Out of the car and off the grid

During the half-mile walk to their house in the woods, the pace of life gradually tunes into nature's cycles.

Ecola State Park in Oregon.

I slow down when I'm about to finish a project that absorbs me. I'll put aside a good novel with only a chapter left to read, just to carry over the pleasure to another day. I'll do the same with spreading compost on garden beds or building something out of wood or writing a letter to a friend.

In an adventure as a young man, I unicycled from North Carolina to Arizona, stopping in Arizona rather than, say, California, not because I was tired of my journey, but because I was in awe of it and wanted somehow, even if it meant indulging in paradox, to keep this awe intact.

I have, of course, a reputation for being slow.

My wife, Jennifer, and I live off the grid and off the road 14 miles north of Frankfort, Ky. Our small wooden house, which we built with our own hands, is a half mile from where we park our car. That I found someone who understood my aversion to the conventional driveway makes me eternally grateful. Most, I know, would have deemed that long a walk between car and house unacceptable.

I would nonetheless point out the pleasure of a prolonged arrival home. When Jennifer and I set out on the footpath to our house, the world as it exists today – that would have us rushing around, getting things done, producing, consuming – loses form, and with each step is replaced by one of our own choosing.

We pass through a grove of post oak and walk up a short hill to a ridge-top pond. We follow this ridge in a long arc, flanked on one side by a mature oak and hickory woods and on the other by a field growing up with locust, ash, cedar, and blackberry. In a short while we come to an open area where, to the west, we can see a long way across hilly fields and woods, and, to the northeast, first our garden and then our house. We are halfway home at this point, the landscape behind us a thick and completely drawn backdrop. Here, as we make the turn toward our house, we are, for an instant, children again, inside a created world that is big and safe.

We are absorbed in building a life on our land that is dependent on the land (and on seasons and weather) rather than on utilities. I am reminded of constructing a fort out of sticks and stones as a kid. I was happiest in the middle of this construction, part of me wishing the end would not come.

Jennifer and I, thankfully, don't have to worry about finishing the work on our homestead – but we've done enough of this work to begin tasting our vision. We are grateful, for instance, for the winter sun that floods the interior of our 500-square-foot, south-facing house, warming us. We're grateful for the summer sun, too, for it helps us power a small refrigerator and cook food in a solar oven. We're grateful for rain that we catch off our metal roof and store in tanks. We're grateful for the soil that grows our food. We're grateful for the forest that gives us shade, soil, oxygen, and firewood.

As we round that bend toward home, we might be thinking – depending on the season – of planting potatoes or harvesting them; of pruning dormant apple trees or peeling and coring apples for a pie; of cutting firewood for the next winter or burning it at the moment to warm our house and cook our meals.

As one season turns into another, so our tasks change. By the time apple blossoms become fruit, we're focused, say, on mulching potatoes rather than planting them. In the world we are choosing, there is enough time for these tasks, as there is, of course, for one season to give itself to another. We walk in the woods; we read, write, knit, cook, and bake.

The difference between our world and the one we leave behind at the car is, in part, a difference in geometric form. Our tasks follow a gradual curve, whereas society would rather we eliminate such tasks by taking the straight line to material wealth.

Of course, I always end up right where I started, in the middle of something. But I never wanted to finish the fort. And the voices telling me to finish, to move along faster, to go beyond or away from where I am, are barely audible with all the trees now behind me.

When we round that bend toward home, we are looking forward to entering our snug cottage. We might desire its warmth. Or its protection from the sun or rain. Or the rest it offers. These pleasures now are just a few steps away.

of stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Unlimited digital access $11/month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.