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The poetry of living off the grid

The poetry of living off the grid

If the word “value” is to mean anything, it should at least apply to two or more things. First it should refer to monetary worth, and second, and more importantly, it should refer to appreciation of higher consciousness regarding human experience. 

In this sense Baron Wormser’s memoir The Road Washes Out in Spring (University Press of  New England, 2006) hits the mark on both accounts. First, it is a book that is easily worth more than the price you will pay for it no matter where you buy it. And second, it has mega value(s) related to the times in which we are living now. Although the book was published in 2006 and about a life lived for 25 years previously, Wormser’s experience of living for a quarter century off-the-grid and in the backcountry woods of New England reads like a physical and mental handbook for how one can live self-sufficiently off the land, and how one’s (in this case, his) consciousness is elevated from doing so. We get the nuts and  bolts of a hands-on (no electricity, no plumbing or running water, a hand-dug outhouse, a woodstove for heat and cooking, growing enough food to feed a family of four, and no rest for the weary) lifestyle straight from the Wormser’s mouth. 

“We hauled manure. We dug and hoed and forked — no gas powered Rototiller for us. We watered — can by patient can. We fenced to keep out the deer, moose, woodchucks, and hares that wanted to have their share of our produce. We carefully stored our potatoes, cabbages, and carrots in bins and barrels in the root cellar.” 

We also get more than a spade-full of learned wisdom from his enterprise become expertise. “There we were in the Maine woods with no sirens screaming, homeless people importuning, subways lurching, or auto security systems wailing. We were living what the gurus of the Back-to-the-Land Movement called ‘the good life.’” This complimentary duality, this double entendre of life and that which is laudatory and lambent, goes on throughout the book. 

In The Road Washes Out in Spring we first get the true story that will read almost as fiction to those living in the mainstream of American culture — a family living by a high standard of environmental ethics with respect and reverence for the earth. This part of the book reads like a text in its detail and its ethics on how to live in harmony and relative prosperity with and off of the land. “Aestheticians of all stripes have proclaimed that beauty is harmony. So do the bees in the flower garden. No one can count all the microcosms at work inside the macrocosms that are the living, breathing world. The seasons followed one another in a simple yet intricate dance. We predicted the weather from the sky and the wind. All was as it should be. To find some human stillness that could be at one with the vibrant stillness of being was the challenge.” 

While we learn from being in Wormser’s classroom (he has spent time as a librarian, teaching in a small university, and as poet-laureate of Maine) about being part of the 1970s “Back-to-the-Land Movement,” we also learn about what it is to be a poet as part of this movement and this era of cultural expansion that is occurring in the American cultural landscape. Wormser takes us deep into the chasms of his own creative mind and the whirlpools of his compassionate heart in the other half of this book to give us a front row seat on the roller coaster ride that is the life of the poet:

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“I had the horror of ‘studying’ poetry as though it was a subject like geometry or chemistry. Poetry was an environment, a realm, a category of existence, a perennial yet wayward art, a blend of the substantial and the insubstantial, a species of praise. How could one ‘study’ such a fancy? Poetry believes in the validity of articulate feeling; students come to realize that this society doesn’t trust that belief. When I try to imagine a changed world, I imagine people taking the time to write down the likes of John Keats. When I am in a classroom dictating some lines to students, it is a revelation.”

In the end, what we have in The Road Washes Out in Spring is an amalgam of dualities, mirror images and multiple dimensions which could be read and seen as all being separate entities. Even separate books. But there’s more to Wormser’s book than the sum of its parts. Something greater. What he’s done in this fetching and forecastive memoir is to give us something better than you would expect from the individual parts, because the way they combine adds a different quality. What Wormser has done is to bring all these dualities into a state of unity — to which he aspires in this book and which he is able to pull off in my view — at a time when we need to bury our differences and focus on what we all share in common.

 The Road Washes Out in Spring, then, is a book for our time — planting seeds of value at a moment when our values are skewed and out of sync with the greater values inherent on our planet and in the cosmos. A time when we need to shed our obsessions of diversity and embrace unity and to set our sights higher while planting our feet firmly on the ground that sustains us. Wormser learned this in the 25 years he lived off-the-grid and off of the land, lessons he is compassionately sharing with us now. 

(Thomas Crowe is a regular contributer to The Smoky Mountain News and author of  the multi-award-winning non-fiction nature memoir Zoro’s Field: My Life in the Appalachian Woods.)

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