I'm A Voluntary Simpleton!
A Little Nothing
updated February, 2006
I am a fool. A voluntary simpleton. By sheer perseverance and some good
luck, I stumbled upon my true identity in 1966 at the age of 32. To be honest,
it didn't involve any great effort. All I had to do was clear out my head
of accumulated cross talk and listen to what my inner voice -- God --
my higher self -- was saying.
What it said was, "You're a fool, but I love you."
What wonderful news! For years I had been trying to act like everyone else, earn love amd respect from others, to say the right words at the right times, to impress my friends and relatives with my intellectual prowess. What a waste of energy and time! At last I could be just my normal, natural, simple old self and the rest would be given unto me!
Where had those inner words come from? Was it God or the silent right half of my brain talking? But like an idiot I didn't concern myself with digging into the source of the remark but believed what it said. I dropped my job and city life and wandered off into the northern California countryside to talk to the trees and squirrels, like any simpleton would do. And I knew I was on the right path because it was the most impractical and senseless thing I could do.
Money had always been a nagging worry that had tied me to the city, wasting my life on meaningless jobs. I had recently received a small inheritance that brought in about a thousand dollars a year. That should be enough for a simpleton, I thought. And if I made the grade and became truly foolish I could just rely on Mama Earth to provide what I needed. Just like the blue jays and raccoons. So read on for an idiot's guide to life and the pursuit of happiness. This way, please, for the real thing and not what they demonstrate on TV.
I hiked up to Mount Tamalpais across the Golden Gate Bridge and found an isolated grove where I could take off all my clothes and laugh and sing. Oops! A forest ranger. Back on go the pants. Yessir? Funny me? Trespassing? Here? Hm, that's odd, I thought I was on friendly territory named Planet Earth. Wrong planet, Bub? See you later!
Lesson Number One: public property is guarded by people who are convinced they know what is best for it. Until I had perfected my invisibility, I had better practice on some friendly person's land. I hiked back down the mountain and called up a friend who had an empty ranch up north. "Sure, why not?" he said. "Be my guest! Maybe I'll join you in a week or two!"
From the moment I walked up the front driveway I knew I had found paradise. Redwood groves beckoned as their branches stirred in the breeze. The apple orchard was in full bloom. Singing and laughing, I rolled in the grass with the one-year-old terrier who had accompanied me. I tried to decipher the ancient messages inscribed on the rocks by the brook. They seemed to be in some sort of elfin script and the general tenor seemed friendly.
I moved into the old farmhouse and settled down to absorbing nature's lessons- As a student I was way below average. I had been in the city so long that I was hooked on houses and toilets and telephones and gas stoves. And each of these amenities locked me back in to the society-at-large. That couldn't be right, I thought. Raccoons don't make long distance calls. Rabbits don't need credit ratings. But I was still too dumb to see the solution, even though I was plonked right in the middle of it.
Finally the guardian angel of simpletons took pity on me and sent me teachers. Some friends of mine arrived and set up a camp in the apple orchard. Of course! I saw my first mistake at once! The house had been empty so I had moved in. That night I dragged my blankets under an overhanging oak downhill from my bedroom where the morning sun would awaken me first thing as it cleared the eastern hills.
Another friend showed up. He had an advanced degree in hobo-ing, having slept along country roads for years. One evening I found him cooking supper in an old coffee can over a fire so small I could cover it with one hand. Fire! That's what I needed. It would cook my food and keep me warm. Another friend moved in and taught me the equation for making friends with everything expressed by the equation = = = . Equal equals equal. As long as you approach another being on the same level as his own, friendly communication is almost sure to follow. But the moment you rank yourself higher or lower than be-she, the 'pecking order' reflex comes into play. Before you know it, he's equalizing you by biting out the seat of your pants and any chance for conversation is lost. I immediately went out to practice and made lots of new friends. Three redwoods, a bay laurel, a lizard, two flies and some blue jays who were interested but were reserving judgment until they saw more of me.
By now there were five of us humans at the ranch, me and my four teachers. They taught me to bathe in the brook and collect my water there. Together we built an Indian-style steam bath and sat in the darkness beside a pile of hot rocks sweating the impurities out of our bodies and minds as we chanted the sun over the horizon. What luck, I thought. A whole college is growing up around me just because I'm such a simpleton!
I discovered my body once I got rid of my clothes. The air caressed my skin as I ran naked along the paths. The friendly soil massaged my bare feet and I could feel things inside I had never felt before. All those years I had been stuffed up into my head! How ridiculous! I was not just my head! I was this heart that I now could feel beating in my chest, and the owner of numerous orifices each of which could do the most amazing things.
Songs would come to me as I lay in the dappled light of the redwood grove and I sang them with relish, simple songs that only a simpleton would sing:
Just where you are
Is the nicest place to be.
Just where you are
Earth touches eternity.
Just where you are
The sun shines on the tree.
And where you are
Is never far
By the following spring there were about thirty of us at the ranch.
I welcomed everyone as another faculty member. This was the beginning of
the summer of 1967, and word soon spread around the Haight-Ashbury that
we were an open-door commune. As the place filled up with wall-to-wall
hippies, I built myself a little platform under the oak tree. Sure were
a lot of teachers showing up, I thought, and some of them seemed almost
as simple as I was. But by then I was very involved in a sun-gazing seminar
being held in the redwood grove, an advanced course under the tutelage
of two golden beings, solar angels who were initiating me into the marvels
of a long-forgotten technique for surviving on sunshine alone. I had to
learn to balance the inner and outer lights until they merged into one
and "I" disappeared. Whenever I was successful, it seemed I no longer even
needed to breathe! One of my teachers, the owner of the ranch who by now
was also living there, found me sort of breathless one day and offered
to do the Hindu breathing exercises called Pranayama with me. So every
noontime we gathered outside his renovated chicken shed to inhale through
one nostril at a time.
Later that year I discovered that I could stand naked in the foggy dawn and heat myself up by slowing down my breathing. My breathing reflex fought back and it took a concentrated effort not to gasp for air. The friction created by the struggle warmed me to the point that sweat would begin to drip from my armpits. Is this how bears stay warm? I wondered. Wouldn't it be wonderful if I could learn to do what bears did! Of course only a simpleton like myself would consider animals his teachers. I watched my dog bark. It seemed a way to massage into nothingness the empty feeling that fear created in her stomach. One sleepless night, a cat taught me how to purr. By morning I was able to purr both in and out, vibrating my chest with low rumbles, but I had to smile to make it work. It made my arms and legs tingle, and I adopted it as a way to relax tensions whenever they accumulated.
As winter returned, I moved from the platform into a wooden tipi behind the barn. It had been built by a young man from Germany who later chanted himself into Krishna Consciousness. We lost a number of teachers from the Chanting Department to Krishna that year. It was the only organized Hindu religious trip around at that time. The tipi leaked during the rains so I hung a tarpaulin over the bed. A large plastic window allowed the sun to warm the inside, a cozy place to spend afternoons.
But it was the Sheriff's Department I had to thank for graduating me from living 'visibly'. There had already been a number of arrests for violations of an injunction that a local judge had placed on the ranch to keep people from living there. The cops began inspecting almost daily the following April, and we had to stay out of sight or face arrest for Contempt Of Court. One neighbor, who considered himself an expert on how to adjust young people to society, had convinced the authorities we were a public nuisance. Oh, the merry chases through the early morning mists in the orchard, rotten apples squishing under bare feet! At night, I curled up in a baby aspen grove on a pile of leaves and awakened to the sunlight dripping gold through the branches while the birds sang overhead. It was the best bed yet! And I was disappearing more and more!
As the county continued its early morning forays against the ranch faculty, a sympathetic neighbor offered his three-hundred-acre ranch as a refuge ten miles to the west. It was hard for me to move. I felt like civilization was running me off my native habitat, but after a few warnings from the cops and having the injunction read to me as I lay half-awake in my bower, I decided the time had come to try out our new sanctuary. I had learned so much from those first two years! My body had lost its city flab. I was tan and healthy, slim and strong.
At my new home, I found an untenanted hillside with a tiny earthen-floor burrow under a blackberry bush. Almost at once I began learning many more important lessons. First and foremost, I learned how flush toilets had messed up my eliminative system for years without my realizing it. They were the cause of the hemorrhoids that had plagued me ever since childhood. They disappeared over the next months as I started squatting to relieve myself and, in the process, I also discovered my true simpletonish purpose for my life. I was a portable fertilizer factory designed by trees for their own benefit! With a posthole digger I would dig a hole next to the selected recipient of my bounty and offer the glorious waste products of my body to its roots. A few shovelfuls of dirt and I would replace the turf the way I found it.
By then I had become adept at the Yoga of Invisibility, again thanks to my teachers, the cops and the county health and building inspectors. I made sure the path to my hobbit-hole dead-ended a hundred or so feet up the hillside at a deserted campsite. I walked logs for the last leg of my journey home and kept my living area looking as uninhabited as possible. My hovel's canvas roof I piled high with brush and branches so county snoopers wouldn't spot it on their frequent fly-overs.
When a dear friend arrived to live on the next hillside, we went out together to scrounge lumber to build him a house. For about fifty dollars, we scored two two-ton truckloads from which we pulled the nails carefully, straightening them for re-use. What a pleasure to recycle throwaways into an attractive bungalow! He was a musician and brought me an old autoharp one day. I found if I only tuned one chord on it, I could play a drone that set all the neighborhood birds singing, especially if I tuned it to the wind in the treetops. Another autoharp came by and then another until I had four all tuned to the same chord. Anyone two years old and up could easily play them, because there wasn't a wrong note anywhere in sight. We had many jam sessions out in the woods. There just weren't any wrong notes available anywhere!
I began to keep chickens for their eggs as well as their company. I built a homemade bench beside their pen where I could watch my 'country TV' as I called them. I sure learned a lot about pecking orders! With milk from the community cows, seasonal wild berries and nuts and the bounty of the community garden, there was little I needed to buy except grain. As more and more people arrived at the ranch, we began to pool our food orders into bulk amounts for our own Food Conspiracy. For five dollars a week I had everything I needed -- and I was too much of a simpleton to need more than the simplest things.
For those of us living there, we were experiencing a gradual process of retribalization. If it hadn't been disturbed and finally destroyed by outside social pressures out of our control, we would have recreated a tribal lifestyle similar to that of the original inhabitants of the coastal ridges, the Miwok and Pomo Indians. But those were the years of the Vietnam War, of drugs and runaway children. And some neighbors were truly terrified of what we were doing. Again the county closed in with inspectors and police. The first big raid left the community numb with disbelief. Our tranquil paradise had been overrun by dozens of armed men! We felt like a Vietnam village that had just been raped by soldiers, although of course our hardships were mild echoes of the intense sufferings and body counts in Southeast Asia. Our only casualty had been the ranch owner who had been hit over the head with a pair of handcuffs by an MP when he got between the officers and a sixteen-year-old runaway girl to advise her of her right to remain silent. He spit a mouthful of his own blood over the soldier and then lit out across the meadow with eight cops after him. In the ensuing pile-up, his brother-in-law tried to pull a few deputies off him. They both had been busted on felonious assault charges. After months of court appearances, the charges were dropped to a misdemeanor.
By now, even a simpleton like myself had to realize that destructive forces in our nation classified us as outlaws. They wanted to close us down and drag us back into the status quo, just like they had done with the Native American tribes. Why did they fear the tribal lifestyle? It was at this point I decided I would have to learn how to write. Somebody had to tell the story of what was happening to us in the hope that out there, somewhere, people would rally to our aid. Our way of life was so simple and therapeutic, so healing to those homeless wanderers who made it down the two-mile dirt road to our open front gate. Scowling newcomers would experience a rebirth in just a few days of quiet living with us. No one told them what to do. Our only rules were
1) no dogs - we were in sheep country
2) harmlessness towards all life
3) no outdoor fires during fire season
4) bury your shit.
Otherwise the place made no demands and allowed a natural process of decompression to take place. Just the walking necessary to fetch food, water and firewood was a renewal for bodies grown stiff from lack of exercise.
Couldn't the county officials see we were performing a public service? Surely they must understand the axioms that underlay our life together. Even the most hard-nosed city folk went away into the wilderness for a couple of weeks of vacation every year, just to recharge their spirits. But even a simpleton like me had to realize that no, that wasn't so. We were being classified as transients and undesirables who somehow had escaped the confines of our urban zoos. Just our smelly presence brought down the market value of the surrounding properties. Here are a few sentences from the pamphlet I wrote at that time, with the help of some other folks:
'The more complex a society becomes, the more important it is to allow people to return to ancestral ways whenever the stresses and strains of modern living begin to drive them crazy. Conditioned by their fast, competitive culture to unnatural living rhythms, Americans find themselves falling sick and dying from a dis-eased society. Voluntary Primitivism is the natural way to ease off. Our parents called it 'getting away from it all' but they usually got back one month later to the serious business of breathing poisoned air, eating synthetic foods and raising troubled children, acts which, if they were conscious, could only be called acts of self-destroying despair.
'Instead, why not explore out common heritage, a simple shelter, a garden, some goats or a cow? Also some chickens and plenty of fresh air and sunshine. You don't need more than that to be happy and if you have more, it'll probably make you sick.
'Have you ever breathed into your lungs the early dawn air of a garden or grove? You can feel the oxygen tingling through every cell. Your pores seems to breathe in energies so fine, so pure, that they penetrate to the very source of your being. Listen to your body. It tells you how it likes to live. And mine tells me that to be happy and healthy, I must have around me the sun, pure air, growing things and silence. How quickly I take these for granted when I have them, and yet with what relief I return to them again! Silence. Peace.'
Instead of peace, we got war. The county continued its depredations against us until a few years and many court cases later, the bulldozers arrived and sixty homes were destroyed. But times change, although sometimes so painfully slow! The Vietnam War ended and a war-weary nation threw a corrupt President out of office. In California, we elected a new governor willing to listen to what the younger generation was saying and he pushed through a 'cabin class' listing in the building code that could legalize some of our hobbity homes. As the 'seventies ripened into the Bicentennial Year, the nation's polarization softened and a flame of hope was rekindled. Maybe things really were getting bette! Maybe we could still avoid the various environmental catastrophes that threatened us. For us ranch refugees, there seemed a certain poetic irony in the events of those years. The gasoline shortage and then the California drought suddenly awakened everyone to the need of finding a low-consuming lifestyle. It seemed as if inch by painful inch, the whole of American society was being forced to adopt a way of life similar to the one we had practiced together -- or at least look at it more closely.
In the process of trying to defend myself and my tribe, I had once more become a complex and less natural creature. Just the demands of learning how to write forced me out of the groves and gardens, back inside behind a typewriter. But I was determined to do whatever was necessary to get the message across. As it turned out, the time wasn't quite that ripe. As a nation we still remained in shock from the bitter encounters of the Sixties. The Back-To-The-Land Movement, once labeled and pigeonholed, could be sneered at as 'mere escapism' and its adherents accused of turning their backs on the problems of urban blight. Through the eighties-nineties it remained out of fashion, along with communes and tribes. Perhaps it was just as well, because the media's interest in them had created most of their problems.
As for myself, I first found a few quiet acres where I hoped to spend my days. I dove back into the economic flow and tried to create a living writing novels and articles -- and also sidewalk-clowning in the city. I belatedly had recalled the voice that had told me I was a fool -- but how far I had wandered from that original insight! I decided to chant the first five digits of my Social Security number to discover my true clown name: "Zero Three One Two Eight-Zero Three One Two Eight-Zero Three One Two Eight-Zero Three One Two Eight" -- Zero The Wunderweight! or perhaps "Zero The One To Wait?" I sure had been waiting long enough it seemed, but I guess I had to wait some more.
As an accordion-playing clown, I was somewhat more in demand than on Publishers Row, but I could and did write some novels, and this essay. Just a renegade raccoon turned human turned clown turned author, not out of choice but out of several necessities. But in all of my writing, the same message kept coming through. Some day I hope to write it well enough so that what I've been trying to say for so long will be heard.
Today (even in the 1970s -- how much more so in 2006!) we live in a No-Exit culture in which the options for the poor majority are more severely limited than in the good old 1850 days of cheap land and an open frontier. Without some sort of frontier, some sort of escape valve when Consensus Reality doesn't work for you and the cops are on your tail, there is no hope. They are gonna getcha! Without hope, people are condemned to lives of treadmill dreariness and despair. We have to turn inwards to discover new frontiers of the spirit rather than heading out for the uncharted badlands. Somehow we have to build that frontier option back into our lives. Maybe it won't happen until we migrate into space. But maybe, through what is now called Voluntary Simplicity, we'll find a way to allow each other to become simpletons whenever necessary. I hope so, as I would like to live on a planet that's been listed as safe, even for loonies like myself!