Elliot and I were standing next to the bin filled with organically grown carrots, cabbage and broccoli. We were earnestly discussing the virtues of cellular phones when the irony of the moment suddenly made me laugh. I, who had spent 15 years living in the country growing food for my family, was now living in the city and buying vegetables -- something I swore I'd never do. And Elliot, who had spent nearly a decade selling vegetables at the food-for-people-not-for-profit co-op, was now easing out of the counterculture and into real estate sales, selling off chunks of the city -- something he'd once condemned. Now we both stood before an altar of greenery, blaspheming our pasts and principles, chatting about car telephones the way we once discussed wood stoves and tofu-making kits.
"Have we sold out, Elliot?" I asked. I was smiling, but I knew the question and its elusive answer troubled him as they did me.
"People change," he said, shrugging his shoulders. "I don't know."
Once we knew clearly. We knew in the early '70s that technology was running away with us, that we had to flee before the system poisoned our lungs or irradiated our bones. We knew that "selling out" meant caving in to the system, being part of the problem instead of part of the solution, nursing at the bosom of industrial America -- and a handful of other catch phrases we used as shorthand for our distrust.
Wasn't the system going to collapse anyway? Oil was running out, nuclear power plants were springing up like poisonous poppies, the environment was going to hell in a handcart filled with drums of toxic waste. And there was the interminable Vietnam war, proof if we ever needed it that science and technology -- having blessed Spaceship Earth with Agent Orange, napalm and smart bombs -- were our sworn enemies. A lot of people rallied against the wrongs they saw and worked to transform the system. But others, including me, believed we could alter the world only by revolutionizing ourselves, by creating simpler lives based on what we called "appropriate" technology.
So we left. We went back to the land. Never mind that most of us had never been to the land in the first place. And forget that we'd been raised in the lap of technology by parents who had lived through the Depression and World War II and wanted us to have all they'd never had -- a college education and automobiles and a cornucopia of consumer goods, most of which were made of plastic, a word we used as an expletive.
So we piled into our autos and vans (more hateful technology, of course, but the Mother Earth News promised to show us how we could build cars that burned wood chips) and headed for communes and tepees and domes and drafty farmhouses in the Ozarks and Mendocino and New England. We dug in gardens, scattered seeds, raked on the mulch and waited for Kodachrome vegetables and fruits to burst out of the earth, as lush and voluptuous and glistening with dew as all the gardening magazine photos we'd dreamed over. Then, sure of our success (though we'd yet to harvest), we went down to the feed store and lectured the old-timers on the evils of pesticides.
Eager and innocent, most of us white, middle class and well educated, we were true believers in environmentalism and decentralization and the cosmic power of compost and sweat as agents of universal change. We turned our backs on artificial food and artificial ideas and waved goodbye to a cesspool of corporate pollution, street crime and shopping malls -- those mercantile mausoleums symbolizing our empty culture.
The media examined our motives and dubbed us variously as the New Homesteaders or the New Luddites -- after the organized bands of 19th-century English workmen who destroyed manufacturing equipment in the hope of staving off the Industrial Revolution. But we weren't trying to destroy the system. We were merely leaving to follow a dream: the Simple Life.
We'd read Walden, of course, quoted it as Holy Writ and accepted Henry David Thoreau's challenge to cast off the burden of our formal educations and suffocating jobs for a chance "to live deliberately" in the woods. We reveled in Mother Earth's folksy articles ("Build This Solar Powered Food Dryer in a Day!"; "Earn Thousands Making Compost!"; "Start Your Own Knife-Sharpening Business!") promising us a chance to join that exclusive club -- "them that's doin'. "
We installed our composting toilets and kerosene lamps and wind chargers and solar panels and wood stoves. And then we traipsed into the woods in our L.L. Bean boots and cut firewood with chain saws filled with OPEC's gasoline. (Hadn't Organic Gardening magazine promised to show us how to run our chain saws on soybean oil?)
We kept our stereos and TVs running, powering them on batteries we charged in our cars or hooking them up to portable generators. But we did without clothes dryers (energy hogs), dishwashers (effete), air conditioners (unnatural) and our parents' approval ("For this I sent you to college?").
When we had our own children (home birth, of course), we sent them off to school with alfalfa sprouts and miso soup in their lunch boxes. And when they complained that all the other kids ate Twinkies and Cool Whip sandwiches washed down with Coke, we lectured them on nutrition and the evils of techno-food.
But then the unexpected happened to many of us on our way to middle age. Our marriages -- partnerships forged in the heat of canning tomatoes and laying up endless woodpiles -- dissolved, their spirit and substance evaporating like mist burning off the mirrored surface of a pond at midmorning. And our children, having grown older, also grew weary of the unrelenting work demanded by our so-called simple lives.
We had tried to teach them to hold technology at bay, to develop self-reliance. But they, having lived with the echoes of their parents' cursing chimney fires, bug-ravaged crops, diseased goats and a maelstrom of other problems city dwellers never face, abandoned field and stream for climate-controlled malls and the forbidden delights of the cities.
Some of the New Homesteaders kept the faith and stayed in the woods, but only after modernizing their rural homes. The rest of us came back to the city. Perhaps those of us who chose the mainstream now form a subculture, sharing collective memories of wood smoke and a healthy skepticism about the future.
Surely our experiments in living weren't failures -- but they were indeed experiments. And whatever we now think about technology, we know our lives are no longer anachronisms measured out by manure forks, warmed as we are by central heating and illuminated by remote-control TVs. But the question still nags: Did we sell out or simply come to our senses? Perhaps, years from now, our children will provide the answers. ::