After reading this book I can safely say that I’m not cut out for a life without technology, but regardless, this memoir of a year lived without the basic modern conveniences and ubiquitous technological connections was a fascinating and thought-provoking read.
It was 11pm when I checked my email for the last time and turned off my phone for what I hoped would be forever.
No running water, no car, no electricity or any of the things it powers: the internet, phone, washing machine, radio or light bulb. Just a wooden cabin, on a smallholding, by the edge of a stand of spruce.
Boyle’s decision to live off-the-grid hasn’t happened overnight. A former business graduate and an irregular contributor to The Guardian among other media, he has been gradually disconnecting from the modern world for some time, and documented his experiences living entirely without money for three years in another book (The Moneyless Man, which I’m now also interested in reading).
Prior to starting living with his girlfriend on his smallholding in County Galway, Ireland, Boyle was convinced that his career as a writer was now over, since no publishing house can be bothered with hand-written manuscripts anymore. To his surprise, one of the last emails he received was an expression of interest in a book about his experiences, which he agreed to without any idea how the editing process would work, or if he’d be able to switch to the entirely different craft of hand-writing.
Drawing the line at what constitutes acceptable technology is a question that Boyle wrestles with throughout the book, since it’s not an easy question to answer. Axe, spade, bike, pencil, even the language itself could all be counted as “technology”. At the same time, he accepts that life is prone to contradictions and confusion and that, as he puts is, my ideals are often one step ahead of my ability to fully embody them. At the time of writing, he’s closing on middle age and appears to have moved past the black-and-white youthful certainties, and into the mindset of constant, rigorous self-examination.
It’s fair to say that Boyle’s view of our industrial society and the future it holds for the human race and life on planet Earth is rather grim. Many of his points are hard to argue with; at the same time he doesn’t really engage with the question of whether the lifestyle of our tech-free ancestors is realistic or sustainable for the population of 7 billion. To be fair, Boyle doesn’t posit his memoir as some sort of manifesto that everyone must adhere to – he makes it clear that he’s simply making choices that make sense to him personally.
Apart from a host of ecological and cultural reasons, Boyle was also attracted to the idea of living in a direct relationship with the landscape and people immediately around him, without the distractions and distance created by the modern technologies and gadgets:
I wanted to put my finger on the pulse of life again. I wanted to feel the elements in their enormity, to strip away the nonsense and lick the bare bones of existence clean. I wanted to know intimacy, friendship and community, and not just the things that pass for them… I wanted to feel cold and hunger and fear. I wanted to live, and not merely to exhibit the signs of life.
The Way Home follows the seasons of the year, but otherwise it’s a very loose collection of observations, reflections and memories, some taking a few pages and some a couple of paragraphs. Boyle’s account of his year is interspersed with recollections that chart his life journey and how he had arrived at his convictions, as well as memories of his trip to Great Blasket Island, home to one of Ireland’s self-sustaining communities that was eventually evacuated to the mainland in the early 1950s. He writes with great warmth and affection about his (mostly elderly) neighbours, and with sadness about the slow death of the rural life around him, with young people leaving for the cities and local pubs closing one by one.
It’s an ideal book for reading in short bursts, maybe too much so; I ended up reading it twice because, second time around, I wanted to immerse myself in Boyle’s world for longer than a few minutes at a time. His life is a hard one without a doubt, full of back-breaking labour and a myriad of tasks and chores to do every single day. He writes about missing his parents’ voices, easy communication with his friends, and hearing his favourite recorded bands and artists; the challenges of maintaining a relationship with a partner who might not be as intensely committed to a simple life. As a former vegan, embracing things like skinning and butchering a deer or killing a caught pike doesn’t come easy. He writes about shovelling manure in the cold and pissing rain and thinking how on earth did he end up there. The upside is that, every day, he gets to feel fully alive.
There’s much more to this book that I couldn’t fit into the review. As mentioned earlier, this stark lifestyle is not something I would ever aspire to or attempt myself, but Boyle’s memoir does give you plenty food for thought. I recalled it the other day when I was at the beach, watching a young man walk into the water up to his waist while still glued to his phone, and thinking that there really is something wrong with our culture.