Life Without Machines

A Conversation with Mark Boyle

has edited and contributed to numerous Dark Mountain books. In 2013, he co-founded An Teach Saor, a land-based community in the west of Ireland. He currently researches economic alternatives in the Department of Environmental Studies at Masaryk University.

It was 11pm when I checked my email for the last time and turned off my phone for what I hoped would be forever.

No one could accuse Mark Boyle of half-heartedness. A decade ago, he came to public attention when he set out to live for 365 days without money. He would forage, skip-dive and grow his own food, while living off-grid, between Bristol and Bath in the UK, in a caravan he found on Freecycle. The experiment continued well beyond that initial year, with Mark’s first book, The Moneyless Man, telling tales of hardship, learning and, ultimately, a way of life he found to be brimming with purpose and connection.

When he left the UK and returned to Ireland, where he grew up, I worked with him to begin establishing somewhere to call home – a smallholding, a community, a commune, a low-impact settlement that would become known as An Teach Saor, The Free House. We spent long days laughing and struggling, dreaming of ecological futures and debating ecological politics. We pushed our bodies to the limit, working to rehabilitate land which we realised, in the end, would rehabilitate itself if we just left it alone. While I currently don’t live there, that period remains – and I suspect will always remain – one of the most rich and hopeful of my life.

The Way Home is his latest book, written across four seasons of a year on the land, living in a cabin without technology: no electricity, no running water, no email, no Facebook, no washing machine, no mobile phone. Full of humour and persistence, it tells close-to-the-earth tales of the challenges facing anyone who aims to fulfil basic needs from their immediate surroundings. For instance, Mark – a former vegan – makes considered decisions to replace his imported and industrial vegan protein staples, such as peanut butter, chickpeas and soya, for wild and local meats like pike and various forms of roadkill. A memorable scene has him in fading November light, committing error after error as he inexpertly butchers his first roadkill deer. The deer has been killed at dawn around the time the clocks go back; a likely victim of the conflict between human clock time – which can leap forward or back by an hour at the whim of governments – and the more habitual rhythms of the natural world.

Mark Boyle Photo: Mark Rusher

In the winter of 2018, we met up in the west of Ireland to drink too much, and, with sore heads the next morning, discuss the book. I wanted to learn more about what, from the outside, may look like a provocative ‘living experiment’, but which I know for him is an earnest search for a home in the web of life. I wanted to know if this was a ‘simple’ life, without unnecessary mod cons, or a ‘complex’ life, without the technologies that simplify the entanglements and involvements of existing. Disavowing computing technologies, unlike his previous books, The Way Home was written from start to finish with pencil and paper, often by candlelight. So we started there.

TS
I picked up a certain rhythm and attentiveness to the writing in The Way Home that I suspect is linked to how the book itself came into being. How did writing with pencil and paper change that whole process?
MB
I’m older, now, than when The Moneyless Man was written and you change with time, but I think the process was central.  In the book I write about the old carpenter’s aphorism, ‘measure twice, cut once’. With the pencil and paper, that became ‘think twice, write once’. Before, I used to just get everything down on a computer screen and then juggle it around. But with this one that was simply not possible. I was finding that I’d sometimes just be sitting there, thinking I wasn’t getting anything done, but then when I started writing, thousands of words could emerge at once. It was much more meditative. I find when you’re in front of a computer you have distractions, emails pinging in, a sore head, all that glare. I find that evoked a different tone, a different quality or state of mind.
TS
You were aiming to do ‘a year without technology’. What does that mean?
MB
 In terms of the book itself, I wanted to go through the seasons, each bringing their own challenges and joys. I don’t know if living without technology, in the precise way I have been doing, is something I’d do for the rest of my life. I’m just taking it one thing at a time. Initially, though, it was one year without technology, because I think going through an entire cycle of the seasons is a good jumping-off point.
TS
And you must have had boundaries or ground rules of some sort?
MB
When living without money, it was very easy to define those ground rules, or limits, because it’s either money or it’s not money, you know. There are nuances in there, of course, if you go deep enough, but it’s fairly clear cut. Technology, however, is not clear cut at all. Even the language we’re using is a technology of sorts. My bike is definitely a technology. The pencil I wrote the book with is definitely a technology. So, in some ways, at a very base level, I would say there had to be no electricity, no running water, none of the mod cons in my daily existence. It’s tricky of course. The bike is a product of that industrial system, but it’s also very human-scale.

However, I’m quite clear, at the start of the book, that once you start getting into the nitty gritty of setting clear, absolute boundaries, you’re sort of missing some of the point. You’re drawing an artificial line in the past, for example, instead of accepting the realities of a world that has changed. There are things like clothes which are problematic – you can’t just set a clear line. The book is more about saying: ‘let’s just speak honestly about where I am and when I use some kind of technology’. I can’t say it’s Bronze Age or delineate any exact baseline like that, but one thing was clear: there was to be no electricity or fossil fuels.

TS
In relation to this complexity, you discuss contradictions in the book. You documented some of the experience in the Guardian, and the paper’s readers, unsurprisingly, were quick to accuse you of being a middle-class hippy projecting some bucolic romanticism, living off the land. How do you deal with criticisms like that?

MB
If the criticisms are coming from a place of genuine interest, and pointing out the flaws of something, that is of course really useful, and I welcome that. But it’s very rarely done in a constructive, friendly way. I think that that, in itself, is a cultural – even technological – thing, related to scale. It’s very telling in itself. As Paul [Kingsnorth] says in Confessions of a Recovering Environmentalist, problems generally arise when something becomes too big. The anonymity that comes with the scale of the internet means that feedback is not going to take place on a heart-to-heart or eye-to-eye level. It’s just a lot of anonymous people, who know nothing about each other’s realities, having a go.

But what I say at the end of the book about hypocrisy, comes from David Fleming’s take on it, in Lean Logic. He basically says that hypocrisy ought to be one of your highest ideals, in effect. Your ideals for yourself should be a step ahead of where you’re at, and that will inherently create this tension, these contradictions. If you’re not a hypocrite, you’ve got no motivation; you’re not thinking you should improve yourself in any way.

When you’re lost, often the best thing to do is to retrace your steps and go back to the last point where you knew where you were

TS
I think one of the strengths of the book is that those accusations are offset by vignettes, interspersed throughout, transporting us away from you and into the not-so-distant lives of the Blasket Islanders. [The now-uninhabited Blasket Islands are located off the coast of Kerry, in south-west Ireland.] What was the purpose of shifting focus in the book like that?

MB
 I wanted to weave in my interest in the lives of the Blasket Islanders in order to place what I’m doing in historical context, both in Ireland and further afield. It places my low-tech life in conversation with the reality of what’s gone before. Blasket was an example of a people who, in very recent history, lived a more ‘extreme’ way of life than I was even attempting. And asking how they did that was important.

The Blaskets were abandoned in 1953. A generation of people had moved out there in the 1800s because the rents in Ireland at the time were going up, and nobody could afford to survive. In some ways, they were an intentional community of sorts. And they had to survive; there were no get-outs there. You live off the land and the sea, and there can be no middle-class ideology or dream underpinning it – you’re either dead or you’re doing it. And that was quite a useful way of contextualising what I have been doing with my life on the land here.

TS
 It also draws out conclusions about a broader culture undergoing change. Not just on marginal islands, but also in your current home in County Galway, and in rural areas around the world. Where are we at and where will rural life be in coming decades?

MB
You can see similarities, certainly, between the slow decline of the Blaskets and what’s happening all around me here in Galway. It’s certainly hard to see improvements coming down the line. Young people aren’t coming back to these kinds of places, and you can see the Irish landscape going the way of England, with bigger farms, bigger tractors, mechanisation, fewer  people. I think that’s what the government wants. It’s certainly more ‘efficient’ in their terms, than having a couple of cows here, a couple of cows there. And it isn’t a passive death. In the shutting down of post offices, for example, or drink driving laws, they’re targeting rural areas. There’s nowhere left to commune; pubs are shutting down as a consequence, schools and shops too. It’s the death of entire villages: if there’s no life going on in a place, young people won’t stay around. They can’t.

That said, around our part of the country, it feels like a little bit of a turnaround, as with other more counter-cultural pockets of Ireland – it can start with a few heads, and then some like-minded folk come to do stuff too. Two or three decades later you’ve got a bunch of people in proximity. But on a national scale, rural areas will continue to struggle.

TS
I wonder if radicals have given up. If they laud agrarian movements, it’s nearly always in the global South, at a safe distance. And when places like Europe or North America are examined, there is so much focus on urban movements like municipalism, in Barcelona or New York. It’s almost like we’ve given up on the potential of rural areas, even though democratising access to land is crucial for democratic and ecological health.

MB
Well, yes and no. In some ways, from a wilderness perspective, if there’s that depopulation, coupled with no farming, then that’s a bonus. Some positive things happen if the land is just let go. The problem is that we generally just get one big landowner in, instead of ten smaller ones, at least in the interim. Long-term, from a more Gaian perspective, I see the ‘invasiveness’ of plants like rushes and sedges around here, which grow as a weed on tractor-compacted land, as nature’s way of making farming unviable here, in some way. It’s nature pushing people off and encouraging different approaches to land use.

TS
When we first began working the land in Galway, I think, even unbeknownst to ourselves, it was an attempt to domesticate it. But now you’re transitioning to more of a rewilding approach. Would it be accurate to say that your life without technology is also a form of rewilding, both of yourself and the land?

MB
 I’m certainly interested in the question of how humans can actually be part of the wilderness. That whole concept is not necessarily solely outside of the human. At the moment it is – or has to be – because we’re so far gone that we can’t easily come back and have a wild feeling about the land. But I think that if you start a process of rewilding yourself, you can start to conceive of humans as part of a wild landscape again. But that’s a long road – and that’s the title of the book, The Way Home, that trip or journey back. When people get defensive and respond that ‘you can’t go back’, my friend Salima Hirani points out that when you’re lost, often the best thing to do is to retrace your steps and go back to the last point where you knew where you were. It’s a nice way of thinking about technological civilisation, I think. We’re lost, now: so where is the point when we felt like we’re actually at home on the earth?

TS
 What is termed ‘new nature writing’ often feels as if it acts as a compensatory mechanism for the loss of real more-than-human connections. Where do you think The Way Home sits in relation to this still-flourishing genre?

MB
 Nature writing is definitely a big genre, especially in the UK. It’s not something I’ve ever felt drawn to read, particularly when it involves endless amounts of flowery nature description. If you want nature description, just go outside and be in it. But, of course, I think that’s the point. It’s actually a reaction to the fact that most people are so disconnected that they need to get that experience from a book. If you’re in a city, you don’t have the time or, increasingly, the money to get out to those areas, there’s a kind of nostalgia with it. But I do think most of that nature writing is unchallenging, which is probably why it sells well. It isn’t actually saying anything difficult about the world. Perhaps it’s potentially even harmful, in that it can convey an image to the broader public that nature is thriving and everything’s wonderful.

That approach is somewhat opposed, I think, to one which might say ‘actually, nature is on a massive decline’. A book like Whittled Away: Ireland’s Vanishing Nature by Pádraic Fogarty does the latter very well, in relation to disappearing flora and fauna in Ireland. A friend complained to me that he didn’t feel particularly inspired by that book, but why does everything have to be inspiring? There’s a role for a book that just says, ‘actually, things are on the decline and won’t get better until we face that fact’. There’s a need for uninspiring books, but publishers and the public all want to feel good at the end of it. Maybe we need to feel challenged, at certain points, on the journey back to an ecological way of life.

 

Mark Boyle is the author of four books, which have been translated into over 20 twenty languages. A former business graduate, he lived entirely without money for three years. He has written columns for the Guardian and has irregularly contributed to international press, radio and television. He lives on a smallholding in Co. Galway, Ireland.

The Way Home is published this month by Oneworld books.

 

 

Dark Mountain: Issue 14 TERRA

The Autumn 2018 issue is a collection of prose, photography and printwork about journeys, place and belonging

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Comments
  1. Enjoyed this very much. Could not resist one comment: If you can retrace your steps back to a place you know then clearly you are not really lost simply without direction; which is not the same thing. Maybe i will send my poem on being lost to you on “subscribe” .

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