Anyone who knows me at all knows that I’ve chosen to live in as primitively as I can. At this point I’ve lived in my tipi in Central Oregon for about six months, full time. I’ve chosen this path for many reasons, some I’m still trying to figure out. Too much Derrick Jensen? Too much Black Elk? Too much defiance of a system that takes for granted my unwitting, thoughtless, stupefied compliance?
Maybe all these, and more.
But one of the big ones has to do with a personal experiment about how possible it is to live in a sustainable, soulful manner – which a tipi is by design - while actively interacting with a culture that has lost it’s soul and that’s not sustainable. I’m curious about what stress points emerge in the interaction between engaging with the soulless culture on a daily basis, and desiring a more tactile, meaningful interaction with the natural world. I want to experience what’s mandatory as opposed to what’s mere preference. Isn’t it incumbent upon us to ask such questions, given the fact – and it is a fact – that our Western lifestyle is the cause of so much suffering, most of which is unseen by us unless we make an effort to search it out? I don’t know any way to perform this experiment and seriously search for answers aside from experiencing a “sustainable” living situation myself and seeing what arises.
To be honest, so far it’s a mixed bag of soulful expansion and deep frustration. And cold. Plenty of that this year.
I think the biggest indicator of the friction between primitive living and modern living is in the work department. This should be no surprise, considering the substantial effort that has always been a part of modern “civilization” to increase the productivity of the populace, and to do so for as little financial remuneration and as much taxation as possible. Again, considering the history of the Native Americans, part of the re-ordering of the mind and will is to homogenize us, something offensive to the natural wildness of the Soul, which the Native Americans once lived by. The message is always the same to those who wish to partake of the dubious advantages of the Culture, to eat of its forbidden fruit, so to speak.
To illustrate, the Native Americans were told to stop living their primitive, nomadic ways: to cut their hair (which I refuse to do), stop their heathen ceremonies (which I refuse to do), to adopt the religion of the conquerors (which I refuse to do) and be “respectable” (which I will define on my own terms, thank you). To facilitate integration into a society that made no sense to heads or hearts, they were given the implements of this new respectability, plows and property lines, and ordered under threat of incarceration or starvation to farm for themselves or get to work for others. The fact that neither provided a living wage was not a concern to this new chiefdom. They were to accept the inconsistent and irrational rations from the Government that came as payment for relinquishing various tracts of land, most sacred to them in one way or another, and fall in line with the vanquishing race.
I pay attention to how the Native Americans have been treated by the government because the genocide, lies, cruelty and greed are systemic issues within the culture upon which our government works, and which it sustains domestically and globally. That means it doesn’t just apply to the Native Americans. Believe me when I say that this is the future of anyone that is unable or unwilling to capitulate to the whims of those who are truly in control of this country. Considering the conquering race’s attitudes towards those who were unwilling or unable to meet their definition of “productive work”, I’d say a certain subset of America and any other Western government is in danger of the same treatment the Native Americans experienced.
In short, modern work and primitive living were never meant to go hand in hand. The reason I say this is because this has been my experience, too.
This is sobering because as far as work goes, I have it pretty easy in that department. When I’m not writing or attending to tipi concerns I consult for a man who owns a construction company. He also happens to be one of my best friends and walks some of the same spiritual paths as I. I make my own hours and he allows me plenty of rope as long as I get the job done. This is important because sometimes I need to get home before dark to replenish wood supplies or just to have the opportunity to make dinner before the sun goes down. I also have to cram in workouts so I can shower since running water is not really possible out here. Not in freezing weather, anyway. Sometimes the shower / workout takes the form of an extended lunch, which is also possible largely because I make my own hours. In return, I am freeing him up and otherwise meeting my obligations to him. I think he’s happy with me. I know he is, actually. But the point is that it’s a pretty narrow band that would work, as far as living in a tipi and holding down a job. A regular corporate job would not work. Neither would most nine-to-fivers. Not through the winter anyway. They have your body, mind and intent from bell to bell.
Why is this so? It’s pretty simple to see, now that I’m making the attempt to live it. It’s almost impossible to concentrate on work when a person is unsure what’s happening to their place while they’re away. More than the fact that it’s just a lot to handle, it’s also in line with Maslowe’s Hierarchy of Needs.
As you can see, food, shelter and water are at the base. Qualifying for a quarterly bonus, let alone attempting to please an ambitious sales manager by working extra-long hours for instance, is somewhere further up the triangle. In short, the bottom level of this triangle takes more time for a person dedicated to a primitive lifestyle than the culture easily allows. It’s almost as if the culture is threatened by those who choose to attempt to disregard it. In fact, that’s exactly how it is. What happened a few nights ago is a good illustration of how time becomes an issue when trying to walk these two worlds.
Recently it was seriously cold. Rather than gut it out, I crashed on my ex-wife’s couch because -7 degrees is just too damned cold for my setup. I could have done it, but it would have been ego driven and I have plenty of that already. So I opted for ease, self-care and helping Heather who is recovering from knee surgery and could use the company and assistance anyway (thankfully for us both, we are close friends). So the next evening when I got home, I came home to six inches of snow on top of and around my wood stove. Nothing else was amiss, other than one of my inner liners was packed with snow, too. I have no clue how that happened, unless a rabbit holed up in there somewhere and the full liner was the result of his digging in. I didn’t care; I like rabbits and have shared tipi space with them before, so I didn’t (and haven’t) pressed the issue. I didn’t have time to mess with it anyway because it was six degrees outside and I needed some warmth. So before I even had light in here, I stoked up my small propane heater. Then I plugged in my solar battery to give me some light and went to work on building a roaring fire. As it was going, I noticed the tipi filling with smoke. I kind of expected it since a tipi is essentially a chimney, and a fire in any chimney needs air to breathe. In a tipi, this usually comes from the space between the bottom of the tipi cover and the ground. But when that’s covered in 24 inches of snow, it ain’t breathing. So I stepped outside to dig under the new snow to give my home the airflow it needs. I knew it was going to be a cold night and I wanted to warm it up and keep it warm, so I went to the woodshed to get some logs. Some were still too big, so I took my beloved maul, split a few by headlamp, took the wood inside, put a few more in the woodstove and placed the rest in my indoor wood bin.
All this before even taking off my boots, let alone thinking about dinner, when all I really wanted to do at the end of the day was to write and think and stare into the fire.
The situation would be far more tenable if I had more time during the day to work on my systems, systems that are taken for granted by those with a house or apartment to come home to. If I were I freer, I would create ways to keep my water thawed, cover the outer edge of my tipi so snow and ice wouldn’t build up, store my food so the whole setup isn’t a block of ice, etc.
It should be noted that the sitting, staring and writing I mentioned above are among the main reasons I live in a tipi. There’s something about a round space that fosters soul-centric thought, not to mention the benefit to prayer and ceremony that the space and solitude bring. It’s almost as if you’re sitting in a vortex as you look up from the bottom of your inverted cone. The meaningful symbols painted on my tipi are often backlit by the moonlight and I can hear owls hooting just “outside” almost every night (am I really living inside? Debatable.). The inner fire is metaphorical to my own, throwing friendly light and controlled heat. The fire and I converse until it’s time for both of us to go to sleep, and I sleep nowhere on earth better than in my tipi in the dead of winter.
To be sure, it’s easier other months. And it would be far easier if I didn’t have to have a job. If I
could start a fire in the morning and keep it going all day it would never get cold inside. The permanent ice I have at my entrance (on the inside) would thaw and evaporate. I could spend time taking care of things that would make it possible to dedicate a certain amount of time to generating the implements of trade, whether furs or frog-skins, so as not to damn every single aspect of modern life. Not all conveniences suck my soul, after all.
But it doesn’t seem to be a real option. Modern culture wants to be first. It wants as much attention as it can wring from our minds and hearts. Where these rebel, it uses family, religion and easy, fun, interesting and exciting leisure to gain a foothold. It wants, in short, to be my God. It will ultimately settle for nothing else – not until we give it the bulk of our lives. Those who refuse are punished and made to look as if they are choosing a hard life out of some personal failure or axe to grind when that isn’t always the case. Sometimes it’s virtue that separates the culture and the rebel. If you doubt this, do your own research. Start with the Bible if you want.
Whatever your situation, know that you have a choice. We all do. It’s not easy, but it’s possible to begin to unplug. Whatever that means for you, ditching a TV or selling your only car, if you do it for a reason that has to do with the health of your soul, what fills that void is from Soul. That's the rule. The hardships you experience bring tailored lessons from the vaults of your dreams, from the promises you once made to yourself, from the things you wanted to do in your life when you were a child.
Last summer, about midnight on the night before I left for a deep ceremony in fact, two owls perched on my tipi poles and called for about thirty minutes. The deep meaning of this to me can’t be translated into mere words. But maybe you can sense the flavor. This is the shadow of what awaits anyone willing to loosen the grasp of the culture on their attention. What comes is an increased ability to hear the call of the Soul, the calls of the things we are wont to suppress, and to hear your own "owls" calling to you from the deepest night to turn towards what illuminates your very Being and makes you shine.
Are you ready?