Island Press/Shearwater Books, Washington DC (USA), 2002 (2002)
218 pages, including index
Let me start by saying that this book is not what I had in mind.
Description of the goal:
In this book, I relate the pleasures, as well as the virtues and difficulties,
of a perhaps simpler than average North American life.
Like Henry David
Thoreau, I should not talk so much about myself if there were anybody
else I knew as well. Also like Thoreau, I believe that a [wo]man is rich
in proportion to the number of things [s]he can afford to let alone. Some
needs are absolute. Along with every other human being, I need a minimum of
2,000 calories a day, about half a gallon of water fit to drink, a sanitary
means for disposing of my bodily wastes, a way to keep reasonably clean,
something muscular to do for at least some part of the day, and a warm, dry
place to sleep. To that biological minimum I would add intercourse with
more-than-human nature and the means to a life of the mind. Meeting those
needs as sparingly as possible makes abundant the kind of riches that can't
The pleasures and riches of simplicity, it seems to me, arrive mainly through the senses, through
savoring the world of a given moment. Hence my invocation of Epicureanism, a Hellenic "be what
thou art" philosophy premised on the trust-worthiness of the senses. It was
a philosophy that extolled simplicity and prudence, and it had its detractors.
Because Epicurus, the
school's founder, did say, "I am unable to form any conception of the good
from which has been eliminated the pleasures of eating and drinking, the
pleasures of sexual love, the pleasures of music and eloquence, and the
pleasures of shape and pleasant movements," the philosophy scandalized both
the church fathers
and the rabbinate of the first few centuries C.E. The fact that epicurean has become synonymous with gourmet, or even gourmand, is
partly the result of early clericla objections to the principle that pleasure
could lead to the good. From the third century C.E. onward, Epicurean
translated as "loose liver." To refute that canard and reclaim Epicureanism
are among the aims of this work.
(Stephanie Mills: Epicurean Simplicity, pp. 1-2)
A humble approach:
Most people's definition of enough is "just a little more," and in my
first impulse I am not unlike most people. Still, because I am persuaded
of that Thoreauvian precept that real wealth is a disinterest in the
acquisition of things, and because I suspect that the ultimate wealth might
be to be entirely freed of the need for things, I regard my advantages,
privileges, and comforts also as liabilities. Conveniences quickly become
necessities. They have enabled my ignorance of some fundamental survival
skills and cost me opportunities in resourcefulness.
(Stephanie Mills: Epicurean Simplicity, p. 12)
A brutally sincere recognition:
The twentieth-century notion of progress entailed ever-increasing reliance on goods and resources brought
from afar and brokered centrally. Most my post-progress household's
economy —electric service; propane for cooking; gasoline for driving;
paper, metals, and food— is imported from outside the bioregion and as such is not sustainable.
Long lines of supply are costly and vulnerable to disruption.
Living in the country in the modern way seems to entail using a car, or maybe
the car makes it possible to live in the "woodburbs" in a non-self-reliant
way. It comes down to the fact that my Toyota wagon makes a direct annual
contribution to the greenhouse effect, which is changing the weather and
degrading the country. So my way of life is threatening my way of life.
Like so many well-intentioned people, I'm caught in a monkey trap.
As Tolstoy pointedly
summed it up, "I sit on a man's back, choking him and making him carry me, and
yet assure myself and others that I am very sorry for him and wish to ease his
lot by all possible means —except by getting off his back."
(Stephanie Mills: Epicurean Simplicity, pp. 12-13)
As I savored the crumbs of blue cheese in the salad that rounded out my
Sunday dinner, I was thinking of Epicurus. During his heyday in the
third century B.C.E., Epicurus propounded pleasure, simplicity, and
friendship as the means and ends of the good life. But, said the
Roman philosopher Seneca a few centuries later, to Epicurus pleasure was something "small and
slender," an absence of pain, especially that which results from excess or
craving. World-renowned in his day, Epicurus wrote prolifically, but only
fragments of his writings survive. Among them is an endearing request in a
letter to a friend: "Send to me some Cythnian cheese," Epicurus wrote, "so
that, should I choose, I may fare sumptuously."
(Stephanie Mills: Epicurean Simplicity, pp. 20-21)
Once one has asked the "To be or not to be" question and answered in the
life-affirmative, one's life becomes a deed. How are we to live —not
merely survive? This may be the most serious ethical question we now
face. In antiquity,
it was the work of philosophers to raise serious questions and to hash out
the answers in their schools. Figuring out everything was the philosopher's
bread and butter. A philosophy began with a construct of the essential
nature of reality. Before the philosopher could propound human verities,
she or he had to explain the universe. Twenty-three centuries ago, however,
inquiring minds didn't build linear accelerators, electron microscopes, or
telescopes to examine nature; they just cogitated hard and came up with
propositions so coherent and complete that they had to be true. The
philosopher's purview ranged from atoms to eternity and from the nature of
the soul to a vision of the good society. A question like: "How are we to
live?" had to be considered in cosmic totality.
Epicurus went at it with philanthropic zeal. Among his aims was to free
men and women from their fear of death by his argument that when life's
over, it's over. There's no Hades, no rebirth, no guilt to follow beyond the grave, and no punishment
thereafter. The Epicurean philosophy that what you sense is what you get,
and that this life is ample, was so liberating and embraceable that
generations of Greeks and Romans revered Epicurus. Perhaps his
existentialism was as attractive in early times as John Lennon's "Imagine there's no heaven / It's
easy if you try / No hell below us / Above us only sky / Imagine all the
people / Living for today" has been in ours.
Epicurus was not terribly intellectual as Greek philosophers went. As
Wallace [William Wallace, author of a book on Epicureanism] tactfully put
it, "Epicureanism with its freedom from logic and metaphysics, its direct appeal to the ordinary mind, the pathos of its ethical tone,
and the humanistic character of its historical philosophy, seems more
congenial to poetry than any of its contemporary systems."
(Stephanie Mills: Epicurean Simplicity, pp. 22-23)
In Epicurus and Lucretius both, there was a
profound respect for nature, for the senses, and for every person's inborn
perception and capability. Over the past couple of thousand years,
though, in the name of such phantasms as Progress, Efficiency, and Growth, Lucretius'
"Earth, sweet magic-maker" has been exploited so ruthlessly that in very
many places to trust one's senses and fully perceive the horror of a
clear-cut, a slum, or a strip-mined mountain would be to invite catatonia.
In everyday living, our senses are outdistanced by invisible threats at the
atomic, molecular, and atmospheric scales. The contemporary wish either
to numb or to discount the senses is not so hard to understand.
(Stephanie Mills: Epicurean Simplicity, p. 27)
On technology and her luddite attitude:
A long and persistent tradition argues against the technologies that
supplant skill, neighborliness, good work, and, increasingly, mere
employment. Around the world, activists from the original Luddites to Gandhi, and authors from Lewis Mumford to Chellis Glendinning and Ivan Illich, have questioned the morality of certain
technologies and of the technologically mediated life; they have questioned
the myths and merits of progress and modernity. However marginalized such
thought and work remains, this questioning won't go away.
(Stephanie Mills: Epicurean Simplicity, p. 37)
On the perils of agriculture:
It may be that humanity took a wrong turn with the invention of agriculture. There's probably no
turning back, but forensic Anthropologists now tell us that, contrary to popular belief, once crops
were domesticated and could be stored, human health declined as settlements
developed and human populations rose. Thinkers such as Paul Shepard say that our psyches also
took a wrong turn back then. In The Tender Carnivore and the Sacred
Game, Shepard argues that the domestication of organisms and civilization's misundertsanding of
and alienation from nature are cause and effect. Domesticated plants and
animals are a debased, infantilized version of wild stocks. The pastoral
misleads us to the nature of Nature, which is wild.
(Stephanie Mills: Epicurean Simplicity, pp. 54-55)
On the pervasiveness of life:
The animacy, sentience, and volition of the life around me are undeniable.
The attainments of all these Others, such as finding sustenance deep in the
sandy soil, standing patiently through hard winters, burrowing purposefully
through the dark earth, soaring and perching, or slithering with nary a
rustle through the dry leaves, can only command respect: Everything in
nature is alive, is aware, and has a will. These lives have intrinsic
meaning. The hornets, phoebes, hummingbirds, and locust trees have
no need of my sentiments. Inadvertently, generously, they engross me in
life. Their wordless teaching directly addresses the life force in me,
avowing it, too, to be good.
(Stephanie Mills: Epicurean Simplicity, p. 66)
Insects get a bum rap.
Indoors, their presence is taken as an index of filth. Outdoors, they're
the enemy, chewing, sucking, boring, girdling, swaddling, undermining, and
denuding the gardeners' and farmers' best efforts. Insect plagues are no
joke, especially in single-crop agriculture. But insect infestations are more an effect of
mispractice and environmental stress than the first cause of crop and forest
damage. Like most predators, insects take advantage of the weak or
maladapted and the superabundant, the easy marks. In the vast monocultural
plantations agribusiness promotes, various insects find uninterrupted
expanses of their favorite foods. Because insect generations are many
and frequent, evolution helps them stay a jump ahead of chemical and even
genetically modified pest controls by favoring the genes of individuals that
happen to possess some resistance to the effects of the controls.
(Stephanie Mills: Epicurean Simplicity, p. 74)
Interesting bits of information:
Milkweed is sine qua non to
lifeway, its essential host plant. The caterpillar's milkweed munching is the means by which it
concentrates in its body, and thus in the winged butterfly body to come,
the plant's cardiac
glycosides. distasteful and powerfully emetic chemicals. Once a bird has had a bite of monarch
and barfed up its supper, it remains wary of showy orange, black, and white
butterflies for the rest of its life. It is by virtue of being repellant to
most birds that monarch butterflies can safely gather by the millions in the
winter without serving as a bonanza to predators. Viceroy butterflies, which mimic the monarchs
but aren't milkweed eaters and thus are not emetic, also enjoy the avian
détente negotiated by evolution for the monarch. This is a lifeway
of stunning complexity, contingency, beauty, and vast dimension in space,
time, and form.
(Stephanie Mills: Epicurean Simplicity, p. 80)
Epicureanism is easier in the summer:
For the time being, though, simplicity is perhaps at its most epicurean
around the sumer solstice. Picnicking becomes a real possibility, and
here the refreshment of swimming is hand by.
(Stephanie Mills: Epicurean Simplicity, p. 88)
A few years ago, at the turnoff to the lake, there appeared a billboard
advertising narrow lots, pivoting like the sticks of a Japanese fan on a
minimal hub of lake frontage; next to it, a cheery sign announced a future
By and by, the lots began to sell, and each sale was proclaimed by the
execrable map. Every time I bicycled past the sign on my way for a swim,
I'd damn the developer and his success. After a year of this, I decided that
this reflexive hostility was bad for my soul. I'm not exactly sure why, but
I called the developer to ask if he would meet me. I felt a need for a
face-to-face encounter with this person I'd demonized, for us to talk as
human beings, for him to know what that place meant to me and for me to offer
amends for my bad-vibing. I was probably hoping for a miracle. What I got
was an encounter that reduced me to tears, which is not all that easy to do.
After I had thanked him for agreeing to see me and confessed that I had been
angry with him about the development at the lake, he told me about the deed
restrictions imposed on the parcels of land, including setbacks, no
unsanctioned cutting of trees greater than a certain diameter, and a
prohibition of motorized watercraft on the lake. He thought he was doing a
When I told him that I was there because I cared about what happened to all
the life around the lake, I'd used up my time. The man flew into a rage.
He hotly vented regret that the long-ago owners of the lake had granted any
public access to it whatsoever. He rightly pegged me as an environmentalist
and an Indian-lover. He more or less suggested that I and my sentimental
ilk were bent on snatching the bread from the mouths of his babies, and on
and on. About then, I burst into tears, which didn't even break his stride.
The subdivision proceeded, the developer's babes were fed, and several big
houses with garish greenswards sited a respectful distance up-slope from the
water's edge now breach the lakeside woodland. Docks and paddleboats
belonging to those households mar the shore. There are driveways now, and
grassy clearings. The effect of this land-use pattern is the usual:
fragmentation of the landscape, reducing its biotic integrity, stability,
and beauty. Commonplace suburban conditions —lawns, prowling house
cats, septic systems, gaps in the forest canopy, vehicles unpredictably
crossing what used to be the nocturnal animals' paths to the water, rank
vegetation flourishing in the sunny paths of soil disturbance, noise during
the birds' nesting seasons, and additional tykes making a pastime of catching
frogs and fish, in competition with the herons— are hard on all but
the weediest plants and animals; sic transit paradise.
(Stephanie Mills: Epicurean Simplicity, pp. 91-92)
On the benefits of the bicycle as a means of transporation:
It was about ten years ago that I got a bike for my trips to the swimming
hole. To drive a car that two and a half miles to the lake to get some
exercise was, I realized, both self- and planet-defeating. In our
compartimentalized middle-class lifeway, physical fitness has come unrooted
from practical capability. There's a stationery bike offered in every
garage sale. Evidently the gerbil-wheel version of bicycling is not all that
The bicycle is a plain machine, the most energy-efficient means of travel
available and one that provides much more than transportation. In bicycling,
one gains strength and spends time out-of-doors, seeing, hearing, and
smelling details that automotive speed blurs to oblivion. The bicycle also
provides epicurean pleasure in the form of the pain one's conscience doesn't
have for needlessly burning gasoline and churning carbon dioxide into the
(Stephanie Mills: Epicurean Simplicity, p. 96)
Being at least as much eco-puritan as epicurean, I got my bike for
transporation, period. Riding it for any purpose, though, usually winds up
being fun. That initial investment in the bicycle bought me a synthesis
of recreation, transportation, and physical education, all for a pittance.
In contrast, my initial investment in and addiction to my car have brought
me complicity in global climate change and the legion of other forms of
environmental degradation that automobile manufacture causes. Katie
Alvord is living proof that a car is not indispensable to a life like mine.
Katie has slipped the greasy toils of automobile ownership completely. Not
only has she managed without cars while living in the country, first in
northern California and now in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, she also made the publicity tours for
her book Divorce Your Car! without resorting to cars or planes. Katie is not
suggesting that everyone quit driving cold turkey, just that it is quite
possible to make the segue from cars to more lifesome alternatives.
If enough Americans choose bikes over cars for short trips, which most
car trips are, and agitate for traffic regulation that favors bicycle and
public transportation, we can reduce our monstrous output of smog and
greenhouse gases. Eventually, we can undo much land-devouring pavement
and sprawl and restore the presence of nature and all its free delights to
(Stephanie Mills: Epicurean Simplicity, pp. 100-101)
It's entirely apt that the title of one of the classic cookbooks speaks of
the joy of cooking, all that sensuous, creative pleasure that precedes the
joy of eating. Working hours are longer, life's pace has increased brutally,
and children are booked solid with sports and other extracurricular
activities. To be robbed of time for the enjoyable and ultimately convivial
work that can be done in the kitchen and shared at the table certainly
bespeaks a social ill, a destitution in affluence.
(Stephanie Mills: Epicurean Simplicity, p. 109)
Maybe the reason America has been so gulled by freemarket rhetoric is that
there's some recollection of real markets like the one in Chinatown, where
consumers meet producers or vendors face to face and side by side and can
compare goods differing in price, quality, and provenance in order to strike
the best deal. At an appropriate scale, "the market" works. And the
hands that supply and buy are out in the open. It's a communal encounter.
(Stephanie Mills: Epicurean Simplicity, p. 114)
Co-ops represent a middle
way in economic enterprise, practicing group ownership, group governance,
group responsibility, and a commitment to democratic principles and member
education. Thus, our local natural foods co-op, in addition to keeping
us in kelp, spelt, and soy, is part of an ongoing social experiment in a
long-standing tradition. The basic cooperative principles are that
membership is open to all without discrimination, each member has one vote,
the cooperative's earnings are distributed according to use, the return on
member capital is limited, the cooperative offers its members some form of
continuing education, cooperatives cooperate among themselves, and cooperatives
work for the sustainable development of their communities.
To be actively involved in a cooperative is to dissent from the profit
motive as business's paramount drive and from the structural irresponsibility
of corporations. Implicit dissent and democratic practice attract the
vociferous. One of my old friends from Berkeley, who'd been active in the
Berkeley Co-op and had observed some of its rabid contretemps, developed a
co-op theory of personality, to wit, cooperatives, especially food
cooperatives, naturally attract oral types.
(Stephanie Mills: Epicurean Simplicity, p. 116)
Dismantling the mystique of bigness and questioning the notion that cheap
food is good to buy, urging consumers to buy locally and support small
farmers, empowering everyday people to participate in the provision of
trustworthy food, and going about this work through democratic egalitarian
group processes could make the difference between ours being a more resilient,
self-reliant community and its being one that might fall into nasty disarray
when the remote, centralized sources of capital and methodology fail, seize
up, or move on.
(Stephanie Mills: Epicurean Simplicity, p. 121)
On the idea of vocation (writing):
I write because I can. I write because I am interested in my inchoate
thoughts and in the elucidation of thought that writing can achieve. I write
because I am workd-drunk. I write because by now, that's mainly what I
do. There may not be a story about myself, with a meticulous, descriptive
quality, being made up in my mind, but there is a carnival of language and
opinion, judgment, speculation, wisecracks, and incessant curiosity.
(Stephanie Mills: Epicurean Simplicity, p. 130)
"I spit upon luxurious pleasures, not for their own sake, but because of
the inconveniences that follow them," said Epicurus. The most computer-savvy people I know are always
pinning for more megavytes and better software. "Enough" seems to be
unavailable in the new economy. It may be an information age, but
obsolescence is a chump's game. It takes more work to earn more money
to be overwhelmed by more information that does not equal knowledge or
wisdom. Thanks to computers, it's become necessary to do that work with
ever-increasing speed, purported efficiency, and digitally demanded
(Stephanie Mills: Epicurean Simplicity, p. 138)
A pragmatic attitude towards hunting:
Deer hunting remains an unbroken if sorely frayed thread of connection with
the timeless tasks of autumn. The hunt begins in September and is restricted
to hunters using black powder in muzzle-loading guns. Next, bow hunting is
permitted. Hunting season reaches its bloody climax in mid-November, when
rifles are the weapons allowed. In principle I have no objection to
hunting the white-tailed deer. Theis superabundant numbers may be attributed
to changes in the land, clearance that opened up so much browse, and to
wildlife management policies that encourage their proliferation if not their
health. The deer are bountiful prey and have long been good meat, magical
American beings. Hunting is as elemental as cellular life, and pitiless.
We ha extirpated the animals that preyed on us and on the deer, so it falls
to humanity to cull and to kill.
Commercialism and technology make boorishness all but inescapable in this
relationship to the wild. Composite bows, portable stands for perching in
trees to await the deer, piles of bait —corn, apples, carrots, sugar
beets— high-powered rifles, ammunitions and sights, blaze orange
overalls, four-wheelers, and oceans of beer and schapps are the
accountrements of hunting nowadays. Many thousands of aspiring Nimrods flock north every fall, and their
beer purchases seem to be a mainstay of the tourist economy. Incidents of
armed, inebriated strangers taking dead aim at the slightest motion and
killing dogs, cows, and women hanging out the wash have tarnished the sport's
(Stephanie Mills: Epicurean Simplicity, pp. 153-154)
Trees, the timber interests tell us, are a renewable resource. There's
some truth to that. It is possible, through industrial forestry, to clear-cut and replant fast-growing
varieties of conifers in quick rotation and get a yield of wood fiber from
the land repeatedly, but not indefinitely. Other, more conservative,
foresters suggest that 1 percent og the trees in a forest be the maximum
annual harvest. A hundred-year rotation is closer to the natural rhythm of
a community of trees. Several years back, I visited Aldo Leopold's Sand County farm and saw with
my own eyes the pines that have been growing tall since the dust bowl days, when the Leopold family
spent weekends planting pines by the hundreds and eventually thousands. It
is indeed possible to replant trees and have them grow, but there's far more
to a forest than a handful of tree species. Whether real forests can be
reestablished on my acreage under the present circumstances is doubtful, but
it is a doubt I try to deflect.
(Stephanie Mills: Epicurean Simplicity, pp. 166-167)
Shoveling snow, like dishwashing and unlike writing, quickly produces
evidence of work done. The results, however, are as transient as clean
dishes, and the task is almost as Sisyphean. Successive snows find me
digging out my paths again and again. I figure I'm in training to turn out
like some of the old women legendary around here —people's widowed
grandmothers or aunts who just stayed on their farms and walked to church
on Sundays. Without benefit of mates or internal combustion engines, they
managed well within their modest means and lived on beyond their eighties.
(Stephanie Mills: Epicurean Simplicity, p. 173)
How to reconcile Stephanie of the North with Epicurus? As I dig my way
throuhg the trackless white wastes out to the studio, there are cold, stung
cheeks, stinging fingertips, and the aches that follow on lifting shovelful
after shovelful of sometimes heavy snow. Pain is not absent from the
More pertinent might be Friedrich Nietzsche's "That which does not destroy me makes me
stronger." Epicurus, thought Nietzsche, was decadent. Biogeography may
not be completely irrelevant to this philosophical difference. A picnic in
your chiton by some creek in Athens could be a daily proposition, whereas
Nietzsche, in Basel,
probably couldn't have been much of a lounger.
(Stephanie Mills: Epicurean Simplicity, p. 175)
Qualifying my sense of the virtuous frugality of my non-motorized winter
sport of choice was the realization that these gleaming new skis weren't
exactly made of hemp by a lesbian cooperative. They're the latest thing
in ski technology. I shudder to think how toxic the resins used in them may
be and how underpaid the workers who assembled the boots. My diversions,
too, demand their pound of earth flesh. One other item pertinent to my
simple winter pleasures is the thirty-five acres of land belonging to me.
With the permission of my neighbors to venture onto their forty, and weather
permitting, I can just about ski out my back door and travel half a mile
without leaving home. If the sun is out and the snow is at all passable, it
would be a sin against pleasure not to go. Being free to act spontaneously
when such moments present themselves is a wealth greater than a sultan's
cave of jewels.
(Stephanie Mills: Epicurean Simplicity, p. 177)
Here, life and death are closer by and various. Matt, one of my
neighbors, is a successful taxidermist and farmer. He is a bright, energetic,
and outgoing young husband and father. Matt does excellently whatever he
turns his hand to, be it wildlife biology or farming. I stopped by his
place one day before winter got under way to see whether he could sell me
some fresh straw bales to gird the base of my writing studio. We wound up
talking about cats. Barn cays are working members of the homestead, and
theirs is not an easy life. Matt said that barn cat life got a little softer
at their place when his wife began to worm and feed them. With the barn cat
meal program, however, came a resurgence of mice in the grain bin. In the
hungry old days, said Matt, one of the cats would perch on his shoulder while
he was feeding the cattle and scoot down his arm to pounce on any mice that
were flushed when a hay bale was moved.
(Stephanie Mills: Epicurean Simplicity, p. 180)
There's a lot of cancer
around. The tumor in my mother's lung grew so slowly that the oncologist was
a bit baffled. That slowness permitted our family three-quarters of a year to
love Mama following her terminal diagnosis. Our family ran true to form, but
with more gravity. The same day my mother informed me of her fatal illness,
I learned that another feisty old woman, my great friend Ramona, had
succumbed at last to her lung cancer. Ramona had gone about her dying in
character, too, with sometimes discomforting candor. Over the previous few
years, out in California, five men, former colleagues, highly gifted writers
and editors and a designer, had all died in their early fifties of cancer.
Nearer to home, another acquaintance was, as she mentioned almost in passing
when we happened to speak, outliving, her doctor-decreed lung cancer death
sentence by a year and a half. Her composure about what she was facing was
remarkable, and I said as much. It was hard, she said; the hardest part was
not being able to assume a future, not being able to expect to get around
doing this, that, or the other thing someday.
(Stephanie Mills: Epicurean Simplicity, pp. 182-183)
Last chapter, titled Our Common Fate:
In austerity, true pleasure becomes clear. In profligate times, austerity
is where beauty waits. Austerity is at one with the grace necessity sculpts.
Austerity entails both self-restraint and the capacity for abandonment
—in a task, in friendship and contemplation, or in the phenomenal.
There is no poverty or meagerness, but volition, in austerity. One can
savor every least thing —the faint tang of skunk lingering under the
bird feeder, the warm scratch of wool blankets, the jade tree in the dry
cleaner's window, the flavor of bread, the accents and rhythms of the talk
on the bus. Wonder is a congenial discipline.
(Stephanie Mills: Epicurean Simplicity, p. 190)
Cultural historian Thomas Berry speaks of the possible inception of an "Ecozoic era." Our species
has concluded the Cenozoic
era, the period that brought forth the mammals, birds, and flowering plants.
In the Ecozoic, it will be our job to restore and foster evolutionary
realtionships among whatever life-forms happen to survive. The
ecological optimum —a low human population and high biodiversity—
is long gone. We are left to establish the Ecozoic among what the
distinguished zoologist Raymond Dasmann called "the tattered remnants of the
old, wild world."
(Stephanie Mills: Epicurean Simplicity, pp. 192-193)
Given the critical condition of the biosphere, I fear that all too often I
feel justified in being shrill. Enough bad news and that chord of
apocalypse latent in the sense of history in a Christian ambit twangs deafeningly. The puritan strain
in the ecology movement is hardly surprising. What spurs such puritanism
is different from a doctrinal dispute; the ecological crisis has obkective
reality. Epicurean though I would be, holy pleasure is not my life's only
guide. Guilt, too, leads me around by the nose. My guilt usually devolves
from the thought of what my choices are doing to the Others. I observe a
goodly number of personal taboos to dodge that guilt.
Taboos have long been quite effective means of shaping lifeways, but, like
magic, they're more likely to work if they flow with some vital tendency.
In most cultures' earlier times, the wise folk took it upon themselves to
evaluate individual and household preferences in terms of their effects on
the commonweal. The preferences that threatened to undermine the culture
would be interdicted and divine authority invoked to enforce these taboos.
Taboos have to begin with a kernel of practical value —for group
harmony, wildlife management, food safety, or eugenics. After a while, a
patina of tradition tones down the glare of a "because God said so" rationale.
Hence, the late-breaking, arbitrary, state-sponsored tabook "Just say not to
drugs" is tremendously ineffectual despite the militarized enforcement. Even
animals seek out the plant medicines that will get them high. Yet certain
once-useful taboos still have their authority: Moslems and Jews abstain from
pork (pigs didn't do well in
Middle Eastern climates). Equally venerable proscriptions still serve well:
Hindus don't kill cows (it's foolish to slay one's tractor and primary source
of curds). Could the practices and pleasures of simplicity develop into
sensible taboos to restrain human actions that degrade the biosphere,
unarguably the basis of the commonweal?
(Stephanie Mills: Epicurean Simplicity, pp. 197-198)
My salvific vision is that if everyone could experience some joyous,
muscle-powered liberty of the body and fascinating fraternity with nature,
then faster, noisier, fossil-fueled modes of engaging the world would fall
away. This is perilously close to saying, "What a grand world it would be
if everyone could just be lime me" —not the everyday real me, of
course, but the idealized me-projection. The moment I needed something
practical, like the services of a good mechanic or a week's groceries, and
came to find out that everyone who had hitherto been doing their jobs within
the getting and spending paradigm had seen the light and wandered off to
muse on the butterflies and the minnows, the flaw in my nature-epiphany
fantasy would materialize.
(Stephanie Mills: Epicurean Simplicity, p. 199)
Thanatos and Eros have some relevance here: The death wish
of civilization, its all-too-successful antipathy to wild nature, is
producing circumstances —ecological breakdown— that would seem to
justify a personal wish not to live on into a prosthetic future in which
nature is weedy, domesticated, manipulated, and monotonous and artifacts
dominate existence. There's an awful tension between the desire to witness
and understand as much as I can of what philosopher David Abram felicitously terms "more-than-human
nature" and the horror of the daily earth rape perpetrated by bulldozers,
chain saws, pesticides, and all the vast armament of progress.
(Stephanie Mills: Epicurean Simplicity, p. 204)
There is a sense in which it matters not what may come. A life alert to
simple pleasures, with perception cultivated and attuned to beauty, and a
large capacity for friendship can serve us well come what may, be it Ecotopia,
corporate fascism, or Armageddon. Whatever befalls, it behooves us to honor
the moment by savoring what there is: light and shadow, bitter and sweet,
harsh and tender, fragrant and foul, lyric and discord.
If we cultivate our delight in and gratitude for the least thing —a
drink of water, a night's rest, the sight of a blue jay— we cultivate
the life strong within us and enliven possibility itself. Although I
fancy being a nun in a contemplative order with a membership of one, I sense
that learning the limits of having, remembering the nature of true pleasure,
and becoming the change I wish in the world involve finding a way to talk
with that kid catching minnows, and, more important, to listen to him.
(Stephanie Mills: Epicurean Simplicity, p. 206)
Entertainment Factor 5/10
Intellectual Factor: 5/10