JIM FLEMING; For some people, living closer to the land means figuring out what really matters in life pairing everything down to the essentials, to see what remains. William Powers writes about that way of life in what he calls Wild Crafting, in his memoir Twelve By Twelve, the book tells the story of a woman he calls Jacky Benton , the physician who lives off the grid in a twelve by twelve foot cabin in rural North Carolina. Powers says he was looking at the consumption of American with new eyes when he found Dr. Benton.
WILLIAM POWERS; I’d spent a decade working aboard in Africa and South America, and I just returned to the states, and I was a bit shocked I’d been living in sort of very low impact societies that have basically carbon natural impact on the planet, and to come back and see my own cultural xx society, which was having a big impact on climate change and all the shopping malls and parking lots and everything else, was a bit overwhelming.
FLEMING; You must have been looking for something closer to your comfort zone by then?
POWERS; I’m not sure exactly if I was looking for it, but I certainly found it. I received a phone call from Dr. Benton and I was invited to go out and visit her in her twelve by twelve foot house in rural North Carolina, and I went out there and I’ve never in my life seen such a small house. I didn’t even want to go inside, I felt like it was too small and almost like invading someone’s privacy to go into such a small place.
FLEMING; To put it into perspective, most people would find twelve by twelve a reasonable size for a guest bedroom.
POWERS; Exactly, well I’m six feet tall so its two of me each way basically, and in that space this physician has everything that she needs. She lives out of this, there is no running water. All of the water is harvested off of the roof, it’s rain water, there’s just a small stove inside to cook with, and there’s a composting toilet, and a beautiful permaculture farm all around it with a couple hundred variety of native and xx plants that she grows to live off of. It’s an integrated design of landscape and architecture to achieve sustainability.
FLEMING; Is that what you mean when you say permaculture?
POWERS; Well you might say it’s the things that your grandparents knew but your parents forgot. It’s basically living in harmony with the natural environment around you, being able to produce your own wines and jam, being able to grow the food that you eat, sometimes making your own clothes. Some of the homes setting ideas come into xx as well. So another definition is it’s a sustainable way of designing architecture, the space that you live in, and landscape, the space around your dwelling.
FLEMING; And that brings us back to the twelve by twelve. Now we’re not going to spend an entire time inside that building, but still I’m sort of fixated on the twelve by twelve and how you can live in a space that small most of us would find it impossible.
POWERS; Well you know it’s like Jacky says, and her name by the way is an xx, she’s asked for her privacy to change it, you know she says that its not that she’s trying to convert people to living in twelve by twelve houses, those are the dimensions of her life and her needs as a sixty year old person whose kids are grown up and she feels like she’s got her material needs in line with what she’s got. So for someone with a full family obviously a twelve by twelve is not enough, but the idea is to look for the allusive contours of enough and find the space between underdevelopment and over-development. Much of us are in the overdeveloped space where we have too much and that clutters your life, reduces your creativity, and is somewhat flattening.
FLEMING: Where you prepared for this, when you went there for the first time?
POWERS; You know I certainly wasn’t, as I mentioned I was quite shocked to see this, to see this place and in some ways repulsed by it at first or threatened by it. You know the idea that this was not some sort of a stunt or something like that, I mean this person actually has lived for years in this twelve by twelve house with no electricity or running water out of pure choice you know. I mean, she’s a physician that could make lots of money and live wherever she wanted to, but instead she only paid some seven thousand dollars for the house, her entire house is paid off, plus I think ten thousand for the land around it. So for seventeen-thousand dollars you’re set for life.
FLEMING; And you said that one of the reasons that she choose twelve by twelve was that by North Carolina property law it’s a shack, so it doesn’t need to have taxes paid on it?
POWERS; Right, it’s not defined as an actual house if it’s smaller than a twelve by twelve. So it’s, yeah, you don’t receive any service from the state at all but you’re also not required to pay into the system for property taxes.
FLEMING; Wow. You’ve had some experience of this so you were more prepared than I would be, for instance, to think about this and yet you were still put off a little bit about it until you went inside and it felt bigger inside than out, I guess?
POWERS; That’s right Jim. It was just amazing to feel the expansiveness and spaciousness of the place when you get inside. She had her great grandmothers rocking chair in there, which I sat in for several hours as the sun was going down outside, and she has a loft up top where her bed is and some book shelves, and actually there’s really plenty of space there. You know, and what you also realize I lived there for a season while she was traveling, was that really it’s about the space around it, it’s about what you don’t build, you know. It’s the spaces in between are what are important, the space between our thoughts leaving a more expansive creative beingness to our lives but also in our environment. Not creating too much stuff. xx talks about this in xx, this whole traditional in American history of embracing simplicity, you know, and that’s really what it’s about. Its about opening up spaces for ideas and relationships and inter-growth to happen.
FLEMING; You decided to live there, you were offered the opportunity to live there for a season, and you took it. And in some ways I suppose that gives you the opportunity, but also the necessity, of discovering who you are.
POWERS; That’s right, yeah, that’s a good way of putting it. That it’s about taking away from the exterior environment a kind of necessitism that allows a kind of a more vivid and rich sort of interior world to take shape and form, and that’s what I found. And I found that I was uncovering all kinds of emotions and thoughts and feelings that I hadn’t before because I was always so busy. You know I’ve spent ten years aboard in these different countries working on developing projects, ecotourism, how to export organic coffee from Bolivia to the U.S., or how to do sustainable timber production in Liberia for export to the E.U.. All of these things take up, you know, really long work weeks so really what it is, is this is a movement towards idleness and it’s what I call the idle majority. There’s a leisure ethnic not just a work ethic, and this leisure ethic is powerful, and you know billions of people around the world, I’d say maybe half of humanity, xx at kind of a leisure ethic.
FLEMING; Chris, for you there was always knowledge that the future was not going to be here. You were not going to stay in the twelve by twelve forever. Did that figure in the back of your mind as you experienced all of this?
POWERS; Yes, I knew that, and I think the only real test of an experience is whether it gets into your sort of habitual DNA, your habits. And I always kind of feared in the back of my mind that once I left this twelve by twelve, that I would just go back to all my usual behaviors and nothing would change. Because I felt like I was learning an incredible amount, but I felt that I did integrate a lot of what I learned out there to my daily life. And again, it’s not like I live in a twelve by twelve house now, or I’m not living in a cave eating roots and berries, I live in New York City you know, and I ask myself what’s my twelve by twelve in my life? I think it’s a question a lot of people can ask themselves, you know, what’s my twelve by twelve? How can I find this space of harmony and responsible consuming and joy in life? So for example, for me, in New York, I mean it’s kind of easy for me not to have a car because its New York City, there’s lots of transportation, but I don’t have a car and I grow some of my own stuff in my garden in the back; and steps like that are creating a kind of twelve by twelve space in my urban life.
FLEMING; How long were you there in the twelve by twelve? Just one season but what is that, a few months?
POWERS; That’s right. It was just 40 days that I was actually living out there.
FLEMING; Is it an experience you would like to repeat?
POWERS; I would like to repeat it, but then again it’s, you know, the process for me was about how you find your own rhythm and your own self and your own authenticity and I don’t think really my place right now in the world is to become a recluse or a hermit or living on that kind of a radical stance. She’s really at the edge of how radical you can live in American at this point, I think.
FLEMING; Do you see this as possibly being a new American vision, a new American dream?
POWERS; I think I do. I think that there is a movement towards the small, towards the simple, and people are really reflecting that. Even house sizes are going down a bit, in Europe they’ve been going down for a while. There’s a tendency towards wanting more free time. I think even with the economic crisis it’s had a lot of people asking themselves, you know, really what is the America dream and how can we redefine that?
FLEMING; But I just can’t see the president of City Bank moving into a 12/12. Can you?
POWERS; Well, you know, there are some interesting people even here in New York, people from JP Morgan, who have now started the capital institute which is trying to get the absolute top CEO’s to totally revision how we do capitalism based upon Shoemakers’ ideas of small is beautiful and everything like that. Also, even cities like Portland and Seattle are considering gross national happiness as a city policy; I think Vancouver is as well, as an alternative indication to GDP. So there are a lot of people thinking in this direction.
FLEMING; William Powers is a writer and senior xx at the world policy institute; he’s the author of Twelve by Twelve.