Amer­i­can pas­toral Au­thor Mark Sun­deen

Pasatiempo - - CONTENTS - AU­THOR MARK SUN­DEEN

the early 1990s, Mark Sun­deen was a river guide in Moab, Utah. He spent the decade teach­ing Out­ward Bound cour­ses, liv­ing the rugged, out­doorsy life many peo­ple only dream of, and be­com­ing a writer of jour­nal­is­tic cre­ative non­fic­tion. His first book, Car

Camp­ing, was pub­lished by an im­print of Harper­Collins in 2000, and his sec­ond, The Mak­ing of Toro, by Si­mon & Schus­ter in 2003. When he hit his mid-thir­ties, he was ready to cook and sleep in­doors more of­ten, so he moved to Brook­lyn and took a job with the Howard Dean presidential cam­paign — for which he wrote copy at a com­puter in a cu­bi­cle — and wrote free­lance ar­ti­cles for glossy mag­a­zines and the New York

Times travel sec­tion. Soon enough, two things hap­pened.

“I re­ally missed free recre­ation, the abil­ity to just go out to the woods or to the river,” he told Pasatiempo .“I was feel­ing a real deficit of be­ing near na­ture. And in New York, you have to pay for every­thing. I was go­ing broke every month. I was never go­ing to get ahead.”

He moved to Mis­soula, Mon­tana, which was where many old friends from his river-guide days had landed. He wrote an­other book, The Man Who

Quit Money (River­head Books, 2012), about a friend of his, Daniel Suelo, who stopped us­ing money in 2000. Sun­deen fell in love with and mar­ried a woman named Cedar, who had been raised by Bud­dhist back-to-the-lan­ders. He’d grown up in sub­ur­ban Los An­ge­les but had al­ways longed for the so-called sim­ple life as en­vi­sioned by the writer Wen­dell Berry — the abil­ity to live off one’s own phys­i­cal la­bor and to not be be­holden to the cor­po­rate and po­lit­i­cal forces that shape our so­ci­ety.

“When I meet peo­ple like this, my first re­ac­tion is to feel guilty that I’m not as com­mit­ted as they are be­cause I’m not farm­ing, or I’m in a car and not on a bike,” he said. He had started feel­ing guilty all the time and had de­vel­oped a grow­ing sense of help­less­ness. “I was trapped, sup­port­ing in­dus­tries I felt were de­stroy­ing me. Specif­i­cally Wall Street — I hated what the big banks had done. I felt they’d rigged a col­lapse of the econ­omy and got­ten away with it. And then every month I had to write a check to Bank of Amer­ica for my mort­gage. Same thing with taxes. I didn’t want to pay for the war in Iraq, yet I had to pay for it or go to jail for tax eva­sion. Same thing with oil and gas. I hate what ExxonMo­bil does, yet I am their cus­tomer. I wanted to know how to get out of the cy­cle.”

For his new­est book, The Unset­tlers: In Search of the Good Life in To­day’s Amer­ica (River­head Books, 2016), Sun­deen looked for peo­ple who had got­ten out. “I wanted to pro­vide role mod­els for my­self,” he said. “I didn’t want to live my life in front of a com­puter screen as an on­line ac­tivist.” Sun­deen reads from

The Unset­tlers on Wed­nes­day, Feb. 8, at Col­lected Works Book­store. He will be joined in con­ver­sa­tion by El­iz­a­beth Hightower Allen, fea­tures edi­tor at

Out­side mag­a­zine. When he be­gan his re­search, Sun­deen as­sumed he would be writ­ing about white peo­ple who be­came dis­af­fected by so­ci­ety — the types who pre­pare for the end of the world by liv­ing off the grid and stock­pil­ing food. “I met th­ese peo­ple and what I found was that they were fully en­gaged with the main­stream econ­omy. They were es­sen­tially sub­ur­ban­ites with much longer drive­ways, and so many of them talked about the col­lapse of the in­ner city, how it would ex­plode and there would be ri­ots. My in­ter­pre­ta­tion is that this is about race, that they fear that black peo­ple will leave the in­ner city and come to where they are. They were so afraid of the col­lapse, but what they were de­scrib­ing had al­ready hap­pened in New Or­leans dur­ing Hur­ri­cane Ka­t­rina, and it had al­ready hap­pened in Detroit. I knew th­ese places weren’t empty. Peo­ple were still liv­ing there. I de­cided to go to Detroit to see what it looked like to sur­vive the col­lapse and re­ally en­gage with those prob­lems, in­stead of run­ning away from them.”

The book fea­tures three cou­ples who make their liv­ing from their land and do not rely on most, if any, gov­ern­men­tal pro­grams or util­ity com­pa­nies. Sarah and Ethan, who run a pur­pose­ful com­mu­nity in Mis­souri, do not use com­put­ers or cell phones, or even drive or ride in cars save for dire med­i­cal emer­gen­cies. Olivia and Greg are ur­ban farm­ers in the wilds of bankrupt Detroit, where prop­erty sells for pen­nies on the dol­lar. Luci and Steve run a small farm in Mis­soula on land they bought in the early 1980s that would not be af­ford­able for them if they had to pur­chase it now. Sun­deen did not want to write about her­mits who turned their backs on the world, hip­pies with trust funds, or peo­ple whose life­styles were be­ing show­cased on reality tele­vi­sion. He fo­cuses on fam­i­lies liv­ing in the cen­ter of the United States not be­cause he be­lieves “fly-over coun­try” is in­her­ently more Amer­i­can than New York or Cal­i­for­nia, but that the sto­ries of peo­ple who live there get told less of­ten. Set­tling in th­ese states is also less ex­pen­sive than liv­ing on the coasts, which is key for any­one think­ing about try­ing out this life­style for them­selves. Though all of the cou­ples grow their own food, The

Unset­tlers is not an ex­plo­ration of trendy food move­ments — it is a pro­file of so­ciopo­lit­i­cal rene­gades who are try­ing to dis­rupt the means of pro­duc­tion. “The word ‘foodie’ has come to de­scribe some­one who is snobby in their tastes, who only wants or­ganic this and ar­ti­sanal that,” Sun­deen said. “But the move­ment was not started by peo­ple with up­pity tastes. It was started by peo­ple who wanted to stop us­ing pes­ti­cides and stop driv­ing their pro­duce 2,000 miles from the farm to the table. They wanted a lo­cal, sus­tain­able econ­omy. The peo­ple in my book eat well, but that’s not their main mo­ti­va­tion.”

Sun­deen’s per­sonal ex­pe­ri­ences are the nar­ra­tive thread that ties The Unset­tlers to­gether. He wres­tles with his de­sire to live dif­fer­ently and plan a fu­ture for him­self and Cedar while she begins to write poetry, ap­ply to grad­u­ate schools, and seek out a life that does not re­sem­ble the sub­sis­tence ex­is­tence of her child­hood. Sun­deen at­tempts to fol­low Cedar into Bud­dhism — and has a sur­pris­ing come-to-Je­sus mo­ment with a monk — be­fore he un­der­stands that he can live au­then­ti­cally in a way that does not re­quire him to be es­pe­cially spir­i­tual or a full-time farmer.

“All of the fam­i­lies have cho­sen to re­nounce some ele­ment of op­por­tu­nity, or tech­nol­ogy, to find a deeper abun­dance. The peo­ple in my book are do­ing what they love. That’s why they don’t miss some of the lux­u­ries or priv­i­leges that the rest of us have. It oc­curred to me that this search is about find­ing mean­ing­ful work, and for me that’s go­ing to be writ­ing. I do like to do a lit­tle farm­ing on the side, though I just call it gar­den­ing.”

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