The Simple Living Institute’s Econ Farm is a five-acre parcel in the central Florida woods, about 40 minutes from Walt Disney World. A marshy woodland thick with mangroves, moss, and wild ferns, it’s named after the Econolockhatchee River, which flows through the land. This is where Tia and Terry Meer help spread the simple living gospel. The couple has just finished building a 1,024-square-foot log cabin, where they intend to become as close to self-sufficient as possible. Harvesting rainwater and solar power. Eating food they farm on the property and bass they catch in the river. The Meers already grow a lot of what they consume. “The first thing we did was put in 50 blueberry bushes,” says Terry, a lithe, apple-cheeked blond who smiles as he talks. “Then orange, lemon, and lime trees.”Terry, 34, and Tia, 29, met in college in Florida and formed an instant bond. After graduation they moved to Hawaii, where Tia, who was raised on a family farm in Pennsylvania, became a gardening consultant while Terry designed solar-energy systems. They ate papaya picked from trees, biked to Waikiki Beach, and “had a very simple island life,” Terry says.In a way, the Meers have re-created a version of that life in central Florida. They built the cabin from a kit. Costing only $50,000, it is a no-frills square structure held aloft by stilts and built of sustainable materials, with shelves and counters found on Craigslist or at the local “freecycle” site. They don’t use air-conditioning, yet the space remains cool and breezy.
“Our next-door neighbor pays $400 a month for electricity,” says Tia. “Our bill is about $30.” Their grocery bill is equally lean, about $100 a month (which may explain why they look as fit as greyhounds).
The Meers do not own a television. They have reduced their possessions to what can fit comfortably in a few duffel bags. They ask for nothing at Christmas. “I grew up on a houseboat,” says Terry. “On a boat you really see how little you need very quickly. Everything has a purpose. There isn’t space for anything else.”
Yet in the quest for less, compromises have to be made. The couple wanted to run their appliances on solar power. But since the county required them to install electricity in order to get a certificate of occupancy, they spent their budget to meet the mandate and plan to convert to solar later. “We weren’t allowed to be off the grid,” Tia says. “We couldn’t use our own water exclusively. We had to clear more trees than we wanted. It was disheartening. It conflicted with the whole concept of the house.”
Tia and 11 other community members started the nonprofit Simple Living Institute in 2002. Its mission: “to provide cooperative education empowering individuals and organizations to be responsible stewards of their well-being and the environment.” They hold workshops and educate people about organic gardening, worm composting, and alternative energy. The group has about 1,000 people on its e-mail list, and a recent Simple Living Kids’ Festival saw 32 families racing around the Econ Farm, gleefully looking for raccoon tracks and snake skins.
“Economically, people are starting to understand the benefits,” says Terry of the voluntary simplicity movement. “I had lost hope for a while there, to be honest. But now I see people coming around. They understand that if you don’t have clean air or water or soil, money isn’t worth a whole lot.”
Over lunch at Tia’s sister’s vegan restaurant near downtown Orlando, I notice Tia’s flawless skin and enviably radiant hair. I want to ask if showering with rainwater or eating homegrown grapefruit keeps her looking so fresh, but I don’t want to appear superficial. So instead I ask her what voluntary simplicity means to her.
“I want to live in a way that preserves the Earth for future generations,” she says, picking up a spinach leaf from her salad.
“We are making these choices consciously,” Terry adds. “But I think in the future, people will have to make some of these choices whether they want to or not. I feel very good being able to go out into my garden and pick dinner or catch a fish. I don’t have to spend money or time driving to a grocery store. Once you simplify and localize, you save so much. And in these troubled times, people see the logic of that approach.”
Today Terry owns his own company, Alternative Concepts and Technology. He installs solar panels and makes $40,000 a year. Tia works in habitat restoration and makes $24,000. Their bills, including student loan payments, health insurance, and food, run about $1,500 a month.
“I’ve never liked money,” says Terry. “I’m happier when I’m not spending it. I’ve never been motivated to make it. That’s why we built our house ourselves. No mortgage. Our retirement is what we are doing: the location, the cabin, the fruit trees. They’ll grow as we grow.”
To Tia and Terry, the cabin represents the ultimate sovereignty, a true test of self-reliance, and a chance to spread the word. Kristen finds the whole visit inspirational, especially the talk of “humanure”—human waste recycled as compost. (That this portion of the conversation happened over lunch distressed no one but me.)
“It comes down to a personal philosophy,” Terry tells Kristen as he crunches on an organic blue corn chip. “You don’t need to have as much as you can get. People work 50 hours a week to afford all this stuff. But you end up with only an hour to spend with your kids or your wife. That’s not living; it’s living to work. I’d rather harvest sweet potatoes than work all day at a job I hate.”
I ask the Meers if either one of them was ever tempted to buy an item they didn’t need. They look at me with something akin to pity.
“I worked at a convenience store once,” Terry offers helpfully. “That hurt.”
“We drive a pickup truck,” Tia says, head lowered. “Cars are our biggest vice.”
“In the future, we’re going to build a garage with solar panels on top so we can plug in an electric car,” Terry adds quickly. “I mean, that’s the long-term goal.”
It’s dinnertime when we leave the Meers’ cabin. Kristen and I decide to find a hotel. We have not made a reservation, preferring the enlivening randomness of spontaneity. After all, this is Orlando, a tourist Mecca. Finding a modest hotel should be as easy as crossing the street. Ninety minutes of interstate driving later, we grasp our misjudgment.
“I do want more meaning in my life,” I think. I do crave the freedom of less. But right now, I am exhausted. I stink of marsh and hummus. And I have to pee. I am a single mom, riding with another single mom, on possibly the only free night we will have for months. “Call information,” I tell Kristen. “And ask for the address of the nearest Ritz-Carlton.”
Kristen shoots me a look.
“You’ll get a bath!” I add. “With bubbles. And wine.”
She dials. With gusto, I might add. It occurs to me that sometimes the simplest thing to do is to treat yourself.
The next day, back in her tiny cottage in northern Florida, Kristen has decided to unload even more furniture. The space feels crowded, she says. And how many places do you need to park your butt, anyway?
“Depends on the butt,” I say.
Kristen squints and hands me a chair. She says she has been having a struggle with her daughter, Ellie. She has told Ellie all about the importance of soil, of reducing waste, of the impact on the environment, about consumerism. “But you know, those are pretty big concepts for an 8-year-old. Especially one who only really wants new school clothes.”
Even so, Kristen is confident she made the right choice for her family. “At first there was a lot of ‘I’m bored.’ They didn’t have their own rooms, or a million toys, or computers. But since then, we’ve found games to play, we go for walks, we talk more, we lie in bed and draw, we are literally closer together.”
Kristen is also healthier. No more sleeping pills. No more antidepressants. Her journal wish list is coming true.
And then there are the nights when she cooks dinner and, through her open windows, hears the sound of her children running in the woods, the piercing, manic joy of kids throwing stones and kicking leaves and squealing at ghosts behind every windblown tree. “When I hear them playing outside, I think, “This is exactly what I wanted. This is the experience I was looking for.”
She runs her fingers through her short, graying hair. Her face is calm, relaxed.
“Some people say one person can’t make a difference, but I like that expression about how throwing one sea horse back in the ocean makes a big difference to that sea horse. I wanted to sleep at night knowing I’d done my part.”
She smiles, wistful for a moment. “I do miss sleeping in my own room.”
“That would certainly make some things simpler,” I say with a wink.
We laugh. And then the two of us walk outside to the garden, talking about whether or not we’d have sex with Bill Maher, and winter flowers, and what sort of old ladies we’ll be, all the while consuming nothing but the easy joy of each other’s company.
You can view the article here: http://www.oprah.com/omagazine/Meet-Followers-of-the-Simple-Living-Philosophy/1