The Simple Life

Although she denied it, my mother lived a fascinating life.  In 1940, at the age of 16, she experienced the London Blitz and nine years later, with her husband and two young children, moved to a remote corner of southern Africa.  Initially she hated it, not least the loneliness, but came to love it and ultimately became private secretary to the Prime Minister, accompanying him to international conferences in Geneva and London.  Despite my pleas she never wrote anything down.  I have so many questions to ask and now it is too late.


Recently, David Papke and I were communing at our regular haunt (I would like to say ‘alehouse’ a la Benjamin Franklin, but it is nothing so romantic) about the heritage we leave our children.  We each resolved to record some personal memories in the event they might one day be of some interest to future generations at a time when we are no longer here to answer questions directly.  I decided not to follow a timeline so much as to record  memories as they occurred; one memory led to another and before along I had covered 20 pages.  At our next coffee conversation David and I wondered why some memories remain over intervening decades while others are lost, and I realized that in my case at least those recollections that are successfully recalled are tied to feelings.  It may be that the combination of event and feelings stores those incidents more effectively in the memory bank, or perhaps an emotion today triggers a memory of an event that originally had similar sentiments attached, but for me there are three general areas of feelings that are involved - painful  feelings, like shame, embarrassment and guilt; romantic feelings tied to those one has loved; and feelings of serenity   


In my case, the memories evoked by painful feelings significantly outnumber the other two categories combined, and I wonder if a commitment to beekeeping is a subconscious effort to balance the pain by committing to something that involves love and serenity as well as symbolizing a perennial life style that was more simple, more genuine, perhaps even more authentic.


From Socrates to Thoreau, from the Buddha to Wendell Berry, a simple life has been equated with a good life. Magazines encourage us to feng shui our homes and our lives; we receive unsolicited articles in our in-boxes on offering simple solutions to what are assumed to be our problems;  guests on talk show programs promote the Slow Food Movement which, beginning in Italy, advocates for a return to pre-industrial basics and has adherents  across continents; and the shelves of book shops are filled with commentaries on issues such as Buddhist mindfulness and recipes for rediscovering joy and happiness. 


Through much of civilization frugal simplicity was not a choice but a necessity, and precisely because it was necessary it was deemed a moral virtue. In the last two hundred years, which is about 2% of our civilized existence, the advent of industrial capitalism and a consumer society have instilled the idea of relentless growth and, with it, a population that is encouraged to buy stuff that previously was judged to be surplus to requirements or confined to the trappings of a privileged few.  And even for the elite, wealth was flimsy protection against misfortunes such as war, famine and disease.  As for the vast majority – slaves, serfs, peasants and laborers – there was virtually no prospect of accumulating even modest wealth.  Just making it through a long life without excessive suffering counted as doing pretty well.


Since the advent of machine-based agriculture, representative democracy, civil rights, antibiotics and cyber-space, people expect (and can usually have) a good deal more. Living simply now strikes many people as simply boring.  The result is a disconnect between our inherited traditional values and the consumerist imperatives preached by contemporary culture.


There does appear to be a growing interest in rediscovering the benefits of simple living, especially among millennials.  Some of this might reflect a nostalgia for the pre-consumerist world, a relief from the stresses of a constant cyber society, or a sympathy for the moral argument that living in a simple manner with traits such as frugality, resilience, peace of mind and independence, makes one both a better and  a happier person.  It might also reflect a feeling of separation from the natural world and a yearning to live closer to mother earth. 


And at the same time there are millions who continue to live on the fast track, working long hours, racking up debt and striving to ascend the  bureaucratic ladder.  Hypocritically, we applaud the frugality and moral integrity of say Mother Teresa, the Dalai Lama  and Pope Francis, while at the same time working extra hours so we can afford a bigger house, a newer car and pay down our debts. Similarly we condemn extravagance that is wasteful and yet witness the tour coaches lining up every day outside the gates of the Forbidden City in Beijing and the palace at Versailles, or the 5000 passengers disembarking from a cruise ship at a port in the Caribbean. The truth is that much of what we call ‘culture’ is fueled by forms of extravagance.


The arguments for living simply were most persuasive when most people had little choice; they are less persuasive when a frugal life style is a choice.


That might be about to change. Economically, in times of recession we find ourselves in circumstances where frugality once again becomes a necessity and the value of its associated virtues is rediscovered. Currently in the United States the distance between the ‘have lots’ and the ‘have nots’ is greater than at any previous time, provoking an increased critique of extravagance and waste. With so many people living below the poverty line there is something unseemly about indelicate displays of opulence and luxury. And according to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, one can live perfectly well provided certain basic needs are satisfied which, at least in one estimate, requires an annual family income of $70 000.  Anything in excess of that, some argue,  is best used to ensure that everyone has the basics - food, housing, healthcare, education, utilities and public transport - rather than funneling into the pockets of a few, where noblesse oblige is pitted against self-interest.  


Prior to 1800 one is unlikely to have heard an argument for the simple life in terms of environmentalism. Two centuries of industrialisation, population growth, pollution,  deforestation, climate change and the extinction of plant and animal species, suggest that the values and lifestyle of conscious simplicity might be our best hope for reversing these trends and preserving our planet’s fragile ecosystems.


The scuttlebutt in Pennsylvania is that the honey bees have had a very difficult winter, with significant numbers of dead-outs which were the result of neither cold nor starvation so much as something else as yet unknown. My sense is that it reflects a change in the environmental, probably chemically induced,  and the spartan wintering habits of the bees, honed over millions of years, were not enough to enable them to survive. As the environment changes they  are victims of a situation not of their causing.  Unlike the bees, we do have a choice,  and if we opt not to be more ecologically wise, frugality might be forced upon us. An honored tradition that bespoke a  moral virtue out of necessity would become a respected life choice out of the necessity of survival. 


The Peace of Wild Things


When despair for the world grows in me

 and I wake in the night at the least sound

 in fear of what my life and my children's lives may be,

 I go and lie down where the wood drake

rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.

 I come into the peace of wild things

 who do not tax their lives with forethought

 of grief. I come into the presence of still water.

 And I feel above me the day-blind stars

 waiting with their light. For a time

 I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.


Wendell Berry

| Reply

Latest comments

27.11 | 16:01

Moustache, wax? Of course. Now if all of the drones had mustaches ...

27.11 | 12:43

One of our club members says he got into beekeeping in order to make his own mustache wax. There's the explanation for the bearded/mustached ABF attendees!

13.08 | 05:43

Good morning Mr. Barnes, I'm so pleased to see the best of history teachers is still going strong! Looking at your website brings back some great memories

21.05 | 07:18

Its pleasure to read about Boy Scout here. He plays vital role to serve humanity. I will share after my