The idea of living in a 12 foot by 12 foot cabin is likely more appealing and trendy today than it’s ever been before. I see articles about tiny houses flood my feed on facebook, posts that represent more of a fascination rather than a sense of disgust with how people are able to so remarkably downsize their lives. But William Powers took on the experiment of living small in 2007, before it was trendy to do so. And the extremely modest home he occupied belonged to Jackie Benton long before Powers’ stay there began. For these two, living 12 by 12 is more about a new way of life, commonly referred to among its proponents as “wildcrafting,” than just mere downsizing.
Fueled by admiration for Jackie, Powers recounts his stay in her home for a few months during the year 2007 while Jackie was away on travel. Without running water or electricity, Jackie was able to subsist largely off the land through the gardens surrounding her home and the alternative solutions she utilized for energy, bathing, and the like. Living in such a small space was partially a political move for her – structures which dimensions less than 12 feet by 12 feet are not considered to be houses in North Carolina, thus requiring no property tax payments. Jackie chose these dimensions for just such a purpose, similar to how she downsized her income as a doctor to about $11,000 a year in order to avoid income tax requirements. Dr. Benton was not a tax evader, but rather a citizen practicing nonviolent protest against tax money being devoted to war.
These types of thoughtful decisions infused nearly every aspect of Jackie’s life, so it was nearly impossible for Powers to not model some of his decisions after Jackie’s while staying at her place. What seems at first to be an account of an environmentally-minded lifestyle experiment comes to encompass a whole host of questions about the status quo and how we lead our lives. There are also profiles of the neighbors, other figures trying their hand at similar lifestyle experiments, accounts of Powers’ conversations with visitors who just don’t understand and then other exchanges with people who truly do get it. He compares his domestic simple living experience with his international travels, finding startling similarities between many of those people he purported to help in “underdeveloped” nations and Jackie, her neighbors, and even himself. And he details the simple days of traveling through the woods around his temporary home, observing nature without distraction or obtrusion.
Powers writes with a sharp self-criticism, casting Jackie’s chosen path against his own efforts to save the world through international aid. The two both lead intentional and meaningful lives, however our narrator questions his previous jet-fueled travels as efforts at assimilating those who tread lightly in third world nations to the environmentally-cumbersome lifestyle of Westerners. It is patently obvious in the best way that he spent much time and consideration on these issues before setting pen to paper, that he poured over every angle and challenged his own perspective before putting any of his views in print. A philosophic personality to start, Powers’ time spent leading a leisurely, self-subsisting life alongside other equally minded people obviously provided ample opportunity for him to dwell on a variety of ethical and philosophic issues, and the results are endlessly intriguing. I found myself repeatedly earmarking pages for further consideration and seeking anyone with whom I could discuss the ideas introduced to me by this remarkable narrator. There is so much thought packed into this 260-page volume, that I felt the need, almost immediately after finishing, to start from page 1 again in order to fully process all the information my mind was only beginning to process.
While writing about his occupation of the 12 x 12, Powers seems to anticipate all the questions I want to ask, raising them to himself as soon as they arise. Will he be able to maintain such a sustainable, wildcrafted lifestyle once Jackie comes back to her home? How do you reconcile the newfound philosophies of a 12 x 12 lifestyle with the environmental sins of your past? It was refreshing to see Powers ask those questions that were on the tip of my tongue, and to see him shamelessly admit to sometimes not knowing the answer. He even changed his answers, as more truths revealed themselves to him and changed his perspective on previously addressed topics.
I was not expecting this to be a story of inequality and racial progress, but since Jackie worked tirelessly as a civil rights activist, strains of thought related to racial division in the South infused Powers’ stay in the cabin. The result: an entirely thorough and intelligent analysis of all facets necessary to truly lead a sustainable lifestyle. Signs of the South’s history of slavery abounded and further evidence of enduring inequality surrounded Powers, from the old sharecroppers’ houses he encountered on long walks to the nearby chicken factory staffed largely by Latinos, to his neighbors’ attitude toward the Hispanic families living nearby. Powers’ concerns about inequality were so intertwined with his efforts to lead a sustainable existence while living at Jackie’s that the resulting narrative covers a range of ethical and moral questions – inequality, Third- and First-world notions of development, workaholism, addiction, consumption, ecocide – with the grace and wisdom that I’ve come to see as characteristic of Powers’ writing.
But despite the volume and depth of Powers’ ideas, this piece is far from inaccessible or alienatingly-intellectual. Powers’ thoughts are lofty but introduced through the everyday experiences that introduced them, drawing an easy to follow chain along which readers can connect the 12 by 12 concept to other principles of living, moral dilemmas, and social questions. Twelve By Twelve unquestionably proves how inextricably intertwined all the facets of leading an ethical lifestyle can be. As soon as he decided to live in a more environmentally sustainable way, Powers questioned his commitment to Western ideals of development, American workaholism, how we relate to others with different backgrounds than our own, our addiction to technology, and so much more. We cannot choose to align our lives to our values in piecemeal ways; rather, we must question the whole of it. If not, all the non-choices that have shaped our lives for so long without question will soon enough be thrown in the fray after the first small change is initiated.
Powers recognizes the way in which he takes 12 by 12 to an extreme; in fact, he is forced to re-evaluate his understanding of the wildcrafted lifestyle while still occupying Jackie’s cabin. His unfaltering commitment to the idyllic conception of 12 by 12 begins to render the entire challenge useless as he finds himself judging others and experiencing discontent. Ultimately he uncovers a more balanced understanding of his and Jackie’s reconceptualized American dream, but his long-term transformation post-12 by 12 is ground in mindfulness practice. What Powers gained the most from his rather isolated, meditative time as a wildcrafter was the ability to think calmly, carefully, and thoroughly in each and every present moment.
Meditating and captivating, Twelve by Twelve challenges the contours of the American dream by profiling an exemplar of how we can achieve through other means the ultimate purpose of said dream: happiness. And his book impacted me in the best way, both encouraging me to question my current lifestyle choices and inspiring me to change. At times surprising, restlessly thought-provoking, and a great discussion piece, Twelve by Twelve left me itching for more and completely invigorated with a more holistic, mindful, and optimistic take on life.