By Heidi Simmons

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Unsettlers
by Mark Sundeen
Nonfiction
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Part of the American spirit is the desire to be independent and live free.  But in today’s world, freedom comes at a cost.  In Mark Sundeen’s Unsettlers: In Search of the Good Life in Today’s America (Riverhead Books, 336 pages) the simple life is extremely difficult to achieve.

Author Sundeen tells the story of three remarkable couples who dare to live outside our traditional system.   In captivating detail, he explores what it takes to live off the grid, survive without government intervention and live a sustainable life without abusing or harming the environment. 

Sarah and Ethan bravely move to Missouri to create an enlightened, sustainable lifestyle without negative impact on the environment.  They take a train and ride bikes to find the 40-acre farm they bought from an Amish family sight unseen.  Without any amenities, no electricity or running water, the couple struggles to build a life and farm.  

Not wanting to contribute to the military industrial complex, they deliberately keep their income below $9,000 so as not to be required to pay federal income taxes.  After a lot of hard work and with the help of friends, the couple perseveres to form an idyllic sustainable teaching community called “The Possibility Alliance.”

Greg and Olivia create “Brother Nature,” a successful and prosperous organic farm in the middle of Detroit’s abandoned ruins.   Growing vegetables in the midst of drug dealers and gangbangers, the couple restores part of the community by giving away and trading fresh food for pulling weeds

As the city struggles with bankruptcy and an inept bureaucracy, the couple worries how much they should continue to invest.

In Montana, Steve and Luci become profitable organic ranchers with their company, “Lifeline Produce.”   Over several decades, the couple manages to buy more farmland and eventually grow the country’s best green produce.  They raise three kids.  Their only electricity comes from solar panels. 

Among the first to champion organic produce, Steve and Luci help other farmers understand what organic farming really details.  With America’s growing demand for organic produce, the couple mentors other family farmers.  When the government gets involved with organic certification requirements, Steve and Luci stop calling their vegetables organic because the certification is inaccurate and unprofitable.

Sundeen does a wonderful job introducing the reader to all three couples.  He beautifully renders each person’s background, how they met and married.  He does not shy away from the incredible challenges they all face pursuing their commitment and dreams to live a self-reliant, sustainable and natural lifestyle.   

Tying the three narratives together, the author interjects his own desire to live free and reduce his impact on the planet.  Sundeen shares how he met his wife, Cedar, a beautiful woman raised by Buddhist hippies on a rural farm.  As he embeds himself with the three couples, he learns about his own strengths and weaknesses.   He is charming, self-deprecating and honest.

Sundeen does an excellent job including the history of the changing agribusiness and the move away from family farms to corporately (like Monsanto) grown food.  He shows with good humor and notable examples how our modern life has become dependent on fossil fuels and corporate dominance. 

I was particularly enchanted with the couple who are making a living as farmers in Michigan’s devastated Detroit.  Sundeen reports on the fascinating rise of the city once considered the Paris of the Midwest to its present day decay.  This vivid history is a provocative snapshot of not only Detroit and its changing population, but the country’s history as a whole when the agrarian age was replaced by the industrial age.

The economics of these couples’ lives was clearly spelled out in profits and losses.  All refused to borrow money from banks to enhance their lives or farms.  Their spending was focused on only what they needed to exist.  They reinvested any profits.  The Missouri couple never owned or used cars.  They carried no insurance of any kind.

Sundeen shows how they live with “reduction economics.” They eliminate all frivolity from their lives and live within their means.  I found this very appealing, brave and beautifully anarchical. 

The couples all hold strong philosophical and ethical beliefs.   They don’t compromise or sell out even when offered big money and as easier way of life.   They couples constructed personal guidelines that in part include protecting the earth and promoting justice.

Another common denominator for all three of Sundeen’s couples was the personal responsibility to have their own households in order.  No matter what the world was doing, they had a sense of peace and satisfaction knowing they and their families were healthy and happy.  Their success is not only commendable, but also inspiring.

In a press release, the author said: “So many people have anxiety about the state of the world – climate change, extinction, financial inequality – but so few have an idea of what they can actually do to extract themselves from the system, much less change it.  This book illuminates those who are trying with all their might to do just that.”

I love this book!  It was such a pleasant and entertaining surprise.  I devoured it quickly, highlighting passages and earmarking pages.  As a child, when I learned about Yeomen farmers, I believed it would be the ultimate lifestyle.  For me, there was something so intriguing and romantic about living off the land, dependent only on one’s own cleverness, hard work and tenacity.  Unsettlers dropped me into that world with great satisfaction.

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