By William Powers, author of “Twelve by Twelve: A One-Room Cabin Off The Grid & Beyond The American Dream”
Three years ago, I returned to America after a decade of aid and conservation work in Africa and Latin America. Abroad, I’d seen, starkly, the grave impact the global economic system was having on our environment—Amazon rainforests clear-cut for fast-food cattle, African rivers poisoned by multinational mining—and began asking myself a daunting question: How could humanity transition to gentler, more responsible ways of living by replacing attachment to things with deeper relationships with people, nature, and self?
Fortunately, I stumbled upon someone with some clues: Dr. Jackie Benton (a pseudonym, per her request). When I met this slight, sixty-year-old physician, she was stroking a honey bee’s wings in front of her twelve-foot by twelve-foot, off-the-grid home in North Carolina.
While she was traveling, she invited me to housesit. Unexpectedly, I changed plans and moved into the 12×12 for a season. Perhaps, there’s a “cure” in the practice of curiosity. With no electricity, piped water, or any of the conveniences we are so accustomed to, I was forced to see everything anew. The first puzzle: How to bathe?
Jackie didn’t leave an instruction manual, an “Idiot’s Guide” to living in a 12 x 12. There was no shower, of course, and the creek was still too darn cold. But so was the rainwater Jackie harvested from the two gutters running off the 12 x 12’s roof. I took one bucket shower, cursing as I cupped freezing rainwater over my head, before I discovered a five-gallon rubber diaphragm on her back porch labeled “Sun Shower.” Midday or evening, I strung it up in a tree beside the 12 x 12 and felt the positively hot water stream over my body, which became a sensuous daily pleasure. And its energy came directly from that day’s sun, producing no dangerous greenhouse gasses.