Reviewed by Rebecca Foster
It’s common practice nowadays, when publicizing a book review published in an online venue, to tag the author on social media. Provided I’ve been able to write a broadly positive review, I think of it as a nice way to reassure an author that someone has been reading and enjoying their work. Sometimes a chance meeting on Twitter or Instagram can even be the start of a long-term online friendship between a reader and an author. I won’t be able to take a chance on that with Mark Boyle, though: not only is he no longer on social media; he now lives entirely without electricity in a wooden cabin on a smallholding in County Galway, Ireland. If I wish to get in touch with him, I need to write a letter and send it via his publisher.
Everything about Boyle’s new life is purposely different. He wakes up naturally at first light. Plans have to be kept to since there’s no easy way to change them at short notice – even if it means walking 7 km through snow drifts to meet a friend at the pub. Any time he wants to visit his parents or go on a local holiday he has to hitchhike. Bathing takes an hour what with heating up the water, so he only bothers one to three times a week. Washing clothes (with soapwort, hand tumbler and mangle) requires an entire morning and is a monthly task. Every item has to be grown, built or made from scratch. Often the rewards of his work only come much later, as when he picks gorse flowers to make wine.
“I was under no illusion that the way of life I was about to set out on was going to be some romantic, bucolic dream,” Boyle writes at the outset. He knew this would be a life of hard labour. But there were little things he didn’t realise he’d pine for, like unwinding in front of a DVD or getting messages on his birthday. Even if the programme was silly or the Facebook wishes ultimately empty (are friends and acquaintances really thinking of you if it takes a website to remind them?), he missed how they made him feel.
Boyle speaks of technology as an addiction and letting go of it as a detoxification process. For him it was a gradual shift that took place at the same time as he was moving away from modern conveniences. For instance, he took his last flight in 2006 and hasn’t used cleaning products for a decade. Although he has an undergraduate business degree, he once lived without money for three years, an adventure that led to his first book, The Moneyless Man (2010). There are many such small ironies to his life. As a teenager he was an early adopter of technology, the first of his circle to get a mobile phone; now he’s unreachable by phone. He used to manage organic food companies and was a vegan; now he eats a traditional, seasonal Irish diet that involves catching pike, butchering deer and scavenging roadkill.
The Way Home is split into seasonal sections in which the author’s past and present intermingle. His writing consciously echoes Henry David Thoreau’s in places, especially “I wanted to put my finger on the pulse of life again. I wanted to feel the elements in their enormity, to strip away their nonsense and lick the bare bones of existence clean.” Other heroes he quotes include Wendell Berry, Aldo Leopold and Barry Lopez. (And I suspect the book would have been called “The Old Ways” if Robert Macfarlane hadn’t gotten there first.)
Without even considering the privilege that got Boyle to the point where he could undertake this experiment, there are a couple of problems with this particular back-to-nature model. One is that it is a very male enterprise: very few women thinkers are quoted, and Boyle’s girlfriend, Kirsty, who joined him at first, couldn’t hack it after a while. Another is that Boyle doesn’t really have the literary chops to add much to the canon. A glance back at the best lines in the book told me that most of the profound thoughts I’d considered quoting actually came from others (Berry, Leopold and M. Scott Peck). If you want a top-notch memoir about a life of solitude in nature, Neil Ansell’s Deep Country is the book for you.
Still, The Way Home is well worth engaging with. It forces you to question your reliance on technology and ask whether making life easier is really a valuable goal. Many of us would feel we have hardly any friends if we didn’t count the online ones we hardly see in person; we might not feel an accomplishment is real until it’s shared on social media. But are such ties and impulses meaningful? Few of us could do what Boyle has done, whether because of medical challenges, a lack of hands-on skills or family commitments. But this is not a how-to guide; the author doesn’t expect converts. Indeed, he specifically states that he doesn’t want people flooding the free hostel he offers on his land, or rushing to visit Great Blasket Island, which is the subject of italicized asides throughout the book.
Nor is the author setting himself up as an expert on low-impact living. In the final pages he writes that he can’t predict whether he’ll continue this lifestyle into the future, but adds that after 10 years of retreating from modern life he feels he’s only getting started. He isn’t merely nostalgic for a simpler time. In fact, he argues that there’s as much on his mind as ever, but most of it is practical – what seeds to plant, how to catch a fish, when to empty the composting toilet, and so on. Lots of such simple things add up. The key is that in living deliberately he is escaping what he calls the tyranny of clock time and sincerely pondering the question of what it means to be human – as well as an animal like any other.
[A note on how this book came to be: For his Guardian column Boyle sent hand-written copy to the editor by mail, and received and responded to reader comments by letter. But though he initially wrote this entire book by hand – a photograph that accompanied my press release shows him writing longhand in a notebook at a wooden table, a dictionary plus a few other reference books at his side – he felt that his only choices were to type it himself or hire someone else to do it, and since he basically doesn’t use money, he went with the former solution. (It took him seven days, 12 hours a day, and left him with backache and RSI.)]
Rebecca Foster lives without a car, smartphone or TV. An American transplant to England, she is a freelance proofreader and book reviewer, and blogs at Bookish Beck.
Mark Boyle, The Way Home: Tales from a life without technology (Oneworld, 2019). 978-1786076021, 268 pp., paperback.BUY at Blackwell’s via affiliate link.