American pastoral 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.”