Swans Commentary » swans.com April 23, 2007  





by Martin Murie





(Swans - April 23, 2007)  Simplify... Lately this motto has been turning up more often. In 1979, George Schaller, the globe-wandering biologist, wrote that he enjoyed the simplicity of an evening with two Pakistani men. Dinner was tea, boiled potatoes, and salt. The men's feet were clad in goatskins tied with thongs.

They gave off a primitive odor, half-human, half-animal, a mixture of sweat, smoke and farmyard. There was no trace of western culture to distort the evening. Here it was easy to see the excesses of civilization, to realize the value of simplicity. (1)

Schaller goes on to say that he wouldn't want to return to such simplicity, but the experience "made one aware of the waste in one's own life, one makes a silent promise to conserve."

We, Westerners, do go on about how wasteful we are and how we long for the simple life. Why, then, don't we do something about it? Because we're embedded in an imperialist nation where the poor are forced to conserve, to forgo many of the amenities, and the "more fortunate" (sic) are swamped with two or more vehicles, a house and a dog and a cat, hot water on demand, and a thousand and one distractions that go with that way of life. There are, as always on this complex planet, the intermediates, such as Alison and me. We turn off lights when we're not using them, own a cranky rabbit-eared TV, carry unpolluted water from the spring house, have no dogs or cats but are hosts to pet drop-offs from other sectors of society, own only two vehicles, et cetera. But, aside from these private efforts, we intermediates are forced to conform along with everybody else by the dynamic framework of the capitalist-dominated society into which we were born. One corner of our barn is stacked to the ceiling with cartons, bottles, cans, paper: waste stuff we haven't found time enough to drive to the transfer station that is itself a joke. We're all conformists. The sooner we admit it, the sooner we get on the true path to simplicity. Ah, yes! But, beware; even a bold entrance to that true path has tremendous consequences.

A few days ago, still in the depths of snow and ice season, I found a frog on the highway, DOR [Dead On Road]. A very small frog, so squished it was hard to identify. I think it was a wood frog, the one with the robber mask. I could barely believe that this frog woke up from its long winter sleep to travel across snow. Later, thinking about the simple life, I asked myself if animals live simply. By our standards, they do, but our standards are so far off the ecological imperatives of the planet that it's hard to gear down to the ways of The Others. There is the annual migration of amphibians, driven by the sexual imperative, orders from evolution, marching orders, not to be denied. Simple. Yes, but think of the path from A to Z. The hazards, each little step a venture into peril. Continual paying attention is required. What signals do each species pay attention to, and what signals, such as roaring, carbon-eating vehicles are too new for evolutionary progress to have embedded? I don't know, but I can post a go slow sign: simplicity on this planet does not mean turning off attention circuits. Many New York City firefighters who fought the 9/11 disaster now have severe, life-threatening respiratory problems. We turn off this signal at our peril. Farm workers, and frogs, suffer from pesticide haze in the fields and in the water they drink, when they are allowed a break to have a drink. Sometimes they don't. That's another signal. There are too many to list. Why don't we do something about it?

Back to the simple life: Jim Stiles, whose book, Brave New West, Morphing Moab at the Speed of Greed came out in March, quotes Toots McDougald, reminiscing about her Moab childhood.

It was wonderful. We went on hikes and picnics and chicken fries. We had great watermelon busts. In fact, a man named Ollie Reardon planted a field of watermelons just for us kids to steal. He said we could steal from that patch if we left his other patch alone ... Everything was so free and easy. No pressures. No traffic. We didn't know anything about drugs. We thought we were pretty wild if we got a sip of homemade beer. (2)

This rings bells with me, homemade entertainments carrying with them, maybe in small print, a promise of adventure, the unexpected. That, for me, is the essence of "the simple life," homemade, individualistic action versus imports.

Stiles again:

Does anyone have an interest in not knowing what lies around the next bend? Maybe not, but I know for a fact that my most memorable experiences were the ones I hadn't planned. (3)

It might seem a trivial point, but I think not: simplicity does not mean lack of complexity. It means an escape from the constraints imposed upon us. The simple life should not be one of hibernation. Once again, George Schaller.

In these mountains one must always be resigned to waiting for something, for snow to stop falling, for porters to arrive, only a small part of the total time is spent in actual research. Here in the village the people waited too, for spring. They almost hibernated. Only one snow trail left the village. Occasionally someone hurried between huts, cloak pulled over head for warmth. It was silent, a medieval silence without motors and few sounds beyond the muted voices of men and livestock. (4)

Here we come close to constraints imposed by Nature rather than human contrivance. Speaking of contrivance, we have to realize that our profit-based system is both fragile contrivance and brute strength. Here, a snippet of the amazing fragility that tries to shore up the system. Believe it or not, from Steve Forbes, editor of Forbes:

Thankfully, despite all the widespread misconceptions about weather, we are not going to submit to Gore-ite socialist global government regulations. In fact, some good may come out of this, a major push for nuclear power. (5)

Another hit from Fantasy Land, Eric Werker, a professor at Harvard Business School, says it's time to allow corporations to run for office in local elections, e.g., the office of mayor, with its percs and profits.

They're still using that S word to scare us off any and all initiatives we might come up with to restrain corporations in place of their constraints on us. It's that simple, the gateway to simplicity, and that complex.



1.  Schaller, George B., Stones of Silence. Journeys in the Himalaya, Viking, 1979.  (back)

2.  Stiles, Jim, Brave New West. Morphing Moab at the Speed of Greed, University of Arizona Press, 2007.  (back)

3.  ibid, page 92.  (back)

4.  Schaller, page 46.  (back)

5.  Forbes, Steve, Forbes, March, 2007.  (back)


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Swans -- ISSN: 1554-4915
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Published April 23, 2007