Tuesday, May 7, 2013

the beauty of simplicity.

Aldo Leopold: "Experience... is actually a progressive dilution of the essentials by the trivialities of living."

Life is more beautiful when reduced to the essentials. It seems at times like we are surrounded by superfluousness since birth, at least here in America. The accumulation begins when we're still in the womb, at a baby shower – so many things in so many boxes, and really, is the convenience of a new gadget offset by the inconvenience of organizing a house full of stuff?

Some stuff is unnecessary but beautiful – pottery, I think, and books and glass and art – and therefore necessary for its beauty. We need beauty. But so much of what fills our lives is just throwaway clutter. We think of ourselves as consumers, but really, it's our habits that consume us. There are people I love dearly who are convinced of the necessity of changing one's curtains twice a year, ironing the doilies, and keeping the exterior of their cars impeccably clean. They become stressed when they lack the time for these perceived necessities.

These, of course, are not earth-shattering observations. In an increasingly complex world, we are urged at every turn to simplify. But instead of actually doing it, we buy a magazine about simplifying our lives and add it to the stack of Things To Read, after which it's relegated to Things To Organize and Dust, and later, Things To Recycle. Rarely does anyone truly downsize: when we decide to get rid of something, we eventually buy something else to take its place.

Spartanism is an ugly alternative, though, and I certainly don't want it. There are few things I love more than going to a flea market and spending a morning pawing through other people's junk, marveling at the discarded bits of life that are sold and sold again, cycled through generations and across borders. I walked away from one last weekend with a cast iron pan – something I hope will last a lifetime, but I don't delude myself. Tastes change. Even while espousing against it, I add more clutter to my life with great enthusiasm.

And yet caught in the cycle, I pause. Past a certain point, more stuff unequivocally equals less time. Today I scoffed at my mother when she said she'd be happy living in a one-room cabin, but my grandmother – who is one of the people convinced she needs to do housework that I find completely unnecessary – defended the statement, reminiscing about the times she lived on the road for months in a small RV after she and my grandfather retired. She loved the simplicity of having everything its place in her tiny home on wheels; it was like being on a ship, where everything has a function and nothing is extraneous.

I've experienced this myself: traveling, to an extent, is an exercise in simplicity, living off only what you can carry on your person. I did it for years. But the truest example of this kind of beauty has come from my time with Alaska Crossings, when, for seven weeks at a stretch you live fully in the present day. Every morning you wake up and think only about the essential needs of the group: getting from point A to point B safely, finding water, gathering wood and making a fire, cooking food, setting up shelter, and sleeping. You move no faster than your own arms or legs can carry you. You live by the weather and the tides. You find water from the earth, and sleep under the trees. There are no bills to pay, no errands to run; no distractions from the important work of building relationships and living unobtrusively in the wilderness -- and somehow, the outside world carries on without you and you find you can still be happy.

In nature, as on a tidy ship, there is nothing without purpose. It's only during these times living in the bush that I've come to understand what's truly important and what can fall away as easily as a leaf from a tree, and even as I pack my car full of stuff to take with me to Colorado, I'm grateful to have had the opportunity. 

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