Two roads diverged in a yellow wood.
I once heard a radio reporter say, “Living an environmentally friendly life is like wearing a hair shirt.” Really? I thought—wondering if she’d ever tried it. Since I was never able to locate her story online afterward, I’m still wondering. But the search brought up plenty of others who were making the same comparison. The expression “hair shirt environmentalism” came up as a term for extreme personal sacrifice on behalf of the planet. Apparently it was a popular metaphor.
It made no sense at all to me.
I retired at age forty-nine. If that makes you feel jealous, keep reading. You might think what I did to get there was crazy. An Xtreme Sport. Not something you’d ever consider. You might even think it would be like wearing a hair shirt.
My house was freshly paid off. Over time, I’d been sending in a little extra cash along with with my mortgage payments, whenever I could. Then I got a lucky break—right below the knee, my left tibia and fibula smashed by a car turning into me in the bike lane where I was blissfully, unwittingly riding. I was stuck in a cast for three hot, itchy months, and at risk of being disabled later in life. Was it worth the settlement I was awarded? I don’t know yet. I’m not limping around at the moment, but five miles is my hiking max. Forget Zumba. Forget the Grand Canyon trip with my friends. But the sum was exactly enough to pay off the house. It enabled me to set out on an unusual lifestyle adventure.
At the time, my friend Shay Solomon was all fired up about tiny houses—so fired up that she was giving talks around town about living small. The talks were about different people who had built their own little cottages, often from alternative materials, like straw bales, or recycled treasures, or cob (freeform adobe made from mud and straw). These buildings were stunning—curvy, streaming sunlight, colors like gems against glowing whites, with fun lofts with ladderlike steps, and outdoor bedrooms, the most enchanting of which showed a four-poster bed made of fist-thick bamboo poles and fluffy bedding you wanted to flop down into.
Living in small houses, these people valued their outdoor spaces. I did, too. Having grown up in Minnesota, I was still trying to thaw out under the desert sun, and I didn’t mind the heat—you could lay low during the afternoon and go out in the cooler mornings and evenings. (Siestas are common sense, a way to be efficient, not lazy.)
After Shay’s presentation there was a time for questions. Her questions. One of them was, How small a house could you live in? I immediately understood that there was only one answer to that question, at least for me: It depends.
“I guess it would depend on how much time I could spend outdoors.” I knew at that moment that I would build a small house and live outside as much as possible.
A few months later I helped Shay and some elementary school students construct an outbuilding in the schoolyard. We built it out of straw bales, filling in the irregular spaces with cob. The kids squealed and threw mud at each other, while I got the feel of mixing cob and slapping it on the walls. If I’d had an opportunity like this in my fort-building childhood? Well, maybe I would have already satisfied my desire to build, a desire that still hounded me in middle age. Or perhaps not. It could simply be an animal instinct, I thought. The squirrel’s urge to dig a burrow. The wasp’s drive to create nursery chambers with rain-softened earth.
I would assume both these animal identities in making my casita—digging out the bottom half, enclosing the upper half in mud and mud brick.
There would be no rushing this. I was looking at months or years. It would be hard, physical work. I quit the gym. I quit the job. The time had to come from somewhere. But then, where would the money come from?
It would have to come from renting out the house—all but one room, the tiny one with the back door and the sink, which I’d keep for myself. A kitchen under the back porch with an ice chest and a hotplate. A composting toilet behind privacy curtains. An outdoor bathtub out back.
This was Financial Independence Through Camping.
I found a pleasant young couple with a corgi for the house. The rent was less than half what my meager wages had been, but it was enough. More importantly, I was having the time of my life. I had no job to report to; instead, I reported to a growing hole in the ground, with chalk-hard caliche that had to be pick-axed. I enjoyed a flow of endorphins and energy like nothing I’d ever felt before. I could rest when I wanted, for as long as I wanted, and go back to it when I felt like it. The hole deepened by my own hands; the negative space I was digging out created walls, dirt surfaces that just needed mud plaster to become “civilized,” to become the underground walls of my living space. Nothing was more satisfying than throwing mud onto dirt walls, then smoothing it with the heel of my hand. Day after day this was my job, creating smooth beauty and solidity—a living space. I might have done this for a thousand days and enjoyed it no less. But I finished this underground section in a year. To celebrate, I had a hole party.
After the sun went down, we all sat in the hole with backs against my smoothed, hardened walls, and looked up at the stars, the moon, the constellations. “Don’t put a roof on this,” people said. “It’s so nice seeing the night sky from here.” But rain would have turned it into a big mud puddle. And I needed shelter, beyond the 90-square-foot back room of the house.
Making the upper walls was like a continuation of the party: fun and intoxicating. I planned to use up a stash of mud bricks I’d pulled from a half-demolished old house. They were heavy to move but oh, they made the walls rise quickly, like a time-lapse flower opening. And I still got to have my hands in the mud. The lay-up mortar was mud, the bricks that broke were repaired with mud, the odd spaces (created by partial bricks and features) were filled with mud. When the bricks ran out, I made the mud into cob, adding straw for strength. I’d take handfuls of clean straw and rub it through a large-hole screen to filter out the awkward oversized strands. until a silky mound of golden ribbons formed underneath. I fell in love with that substance—the feel of fluffy gold in my hand.
I was never an athlete, but I was now discovering the joys of the physical. My body thanked me for the hard work. It was made for it. Not necessarily for the extremes of aerobic exhaustion, but for the steady activity of creating something useful, over long stretches of time, a major piece of each day, and outside. I didn’t know that later, this kind of activity would be shown to be especially healthy—I just felt good. Even emotional pain got worked out, like kinks in a hose getting straightened, without denial or too-quick deflection.
A couple years later, I had a beautiful small house in my back yard, shedding rain off a metal roof into gardens. It always has a faint smell that I can’t identify—caliche? —no matter what aromatic meals are served there.
Even after the casita was finished, I couldn’t stop working in the yard. There were plenty of reasons to be there—gardening, harvesting wild foods to eat, creating outdoor sitting areas, finding places for my alley treasures, photographing bugs and flowers, pruning the branches that grabbed my hair, grilling stuff on my mud-brick fireplace, and just sitting sore-footed—listening, watching, and breathing in the seasonal scents. If it was hot, I worked in the shade during the coolest hours, even sometimes wearing a thick, water-soaked shirt. If it was cold, I’d wear a thick but dry shirt or jacket, and go out during the sunniest part of the day. Not having a job, I had the freedom of choice: choosing comfort, and choosing pleasure.
Nothing done outside was housework.
So how was this happiness like a hair shirt? The term reminds me of a man here in Tucson who used to roam the midtown streets, scratching the bare front of his body like crazy. Crazy in some way he no doubt was, and it was probably not nice to refer to him as the Chest Scratcher, but that’s how people knew him. He was always either shirtless or open-shirted, and hairy, looking like he really was wearing a coarsely woven vest like that next to his body. He definitely seemed uncomfortable, the way I imagined you’d look if you were wearing a hair shirt.
So this was how I was supposed to feel, I guess—unbearably itchy and miserable—if I lived in an “environmentally friendly” way. Like the Chest Scratcher, I’d have to be crazy, because who in their right mind would choose to put on a shirt like that today?
I didn’t buy the metaphor. Like Thoreau, I wanted to live deliberately, and not be told how. I wanted to question everything. If the future of civilization was looking rosy, or even viable, I might have jumped on that bandwagon. But it wasn’t. It went beyond climate change, even—the very lions and tigers and bears of my childhood picture books were disappearing. Dystopian films and novels were attracting large audiences. What was actually coming? It was the right time to question authority. To talk back to the dominating narratives of my screens.
It would have been easier to live uber-green in some less-developed society, or some earlier time, rather than in this spread-out city, this digitized and mechanized place, where basic needs now required technology, money, travel, and lots of new stuff—environmental unfriendliness required. Too quickly, unquestioned new ways pushed out the tried and tested. If you can believe it, I held out against a cell phone until last summer. But communication itself was changing. Could I let my daughter’s mother go silent? That is, live without texting? I might as well turn hermit. I had reached the place where two roads diverged, and only one went into the woods; the other led to a tangled mass of cords—and that’s the one I had to take in order to stay close to my kid and have a bit of a social life. Not to mention, to contribute something to the world, badly ailing as it might be.
Both of Robert Frost’s roads led into green landscapes; there was nothing demanding about his need to choose between the two paths. There’s even a line in his poem that claims the foot traffic “had worn them really about the same.”
That guy Thoreau had it easy, too. He could walk to town whenever he wanted—to the pubs of Concord, to his mother’s house. Somehow he ended up with the reputation of a hermit anyway.
But today, moving to the wilderness—for healing?—just means eating away a little more of it.
So I’ve chosen backyard nature and a pinch of technology, also minimizing indoor climate control (small rooms, solar assists) but believing I do deserve to survive temperature extremes. The balance shifts sometimes—indoors vs. out, artificial vs. natural, rest vs. movement, thinking vs. acting. Some people may be satisfied with houseplants and a vertical garden on the balcony. I might not quite believe them, because of the way my own body and mental health respond to the outdoors and backyard nature. But, though getting old, I’m not yet wise. I can only speak for myself.
Speaking for myself, the dirt and soil and trees and birds and lizards—which have exploded in numbers and size this summer—make me happy. The little room I built for myself gives me satisfaction and confidence every time I look at it. Not having a boss is pretty great. Yeah, digital demands can really piss me off—ask Terry, my grudging tech support—but to some extent, I’ve chosen those interactions. And I will, someday, choose to let them go. It might be a road not travelled by many, but I can choose it.
I want to tell that radio reporter she knows nothing about what it feels like to make friends with “the environment.” I just know she’s never tried it. And she really needs to do that—along with anyone else who has, sheep-like, latched onto that hair-shirt metaphor. It has nothing to do with real freedom and contentment.