Watch carefully, now! Outside our normal range of vision, millions of people around the world are exploring ways to rebuild homes, gardens, communities and eventually our planet. William Powers, 39, is one of those explorers—and he is inviting us to accompany him into a nearly invisible community in the American South. The adventure unfolds in his newest book, “Twelve by Twelve: A One-Room Cabin Off the Grid and Beyond the American Dream.”
In Part 1 of our coverage of this important book, we introduced Bill, his basic ideas and some key quotes from his book about off the grid living, permaculture gardening and wildcrafting. Today, we welcome Bill to ReadTheSpirit to talk about his book, his life and his hopes for our world.
Highlights of Interview with William Powers
on Off the Grid Living, Permaculture Gardening
and Wonders of a “Twelve by Twelve” Home
DAVID: Your life sounds so exotic! You’ve worked on major development projects around the world. You’ve got international relations degrees from Brown University and Georgetown’s School of Foreign Service. Your new book takes us deep into a secret corner of the United States. So, tell us where you actually live these days.
BILL: I live in Queens, about 20 minutes by bus from midtown Manhattan, in the same house my grandparents bought in 1938. I’m now the owner and I’ve planted my own little backyard organic garden here.
DAVID: Your adventure in “Twelve by Twelve” is part of a long tradition of restless Americans. In early America, Francis Asbury never even owned a home and traveled throughout his adult life, staying in other people’s homes. John Steinbeck traveled in a pickup truck equipped with a little camper. Thoreau famously lived in a tiny house, too, although his Walden home was 10 by 15. So, tell us about your own American adventure living in this 12 by 12 house.
BILL: I was actually living in it for 40 days, then I spent two to three years going back and forth, visiting with the doctor who owns the home and her neighbors. I’ve been back there several times.
DAVID: When did you actually spend your 40 days there?
BILL: I was there in 2007 right at the end of winter as it was coming into spring so I was living there as spring was blossoming. There were things you could eat right away like the Shitake mushrooms and lettuces and arugula that came up. Some of the herbs were already growing. Some of the berries were growing, too, and then there was honey production down there, as well. Neighbors would share or sell or trade things. The neighbors had chickens, for example, and we could trade back and forth.
DAVID: There is a practical reason for choosing 12 by 12, right? Thoreau’s 10 by 15 wouldn’t meet the same legal restrictions anymore.
BILL: That’s right. There is a pragmatic reason because if the structure is 12 by 12 or smaller, it’s not considered to be a house in a legal sense in that region, so you’re not required to put in plumbing or electricity and also you don’t have to pay property taxes, because it’s invisible to the state. If it’s 12 by 13 then all these other requirements start.
Beauty of this Off the Grid Home and Permaculture Gardens
DAVID: This is a beautiful place, according to your book.
BILL: Yes, it’s a beautiful and elegant little house of brown wood and shingles. One of the walls is cedar. That was one way the doctor splurged when she had it built. There’s a loft inside for the bed. It’s quite a beautiful house and it only cost $7,000 for everything. She had a local eco-builder in the area construct it.
DAVID: Tell us about the permaculture gardening. The home’s owner added various heritage plants and built up a fairly elaborate permaculture farm around the house—all designed to be sustainable, right?
BILL: It’s a permaculture design based on Bill Mollison’s ideas. It’s laid out in various zones. For example, Zone 1 is the area right around her house protected by a deer fence where she’s got edible crops and heirlooms. Outside the fence is a zone for berries, fruit trees, honey and things like that. There’s a Zone 3 that’s forest, including herbs and various woodland plants that are very useful. Zone 4 is for nature. There are ways of capturing water built into this plan. There are contours to make it all function. Bill Mollison’s work helps us to develop a comprehensive way of organizing architecture, landscape and agriculture into a unified system that respects a biosphere’s limits.
DAVID: Does that little Eden still exist? You don’t tell us exactly where it’s located in the book—and there is an ominous scene in the book involving a bulldozer.
BILL: Oh, yes, it still exists. Yes, there was an incident with the bulldozer. At the time I thought it was a life-threatening kind of experience, but it all survived.
DAVID: How real is your book? As a journalist, I’m always nervous when identities and locations are concealed as they are in this book. I know why you did that. It’s to protect a really fragile and vulnerable community. But in this age of Stephen Glass and Jason Blair, I wonder about the reality of the woman who owns this little home and permaculture gardens.
BILL: She’s real. She was very happy that I wrote this book, but she didn’t want to be named because of her need for privacy. If people who read this book could find her, then more people would show up at her 12 by 12 and would spoil the whole effort. I did change almost everyone’s name in the area because that’s part of protecting the identity of the community. It is in central North Carolina, but I concealed the actual location. Everyone in this book is real. I just changed names to protect people’s privacy.
DAVID: If readers are familiar with “Walden,” they’ll find obvious parallels in your book. One example is the soundscape you describe in “Twelve by Twelve.” Here’s a passage from Thoreau:
The whistle of the locomotive penetrates my woods summer and winter, sounding like the scream of a hawk sailing over some farmer’s yard, informing me that many restless city merchants are arriving within the circle of the town, or adventurous country traders from the other side. … All the Indian huckleberry hills are stripped, all the cranberry meadows are raked into the city. Up comes the cotton, down goes the traditional woven cloth; up comes the silk, down goes the woolen; up come the books, but down goes the wit that writes them.
That’s a very brief passage from Thoreau’s chapter on the Fitchburg Railroad and other sounds that formed what we would call a soundscape today. I found a lot of similarities between “Walden” and your book, like this attention to sound.
BILL: Yes, the soundscape figured into my book, too, like the sound of vehicles I heard. Those sounds were such a tension with the simplicity and quietness of nature there. You can’t create a 12 by 12 island. You’re very much a part of the lager world wherever you are. I wasn’t consciously integrating a reference to that specific passage in Walden, but these were similar instincts that we both experienced in our writing. When you’re living out there, you become very aware of the excesses of modernity running amok.
DAVID: Both you and Thoreau observe the same processes underway. Far more than a century has passed since Thoreau went into the woods and yet he’s complaining about the same forces that you’re still describing today. We haven’t done very well in preserving the natural balance!
Off the Grid Communities Popping Up Around the World
BILL: I think it’s a good time to revisit Thoreau, but I tend to think we’re in a different moment now. We’re in the midst of a perfect storm of challenges we’re facing around the world, including climate change. It’s causing millions of people to try to move off the grid in a variety of ways. We’re all now hyper aware of what’s going on around our planet with the Internet and other forms of communication.
There are small communities forming all around the world that are concerned with climate change and working on environmental issues. In my book, I’m profiling this one little corner of America but now I’m on tour with the book giving readings and meeting people from all over the country who are telling me stories about small sustainable communities they’re forming in the countryside and in cities, too.
What I’m describing in this book is happening in many parts of the world, not just the U.S.
DAVID: As a journalist, I’ve seen this first hand. One famous example is the Burning Man festival, where tens of thousands of people come to swap ideas. I’ve covered the Burning Man festival twice over the years and off the grid living is a big part of it. That’s just one small example, though. There are thousands of experiments percolating across America right now.
BILL: A lot of people realize that it’s a good thing to try to get off the grid. There’s so much joy to be found by separating ourselves from some of the excesses of modernity. But the truth is that, if you try to go off the grid, you’re really still connected.
DAVID: Well, coming together at Burning Man or coming to one of your book readings—these are all connection points, too.
BILL: Right. And, we all use the public roads. Many people off the grid are still using cell phones. We’re connected in lots of ways even as we cut off other connections. People have this misperception that off the grid is a whacko kind of hermit’s idea. It’s really not, mainly because you’re really still connected. It’s impossible not to be connected.
Even off the grid, people still want connection. I saw in North Carolina a lot of community. These folks will use the same midwives. They will trade a lamb for a chicken. They visit each other a lot. They share knowledge. There’s reciprocity.
It’s estimated that it would take 5 planets of natural resources if every person on Earth is going to live as the average American now lives. So our example is not a great example for the Chinese and the Indians who now are working hard on developing their countries. None of us should be living like the average American.
Do we all want to live like the poorest families in Bangladesh?
DAVID: You refer to the 12 by 12 and the permaculture gardens surrounding the cabin as an attempt to live on the level of a Bangladeshi—with 20 times less resources than the average American. Why did you make that comparison? I’ve reported from Bangladesh and many people there are living in terrible poverty. I met people there who are living in what amounts to tiny sheet-metal boxes.
BILL: The Bangladesh reference is a way of saying that we are trying to establish a much lower carbon footprint—like many people who live in countries similar to Bangladesh. One thing that’s very important to remember: We have to draw big and blatant distinctions between subsistence living around the world and destitution. The people living in 6 by 6 sheet-metal huts in Bangladesh—that’s destitution. That’s underdevelopment. That’s too little. We need to address that.
But there are a lot of people in Bangladesh and other countries too who have reached the level of “enough” and they have general wellbeing in their health care and extended families. I’ve traveled widely around our planet and I know that there are many communities where people are living robust lives full of happiness with a much lower carbon footprint than what we assume is normal in this country.
DAVID: This is truly a spiritual book, even though it is not endorsing a specific religious pathway. I lost count of all the religious and spiritual references in your book. You’ve got references to Buddhism and Catholicism and most of the world’s other major religious traditions. Tell us a little bit about your own Catholic background.
BILL: I’m not a practicing Catholic but I certainly do connect with the philosophy of Thomas Merton and liberation theologians from areas like Brazil—that part of the Catholic tradition that connects social justice with spirituality.
It may sound cliché, but I describe myself as spiritual but not religious. I look to the present moment for my spirituality. If you come deeply into the present moment, you don’t need a lot of trappings of dogma and tradition. I like Eckhart Tolle. I feel drawn to Buddhist philosophy. I just saw the Dalai Lama in New York recently. I like this idea that you don’t need to have a complex religious set of beliefs.
I did spend time during college and after college doing Buddhist meditation, so that has been formative for me. But I’m not locked into a single way. I’ve tried various types of yoga and I also have what I would describe as my own approach to meditation that is not purely out of any particular tradition.
DAVID: That’s quite interesting to hear. In the margins of your book, I jotted down this note to myself: “Seems like a Buddhist-American-Transcendentalist approach to life.”
BILL: Yeah, that sums it up. I like that: American Transcendentalist Buddhist. The Transcendentalists connect through nature. Then, the Buddhist approach gives compassion, love and respect for yourself and others. But putting names on things like this is always a problem. You know: The finger that points to the moon is not the moon. Anytime you start putting signposts on things, it begins to get confusing.
DAVID: Even Desmond Tutu is talking about similar themes these days: finding love and compassion and a source of energy within yourself, whatever your spiritual path may be. Of course, Tutu and his daughter both are Christian clergy, but their “Made for Goodness” book certainly welcomes other spiritual pathways toward the same goal. Like you, the Tutus want people to find a solid basis out of which we can live creative, joyful, courageous lives.
BILL: Absolutely. The 12 by 12 lens in this book is looking both outward into the world from that 12 by 12 framework—and also inward at our own lives. I want people to ask: What’s my 12 by 12? Where do I find simplicity? Where do I achieve detachment? Where do I find deep joy?
DAVID: Life’s tough. Often, life is tragic. Tutu describes mass graves and friends who were tortured to death before Apartheid ended.
BILL: Yes, and in what I’m writing, I also go through a lot of the depths and the darkness, like the part of the book in which I meet the final speaker of a vanishing native language. When you work on a challenge like climate change or against deforestation—you feel this great personal pain over all the setbacks we’re seeing around the world. I’ve spent a lot of time working in the West African rain forest and the Amazon and it’s painful to see things destroyed in what seems like just an instant—after you’ve devoted years to hard work on preservation. That’s why we all need a 12 by 12 lens—a solid base where we can refresh ourselves for these challenges. We’ve got to keep moving, keep working—but we also need to recharge ourselves over and over again.
Care to Meet William Powers and Artist Hannah Morris?
William Powers own website is http://williampowersbooks.com
His friend artist Hannah Morris has created beautiful, large-scale maps, charts and illustrations of Bill’s adventures. The images with today’s story are just 2 details from Morris’ much larger works, used by permission. Explore Hannah’s website to learn more about her work: http://www.morridesign.com
ENJOY OUR ENTIRE GREAT SUMMER READING AND VIEWING SERIES: (Our series so far: “Crown of Aleppo,” “Science Vs. Religion,” “Belief,” “Apparition,” “Burma VJ,” “Facets World Cup,” “Mary Mae and the Gospel Truth” “The Lonely Polygamist,” “Rise and Shine,” “Saints,” “Beaches of Agnes,” “Mystically Wired,” “Creative Aging” and “Twelve by Twelve.”)
We welcome your Emails! Email [email protected]. We’re also reachable on Twitter, Facebook, Amazon, Huffington Post, YouTube and other social-networking sites. You also can Subscribe to our articles via Email or RSS feed. Plus, there’s a free Monday-morning “Planner” newsletter you may enjoy.