The Amherst Club invited me to speak about simple living and this blog on Feb. 10. Here is what I said:
When I retired from newspaper work, I looked for a way to continue writing. I tried opinion columns, but found I really didn’t want to get involved in Amherst politics again. Then I looked at starting an Amherst news web site, but a local entrepreneur had looked too, and convinced me that our economy isn’t big enough to support a high-quality site. Then I considered freelance writing. I met and interviewed a woman who was a Hollywood sensation as a teenager 35 years ago, and now lives in seclusion. But, she decided to stay in seclusion.
I have a niece and a nephew in California who said they wanted to know more about our lifestyle, about what we call “urban homesteading” and “radical frugality.” Ten years ago, I wrote an article in which I came out about my personal habits, growing food, riding a bicycle, making compost and “living more with less,” and many readers responded positively.
My niece and nephew urged me to start a blog, and last May, I did. My wife Betsy Krogh and I operate the blog together and have written 103 posts. We’ve written about the ways we save money, the modern conveniences we choose to live without, the vegetables we grow., the foods we cook and preserve, the wood we cut and burn for heat, and also the threat of climate disruption. We’ve interviewed local people who live similar lives.
The blog is called “Adventures in the Good Life.” The title pays tribute to three people who popularized self-sufficiency and the rural life. Let me digress a bit to tell you the story of one of them.
David Grayson lived on Lincoln Avenue in Amherst 100 years ago. Please put your hand up if you’ve heard of him. He’s the opposite of Emily Dickinson: famous in his lifetime but little-known now. Grayson wrote eight collections of stories about the simple life and humanity’s essential goodness, with titles like “Adventures in Contentment” and “Adventures in Friendship.” They were very popular. He sold over two million copies, and there were David Grayson clubs all over the country.
“David Grayson” was actually a pseudonym for Ray Stannard Baker, a muckraking journalist of some renown before he dropped out and moved to Amherst. Baker was also President Wilson’s press officer at the Versailles peace talks after World War I and he won the Pulitzer Prize for his biography of Wilson. Ray Baker left his papers to the Jones Library in Amherst and is buried in Wildwood Cemetery.
Our blog title also honors Scott and Helen Nearing, the homesteading pioneers whose book “Living the Good Life” had a big influence on me as a young man. In 1976, I interviewed Scott Nearing when he came to UMass for a conference, at age 93. Betsy and I discovered on our first date that we had a common interest in the Nearings.
On the blog, I’ve written individual posts about 10 modern conveniences we choose to live without. They include cable TV, second cars, clothes dryers, cellphones and air conditioning. We live a very pleasant life without lawnmowers, snowblowers, new clothes, debt and non-local meat. In the past 30 years I’ve been on an airplane only once, partly because I like to stay put, and partly to keep my carbon footprint low. Betsy hasn’t flown at all in the past 30 years.
I’ve written individual blog posts about growing kale, zucchini, spinach, tomatoes, cucumbers and potatoes. I’ve written about how nature can tip you off on when to plant, and about extending the harvest with small greenhouses. I wrote a series of posts about woodchucks climbing over our garden fence and eating our vegetables, and how we got rid of them (let’s just say it wasn’t pretty).
Betsy and I have written many posts about our kitchen activities. She’s written about making homemade herbal tea, Christmas tarts and sauerkraut, and how to turn the berries from an invasive plant into jam and ketchup. I’ve written about making homemade bread and soups.
We seldom get overtly political, but we did write about our trip to New York last September for a climate march. I wrote a post about all the slogans on signs I saw there; my favorite was “Climate change kills kittens.” I wrote one post arguing that, with gasoline prices so low, it’s a perfect time to raise the tax per gallon. Most of our posts are about how we live a full life while minimizing our fossil fuel consumption. As the world’s citizens realize just how serious the disruption of the climate is, we hope to demonstrate how to enjoy a low-carbon lifestyle.
Do I regret not having having a snowblower or a cellphone? Not really. Our lifestyle of Yankee thrift has given us more time to do what we want, and enabled me to have a career in an interesting but low-paid field while my spouse stayed home. We value experience and personal connections more than material acquisitions, and enjoy the satisfactions of everyday life and unpressured time.
There’s still a lot of work to do, but our tasks are interwoven with our beliefs as we go about our chores. We try to turn work into play. We like finding creative solutions to life’s challenges. We value the opportunity to seek satisfaction in relationships with other people and to expand our minds and spirits.
When you write a blog, you can learn exactly what your readers like (or should I say “click on”). I wish I had had this kind of feedback when I worked on newspapers. I recently published a list of the ten most popular posts, with links to them all (who knew so many people wanted information on growing blueberries?) Mostly, I find that readers are more interested in simple living than in gardening. I try to resist the temptation to obsess about the number of page views we get. Instead, I see our blog as an easy way to communicate with friends and family, and as a repository for information about our beliefs and routines.
The blog has been a bonding experience for Betsy and me. I’ve been married to the same woman for 35 years, and these days that almost qualifies as an alternative lifestyle. I write 80 percent of the blog posts, while Betsy brainstorms topics with me, gives feedback on what I write, and arranges the photographs. She thought up the name “Adventures in the Good Life.” And she wrote the most popular post, “Tis a gift,” about a staycation with our son, who has an intellectual disability. In retirement, it’s wonderful to have a joint project with one’s spouse.
I’d like to close with the words of William Ellery Channing, the 19th century New England minister, which we post on our refrigerator: “To live content with small means; to seek elegance rather than luxury, and refinement rather than fashion; to be worthy, not respectable, and wealthy, not rich; to study hard, think quietly, talk gently, act frankly, to listen to stars and birds, to babes and sages, with open heart; to bear all cheerfully, do all bravely, await occasion, hurry never…in a word, to let the spiritual, unbidden and unconscious, grow up through the common; this is to be my symphony.”