Negative liberty is the absence of obstacles, barriers or constraints […] Positive liberty is the possibility of acting — or the fact of acting — in such a way as to take control of one’s life and realize one’s fundamental purposes.
—“Positive and Negative Liberty,” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy
The more I examined […] efforts at sedentarization, the more I came to see them as a state’s attempt to make a society legible, to arrange the population in ways that simplified the classic state functions of taxation, conscription, and prevention of rebellion [and] I began to see legibility as a central problem in statecraft.
–Yale Professor of Agrarian Studies James C. Scott, on efforts by nation states to “sedentarize” nomads, pastoralists, gypsies and other peoples living non-mainstream lives
Part of the reason for this was climatological: 110-degree summers and long-term drought conditions just aren’t appealing to me. My first month in Austin, the worst wildfire in Texas history flanked three sides of the city. All summer long, people waiting at bus stops flattened themselves like bats against slivers of shade from fences.
Another climate-related reality of Austin they don’t trumpet in their relentless promotional branding of the city (“inventive, creative, wired, rockin’, educated, fit and loved!”) is that because of drought, a huge number of homes in the area are developing major foundation problems. The clay soil of Austin contracts in times of drought, causing concrete house foundations to settle unevenly, drywall to splinter, and once-rectangular doorframes to go trapezoid. In a place plagued with drought and water restrictions, the least costly remedy for this is watering your home, and some local news media still encourage the practice. The costlier remedy is to have a foundation repair company jack your house back up for several thousand dollars. Then you can pay some contractors to fix all your doorframes and cracked drywall. Repeat every few years as needed. The problem is so big — and growing — that foundation repair companies can’t keep up with the demand.
Another part of my decision to leave the Lone Star state was political. I was well informed before I moved there, but Texas’s longstanding support for capital punishment and private, for-profit prisons — 1,254 executed and counting! Guaranteed occupancy rates! Overwhelmingly non-white! — is another, far more heinous reality that Austin’s creative, wild, fun-, beer-, music- and new-media-lovin’ denizens are tacitly supporting with their tax dollars and promotion of the state’s capital. SXSW, Whole Foods and Dell, to name but a few prominent Austin-based businesses, make a ton of money for, and help whitewash the image of, arguably the most vengeful, prison-profiteering state in the Union. And that doesn’t even touch on the state’s demented, religiously-driven campaign against Planned Parenthood.
But hey, quit thinking about climate change, human rights, or women — especially poor women; SXSW, Whole Foods and Dell are trying to make money and grow an economy and capital city here, and they get really good tax incentives in Texas. The business of America, especially in Texas, is business. And the soundtrack for the movie of Austin, Texas is awesome! (Texas Quaker Friends: Respect.)
In 2012, Texas ignored the Supreme Court and put a mentally retarded man, Marvin Wilson — I.Q. 61 — to death. The courts and people who most make this kind of atrocity possible are in Austin. They are considered respectable people.
Werner Herzog’s harrowing 2011 documentary, Into the Abyss, featuring conversations with since-executed Texas death row inmate Michael Perry, his co-conspirators, and those affected by his crimes, is a tough look at the state’s capital punishment practices, but I’m pretty sure the movie’s dark title is also referring to the state of Texas itself:
We left in a van, with no visible air conditioner stuck on top, no camper shell, or anything else that might signal that it’s actual a tiny home — so we can park it just about anywhere at night.
Our living room or writing studio is basically as spectacular or oppressive as the space we park in.
A hushed pull-out near Hupa lands, at a trailhead leading into a fern-carpeted cathedral of redwoods:
Or completely alone for 10 miles in all directions, in Paiute lands, on the sanguine lip of the Moab rim, watching the shadows of clouds race across the Colorado River Valley:
In the northwest corner of New Mexico, on Navajo, Hopi, Ute and Zuni lands, we took a chance on a very small road marked by an unreadable sign that seemed to lead into the infinity of the desert, but was actually a derelict BLM picnic site situated at the edge of a large peninsular mesa that plummeted striae into canyon on three sides. We arrived just in time to watch a lightning storm to the north, and fell asleep to receding rolls of thunder.
In the morning, I thought to be grateful for the various factors that allowed a sign to decay to an unreadable state, a grace which allowed someone like me to enjoy it, in peace. I was grateful, to use James C. Scott’s term, that there are still parts of the country that are largely illegible.
Is this kind of nomadic home-free life better than a sedentary house-bound one, or just different? It’s often a job that keeps people in one place, obviously, so how to make money–or keep from spending much of it–on the go?
Well. Making money on the road is probably a whole book unto itself, and I’ve never been particularly good at making money anyway. But living frugally seems easy, as long as you’re willing to be creative and open to new people. For a month this summer, we set-up and work-traded two days a week at an impressive biodynamic farm on former Wiyot lands in Northern California. We mostly spent our farm-time weeding and trimming garlic, enjoying the farm’s organic vegetables and meat if we wanted it, and breaking out our 10′ x 10′ screenhouse as a separate writing studio from the van. We even got fancy with our juicer and made what seemed like hundreds of gallons of basic and experimental juices.
The farm had a shower, but I bathed more often in a river that ran behind the property.
With most of our cost of living covered, we could relax and settle into writing and exploring the area during our off-days. For me, it’s important not to hear the tick-tick of money worries quite so loudly while I’m trying to write. Driving my portable writing studio to a beach or cliffside ocean pullout doesn’t hurt.
As I write this post, on what was once Chumash land, there’s no question for me that this kind of life is superior to a sedentary, property-indentured one. My basic desires are about as simple as my dog’s, except that my definition of “lively company” means quite a lot more than someone who will play chase with me all day. I want fresh air, lots of good nature to walk, run, nap and run around in, warm sun, and as many new smells, sights, sounds and tastes as possible. What do I care for mortgages, property taxes, varyingly scrupulous contractors, high seasonal utility bills, or the landscaping and upkeep of a yard?