Over the past week or so I’ve encountered a spate of stories about individuals seeking to distance themselves from modern society. Around the first of the month, Politico ran a feature article on Roscoe Bartlett a former congressman now living out his days in splendid isolation on 153-acres of mountainous property in the backwaters of West Virginia. A ten-term Republican Representative from Maryland’s 6th District, Bartlett held office between 1993 and 2013. During his two-decade tenure, he earned a reputation as being the “oddest congressmen” (an impressive feat, given the competition) thanks to his idiosyncratic views on a range of issues. Not the least of these was (and is) his abiding concern for the security of America’s electrical grid. Frustrated in his efforts to secure passage of legislation aimed at protecting the USA’s electricity-dependent infrastructure from catastrophe via an electromagnetic pulse (EMP) or massive solar flare, Bartlett has labored to protect himself and his loved ones from Doomsday by constructing a solar-powered complex “off the grid” and “independent of the system.” As impressive as Bartlett’s labor is, I can’t help but think that in the wake of EMPocalypse, the octogenarian and his kin are going to be vulnerable nonetheless.
A somewhat related article caught my eye early last week. It’s this short piece about Peter Janes, an earnest East Coast thirtysomething “living off the grid” in an effort to reduce his carbon footprint. Spurred to action back in ’03 by the appalling spectacle of “industrial humankind’s destruction of the natural world,” Janes determined that the most honest and ethical response was “to build an alternative system: by producing his own food, building his own house and generating his own power.” With this in mind, he’s spent the last decade staking out his independence on part of an island his parents bought for him. Ten years gone, however, Janes finds he is still reliant on store-bought rice, flour, and the diesel fuel required to power his pick-up truck (among other things). These lingering ties to “the industrial system” have left him facing a philosophical dilemma. “Can the actions of a few people in the woods, he wonders, truly make the world a better place?” Or, to paraphrase the sentiments of his partner, Magdalene Joly, can such well-intentioned efforts help to “heal the planet?” Judging by these recent photos from Beijing, the answer may be: “no.”
While reading about the efforts of Bartlett and Janes to set out on their own, I couldn’t help but recall the story of Timothy Treadwell, another back-to-nature type who sought escape from modern society through self-imposed isolation. Treadwell, of course, was the subject of Werner Herzog’s brilliant 2005 documentary Grizzly Man which recounted the self-described environmental activist’s quixotic obsession for bears. Not the cute snuggly ones, but the “nature red in tooth and claw” kind. Every summer, Treadwell abandoned the comforts of modern society to live among the creatures inhabiting Alaska’s Katmai National Park. There, while the weather was warm, he communed with nature observing, interacting with, and video recording the Grizzly bears that call the park home. He became convinced that his actions were existentially important to the bears and their world. Treadwell did this for thirteen summers. Thirteen being an unlucky number, that final year he ended up a grisly snack.
There are, of course, obvious philosophical and motivational differences between Bartlett and Janes; neither approaches the degree of oddity embodied in the madcap Grizzly Man. All the same, I can’t help being struck by the shared sense of escape, ascetic denial, and self-righteousness that drives them to seek distance from society. Modern-day stylites such as Bartlett and Janes may be dedicated to their causes, but they’re also a little bit off.
Kinda like Timothy Treadwell.