“Two years he walks the earth, no phone, no pool, no pets, no cigarettes. Ultimate freedom. An extremist. An aesthetic voyager whose home is the road. Escaped from Atlanta. Thou shalt not return, ‘cause “the West is the best.” And now after two rambling years comes the final and greatest adventure, the climactic battle to kill the false being within and victoriously conclude the spiritual revolution. Ten days and nights of freight trains and hitchhiking bring him to the great white North. No longer to be poisoned by civilization he flees, and walks alone upon the land to become lost in the wild. – Alexander Supertramp, May 1992.”
– Into The Wild, p163, Krakauer
Back when I was a student I was recommended a film called Into The Wild by one of my course mates. She’d read the book it was based on, and she told me we must watch the film together. And so we did. I loved it and it has become one of my favourite and most watched films.
Based on a true story Into The Wild is about a kid, Chris McCandleless, who has just graduated and decides he wants to go and eke out a solitary existence in the frozen depths of Alaska. He gives all his money to charity and sets off hitchhiking across America without telling his family where he’s going. Along the way he meets some interesting people; a couple traveling across America in a camper van, a wheat farmer who does some dodgy dealing on the side, and an old man who tries to adopt him as his son.
Into The Wild is a moving tale and I found I related to the main character in a big way. It was from this film that I first learnt about Walden; Or, Life in the Woods by Henry David Thoreau, another book about a man who decides to go and live a solitary existence in a log cabin in the woods. For two years Thoreau cut himself off from society, and in that time he wrote some of the most beautiful prose that has since become a classic of literature. I read that book, and underlined the passages that moved me, and I still flick through it from time to time for inspiration.
The first Bon Iver album, For Emma, Forever Ago, was written in a log cabin in the woods. Justin Vernon had grown disillusioned with his life and had recently split from his girlfriend. He had suffered from illness and depression and decided he needed time away and so he went to his parent’s log cabin and there he wrote the album that would make him famous.
Jean-Jacques Rousseau talks about the ‘natural man’ in the ‘state of nature’, a golden age in the distant past before man was corrupted by society. The Beach by Alex Garland is about a hidden commune by a secret lagoon, where it’s members work hard but live away from society in paradise. And so on and so on.
There is something about these stories that seem to grab us, but what is that? Is it the escape from the ills of society, the rejection of our modern existence and other people? I’ve certainly felt like cutting myself off from social media and the news recently. Is it a desire to live closer to nature, more in tune with our deeper selves? Is that a higher spiritual need or a baser, more primitive one? Do we just want peace and quiet, a simpler life, or could it be we want greater control over our lives? I don’t know if there is a definitive answer to any of these questions, but it seems to me we can all understand the motivations to some extent.
Ever since I was 16 I wanted to be independent. I wanted to move out from my home away from my family. I didn’t have anything against them, but I wanted to get my own place and support myself. I actually wrote down my plans in a logbook, how I was going to do it and how much money I would need. Sometimes with my friends we talked idly about setting up a commune where we’d live off grid somehow, producing all our own food and building our own houses. I even bought a book on how to build a house. (The Idiot’s Guide to Building Your Own Home of course, what else?)
After university, while a lot of my friends moved back home to Surrey, and many of them back in with their parents, I stayed up in York (where I had studied). I found a job and lived in a house share. It was fun for a while, two of my housemates were doing PhDs and the other worked like me and we all went out a lot. We had all the games consoles (PS3, Xbox 360, Nintendo Wii) and I got really f**king good at Guitar Hero.
But still I wasn’t truly independent. At the end of 2009 I was made redundant from my job. I realised pretty quickly that the direct debits I had going out of my bank account, payments on a laptop, on a mobile phone, on my car insurance, weren’t going to be covered by the jobseeker’s allowance, not when I had bills to pay and food to buy. I watched as my limited savings dwindled, and considered the prospect of asking my parents for money, or even of moving back home with them.
Fortunately it didn’t take me long to find another job, about a couple of months or so. In a way I’m glad I was made redundant as I ended up with a much better job on much better pay, but even so that period brought home to me how precarious my position was. It was in that period that I started properly budgeting, keeping spreadsheets of my finances and keeping track of every penny, and it was also around then that I became interested in money and what I could do to keep it, make more, and make myself more secure.
It wasn’t long after that I discovered the concept of financial independence and the rest is history, as they say. Financial independence was my new goal and I wanted to achieve it as soon as possible, to achieve that next level of freedom.
But there is something else in Thoreau’s writing, and something in Into The Wild, about escaping society and achieving something closer to nature. Recently when I saw the article in The Guardian about the Frugalwoods couple (here) I was reminded of this urge. There they are in their big home in acres of land in Vermont, and I’m reminded of that nature documentary of New England, of the changing of the seasons, from the icy winter scene through the green foliage of summer and the burnt colours of autumn. And I want to be there. Not in their house on their land (their house seems way too big and ostentatious for me anyway) but in that type of setting.
Even so, I wouldn’t like to be too far from civilisation. There is a scene in Into The Wild where Chris has had a few drinks and just starts ranting about society:
CHRIS: No, Alaska, Alaska. I want to be all the way out there. On my own. No map. No watch. No axe. Just out there. Just, in it. Big mountains, rivers, sky. Game. Just be out there in it. In the wild.
WAYNE: (Whispers) In the wild.
CHRIS: (Whispers) In the wild.
WAYNE: What are we doing in the wild, now you’re in the wild, what are we doing?
CHRIS: You’re just living man, you’re just there, in that moment in that special place in time.
CHRIS: Maybe when I get back I can write a book about my travels. About getting out of this sick society.
WAYNE: (Unconvinced but playing along, coughing) Society!
CHRIS: Society, man!
CHRIS: You know? Society. Because you know what I don’t understand? I don’t understand why, why people are so bad to each other, so often. It just doesn’t make any sense to me. Judgement. Control. All that, the whole spectrum.
WAYNE: What “people” we talking about?
CHRIS: You know, parents, hypocrites. Politicians. Pricks.
WAYNE: (tapping a finger against Chris’s forehead) This is a mistake. It’s a mistake to get too deep into that kind of stuff. Alex, you’re a helluva young guy, but I promise you this… You’re a young guy! Blood and fire! You can’t be juggling blood and fire all the time!
I love that scene. You can feel Chris’s idealism, and his anger as he’s talking about getting away from society, but Wayne tells it to him straight. You can’t get away from society, not really, and if you do you’ll struggle and it won’t be how you imagine. And all this anger, you’ve got to just, cool it somehow, try not to get too worked up about all the shit that goes on. Sure, Putin’s a thug, and Brexit is idiotic, and the less said about racist sexist homophobic childish moronic arrogant self-absorbed Trump the better (oops did I say too much?). We’ve got to just take a step back and try not to allow the news to take over our lives. And we need to look at society through an objective lens.
I remember when I was younger talking about starting a commune away from society with my friends I was troubled by, of all things, toothpaste. How would we get toothpaste? Could we make our own? I would still like to have strong teeth (and fresh breath), but how can I do that without venturing into civilisation and buying a tube of toothpaste? It may seem like a small thing but it’s symptomatic of a much larger problem. Living off grid, away from everyone and everything sounds great, but in practice? You can never truly get away. And really, perhaps you shouldn’t. After all society gave us advanced healthcare. Society gives us security in the form of laws and police and so on. It will be society that gives our children a university education and an opportunity to travel and meet people from all over the world.
And really, if I ever achieve financial independence, how free will I really be? I’ll probably still be reliant on the free healthcare this country provides. I will still hopefully get my state pension one day. I’m reliant on a responsible government that will protect me and won’t start raiding my savings or investments.
This isn’t to say that we shouldn’t strive for independence, I will still be doing that. I will still be aiming for financial independence, and perhaps I’ll one day build my own house a little away from society, with space and privacy, near some woodland perhaps. But I won’t be abandoning society altogether either. And I will also remind myself of how lucky I am that I live in a country that, for all its faults, provides that platform on which I and my fellow human beings can flourish.
Anyway. Enough of my rambling. Here’s a quote from Thoreau to end on:
“I went into the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.”
– Walden; Or, Life in the Woods, p214, Thoreau
Thanks for reading,