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Recycle this book

Memoir offers a glimpse at an eco-friendly lifestyle

Posted: November 24, 2010

By Stephan Delbos - Staff Writer | Comments (1) | Post comment

Recycle this book

Walter Novak

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On July 4, 1845, a young, Harvard-educated Massachusetts man named Henry Thoreau decided to build himself a cabin in the woods surrounding Walden Pond. The environmental movement would never be the same.

All told, Thoreau spent two years, two months and two days living in his cabin and later immortalized the experience in Walden, or Life in the Woods, a book that has become a classic among green-minded folks and nature lovers, including William Powers, the writer and conservationist whose memoir, Twelve by Twelve, recounts the 40 days he spent in a 12-by-12-foot cabin without electricity or running water.

The cabin is owned by Dr. Jackie Benton, a successful physician who has chosen to pursue a simple, relatively noninvasive way of life, cultivating a permaculture farm on her small plot of land. Benton has lowered her annual income to $11,000, below the tax line, "so as to avoid war taxes."

When the good doctor leaves town temporarily, she suggests Powers try her lifestyle, an invitation he takes up with some hesitation. Thus begins the skillfully wrought narrative of Powers' experience of getting back to the basics.

Twelve by Twelve
By William Powers
New World Library 2010
278 pages

Literary journal launch

Local literary journal GRASP will launch its fifth issue Nov. 25 at 6:30 p.m. at the Municipal Library in Prague 1. The launch will feature readings from GRASP contributors and copies of the new issue - which features a poem from Nobel Prize winner Derek Walcott - will be available for purchase. According to Editor-in-Chief Andreas Patenidis, the journal seeks to provide its readers "with such work that would reflect the vicissitudes in contemporary art."

Powers - who has worked as a conservationist in Latin America and Africa and recounted those experiences in two well-received books, Blue Clay People and Whispering in the Giant's Ear, weaves an engrossing story. Twelve by Twelve develops along several lines at once: Powers' experience going without the usual amenities, the racial tensions between his white neighbors and the Mexican immigrants living nearby in housing provided by the nonprofit Habitat for Humanity, and a blossoming relationship between himself and a like-minded young woman.

Powers never loses sight of the larger causes and effects of green living or the industrial monolith conservationists are up against. The writer only goes awry when he doesn't trust the depth of his experience, instead slipping into philosophical quotes in cloying attempts at armchair profundity.

"As [Jackie] told me about the teas she grew, about her homemade jams and boysenberry wines, about the shiitakes she'd planted on a pile of logs, about the rainwater she harvested, I thought of something from Nietzsche: 'How little suffices for happiness! ? the least thing makes up the best happiness.' All of these tiny things - a bee, a creek, a tea bush - were causing me to loosen up, relax, and feel joy rush through me, the asphalt inside me beginning to crack."

Despite Powers' impressive power of recall and his skill as a writer, one can't help but somewhat doubt the efficacy of his campaign, especially when considering that he only spent 40 days in the woods. A book, even one printed on 100 percent post-consumer-waste recycled paper like this one, is not likely to stem the tide of greenhouse gas emissions, over-production and consumption that has flooded the Western world for more than a century. If the writer of that book is only willing to give up his usual way of life for slightly longer than a month, there is little hope for the rest of us. But perhaps that's not the point.

Living "off the grid" has been a popular concept in the United States at least since the 1960s, but most attempts at doing so have failed miserably. Twelve by Twelve is not a guide, however, and Powers is largely successful because he avoids didacticism.

Twelve by Twelve is a glimpse into one man's short experience living an alternative lifestyle. The most moving passages in the book - which involve Powers' estranged Bolivian wife and daughter - convey the sense that Powers' experience has broken a crack in the facade, as it were. There are other ways of life out there, and this book offers just a hint at those vast possibilities.

"I look down at my hands: Amaya holds one, Kusasu the other, the creative edge being born and dying as the Flat World crushes in on us from all sides. For a moment, it seems possible that if we find more hands to hold, we can walk with strength into the flattening world, planting seeds of the old cultures for the young to cultivate. Change is inevitable, but is there a way to change without destroying cultural and ecological diversity? If we connect to others who want this new paradigm shift, it might be possible to bend the Flat World in enough isolated places and communities that they eventually push out and touch at their fragile, diverse edges."

The back story to Thoreau's adventure is that the civilly disobedient landowner was never really on the verge of poverty or starvation and frequently made trips into town for supplies. Nonetheless, living more than 700 days in the woods, Thoreau developed a way of life worth exploring. William Powers has explored that way of life, and Twelve by Twelve offers, if not a solution to the ecological urgencies of our time, at least a map of sustainable possibilities.

Stephan Delbos can be reached at

Tags: book review, stephan delbos, walden, twelve by twelve, william powers, walden or life in the woods, henry thoreau, technology, modcons, wilderness, living off the grid, environment, sustainability, ecology, cabin, literature, new books, reading, books, american writers.

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