The full title of this book is The Way home: Tales from a Life Without Technology, and that is essentially what it is, the record of a year of the writer’s life that he lived without any of the conveniences of modern life; no electricity, no running water, no plumbing, no computer, internet, smart phone or any other kind of phone. Boyle decided to do this because he wanted to explore an alternate way of living and being in the world, an old way, the way our ancestors lived, in harmony with nature and not at odds with it. He decided to give up his reliance on technology because he felt like it was keeping him from experiencing life in its essential, elemental sense.
While the narrative of this book takes place over one year, Boyle did not return to using technology after this year, because this was not a lifestyle experiment that he went on, just so he could write about it. It is clear that he’s sincere in his wish to live differently, to reduce his personal impact on the environment and to engage as directly as possible with nature and the essential demands of human life.
So he acquired a bit of land in rural Ireland, built a wooden cabin, planted lots of vegetables, kept chickens, took up hunting and fishing and tried to create a life that had meaning for him.
This could be seen as one of the many hundred ‘back to the land’ books that have been published over the years, but it is markedly different because it isn’t just about leaving the city, moving to the country and growing at least some of your own food. The primary point of the book, as it says in the title, is the fact that he’s doing it all without the aid of any technology. That makes everything somewhat complicated. The smallest of things requires a lot of work.
He cycles or walks everywhere he goes, often travelling miles to get to the post office so he can send a letter to his parents. And when he wants to go see them, he does so by hitching rides. He grows his own vegetables which takes no small amount of work because everything has to be done by hand. He keeps chickens, but his only source of protein other than the eggs is the meat and fish which he can’t have unless he goes fishing or hunts deer. Buying anything from a store is not a part of his life.
There’s plenty of cycling involved to get to the river so he can fish. The fish is eaten quickly, but the deer presents a problem. Even sharing with his neighbours, there’s plenty left over which needs to be preserved without the aid of a refrigerator, so he has to build a smoke house. There’s no gas, so he and his partner cook on a rocket stove which only has one burner, so cooking takes time, and putting a simple meal together involves a lot of work. But there’s no arguing with the fact that he’s self sufficient. As he says in the book,
“…there’s a sense of real security that comes from knowing that, no matter what crises or catastrophes unfold in the wider world, you know how to put food on the table for yourself, your neighbours and those you particularly love.”
He and his partner make their own candles using beeswax, they dry herbs so they can make their own tea. There’s no running water or plumbing, so they cannot just flush and forget. And they can’t just take a shower. They have to wash up in a basin until he’s able to install a heated bath, something that takes a fair bit of work. Everything takes a fair bit of work in his life, but he insists that it is worth it and I believe him, I admire him, even.
But there’s no getting away from the fact that he’s chosen a difficult way of life. While this may have been the way everyone lived in past, this is not a life that many people will want to emulate. Even his neighbours who were born on the land and have lived off it all their lives don’t try to do it without electricity or plumbing and they wouldn’t want to. Farming is a hard enough life without adding difficulties to it. This isn’t a criticism of Boyle’s choices. If he’s found a way of life that works for him, then more power to him, but the fact remains that this is not an alternative lifestyle that’s about to take off.
But that’s not the point of the book. Boyle is not trying to get anyone to emulate him. What he’s doing is exploring an alternative life style that works for him, and he’s reporting on it. We’re at an inflection point in the world right now, with many of us examining our lives and our choices and wondering what we could do differently so we’d have better work-life balance, better and more fulfilling relationships and if we could find ways to reduce our impact on the environment. So all explorations of alternative lifestyles are valuable.
Reading this book, I did not at any time, feel the inclination to give up technology, but it did make me think about my choices and it gave me an interesting perspective on the form that the environmental movement has taken today. When the movement began, the primary focus was on protecting the wild places of this world, preserving habitats, preventing species extinction…but that focus has shifted almost entirely to reducing carbon emissions and moving from fossil fuels to clean energy.
This is no doubt important, but all this talk of sustainability is us saying that we want to continue our technology and energy heavy lifestyles, but that we want to find a cleaner source of energy to fuel them. We’re not thinking in terms of reducing our consumption of energy, taking less from the world, needing less…That is an important point.
This book is not a continuous narrative. It is written as a series of anecdotes and thoughts, often jumping in time from the writer’s present life, to his past, his childhood, his days at university, his time working as the manager of an organic food store… He uses these glimpses into the past as a means to lay out the evolution in his thinking about money, technology, the environment and the direction of the world in general.
This moving back and forth is easy enough to follow and it adds nuance to the narrative. There’s nothing exceptional about the writing. His love of wilderness aside, he’s no Henry David Thoreau and he doesn’t try to be. He quotes Thoreau, Wendell Berry, Aldo Leopold, Edward Abbey, Paul Kingsnorth and several others and examines some of their ideas in the context of his own experience. His writing is honest and engaging. It is fairly easy reading, but it is not light by any measure.
Most ‘back to the land’ books are deliberately, often self-consciously funny with the writers detailing their mistakes and their inexperience and taking a light-hearted view of it all. Boyle’s book is anything but light-hearted. He’s earnest and matter of fact in the way he writes about his life. His tone could come across as a bit self-righteous and that is a comment that some readers have made, but it didn’t strike me that way.
Another feature of ‘back to the land’ books is that they’re a bit aspirational. They make life on a farm seem at least somewhat idyllic. Reading them, you can’t help wishing that you could up sticks and go live in the countryside. I’m not saying that these books pretend that life on a farm is easy. It’s not. It’s hard, grinding, physical work, day after day and most of these books tell you so, but they tend to do it while keeping the narrative light and and the descriptions a bit soft focus. It is my guess that this is a style that editors and publishers prefer and perhaps push.
There’s nothing idyllic or soft focus about Boyle’s narrative. It is real and hard-edged and it feels all the more important as a result. There are several insightful passages that made me stop and think. And as good books often do, this one led me to several others.
Some readers have accused him of privilege and hypocrisy. He lives on a farm and does everything by hand, ostensibly eschewing both money and technology, but unlike a lot of this neighbours, he’s a writer and he makes money from books and lectures, so he’s not exactly living off the land.
He acknowledges this and says that he considered not publishing this book, but that in the end, he decided to be a hypocrite (his words). He may not want to live as a part of a society that is thoroughly dependent on technology, but he’s willing to engage with it enough to question it because it needs to be questioned. Besides, I think his goal is not so much to live off the land as it is to reduce this impact on the environment and he’s certainly doing that.
This book is worth reading because it will make you think about a few things, your work, your life, your choices, how you want to live in this world and what your idea of a good and meaningful life is. I’ll conclude with Boyle’s words about what this way of life has brought him.
“…there is a timeless simplicity about my life. I have found that, when you peel off the plastic that industrial society vacuum-packs around you, what remains – your real needs – could not be simpler. Fresh air. Clean water. Real food. Companionship. Warmth, earned from wood chopped with your own hands using a convivial tool whose only input is care. There’s no extravagance, no clutter, no unnecessary complications. Nothing to buy, nothing to be. No frills, no bills. Only the raw ingredients of life, to be dealt with immediately and directly, with no middlemen to complicate and confuse the matter.”