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Weekend reads: On finding our way back home
In an era of extreme rootlessness, how do we forge belonging?
Greetings from the southernmost point of the United States. The air is warm and fragrant, the water is green, and a rooster woke me up this morning. Also, there is key lime pie. I’m on the road this weekend, as I will be for much of the next month, which always makes me think more deeply about home.
During the lockdowns in Toronto, some of the longest in the world, I rarely left my own neighbourhood. So to now find myself out in the wide world again feels euphoric. And on the plane yesterday, I found myself thinking back to trips from years past — and to one particularly pivotal journey.
Four years ago, my sister-in-law and I ventured out to the Irish countryside in search of Mark Boyle, a writer who swore off first money, and then technology. We wound up spending a memorable afternoon with him.
Although Boyle’s solutions to the madness of modern life are radically different than mine, I learned much from our conversation. His story clarified for me the importance of belonging, of deep roots, and, ultimately, of rejecting the ethos of globalization that tells us that any of us can live anywhere. That the old bonds to place and culture and family and community are outdated and parochial. I flew home to Canada determined to live by different values, which indeed I have.
Here is the story of that life-changing visit with the Moneyless Man.
An adapted excerpt from Lean Out: A Meditation on the Madness of Modern Life
The concept of home is a tricky one in the twenty-first century. For those of us born with Western passports, there are now endless options for how and where to live. But this mobility is a gift and a curse. Rising rents, stagnant salaries and precarious work often make such relocations compulsory, scattering people across the globe, forever chasing the multinationals, on the hunt for a decent standard of living. As globalization spreads, we of fortunate birth fan out, following the jobs from one country to the next, losing each other as we go.
Many of my peers were constantly on the move. Singapore. London. Seoul. Hong Kong. Dubai. Moving apartments, moving jobs, moving cities. Moving from relationship to relationship. Moving friend groups. There was little stability for any of us. Nothing we could hold to, or build on. Nothing we could call our own.
Over tea in Ireland, my sister-in-law’s mother told me about a very different way of life. She’d been born in the tenements of Dublin, where families as large as thirteen all crowded into a single room, living without heat or running water. Her father, a religious man, corresponded with Mother Teresa. When the government built council housing in the suburbs, her extended clan migrated to the outskirts of Dublin, where they’ve remained, eventually buying houses in adjoining estates. Now, grieving her husband, she was surrounded by an army of siblings, cousins, nieces and nephews, in-laws, children and grandchildren — a huge solace, she said. She’d been with her husband fifty years when he passed away; they’d lived out their entire lives in this twenty-mile radius.
In contrast, since I’d moved out at seventeen, I had probably lived at twenty different addresses, in three different cities. More if you counted brief stays in New York and Bangkok. I longed to settle down, put down roots, and had tried to do so in Vancouver. But the economy was not cooperating.
During the weeks I spent in Dublin writing, I contemplated my next move. Would I return to Vancouver and continue pushing the boulder up the hill? Watching my rent steadily tick up and my freelance rates fall, waiting for the point (swiftly approaching) when I’d be forced to leave the city? Would I return to Toronto? What about the land of my mother’s birth, London, England? Perhaps I should join my brother and his family in Ireland, somehow scraping together the sky-high rents for a studio apartment in Dublin?
Any way I thought about it, the puzzle pieces refused to fit together. There were too many moving parts, and always a major structural issue to contend with, delaying decisions indefinitely. And so I felt homeless. As in: I had no feeling of home. It was hard to envision any kind of future.
I began to wonder about this. There must be others grappling with this phenomenon. How did the nomads of the twenty-first century address this desire for a more solid, rooted life? How did they stop living in the weightless present, stop swiping left, stop hopping planes, forever dwelling in the liminal space between contracts, sublets, time zones? Trading permanence for one shimmering mirage after another, always slightly out of reach. How did they find their way back home?
This is how my sister-in-law and I came to be standing at an iron gate at the end of a narrow dirt road, far out in the Irish countryside. We were looking for Mark Boyle, the Guardian columnist famous for swearing off money and technology, who was now living on a small acreage near the town of Loughrea, outside Galway. When we came upon the fence, we’d been driving for several hours through miles of picturesque rolling hills, complete with grazing sheep. Now satnav was out of ideas. The road had come to an abrupt end, and the car was surrounded by ankle-deep mud.
“Should we get out and walk?” I asked my sister-in-law.
She pointed to her white sneakers. “I’m wearing my Guccis,” she said with a laugh. Ideal footwear to meet the Moneyless Man, we agreed. I got out and walked a few minutes. There were no houses in the distance. Since Mark didn’t text or email, or even have a landline, there had been no way to let him know we were coming. And, now that we were here, there was no way to tell him we were lost.
I had checked one of Mark’s books out of the library some five years before, when I was living in Toronto and working in radio. The Moneyless Man was about the period that he’d given up money, and it was chock-full of the kind of practical considerations that readers were bound to wonder about. Before retiring the use of cash at the age of twenty-nine, Mark had sold his houseboat and used his life savings to launch a barter website that had taken off, making the “freeconomy” trendy. The site was founded on the principle of paying things forward. People did favors, or gifted items, without any expectation of something in return. Money is to giving and receiving what porn is to sex, Mark was fond of saying, in his book, in interviews, in a TED Talk.
He began to locate his sense of security in his social circle as opposed to his bank account, and it felt good. As he watched the freeconomy movement take off, Mark decided to take the experiment to its logical conclusion and refrain from using cash altogether. To celebrate, he hosted a giant party, completely gratis, serving food that had been foraged or sourced from dumpsters.
He then found a free twelve-by-six-foot caravan on the Internet and arranged to volunteer on a farm near Bristol, England, in exchange for land to park it on. He grew his own food, cycled everywhere, installed solar panels to power his laptop and built a compostable toilet. He bartered for anything he couldn’t buy. Or else made it himself, as was the case with a pair of flip-flops he’d fashioned from an old abandoned tire.
I’d been fascinated by his story back in Toronto, in part because he’d been a pretty ordinary guy before all of this. He’d grown up on a working-class estate on the edge of the Atlantic, in the coastal outpost of Ballyshannon, the oldest town in Ireland. He lived on a street of eighty houses (with one phone among them), in the house his father was born in. After doing an economics degree at university in Galway, he moved to England and wound up working in the organic-food industry. Ten years later, he was a vegan environmentalist and had concluded that the best way to resist the madness of modern life was to stop using paper currency. As with all the counterculture people I was learning about, I was struck by the extraordinary lengths such a regular guy would go to resist twenty-first-century consumerism.
I was also struck by how much his example appealed to others. Anyone that I mentioned the Moneyless Man to was instantly intrigued. And his efforts were now rippling out, sparking similar movements in far-flung places. Like Vancouver, for instance, where a new barter Meetup group had just formed.
I was struck, too, by how much it appealed to me, living as I did in a shiny condo, donning cocktail dresses and dining at trendy restaurants. His life, I think, represented a simpler way, a mode of living that could, maybe, connect me more. To nature, to food, to place and to others.
Now in his late thirties, Mark was apparently using money again, in small doses. (And had stopped being a vegan, to eat a hyper-local Irish diet that included fish.) Ironically, he later told me, his book about giving up money had sold well, and he’d used that capital to set up a project in rural Ireland. The cost of land is one of the main obstacles to people experimenting with this kind of life, he said, and so he wanted to remove that obstacle. He bought three acres and a farmhouse, built an off-grid tiny house for himself and his partner, and constructed a cob-and-cordwood hostel, the Happy Pig, where people could gather rent-free and live off the land.
He’d now lived there for almost six years, the past two without any technology. His smallholding had no electricity, gas, running water, cars or Wi-Fi.
The problem, of course, was finding it. It was starting to look like Mark didn’t particularly want to be found. As we circled the area, I was forced to ask myself a pressing question: What would I have done before smartphones?
Talk to people, I realized with a laugh. So we drove until we found a stone cottage that was being renovated by builders. Did they know the Moneyless Man, per chance? They did not. But, these men said, they had friends who might. One of the builders called someone, and then he got in his car and led us to the spot his friend directed him to. The same fence, unfortunately. But at least we knew we were on the right track. And now we’d met some friendly builders, too.
Eventually I went door-knocking, which led to some lovely chats with elderly neighbors, in doorways and out kitchen windows — ten years ago, we’d have been invited in for tea, my sister-in-law noted, before the rash of rural break-ins — and one finally sent us to the right place. I rapped on a farmhouse door, and miracle of miracles, Mark stood before me, bearded, barefoot, a bit puzzled by my presence. But game to talk.
It turned out he was just putting finishing touches on some work for his new book, The Way Home, a philosophical treatise on living without technology. He showed us to the cottage he’d built himself, a whimsical Hobbit house with a woodstove, where we waited for him. After he finished seeing to his business, he joined us. He’d just baked bread, and offered us some.
We sat on a wooden bench, gazing around at shelves packed with books on camping and woodcraft and Irish fishing, survival, self-sufficiency and gardening. There were framed quotes from Thoreau lying about, and an axe, and a bowl of salad greens he’d harvested. Plus a copy of Kevin Kelly’s What Technology Wants. To the side of the cabin, there was a vegetable garden, brimming with stalks even in the chill of early January. I asked for a bathroom, and Mark said I was very welcome to pee under a tree, or use the composting toilet in the hostel. I opted for the tree.
That summer, he told us, he’d parted ways with his partner Kirsty — a classic Sagittarian, he said fondly — who was intent on travel and adventure. She was gone now, along with everyone in the hostel. He was feeling frustrated by how transient the community had become. You had to keep starting over, rebuilding time and time again, he said. Nobody wanted to commit to anything.
He was staring down forty, and wanted something more stable for this next stage of life.
People would come and stay a while in the hostel, he told us, and then they’d move on. I pictured these people — including “a yogi, two sailors, an anarchist, a circus per- former and a musician,” I later read in Mark’s book — sleeping in the hand-built bunks, drinking Mark’s homemade cider at the free bar, leafing through books by Naomi Klein and Paul Hawken from communal bookshelves, perhaps offering to help out with the wormery, or the compost heap, or the firewood. Or a thousand other invisible farm tasks I couldn’t fathom. Then, I imagined these same people packing it in, discouraged by the hardships of this life, craving hot showers, flush toilets, Instagram. Lured away by the sparkling realm of the Internet, the promise of endless excitement, romance, novelty, distraction.
Even here, in rural Ireland, Mark could not escape the same tides of change that I myself was struggling with. Even in the middle of nowhere, at an address that didn’t seem to register on Google Maps, bulldozers were ever-present, tearing up beloved lakes. Pubs were closing, and post offices. Locals were becoming less and less connected.
“I need a tribe,” Mark said, shaking his head.
Even so, living without technology had proved so rich and rewarding, he never wanted to go back. It had forced him to be present in his immediate life, Mark explained, without interruption or interference. His engagement with the natural world had grown exponentially. He never wanted to own another phone.
His main motivation in the beginning was ecological, he said. He knew from studying economics that industrialism destroyed the environment. He pointed to a recent report from the World Wildlife Fund; in the past forty years, 60 percent of wildlife had disappeared. “If I’m campaigning about not wiping out life on planet Earth, then I need to construct a life for myself that isn’t based on the fruits of that system,” Mark said. “Nothing else makes any sense to me. I can’t be arguing against industrialism, and still have all the products and still want to use them all.” He knew his one-man ban was unlikely to make much of a difference, but for him it was a question of dignity. I couldn’t help but respect this.
He had other powerful cultural and personal reasons for withdrawing, too. These gadgets were a massive social experiment, he believed, the consequences of which we could not yet know. He saw their impact in rising rates of anxiety and depression, and children growing up with no connection to the natural world. A recent book he’d read from British author Robert Macfarlane, Landmarks, tracked the changes to the Oxford Junior Dictionary. Words like bluebell and acorn were being replaced by techno-terms like cut-and-paste. It horrified him to think of children growing up not knowing what a conker was. (A horse chestnut, as far as I can tell.)
Now that he’d given up tech, he told me, his interactions with people were a lot more meaningful. He visited friends and family face-to-face, wrote letters. He’d slowed down a lot, and relished this new way of being. “It’s not the fast-paced, got-to-be-productive thing that it used to be,” he said. “My time is now spent going down to collect spring water, growing some food, cycling to the post office sometimes, going fishing for the afternoon, reading in the evening.”
And writing, of course, in pencil, and often by candlelight. When I returned to Canada and his publicist emailed me his book, I was struck by how timeless the prose felt. The elements felt like a living, breathing reality, characters in themselves. The natural world came alive on the page, with its buckthorn berries and burdock root, its icy northern winds and deluges of rain, its orchestra of swallows. Mark skinned a deer he found dead on the road, cycled to the local pub to meet a fellow writer for a standing weekly date, built a rocket stove so he could make tea, washed his dishes in wood ash and water. Thought deeply about the world, and his place in it.
The book had been written by hand, but the time eventually came when it had to be submitted to the publisher. So Mark had been forced to break his tech ban, sitting in front of the computer twelve hours a day, typing up the manuscript. He would stagger away from his desk every night, feeling drugged, dissociated. Afterward, it took days for the landscape to return to him.
Not long after that, Mark told us, he’d had a visit from a friend who was working on rewilding projects, allowing land to return to wilderness. This friend knew the BBC presenter Bruce Parry, who had a show called Tribe that Mark thought I should check out. (Back within Googling range, I discovered Parry had just made a film about the Penan.)
Parry was apparently thinking of starting his own tribe, in Wales. People could come and live off the land for free, Mark said, but you had to make a serious commitment. You had to agree to stay for the rest of your life. “He’s realized that the tribe is the only way forward, ecologically speaking and socially speaking,” Mark said. “A lot of people are really interested, but none of them want to commit for life.”
Many of our attempts at tribal life these days are unnatural, Mark went on. We are lacking familial bonds, shared history and a sense of belonging, even the kind of deep closeness that emerges over years. Mark had lived in a number of intentional communities, and funnily enough, he said, it was the religious ones that seemed to last. There had to be a strong common purpose for communities to sustain, he’d concluded.
With all this talk of tribes, my sister-in-law pointed out that I’d traveled to visit a tribe myself. And so, sitting in this cabin in rural Ireland, I told Mark the story of Borneo, of my friendship with Mutang, of getting sick and regretting not having been to visit him, about all the flights and buses and trains and propeller planes and boats upriver, about finally finding myself at Mutang’s Penan village. Finding that he had dreamt I was coming.
“That’s a beautiful story,” Mark said. “The more I learn about the non-human world, and the human world too, those stories aren’t surprising anymore. There are different levels on which the world operates that we can’t tap into anymore.” But some people were keeping those understandings of the world alive, he said with a smile.
He often wondered how much he’d lost, living in this culture. How many of the old ways we were forgetting. It was affecting our mental health, and our sense of place. “We don’t feel at home in the world anymore,” he said.
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