Writing about the simple life proved anything but for immersive journalist Mark Sundeen.
His original manuscript—an unadorned account of three couples who, in varying ways, have opted out of everyday American consumerism—was accepted and revised when he withdrew it from publisher Riverhead Books.
“I had a close friend read it, call me, and say, I stopped reading at page 175 because I couldn’t figure out why you’d written this book,” says Sundeen, author of The Unsettlers: In Search of the Good Life in Today’s America. “I’d told myself for several years of the process that I was writing a kind of objective historical account of people who live this way. It wasn’t until that point I realized it was so autobiographical—about finding my own way, grappling with ideas and values I’ve always had and never totally implemented.”
Sundeen (The Man Who Quit Money, 2012), who professes a long-held “fascination with dropping out,” initially planned to write an encyclopedia of utopians, from Henry David Thoreau to permaculture pioneers Helen and Scott Nearing. But an investigation into today’s most fascinating practitioners narrowed the focus down to three couples: Sarah Wilcox and Ethan Hughes of the Possibility Alliance in La Plata, Missouri; Olivia Huburt and Greg Willerer of Brother Nature Produce, an urban farm in Detroit; and organic superstars Luci Brieger and Steve Elliot of Lifeline Farm in Montana.
What differed in Sundeen’s journalistic process, this time around, was the someone waiting for him at home: after years of itinerant bachelorhood, he was married to Cedar, a creative and self-reliant woman raised by hippie parents in the Montana wilds. (“Cedar hailed from a separate America, and as I fell in love with her, I fell in love with it, too,” writes Sundeen, who grew up in bustling Southern California.) But as he traveled across the country, researching the book—doing trust exercises, snacking on ecologically grown produce, living without electricity—he wondered if he could pull off an on-assignment extramarital affair.
“What a fraud I was,” Sundeen writes, “presenting myself as some purveyor of the virtuous life when I didn’t have a grip on my own longings. How was I any different from the hypocrites who preach that we shouldn’t use fossil fuels while they flew around the globe on airplanes to tell more people they, too, shouldn’t use oil and gas? .... Here I was writing a book about how domesticity might save the world, and I was struggling with its most basic premise: fidelity.”
Standing in contrast to his steadfast subjects, Sundeen grew to understand environmental activist and author Wendell Berry’s admonition to “commit to one piece of land and cultivate it.” (As Berry, quoted by Sundeen, asks, “How can a man hope to promote peace in the world if he has not made it possible in his own life and his own household?”)
“Americans have infinite appetites, but there are people who have figured out how to embrace restraint,” Sundeen says. “These people are trying to find a way to get what they want within their own house, within their own family, and so they’re not spending as much time burning resources and burning their soul energy by running around the world looking for fulfillment.”
Through its gorgeous portraits of commitment breeding contentment, The Unsettlers ably shows that the rectitude to remake the world is rooted in a stable home.
“One of the main things this book is about is finding abundance while embracing limitations,” Sundeen says, “and the place to do that is within your own household. It really helps to have someone in your life who shares your values, that courage, and is willing to support [you].”
Megan Labrise writes “Field Notes” and features for Kirkus Reviews.