In June, I returned from two weeks spent at the Quail Springs Permaculture Farm near Maricopa, California. I went there to take a permaculture course and earn my permaculture design certificate over a two-week span. It was a period of time where I had many new experiences, met some wonderful people, but also thought a lot about what makes a comfortable life versus a “simple” life…and what that phrase might really mean.
Quail Springs is not a place where one goes to stay in comfort. Factually, permaculturists often gravitate to living off the land. Accommodations at Quail Springs are what many would call camping: tents and sleeping bags, outhouses, outside solar showers, limited internet, no cell phone service, and as a place that is off the grid and relies on solar panels for electricity, not conducive to electronic devices. It is a desert climate bringing large temperature swings between day and night, ensconced in a life-threatening drought like much of California. There is no desert landscaping. Instead, a bricolage of shipping containers, yurts, and buildings cobbled together from scraps sprinkle the property. Quail Springs goes so far to post that they are a “experimental community” that “may not meet California code requirements.”
Given that my colleagues knew of my stable New Hampshire life, I confess of being warned in advance about what to expect. To be clear, it is not that Quail Springs is so horrendous; rather it is the juxtaposition of rugged Californian living against easy middle class life with warm, soft beds, electric lights, clean clothes, and a hot shower whenever I want one. In short, like most Americans, I am product of the convenience society that is absolutely taken for granted.
I found myself in the California desert, sleeping in a small tent, in a sleeping bag that always seemed to slope downhill beneath me, brushing my teeth over an outdoor sink populated by spiders and ants, and showering in cold water behind a makeshift cloth screen. Dishes were “washed” in often cold water and a bit of bleach, frequently retaining vestiges of a previous day’s meal. I had to watch out for gopher snakes and rattlesnakes. When it actually rained, everything became soggy or coated with mud. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t have moments when I was counting the hours before I would go home.
But I was proud of myself when I realized that, despite the discomforts, it was possible for me to get along, at least for two weeks, with much less that I had previously thought, and without many of the things I thought were absolutely necessary to my existence. Essentially, I discovered I was more durable than I thought. I made my tent into a small, private haven when I needed to reflect alone at the end of a day when I’d been inundated with information and interactions. Without electronics—computer, cell phone, tablet—I did more reading and writing. Disconnecting from the busy, wider world started to feel just a little like a chance to catch my breath. And every morning I awoke to the sun rising over the stark, sandy hills covered with sagebrush and flowering yucca, and every night I went to sleep by the light of more stars than I have ever seen in one place before.
Quail Springs problematizes “the simple life,” where finding sustainable resiliency actually is a somewhat complex process. Before Quail Spring, my romantic imagination of “the simple life” would perhaps be best described by Thoreau: Unencumbered of our material and social world, nature would in and of itself present a logic to our existence we otherwise could not see. I cannot deny a profound logic and beauty to the California desert, and perhaps Thoreau spoke louder to me than at any point in my life. But my ambiguity derives from believing most of us would feel highly incapable of a continuous connection to it. In essence, that which gave me a new sense of my power, I also realized I could not permanently live with – at least in the way Quail Springs envisions it.
After I left Quail Springs, a night in a hotel in Los Angeles felt like the ultimate in luxury. But it is a night in one more homogenous, bland hotel, and I was surprised that it actually didn’t feel as luxurious as I thought it would. Perhaps even in our device-laden, comfort- and convenience-focused modern world, we really don’t need as much as we think we do. Or, sadly, perhaps at this point we actually do.
I am grateful to Quail Spring for forcing me to question what a “simple life” should actually be.