It’s common practice for people to analyze their lives this time of year, asking questions like, am I happy? Is my life fulfilling? And if not, am I on the right path to get there soon?
Southern New Hampshire University adjunct faculty member and author Mark Sundeen’s new book, The Unsettlers: In Search of the Good Life in Today’s America, follows three families who go to great lengths in order to achieve more fulfillment through simpler lives. Riverhead Books releases the title Jan. 10, and Sundeen presents it at SNHU Tuesday, Jan. 17.
Sundeen, who’s also a correspondent for Outside Magazine, began conceptualizing The Unsettlers during the tour for his 2012 book, The Man Who Quit Money, about a man, Daniel Suelo, who left his life savings in a phone booth and hasn’t earned, received or spent a cent since. Suelo came along for the tour, and his story drew great interest among event attendees.
“A lot of people asked, ‘I admire how you live, but I have children. How could I incorporate these values into my life and not take it so extreme and live in a cave?’ … I wanted to answer that question. How radical can a family be? How far can you cut ties with commercial civilization but not be a negligent parent or deprive your kids of what would be important opportunities America has to offer?” Sundeen said via phone.
The “simple life” movement has existed for hundreds of years, occurring in waves. It was popular in the ’70s, and Sundeen said he’s seeing another resurgence right now; in his opinion, it’s due to today’s mainstream jobs and industries.
“Almost all jobs now … involve looking at a computer and manipulating data in one way or another, and I think people have the urge to do things that are a little more tangible — working with their hands, being outside, building and growing things that seem more essential,” he said. “The other thing unique about our time is we feel reliant on industries that are destroying the world — specifically fuel, food and finance. … We recognize that these three industries are damaging to us and making the world so much less fair and so much less safe, yet we depend on them.”
Many people are looking for a different way to live, which is why, he said, you see the rise in outsider candidates like Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders and trends like organic eating and the tiny house movement.
Sundeen looked high and low via social media and word of mouth for an American family to profile. He wanted to find people who hadn’t inherited money or land; who were trying to limit the fossil fuels they used; who didn’t have jobs outside their own land; and who’d been living this way at least 10 years.
“I know a lot of people who do this for only a year or two and find out it’s too hard,” he said. “I wanted people who weren’t doing this as a media gimmick. … There’s been a trend in reality TV shows about people living off the grid, people going back to the land, but for the most part they dumb it down, so [viewers] miss the entire point.”
He found three families — Sarah and Ethan in La Plata, Missouri; Olivia and Greg in Detroit; and Luci and Steve in Victor, Montana — and divided the book into three separate narratives, starting in Missouri.
The first scene depicts the couple bicycling from an Amtrak train to a farm house they’ve never seen before in the middle of the night. Sarah, five months pregnant, is a classically trained opera singer, and her husband Ethan is a former marine biologist. They came across the land after compiling a list of 20 criteria for a home to begin their family. Some of their requirements included a year-round drinking water source, long growing season and location close to a train station and college town.
“I knew that would be a real great place to start the book. There’s such a sense of going to the unknown — a pregnant woman riding a bicycle to a farm she’s never been to,” Sundeen said.
Like this couple, all the families Sundeen interviewed came to live the way they do thoughtfully and carefully. He spent three weeks in each home as a fly on the wall and conducted long interviews, with about 10 hours of tape for each person. He saw their lives were hard but also enjoyable.
“I didn’t feel like any of these people were suffering by depriving themselves of the things they wanted. They loved working with their hands. They loved growing their own food and things like that,” he said. “What these people found was that by imposing limits on themselves, they actually found more abundance. People who didn’t need electricity found they were spending more time with children, putting on plays, playing music and exploring in the woods — things they might not do if they were sitting in front of a computer all day.”