The Unsettling of America
Author Mark Sundeen profiles farmers on the fringe in his newest book
Mark Sundeen shared this example: “I hate the banks. I hate the way [they] engineered the collapse of the real estate market. Yet, I had a mortgage with a bank. I had a credit card with a bank. I had a checking account, a retirement account. … I was relying on the industries that were destroying my freedom and the planet.” Yet, he felt helpless to wrest his life from the clutches of the powers that be, things like industrial agriculture, the fuel industry and the influence of corporate money in so many arenas of modern life. A youth spent dirtbagging and rock climbing, and later exploring communities on the fringe of society in his writing (as in his first book, The Man Who Quit Money) had left Sundeen clear-eyed and awake to what he was buying into. “I realized,” he surmised as he examined his relationship with these forces, “I [was] paying for my own destruction.”
In his new book, The Unsettlers: In Search of the Good Life in Today's America, Sundeen explores what it looks like to live in opposition to these forces and often outside of their reach. He spent years researching homesteading and alternative living cultures, and then set out—by train, bike and car—to explore how freedom was iterated in three examples around the United States: The Possibility Alliance in Missouri, Brother Nature Produce in Detroit and Lifeline Farm in Montana. In three geographically delineated parts, Sundeen lays out how each of the families that run these farms live, while synthesizing their personal backgrounds and influences with larger historical contexts and philosophies. There is a fullness and complexity to each of these tales that is impressive and illustrates a feat of cerebral strength on the part of Sundeen. “I had a lot of big ideas coming into this book and when I met these specific people, I felt like their lives really dramatized the ideas,” he explained over the phone on the eve of the first date of his book tour in New Hampshire. The lives of the people Sundeen writes about indeed need very little editorializing—their striking conviction, their glorious triumphs and defiance in the face of obstacles read like fiction rather than the lived experiences of our contemporaries. Powerful and quite often charming personalities abound in The Unsettlers—Olivia Hubert and Greg Willerer of Brother Nature, shotgun-toting urban farmers rooted firmly in Detroit, who refuse to sell their crops to Whole Foods and instead seek to build new economic models for their community; opera singer Sarah Wilcox and activist Ethan Hughes of Possibility Alliance who reject cars, electricity and money in their off-the-grid utopian community; and Lucy Brieger and Steve Elliott of Lifeline Farm, who renounce many of the trappings of modern life in “uncompromising pursuit of an ethical life.” Yet, this book is not theirs alone. Underlying all of these stories of struggle and resilience, is the author's own search to get his “inner house in order,” that is, to discover his own definition of the good life.
“Farming might not feel meaningful to everyone,” Sundeen elaborated on that quest. “I make the point in this book that these people aren't suffering to make the rest of us feel bad, they're pursuing what they love.” That notion of fearlessly investing yourself in what lends purpose to your days and feels fulfilling is essential to understanding what lies at the core of The Unsettlers. “I feel like a lot of the waste we have in this world is the result of people having really unfulfilling jobs, [who then] have to spend a huge amount of time, energy, money [or] gasoline on recreation or vacation or hobbies, because they're doing a job that makes them feel terrible. … Everyone has to look into their own heart and find work that is meaningful to them.” The suggestion that what we do as individuals matters is an empowering sentiment that flies in the face of a common belief that the only change that matters happens on a monumental scale. Deepening that sentiment, Sundeen quoted Gandhi: “Full effort is full victory.” “So, follow your energy, whatever it is,” he continued. “That will give your hours the meaning that they lack. Even if you don't feel like you're saving the planet, it's a victory because your life is meaningful.”
In recent months, as much of the country stares at the national political stage in deep dismay, Sundeen's own work has begun to bear more weight. “Right now millions of people are looking at America and thinking, 'Wow, our country is off the track … We need to do something different.' I just happened to have spent the last eight years learning [and] writing about that,” he proffered. “I think it's really exciting that my work is quite relevant right now.” The lives of the people that play out on these farms do, indeed, provide a blueprint for an alternative way of being. Chapter by chapter, Sundeen illustrates for readers how possible—not easy—but how definitely possible, it is to live in accordance with one's convictions. “I know a lot about how we can find meaningful work that doesn't destroy our freedom … I am ready to tell people about it,” he said.
To set your compass to the direction provided by the farmers on the fringe in The Unsettlers, stop by Bookworks on Thursday, Feb. 9, at 6pm to sit in on a conversation between Sundeen and local writer Greg Martin wherein Sundeen will unpack just how “by embracing limits, we actually find deeper abundance.”