—that is to say, wild. I get to see, hear, touch, taste, and feel a lot of nature in my days, which is good, because nature is what I care about the most. My attention to the subject of simplicity stems from that primary concern, for materialism, especially consumerism, the twentieth-century version of that doctrine, is immensely destructive of the health and beauty of what I'm calling nature. One also could call this elemental fact and presence the planetary ecosystem, biodiversity, the earth's ecology, evolution incarnate, or the wild. It's the gorgeous, intricate, staggering, mysterious, inventive, self-sustaining, dynamic, diverse, ever-evolving, entirely interdependent sodality of creatures and habitats that for billions of years now has clothed this planet in a tissue of lives—millions in kinds and billions in numbers. Being situated so as to behold a fractal bit of that is, for me, the source of vast real-world delight.

A source of bad conscience, however, is the knowledge that my way of life, austere though it may appear to the richer folk, is still ruinously exploitive of nature—not in my backyard, where I practice harmlessness toward even the wasps, but in the atmosphere, where my fossil fuel combustion's carbon dioxide is helping change the climate; in all those mountainous places where the metals and minerals that structure and drive my American life are torn from the earth; and in the flesh of fish and birds, mammals, and reptiles, where the chemicals that made the paper and plastic I use bioaccumulate, deforming reproduction.

That guilty knowledge is another argument for material simplicity. The less I consume, the less harm I do to that which I love. In a consumer society, harmless living may be simple, but it is not easy. I make no claim to exemplary harmlessness or simplicity. I wish only to share and reflect on some of my experiences of imperfectly simple living.

For my purposes, it would be handy if Epicurus had been more quotable on the subject of nature. But as a third century B.C.E. Athenian, an urbanite, he had a concept of nature quite different from mine. To Epicurus, nature comprised the universe; to me, it's most wondrous in its minute particulars.

Next to the birds and the bees, I care most about the humane. Consumerism is as destructive of our humanity as it is of nature, and Epicurean simplicity, respectful of the soul, is relevant here. Just as nature enchants me, so do art and literature; history and philosophy engross me, and at a smaller cost to the planet than, say, an inaugural ball. The humanities supply some evidence of intelligent life on the planet, sources of beauty and meaning, of truth and instruction, of inspiration and community.

There was a medieval saying that city air makes one free. In a city, no one's looking. Or they may be looking, but there are so many persons to see that censure is overwhelmed; in cities, tolerance is as necessary as breathing. Some years ago, I made my first trip to New York City since I had become rusticated. On the sidewalks, downtown and in SoHo, each face in the torrent of humanity was definite. Everybody looks like Somebody in New York. Cream rises to the cities, even if it's the cream of the grifters. Painted cakes may not satisfy hunger, but they are appetizing. Ambitious, energetic, tough people go to cities to scale the pinnacles, or to launch a lusher life than they could possibly know back in Bangladesh, Haiti, Hungary, or North Dakota.

Flying homeward from John F. Kennedy International Airport, I disembarked in Detroit to catch a flight on a regional airline. There, the flavor of humanity changed from Manhattan salmagundi to heartland soft-serve. The travelers choking the airport looked pasty, pudgy, and pragmatic. Confronting such committed blandness, I rued, and not for the first time, my decision to dwell in the upper Midwest. This bout of culture shock and invidious comparison passed, however. Before driving home, I stopped at the all-night supermarket in Boardman City to pick up a few things. Warming to the faces of the other shoppers and the store staff, I regained my appreciation for the people here, remembering that the pleasant girl checking out my groceries, the saucy Latina who had done the same in the low-ceilinged, jam-packed supermercado on Amsterdam Avenue, and I are not so very different. We're just trying to make the most of our lives in our own circumstances.

Still, I know I'm not the only North American who loves the continent but not its culture. On several brief visits to Europe and during a few weeks' travel in India, I've observed that my countrymen and I often think and act like babies. Euro-Americans' history is shallow, our culture experimental and profligate. In our refusal to defer gratification or practice austerity, we seem infantile as a people. Yet the seasoned Old World, alas, appears to have been gnawed to the bone and completely domesticated. Coming home to the United States, then, I return to a vast land that still harbors wildness, to a rogue state heedless in its consumption of water, soil, fossil fuel, and fat. I return to the ease of the mother tongue and the intimacy of long-standing friendships. The mental souvenirs I've dragged home from abroad reinforce my alienation. It's partly just the Goldilocks syndrome: One place lacks inland seas, another historical consciousness, and none is just right. Of course, many of us writers are temperamentally at odds with the world. It's not work one can do with a crowd.

The avalanche of blossoms on the abandoned apple trees that welcomes me back on a springtime drive home from the airport, and the ability to look out across open land, to smell the green freshness of the breeze, and to enjoy the taste of my own well water again, all make me feel a lot less crazy for having leapt, nearly twenty years ago, from the liberated climes of the city of San Francisco into the heartland insularity of the upper Midwest.

Those fields are open thanks to the people who stayed put, the keepers of the heartland. Those settlers and their descendants put in a century and a half of hard work, living rural lives, yoked with the land. A handful are still farming today, still trying to fulfill an earthbound ambition.

I spent my only childhood in a displaced place, Phoenix, Arizona, a city plopped on the Sonoran Desert like a Monopoly board game whose thirsty players keep sending out for more water. My family lived in one of the first suburbs in northeast Phoenix, in a $9,800 house bought in 1949, a few years after my Arizona dad and Mississippi mom got out of the service and married.

Thus, I was born into what Alan Thein Durning, in How Much Is Enough? The Consumer Society and the Future of the Earth, identifies as the consumer class, in which annual household income per family member is above $7,500 and which constitutes about onefifth of the world's people. The consumer life, Durning says, "is among the world's premiere environmental problems."

As a member of this class, I have never wanted for any thing. There have been times when I've wanted for love and consolation, for some hint of meaning, or for surcease from physical or emotional pain. I've been broke often enough, but I've never known poverty, never performed without a net. I have wanted for greater energy, courage, compassion, and clarity, but so far I've never lacked anything material to a comfortable and healthy life.

It's an extraordinary position to be in on a planet that is home to a billion people living on less than $700 per annum, drinking unclean water, getting insufficient food, and living in shanties. Between the consumers and the destitute are 3.3 billion people—the world's middle-income class, earning between $700 and $7,500 per capita. Their lives of decent sufficiency don't compare well with the Dallas and Dynasty lifestyles pervading the world's airwaves but are a possible standard for both consumers and the poor.

While growing up in Phoenix, I had my fill of endless summer. People who see a bright side to global warming are sadly mistaken in imagining that perpetual heat would be nice. In 1965, I seized my first opportunity to escape the Sun Belt by going away to a small liberal arts college for women in Oakland, California. It was a heady time to be in college, even an out-of-the-way women's college. Being averse to crowds, not to say mobs, I mostly watched the Bay Area's revolutionary doings from afar, sitting out the marches and be-ins. Even so, I got radicalized.

During my senior year, through newspaper reading and a little organizing, I learned about ecology, specifically human overpopulation. Shocked by the magnitude and centrality of that problem, I wrote a speech on the subject and was elected class speaker. At the commencement exercises in June 1969, I declared that in light of overpopulation and impending ecological catastrophe, "the most humane thing for me to do would be to have no children at all."

At the time, it was shocking for a young woman to be so unilaterally drastic about motherhood, but the choice has served me well. As a feminist, I assumed that I should determine the purposes my body would serve, and I must have intuited that for me, the writer's life would be incompatible with parenthood. My renunciation was, in fact, epicurean, and it has abetted my simplicity.

Along with numerous other youthful hothead graduation speakers that June, I made national news. The resulting swirl of notoriety launched my career as an ecological wordsmith.

Many years ago, a colleague told me that I lead a charmed life. At the risk of jinxing my luck, I have to agree. It may be that the charm of my life is as simple as "Them that's got shall get." I got generous, intelligent parents who read and wrote and spoke interestingly. I got a calling. I took a principled stand a bit precociously and quite propitiously. For the next fifteen years, I remained in the San Francisco Bay Area, lecturing, writing and editing, and organizing conferences for several ecology-minded organizations and periodicals.

In 1984, I relocated from a snug but ever-pricier Telegraph Hill apartment with an East Bay view to a haphazardly renovated octogenarian farmhouse near Tamarack City. The proximate cause of my move to this lovely surround was a guy named Phil whom I'd met that spring at the First North American Bioregional Congress. Phil was a bioregional organizer, co-op activist, and hippie carpenter. Like a lot of North Woods counterculturalists, he still upheld the values of material simplicity, respect for ecology, and community despite the fact that it was the 1980s. What's more, he had a very attractive body politic. Like the fruit on the maverick apple trees around this countryside, Phil was ruddy, tangy, and free. He lived with his good friend Rob in the aforementioned farmhouse, known locally as the Hovel, as had a kaleidoscopic array of interesting hippie bachelors over the previous few years. Not long after Phil and I met and fell madly in love, I visited him for a long Fourth of July weekend. Smitten by both the man and his home, when the hint was dropped that I might come and abide awhile, I could hardly wait to move in.

That I was, on the basis of a brief encounter, two months' correspondence, and a casual invitation, going to an obscure part of the United States known mainly for cold, in a belated move back to the land, struck my friends and family as an appalling piece of impulsiveness. It would entail some heavy dues.

It was rash indeed to have pulled up stakes and followed if not my heart, then some other major organ, to a life here in the upper Midwest. Even though a handful of interested and disinterested observers hinted that the prospects for our conjugal future were doubtful, I'd left San Francisco aiming to be wed. Hindsight tells me that marriage was something I had to get out of my system, and Phil obliged me all the way.

Four months after our storybook wedding, we were in a terrible automobile accident, a head-on collision in which Phil was almost killed and I nearly lost my right leg. After hovering for a week at death's door, Phil beat the Grim Reaper. He walked out of the intensive care unit not long thereafter and began rehabilitating himself by helping to organize the Second North American Bioregional Congress. The injury to my leg was termed the "maximum sustainable." It took about four years and six surgeries to fix it, so I went through intermittent bouts of hospitalization, pain, and disability for a while.

While Phil and I were still in the hospital, someone pointed us in the way of a plaintiffs' attorney who had just settled a civil suit against the state concerning the very stretch of highway where Phil and I had been hurt, arguing that the road was marked in a way that conduced to mayhem. We, too, sued, and three years later we each won a goodly sum of money. I like to think of mine as my Crashenheim, a state arts grant.

Meanwhile, about a year after the accident, Phil and I needed to clear out of the Hovel. Rob's wife-to-be, Peggy, and her two daughters had also taken up residence there, and we all needed more room. On the northeast corner of Rob's seventy-five acres, Phil and I set about building ourselves a house.

My participation in the construction was as much as I could manage, on and off canes and crutches, in and out of casts and braces. I gardened a little and dug a trench for the foundation. I drove a lot of nails in the subfloor. I cooked for the worker bees and tried to feed my good cook of a husband, who was bringing home the tofu and laboring on our house after he returned from his job with a small construction company. Most of the time, though, I read and wrote and thought, none of which bought any thermal-pane windows.

A trim little place of our own design, financed by a loan from my parents and raised with a great deal of help from our friends, resulted. Meanwhile, our strike-anywhere match was guttering out. On Christmas Eve in 1988, Phil and I moved into our slightly unfinished house. By Valentine's Day of 1989, we'd split up. The divorce was final that July. I bought Phil's equity, got the deed, and became a householder in my own right. Thus the horrible providence of divorce.


Excerpted from Epicurean Simplicity by Stephanie Mills. Copyright © 2002 Stephanie Mills. Excerpted by permission of ISLAND PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

1The Journey and the Destination1
2Epicurean Simplicity19
4The Others63
10Our Common Fate189

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Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I've become a big, big fan of Stephanie Mills's writing. 'Epicurean Simplicity' is the best of her works that I've read. The section of this book that details her work to rehabilitate her land in Michigan, and her efforts to live in harmony with the surroundings, is great reading and great writing, too.  She offers up heartfelt, intelligent and inspiring thoughts on the modern materialist culture and how it impacts us all. This work seems especially urgent, too, given the ongoing destruction of our natural resources and the role our consumerist obsessions play in it. Mills is a thought-provoking activist with a necessary message . . . and it's all beautifully, and compellingly, presented in this work.