[Note: This story was produced as part of the Glimpse Correspondents Program, in which ten writers and photographers receive a stipend and editorial support to develop two long-form narratives for Matador. The Glimpse Correspondents Program is open each fall and spring to anyone who will be living, traveling, working or studying abroad for more than ten weeks.]
I am part of a generation supposedly liberated by technology. We are globally aligned by barely tangible but powerful networks and connections, equipped with countless bits of hardware and software to help us navigate through the ether of business and culture.
Superficially, we are infinitely more connected to each other, but what impact does existing on this level, which transcends and disregards both meaningful human to human interaction and geography, have on our relationship with the land?
The social theorist Zygmunt Bauman sees this supersession of geography as a type of post-modern nomadism, where ‘the settled majority is ruled by the nomadic and extraterritorial elite’ who are empowered by cheap air travel, communications technology and the ephemeral nature of a service and media based economy. This is a stark contrast to ‘traditional’ nomadic cultures who are seen to be existing at a very natural, low-impact level, moving with the seasons and animal migrations, with a close social structure formed as a consequence of living simply and on-the-move.
During my travels in New Zealand I have come across many people, both mobile and settled, who seem to be responding to this dichotomy through different approaches and to varying degrees, all living by values very far from those of Bauman’s ‘liquid modern’ citizens. All, however, are unified by the fact that they are actively choosing how to live their lives, whether they can articulate their motives or not, and this considered living is an increasingly rare thing. It is easy to take for granted the immense privilege we have in first world democracies of being able to shape our own lifestyles.
Initially I thought I was witnessing something original and almost romantic in New Zealand in the large numbers of young travelers willing to work on the land, both at an industrial level and through the WWOOF (Willing Workers On Organic Farms) scheme, living in beat up old vehicles and tents, moving every few weeks or months with the fruit harvest or to a new host’s smallholding.
It soon became clear that not only were these the only jobs that really fit with seeing the whole country while working, but that the often genuine desire for a simple lifestyle close to nature was by no means limited to my generation. In fact, people my age seem only to be playing at it, taking a temporary step out of their normal lives in search of ‘light’ ways of living for a year or so, before heading back to normality, hopeful of being changed by time spent living in a twenty year-old Japanese van but reassured that there is an end in sight.
This is a defining characteristic of our approach to age-old desires for simple, low-responsibility, low-income/expenditure existence with like-minded people. When our parent’s generation set out in the sixties and seventies to experience and change the world, they had no finite end in sight – there were still enough unknowns in the world to travel organically, hoping for enlightenment along the way.
Now, however, young people take trips, interlocutions in the often-predictable narrative of school, university, and work which comes before full adulthood – easy to leave at logical exit points; easy to return to. Those older people I come across who have settled (however temporarily) seem to be living with much more honesty and intent than is present in the young people I meet, although perhaps this is something that will come to us with age.
We are united across generations by a set of shared values and tendencies: a desire for a connection to the land, through both work and leisure; the ability to create personal domestic spaces and routines in unlikely or challenging settings, often in shared living environments; spurning (at least to some extent) of the dependency on television and internet; concern for personal health and the health of the environment; and an enhanced sense of self-awareness.
In New Zealand, where there has long been a culture of freeholding and DIY architecture – which is a key part of the national psyche – individuals are having to respond creatively to rising property prices and tightening of building regulations. Unable to responsibly subdivide large rural properties, affordable, pre-paid, modular alternatives such as yurts, tipis, caravans and housetrucks are a popular way of seeding small micro-communities. These draw energetic and hardy groups of friends together, and create relationships based not upon conventional cash-exchange, but on work-in-kind, investment in the land and leisure time.
Often the decision to choose a simple lifestyle over income is fueled by strong belief, whether in religion, ideals, or a fear of what the future may hold. This goes back millennia, to the perigrinni, Irish priests who set off in tiny skin boats to spread Christianity, and the Zen and Taoist monks of China who spurned the comfort and brotherhood of monasteries for a simple life (often funded by begging) in the high mountains, a mode that persisted through Eastern and Western religion for many centuries.
The 18th century Zen poet Ryokan, author of One Robe, One Bowl, summed up the easy satisfaction of simple desires when he wrote,
Too lazy to be ambitious,
I let the world take care of itself.
Ten days’ worth of rice in my bag;
A bundle of twigs by the fireplace.
Why chatter about delusion and enlightenment?
Listening to the night rain on my roof,
I sit comfortably, with both legs stretched out.