By Jonathon Van Maren
Mark Boyle is a primitivist, and his 2019 memoir The Way Home is his story of living as a native circa 2,000 BC (or thereabouts).
He lives in a house he built with his own hands and locally available material; he has no running water or electricity, he grows much of his own food, heats his house by burning wood, and writes in pencil by candlelight (and even agonizes over whether he should give up the pencil).
Boyle’s memoir is both a fascinating case for a life free (or at least, much freer) of technology, and a cutting critique of modern life. His insights are thought-provoking and made me consider what technology makes us miss. Reading Boyle’s book reminded me that technology—specifically, the Internet and social media—often replaces things: time with people, time outdoors, time to think. And that’s just for a start.
That critique isn’t unique, but Boyle’s response is, and his book explores the implications of cutting out certain technologies. He notes that when he abandoned electricity, he lost the ability to listen to music, and it was as if all his favorite musicians died simultaneously. Experiencing first-hand music or creating it himself were the only options left to him. He describes reconnecting with old and even ancient ways of living. Growing his own food reconnected him with his surroundings: the seasons, the animals, and the weather. Throughout the book, Boyle discusses his desire to reconnect with the hunter-gatherer experiences of his ancestors. It is a powerful experiment powerfully written, and Boyle’s book made me want to be far more intentional about the place of technology in my life.
But something bothered me throughout the book that I couldn’t quite put a finger on until later. Reading some of Boyle’s post-publication interviews helped pinpoint it for me. In The Way Home, Boyle explains that because of his apocalyptic view of the world’s future, he has decided he doesn’t want children and that this has cost him relationships. In interviews, he discusses the fact that as a young man, he got a vasectomy to ensure that any sexual relationship he embarks on will remain sterile. And here Boyle’s grand ambitions come crashing down. Not having children due to worries about the future must be one of the most post-modern decisions a man can make. Can you imagine the ancients making such a choice? None of us would exist if our ancestors were so worried about their inevitably collapsing societies that they opted against procreation and self-mutilated to ensure childlessness.