Tuesday, March 21, 2017

The "neo-rural" Part I: the new generation moving into the hinterlands

I have a person very near and dear to me. Let's call him my kin. He is a prime example of what can be called the "neo-rural". A few have made attempts at defining the neo-rural, but I'd like to broaden the scope of those definitions a bit. I think we are on the cusp of a whole new generation of folks who are moving to rurality. I'd love to know exactly who these people are, and what inspires their love of the country. This post is a modest beginning to this inquiry.

One of the groups of people who fit into the "neo-rural" are "modern homesteaders," which my kin most certainly is. I recently interviewed him, during which he decided to go by the pseudonym Bill (or, sardonically, "Bill Damn", when he has to throw down). He wants to keep his rural home and his name unpublicized because there are some grey areas with regard to legality where he lives, and honestly, he'd like to keep it that way. Bill's rural reflections on the law will be the majority of Part II of this post.

To get to where Bill lives, you drive a few miles out of a lovely small town with a population less than 6,000. The town is a tourist destination, but remains remote. Then, you go over a bridge, take a sharp turn and brace yourself for more than six miles of dirt roads that are unmaintained with the exception of the maintenance that local homesteaders do. Bill doesn't feel that far out. He told me:
Where I’m at is kind of a nice position to be in because it’s extremely rural and out miles of dirt roads and beyond the reach of the power lines but I’m still only, like 30 minutes from a grocery store, which is nice.
Thirty minutes from the grocery store sounds pretty far-flung, in my opinion. I asked Bill if he lacked services way out there, and he said that was definitely a factor of his life. When a friend got injured once on his property, Bill had to lift her into his truck and haul-ass over the dirt and gravel out to the paved road - the ambulance wasn't coming anywhere near the acres he owns. It sounded harrowing.

However, that bit about the land is one that deserves some underscoring: Bill owns land. Acres of it. He owns several parcels around where he built his house (with his own hands), and several parcels in various other places down the dirt road where he lives. Bill is just 31, and he owns more land than I will likely ever own in my life. He is part of a movement around sustainable off-the-grid houses. He built his house (and many others) from the ground up. House-building is both Bill's passion and his livelihood. He flies all over the world building sustainable housing, and has built houses and structures in Thailand, Cambodia, Australia, South America, Canada, and more.

The desire to move out into rurality isn't new, but living and building like Bill --i.e.off-the-grid "homesteading"-- has been gaining traction in pop-culture circles lately. For two examples, check out recent books "The Unsettlers" and "Modern Homesteading". People who have gotten tired of relying on corporations and government entities for services can find a myriad of articles that offer "21 Tips For Quitting Your Job, Going Off Grid and Living The Dream""The Secrets of Living with No Money""Lessons from Off-Grid Living" and more.

There is a lot of overlap with Bill's work and the tiny house movement, and he's also involved in the straw-bale house and pounded-tire construction communities. The electricity at his own house comes from his solar panels, which give him what he considers "oodles of power" to run his wifi, laptop, lamps, blender and bass-amplifier-doubling-as-sound-system. However, his solar panel-and-battery setup slightly limit his ability to live a "modern" technological lifestyle. No hairdryers allowed at Bill's, and you can't use all of the above at once. Bill Damn's house has a composting toilet, makes its own heat through passive solar heating, and all the water is harvested rain from the house's ingenious roof. Thus, the house entirely takes care of itself.

With the rise of AirBnB in rural places and the concept of "glamping," Bill's house now also pays for itself. If you ask him, Bill'd tell you that he feels his house actually takes care of him better than many humans in his life have. He says this with love in his heart, and when you listen to him, you realize how much of a modern cowboy he is: in his solitude, in his love of the land, and in his powerful self-sufficiency. This romanticism might seem a little gauche (especially since some urban circles have "practically fetishized the idea of building humble rural retreats"), but you can't argue that it is a remarkable life he leads.

Of course there are tough aspects about living as far out as Bill lives. As indicated above, getting services is a struggle: ambulance service has been a challenge for several small towns across the nation recently (examples here and here). In addition, the struggles of community-building in rurality and the dangers of substance abuse have become sticks in Bill's craw, so-to-speak. I asked him about this, to which he responded:
I sort of struggle sometimes because I feel like I’m one of the only ones out there who really wants [community] and wants to make it a better place, and a lot of people kind of go out there and settle for less. They’re comfortable being more cutoff and reclusive and, you know, there’s a lot of alcoholism, and some . . . heavier stuff as well.
The "heavier stuff" that Bill mentions might be a reference to rising methamphetamine use in rural communities (noted on this blog here, and here). He might also be intimating the rural opioid epidemic, which has recently been called "this generation's AIDS crisis." Fellow bloggers have also drawn attention to this heartbreaking issue's impact on rurality here and here. This upsets Bill, but the best he can do is look for other folk who are not part of that lifestyle -- who are more onboard with his goals for country living. The struggle of building community in rurality is an age-old one, but Bill has begun to discover new ways to create a network due to the house-building and subsistence-living communities that he has developed. He says that in recent years, community is improving out where he lives. He notes that "there’s starting to be some more younger folk coming out and building structures instead of dragging out trailers and starting junk yards."

Despite all the challenges of living in rurality, Bill Damn represents a growing contingent of Americans who find it to be the only way to live. Indeed, as of 2013, over 180,000 families lived off the grid in the US, and it appears that due to revolutions in battery technology and solar energy, it will only get easier to do so in the next quarter-century.

I asked Bill exactly what kept him out in the "hinterlands," and he said that rurality is where he feels closest to home. He observed that in the beginning, striving for his rural life was a reaction against some aspects of modern urban life that he felt were unhealthy:
We’re constantly surrounded with a whole lot of distractions these days that kind of keep us separated from nature – speaking in a cliché, but it’s true, you know? Our existence is extremely disconnected from nature and from the natural phenomenon of the earth. We’re constantly sheltering ourselves from it and finding other things to look at, and even just finding things that keep us from connecting with one another.
Instead, Bill Damn lives deeply rooted in the earth, and he constantly strives to find new ways to connect to his rural livelihood and to reduce distraction. His life is built on finding more peace and harmony despite the craziness that he sees in modern society. "I guess I just feel more at peace when there’s less going on around me", he mused. It seems to me that he represents thousands of others in our nation who live by exactly the same sentiment.


Kyle said...

This was a fun read, and apparently there is more to come! I have a little (mostly indirect) experience with off-the-grid living. Drawing from that background, I'll highlight a couple of questions this piece left me with.

First, we are told early on that this venture is of imperfect legality. Since it sounds like Bill Damn has clear title to the land where he lives, I wonder if the legal issues concern his unconventional construction. I know some folks pursuing a off-the-grid lifestyle in an urban setting, and they have accepted the risk of having their various structures red-tagged due to various code violations. (It's not that the buildings are patently unsafe or unclean, just that they are made of cob construction or slats of scrap wood and cardboard.) When I was in college, we crunchy-granola types were always at odds with the city's Code Enforcement office over a structure made of bags of compressed earth. Ultimately, policy prevailed over principle and today the "earth dome" has a concrete foundation and rebar-enforced construction.

It sounds like Bill is deploying similar kinds of alternative construction, and I speculate that this is one source of legal angst. Generally, I think of zoning rules in rural areas as being relaxed, but the reality might be that a long time ago large swaths of land were zoned for X use and subjected to such-and-such building standards. As "back to the land" types seek to repopulate rural areas -- composting toilets and worn-out tires in tow -- these standards may present an archaic legal barrier to the renewal of these communities. But changing these rules likely requires majoritarian action, which may involve more social capital than quirky newcomers to a rural community are likely to have available.

A second issue that jumped out at me is the quasi-fiction of being "off-the-grid." I make this observation not to denigrate a project like Bill Damn's but rather to observe one of the contradictions in our conception of "the rural." We think of rural areas as being remote and lacking diverse resources, but we also think of rural people as being self-sufficient and able to solve problems in creative ways. All of that is surely correct...but only to an extent. Traveling half an hour on bumpy, dusty roads to get groceries indeed involves hardship and requires planning and even ingenuity. But it also requires a road-worthy vehicle -- possibly a horse-drawn carriage or bicycle, but probably an automobile that guzzles fossil fuel. The rugged off-the-gridder does not hew his solar panels on the porch while watching the sunset. Used-tire construction is one of the modern eco-friendly methods that utilizes the detritus of a larger consumer society. For me, the travails of the "neo-rural" also tell a general story about contemporary rural life: the execution is rugged and lonely, but the infrastructure is modern and globalized in subtle, even invisible ways.

Those are a couple of thoughts about pursuits like this generally. I look forward to hearing more about Bill Damn -- at the end of the day, I'm rooting for him!

K. Harrington said...

Interesting post! Bill’s decision to live off the grid reminds me a little bit of my sister and her husband who have made a similar choice. They are not living “off the grid,” but they chose to accept jobs in a small Northern Michigan town where they had no prior connections, even though they could easily have secured a job in a larger city or metropolitan area. I think that Bill’s final quote, that rurality is where he feels closest to home, rings true for my family members as well. But I wonder, is this sentiment something that will prevail over time?

Like Bill alluded to, I suspect that millennials who are part of the tiny house movement or off-grid living may find it difficult to build connections and foster friendships with rural community members unless they grew up in the area. I wonder if individuals like Bill will feel the same about their decision to live the “neo-rural” lifestyle in five or ten years? Relatedly, I don’t know whether Bill has a family or children, but I wonder if this would change his decision to live this lifestyle? It will be interesting to see whether this movement transforms the culture or results in economic growth for these rural communities.

ofilbrandt said...

I found this thoroughly enjoyable and thought provoking. Indeed, I tried to write something similar about stay-at-home mom blogs that glorify living in small towns or communities. I failed at this where you fly.

I always find it interesting how off the grid living is romanticized. Of the struggles outlined, it seems that the people either bring them or they are unsurprising. Drug use likely did not begin when they got to the area. It has to come from somewhere so I pose that they brought it with them from the city. Even if drug use began in their chosen off the grid area, they seem to have the resources to move. They have the resources to get there and sustain themselves. This is not the same drug epidemic that is portrayed in despondent rural areas with no resources. Further, it is no surprise that it is difficult to get an ambulance to a remote area. This is a tradeoff with living far from a community center.

Next, I found Bill's struggle to form a community predictable. These are people that are pointedly choosing to live off the grid, away from established communities. I struggle to understand his expectation to build a community.

A follow-up may do well to briefly compare people that have the resources to choose to live in rural areas with those that are born and stuck there. Alternately, it may be interesting to compare those people joining the grid with those who are going off the grid.

Wynter K Miller said...

Kyle Kate Dudley,

After reading this post, I’m struck by so many questions, ranging from the practical—e.g., all the water is harvested rain from Bill’s roof? How much does it rain where Bill lives? Enough to provide water for showers, cooking, toilet flushing, tooth-brushing, etc.? Would that only work in a rain-abundant climate? What happens in a drought?!—to the abstract—e.g.,how does the rise of the “modern cowboy” fit in with the “bowling alone” narrative (see: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bowling_Alone)? In reading your discussion about Bill’s decision to remove himself from a “‘modern’ technological lifestyle,” I couldn’t help but think that this seems to be a recurring theme in pop culture, at least recently.

There’s a movie recently out called “Captain Fantastic,” and the basic premise is this: Ben and Leslie live in a cabin with their six children in rural Washington. Disillusioned with the standard American experience, they raise their children off-the-grid, instilling them with “survivalist skills”—i.e., “educating them to think critically, training them to be self-reliant, physically fit and athletic, guiding them without technology, demonstrating the beauty of coexisting with nature and celebrating “Noam Chomsky Day” instead of Christmas.” The plot takes off with Leslie’s suicide, which forces Ben and his children to venture out of the wilderness and confront, for the first time and with mixed consequences, the “real world.” (See: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Captain_Fantastic_(film)).

I’ve yet to see the film myself (I hear it’s great, though) but it seems “Captain Fantastic” touches on one of the themes raised by this post: the contradictions inherent in Bill Damn’s particular brand of “powerful self-sufficiency.” On the one hand, yes, in many ways Bill is clearly living a more self-reliant lifestyle than most Americans. He harvests his own water and powers his own home by the sun. But taken to the extreme, a Bill Damn lifestyle might produce an inability (or, as the case may be, an unwillingness) to interact with the world writ large. What happens to the children of the off-the-gridders? Do they become so inculcated in the rural lifestyle that they are ill-equipped to, for example, attend college in a more urban areas?

I’ve also been wanting to read The Unsettlers and this line in the plot synopsis (which you linked to in your post), describing the author’s motivation to free himself from “commercial civilization,” strikes me as apropos: “I wanted blueprints for cohabitation, not hermitry.” It’s a fine line, it seems.

Finally, I echo the three comments above me—what a fun read!

ofilbrandt said...

Wynter, I've seen Captain Fantastic and I think is a great reflection of the benefits and pitfalls of this kind of purposeful unplugging from an urban area.


The children all struggle to understand the requirements of modern urban living. They know that stores exist, they seem to have gone to a few for necessities. The majority of things they encounter in urban settings they have only read about in books. They struggle to understand the fast pace of modern living. This is not a huge problem except when their father teaches them to steal from stores in a con-like fashion.

The lack of socialization outside their family group also has negative effects. That is not to say that children who grow up in urban settings are perfectly well-adjusted. There is a shocking scene where Ben's critical, well-read kids are juxtaposed against his brother's plugged-in, aggressive kids.

The oldest son particularly struggles to understand what love is as he has only read about it in books. There is a humorous scene where, having kissed a girl in a campground, he proposes to marry her. Needless to say, she and her mom break out in laughter.

I think the key take away is that a balance between the two landscapes creates a healthy and productive person. The common phrase is "it take a village to raise a child." I don't think this is meant to be a warning that it takes a lot of work. This phrase is meant to highlight that socialization with people that don't agree with them, with different experience than them, with different specialities, etc. are essential for a well-balanced child.

Maybe if there were a few more families in the area the children would have been better adjusted. The push for communes may have had it right...