In 1995 I was entering my last year of college in the small town of Arkadelphia, Arkansas, and for the first time in my life, I moved into a full-fledged home. Prior to that I had been living in the dormitory. Arkadelphia is timber country. The Ouachita ‘mountains’ are to west, the Ouachita river borders the town to the East. All around the campus are the thick-trunked trees of the a river bottom: water oak, pecan, hackberry. Living in the dormitory for those three years fit my lifestyle. I wanted only a bed to sleep on and a desk for study. The rest of the time, I wanted to be outside in the river or the forest.
But in 1995, I grew up a bit, and I rented a home on 4th street with my two friends Rix and Mike. I had a yearning then to take an even more deliberate stab at living life. I would graduate in the next year, and I wanted to develop an authentic life. I was reading Living the Good Life, Helen and Scott Nearing’s classic and practical book about self-sufficient living. The Nearing’s were living sustainably before ‘sustainable’ was a thing. For me, the Nearings put feet to the theoretical body of Thoreau’s Walden, and in moving out of the dorm and into a house with a yard, I was determined to begin my ‘experiment in living.’
Around the time of my birthday, Rix gave me a copy of Billy Jo Tatum’s Wild Foods Field Guide and Cookbook. In it he wrote:
…in the spirit of the ‘experiment in living’ may it continue for a long time.
That was twenty years ago. The experiment in living has continued albeit in a loop rather than a line. Those first months on 4th street, I had no clue what I was doing. I was afraid of gardening, intimidated by soil. It would be five more years before I really learned how to grow anything. In truth the experiment was most often hindered by my own wandering nature. I spent the bulk of my 20s hobbled by wanderlust, drinking, and depression. I moved back to my hometown after I graduated, then Fort Worth and Waco, then Yantai China, Hot Springs, AR, St Louis MO, Jinzhou China, Columbia MO, Dallas, TX, Chicago, IL, and Fayetteville, AR.
Thoreau says that wherever a person goes, he is always sizing up his surroundings as a potential place for home, and I took this a step further. Each new locale, I tried to bring the spirit of the experiment in living with me, yet I also felt like the experiment wouldn’t really begin till some time in the future. Like I would only settle into “Living the Good Life” the next time I moved.
It was not until this last year, when faced with a personal crisis: the breakdown of my marriage, my second marriage at that, that I realized that living the good life takes a level of intention that I was not bringing to the proverbial table. I don’t begrudge my time of wandering. I needed it. Yet the way out of the wilderness begins with recognizing that there is no wilderness. Intention.
Two weeks ago I moved into the cabin in the country. The experiment in living has finally gone to the next level. I have many thoughts and plans for my life here, not the least of which is that I want to create a space for my Sammy Tao to grow up. I want him to feel the wonder of discovery and connectedness to the world. I want for him to grow up curious, with the skills and intelligence to satisfy his curiosity, and yet peace to let the mystery be when needed.
I’m certain my plans will not come to fruition in the way I expect. I’m equally certain that I will live the good life…even if it kills me. It is the experiment that never ends. Very unscientific, non-repeatable, and messy.
Life is like a thump ripe melon: so sweet and yet sooooo messy.