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The pursuit of happiness

The snakes have names. Serpents are welcome in our Eden; in fact we encourage them by stacking small rock piles around our gardens to give them shelter. Our snake population has grown over the years, and since their diet is mostly earthworms, slugs, frogs, and salamanders, it means we have plenty of those too. In turn the snakes are eaten by owls, hawks, foxes, skunks, and raccoons. The rock pile they seem to like best is the large fire ring I built at the edge of the edible forest garden in front of our house. Resembling a low stone wall in the shape of a horseshoe, it has lots of gaps and pockets for them to slither in and out of. Last summer four snakes took up permanent residence. Right now they’re hibernating somewhere under four feet of snow, but during the warm months they were always sunning themselves on the rocks, and our kids spent so much time watching them that they were able to tell one from the other and so they gave them names: Strawberry, Kiwi, Pistachio, and Acorn.

During the warm months the garden and fire ring become our outdoor kitchen and dining room, and on weekends we often invite friends or neighbors to join us, or relatives are visiting from out of state (they never visit Maine in November or February). Our favorite weekend meal is a traditional clambake, but with mussels instead of clams. The day starts with a trip to the ocean at low tide to gather mussels and seaweed. The cooking technique is the old one, used by coastal people for thousands of years. We put a layer of rocks in the bottom of the fire ring and build a hardwood fire on top of them. Visitors who see the snakes always ask what happens to them when we start the fire: they glide away into the garden of course. We let the fire burn down completely and then put a layer of seaweed on top of the hot rocks; then mussels, more seaweed, more mussels, etc until all the mussels are gone. Sometimes we add sausages and corn and potatoes from the garden. We put a last layer of seaweed and then a grill lid over everything and let it all smoke for 20 to 40 minutes. The food is delicious, smoked more than cooked, and flavored by the seaweed. (We use the seaweed after cooking in the gardens as mulch or compost).

The garden setting is delightful and varies with the season. In spring all the trees, shrubs, and wildflowers in the garden are in bloom. By midsummer everything is green and squadrons of dragonflies have returned, making angular maneuvers in the skies overhead and snagging insects out of the air. The bats return at this time of year too, coming out just after the sky starts to darken and flying in circles around the house. Maine is buggy, and every year we look forward to the dragonflies and bats. By late summer everything is fruiting, and dessert is just a few steps away. Or less, in the case of Alpine strawberries and blueberries, which grow right at the edge of the fire ring. We cook outside into Fall, and a Thanksgiving turkey is usually the last meal of the year we cook over the fire. In all seasons the kids like to make a contest out of seeing who can pick out the first visible star as dusk comes on. When the sky darkens completely the Milky Way is easily discernible on clear nights.

We enjoy these meals, and I think our visitors do too. Fires are magical in themselves, and given fire’s role in our evolution, our attraction to it is no doubt so deeply embedded in our psyche that it is a part of who we are. For most of our time on the planet fire has represented warmth, safety, security, good food, and the center of family and social life. Add to that a lush forest garden setting, fresh food from the sea and garden, and the result is usually a memorable experience for our guests, and for us just a very nice way to enjoy meals. We’ve had visitors from cities tell us that the food was as good as anything they’ve eaten in the best restaurants. There’s an old Roman saying that translated from the Latin means roughly “hunger is the best sauce.” Yes, but beautiful surroundings and good company are close seconds.

Of course we could take our friends, neighbors or relatives to a good restaurant that offers fresh organic food prepared by a talented, dedicated chef and the food would probably be as good, maybe even better. Maybe. But the experience wouldn’t be the same, or rather it would be the same as it always is in the consumer economy: go someplace, pay money, get something. The something might be wonderful, but the experience is limited. In other words, shopping. And while shopping offers temporary satisfactions that are no doubt relicts from our past as hunters and gatherers, the satisfactions are superficial. Since shopping—unlike hunting or gathering—doesn’t exploit or challenge any of the many talents and capabilities we humans have at our disposal, it doesn’t leave a deep, lasting impression. It isn’t the stuff of lasting memories or increased knowledge. At bottom, the shopper’s experience of getting the basic stuff of life—food, shelter, clothing—is flat and shallow.

Our musselbakes, on the other hand, are free, with the only expense being the cost of gas to drive the eight or ten miles to the ocean and back. (In a post fossil-fuel world that distance will become a real impediment, and if I could change one thing about our property it would be to move it closer to the village and ocean). I think that makes all the difference. I also think it is the reason that the mainstream media produce stories by the millions about new restaurants, while those about eating wild foods are rare. The last thing the advertisers who pay for the stories want is for consumers to start organizing their lives and pleasures around things that are free.

Which brings me to the actual theme of this post: money and happiness. Writing about living in the Maine woods in a small house with no indoor plumbing and minimal electricity and the challenges presented by peak oil, resource depletion and the demise of an economy that is fast running out of new frontiers to exploit, I’m conscious of the ready-made cartoon image that has been crafted by the mainstream media: survivalists holed up with guns, ammunition, a pantry full of canned food, and a conviction that the apocalypse is just over the horizon. It’s a caricature, but caricatures are reassuring, particularly in times of uncertainty and stress, when the old reassuring narratives, the ones you’ve heard all your life, don’t seem to be adequate to the task of explaining what’s actually happening in the world. The caricature itself is designed to reassure; to tell you that even though times might be tough, any thoughts of living on terms other than those prescribed by the mainstream are best left to borderline types of questionable judgment and sanity.

By all rights we shouldn’t be here, living like we do. We belong to the class of well-educated, rootless itinerants who work in cities and college towns in a career (writing, law, academia, NGO) abstracted from the material world and where food, clothing, energy, and shelter are purchased in the marketplace. That’s our background, and by the law of averages it should have been our final destination. But we also think it is a big part of the reason why as a culture we seem to be making so little headway solving problems that really are epochal in scope and unprecedented in human history. We needed to know things that we could only learn with our bodies and muscles and daily routines.

But you’ll have to take my word for it when I say that we didn’t leave that world because we were running away from a scary, uncertain future. We’ve resisted the gravitational pull of our economy and its many seductions to embrace what we consider a fuller, richer, more sensual experience of being alive, and also one that is more in line with the inescapable ecological limits that reality is beginning to impose on all of us. Eight years ago we did think that it would be much easier to make these changes on our own terms rather than in response to some crisis, but we would have made them anyway. In short, our motives revolved around the most American one of all, the one written into our founding document, and the one I think is at the heart of our restlessness as a people: the pursuit of happiness. After eight years we think our instincts were right, and it turns out the numbers actually support us.

Last year the most comprehensive study (http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2009/12/091217141314.htm) yet done on American happiness and geography came out, and the results reveal often unacknowledged tensions between happiness and our economy. The study ranked the American states (and Washington, DC) by the happiness of their residents, using both objective quality of life standards and subjective reported levels of happiness in a survey of more than a million Americans. The authors of the study reported being surprised at how closely the objective criteria and subjective reports matched. When I saw the results, I was somewhat surprised by the rankings, but more than that I was immediately struck by the almost perfect inverse relationship between average income and happiness at the bottom of the rankings. Here’s the bottom of the chart, i.e. the states with the least happy people. I’ve added each state’s rank in per capita income (2009 data) to illustrate my point.

46 California (7)
47 Indiana (37)
48 Michigan (26)
49 New Jersey (2)
50 Connecticut (1)
51 New York (4)

Perhaps even more notable than the fact that the most well-to-do Americans live in the states that report lowest for happiness, is the role these states play in our modern, global, hi-tech, media-saturated economy. New York is the global center of finance, publishing, and media; New Jersey and Connecticut are both wealthy enclaves that serve as satellites to that world; California is the world’s largest factory for movies, entertainment and popular culture generally, one of the major technology centers, as well as where much of the country’s food that isn’t corn or wheat is grown; Michigan is home to the automobile industry. These states are our economy, or at least the bright, shiny, urbanized, educated, acquisitive version of it that is the definition of economic success presented by all the official institutions of American culture.

I draw three conclusions from the study. First is that wherever our economy has penetrated most deeply, wherever it most completely dominates life, that’s where the least happy people are most likely to be. Second is that at the highest levels of our economy, among large numbers of the educated elites, the pursuit of happiness and the pursuit of money, status, and “success” are fundamentally incompatible, and that the former has been sacrificed to the latter. And third, if the people in the rest of the world value happiness, they would be crazy to follow in our footsteps and adopt our values and economic imperatives.

On our trip when we moved to Maine in the winter of 2002 we stopped to visit my sister and her family outside Washington, DC. Over dinner I was explaining that our reasons for moving and giving up comforts and conveniences such as central heat and indoor plumbing had to do with wanting to live in closer contact with the natural rhythms of the seasons and to be living inside the wild green world looking out rather than the other way around. I can still remember my brother-in-law, a former Congressional staffer turned lobbyist, looking at Tanya and asking, “So do you think your husband’s lost his mind?”

When I’m outside in the sharp cold air hewing a timber for our addition, or I wake up to the cool air inside and make a fire to warm the house before Tanya and the kids get up, or suddenly realize that now with the lengthening days I don’t have to worry about the solar power system so much, or I start to look forward with anticipation to the first meals of spring that we’ll cook over the fire outside and eat surrounded by our garden and all the life of the forest, I sometimes think about the climate-controlled, fluorescent-lit world of offices and traffic and commutes and shopping we left behind. I recall the happiness study and the chart above, and I can’t help but wonder if my brother-in-law’s question might not better be asked of the educated elites who run our economy and to a large extent create the world we all have to live in: “Have you lost your minds?”

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

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