Slowing down – A beautiful book on sustainable living: Mark Boyle’s The Way Home

July 10, 2019 at 4:26 am | Posted in Blasket islands, capitalism, digital technology, E.F. Schumacher, Mark Boyle, rural Ireland, Simplifying, Small Is Beautiful, sustainable living | Leave a comment
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The Way Home: Tales from a life without technology. Mark Boyle. (Oneworld Publications, 2019)

It’s a surprise to learn that Mark Boyle has a degree in Economics and Marketing. He lives in rural County Galway in a dwelling he built himself. He chooses to live without electricity or running water. He has no car and of course no phone – landline or mobile – but the thing that really brought home to me his hard-line stance is this: he won’t use matches either.

Once you’d spent the hours and labour (not to mention generating blisters) on making a fire with your bare hands I can’t imagine ever letting it go out.

Mark Boyle writes that he also has neither clock nor watch. Would a sundial count as technology? Probably not, but its use might be a bit limited in western Ireland, which receives roughly twice as much rainfall as the rest of the country.

And lighting? ‘Making a candle is easy. The real craft lies in the first part of the process: the keeping of the bees,’ he writes. ‘Actually, the most difficult part of candle-making is deciding to reject electrical lighting.’

Living with the wild things 

Isn’t there a happy medium between this stance of unrelenting toil for bare subsistence and our present one where almost everything in our lives is generated and governed by sophisticated, opaque and often alienating levels of technology?

Yes. E. F. Schumacher offered one over forty years ago in his Small Is Beautiful: A study of economics as if people mattered. He also pointed out that the Free Market direction, in which western industrial societies were heading, with its goal of constant financial growth, was unsustainable.

The political elites in Britain, the US, and then Australia, decided to do the precise opposite of what this popular book recommended, and moved speedily into the toxic, financially and socially polarised mess most of us live in now.

Mark Boyle decided to opt out of that mess and create his own world of living with nature. He wanted ‘to live with all things wild again.’ He wanted to do something about the ‘harvest of a political ideology which is causing the sixth mass extinction of species, one which is wiping out one habitat after the next, polluting rivers, soil, oceans and every breath of atmosphere as it spreads.’

Seduced

Is his struggle admirable or is his lack of compromise self-defeating? I was afraid the writing might be drearily earnest and the author’s attitude self-righteous or naïve but I was quickly seduced by the wisdom of Boyle’s succinct words, understated deadpan humour and keen awareness of his own weaknesses.

Even so, I wondered about a degree of self-absorption in his makeup when I thought about his girlfriend Kirsty, a shadowy presence at first. Presumably she’s not inside all the time, lying on a hand-made sofa reading British Vogue. Isn’t she working alongside him just as hard, day after day? It’s nearly a hundred pages in before she comes alive, so to speak. She is doing her share. He gives her a massage, and I was relieved to learn that this is a twice-weekly routine.

When the soul says enough is enough

Over a year before giving up electricity the author had taken the baby step of quitting social media. Statements like the following make the reader (or at least this reader) feel: this is a guy I’d like to spend time with:

‘Like all good decisions, it was made in the pub.’

His rational mind kept telling him many reasons for the necessity for a journalist/writer like him to stay on social media. He continues:

‘The soul was much clearer on the matter. The soul said fuck it. The soul said stop buying in and stop selling out. The soul reminded me that I wanted to live entirely off the land anyway, and that any financial income would only hold me back and stunt my progress. The soul told me to live as I believed, first and foremost, and to let fate take care of the rest. The soul said enough. And then the soul, emboldened and thirsty, ordered another couple of pints.’

The Way Home will reward re-reading. There are insights on every eloquent page. There’s beauty and humour and rich observation of nature and of the cruel paradoxes of contemporary society.

Money and reality

Looking back at his early twenties, Boyle realises that he gained his self-respect from the amount of money he made. But now, at thirty-five, he draws it from how little money he needs.

Interwoven into the author’s story, structured by the seasons, are observations about life on the Blasket islands, County Kerry. Those islanders, also living simply with no electricity and eating what they could glean from the land and the sea, partly inspired my novel After She Left, the title referring to a young woman in trouble leaving the Great Blasket Island for Sydney. It’s a joy to visit the Blasket islanders again through this profound book about how best to live.

Far from the earnest tone I was apprehensive about when I picked up this book, the author’s healthy perspective appears often, in moments of self-doubt like this: ‘I still can’t decide whether I’m losing touch with reality, or finally finding it.’

Are you wondering how he wrote this book? He did it with a pencil and paper. At first his handwriting was barely legible from all those years of typing on a computer. But he makes the following discovery:

‘Once you slow down, good hand-writing becomes easier. Once you slow down, good anything becomes easier.’

 

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