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Volume 15, Issue 41 ~ October 11 - October 17, 2007


The Argument of Simple Living

In the complex choices we make, can life ever be simple?

by Cindy Ross, distributed by Bay Journal News Service

When my young groom balked at going hiking in the canyons of Utah because the cabbage crop was coming in, I realized that we might not be on the same page. “I’ll buy a case of organic sauerkraut,” I told him. “I’m not missing this trip.”

For the last 25 years, our marriage has been a give-and-take over what we each consider simple living. The lifestyle is important to us both, but we measure it with different scales.

Material things were never important to us. We have lived for months in the wilderness, carrying all we needed to survive. We attended log-building school in northern Minnesota so we could craft our own home.

Todd taught himself how to wire, tile, roof and drywall. We collected salvage, and he made flooring, cabinets, doors and furniture. We reused paving bricks for our chimney, slate for our roof. We grew most of our food, froze it, put it up in Mason jars and made jellies, pickles and, of course, sauerkraut.

Back then, we earned about $20,000, saved $5,000 and went on at least one two-month hiking trip. We created a lifestyle where we did nearly everything ourselves, had zero debt and saved money.

After we had children and got better at our crafts, we made more money. I also spent more money, began to travel around the world, garden less and put more miles on the vehicles.

For the past 15 years, we have given workshops on Voluntary Simplicity to college students studying environmentalism. They tour our homestead, garden, woodpile, animals. We show them how we built our home, direct them in making hand-cranked ice cream and fire up our log Finnish sauna. We chat about choices, the value of freedom in your life (whether it’s financial or free time) and the bonus of living lighter on the land.

Now Todd thinks our workshop is a joke; that our imprint on the environment is extreme. At year’s end, he adds up my mileage, flights and expenditures — and concludes that the whole concept of simple living is in our past.

So I argue with him as I dip our bath water out of the tub and transfer it into the washing machine (after he bathes in the same water that I do). I argue with him as I haul the laundry to the wash-line. I argue with him while pushing a wheelbarrow of firewood and depositing it by the woodstove. We don’t have a dryer, a microwave, a television, central heat, a cell phone or a fax machine — and I’ve never felt the need for them.

Most would say that our lifestyle is extreme. But, he says, compared to most people in the world, even he would be considered wasteful. It saddens him that we Americans are the most wasteful people on the planet, not even aware of how extreme we are.

Our lifestyle has changed from when we first dug in our roots. I’ve missed out lately on the joys of digging my hands into the soil and the satisfaction of bringing a bountiful, healthy harvest to our table. But the whole world fascinates me. We go back and forth between the two worlds, though my husband has his foot more firmly planted in terra firma.

In the end, simplicity is defined by personal choice: Discovering what is most important to us, what we each need to be truly happy and what we are willing to sacrifice. Every time we crank the motor of our car to run another errand, or purchase another item, we are making decisions about how we live.

Our teenagers embrace our simple-living concept, but they fluctuate, too. When Sierra was an adolescent, she turned up her nose to the shabby sofa we inherited after my parents died. She said, “Don’t you think we should get a new sofa?”

“We could,” I replied. “Or we could use that money to go to Thailand for your 11th birthday and ride an elephant and kayak with monkeys in caves.”

The wise young lady answered, “I think the sofa looks just fine.”

Author Cindy Ross lives in Pennsylvania; her latest book is Scraping Heaven: A Family’s Journey Along the Continental Divide.

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