Logan Ward and his family moved from New York City to rural Virginia seven years ago, selling their belongings and forsaking all conveniences that did not exist in 1900 to throw themselves into a year of subsistence farming. Ward's account of this experiment, See You in a Hundred Years: Four Seasons in Forgotten America, is rich with insights into the struggles and rewards he encountered by turning the clock back one full century.
A veteran freelance writer whose byline has appeared in publications ranging from the New York Times to National Geographic Adventure, Ward is a contributing editor for Popular Mechanics, Cottage Living and Southern Accents. His Wisconsin Book Festival appearance is scheduled for 6 pm Sunday, Oct. 14, at the Overture Center's Wisconsin Studio, where he joins A.J. Jacobs, author of A Year of Living Biblically: One Man's Humble Quest to Follow the Bible as Literally as Possible, for a discussion titled "A Year of Living Differently."
The Daily Page: Where were you and what were you doing when you conceived the idea for See You in a Hundred Years?
Ward: My wife, Heather, and I were living in Brooklyn, NY, with our one year old son, Luther. Heather was traveling like crazy for her project on international police accountability. I was working as a freelance writer. When the actual idea hit me back in 2000, I was in my home office reading a newspaper account of a brand new form of television programming called Reality TV. You may have heard of it.
Anyway, the article mentioned an upcoming PBS show called >1900 House. I thought: If we're unhappy with our current reality (which we were) why not change it for an entirely different reality in a different place and even a different time? And what a cool book that would make...
What was your reaction to the moment of inspiration?
Heather will never go for it. Boy, was I wrong.
Why did you select 1900 as your target year to settle into, instead of, say, 1850 or 1723?
We never wanted to be pioneers or indentured servants or even landed gentry. I wasn't even all that interested in history (which I admit later in the book). What interested me was self-sufficiency and living without the technological distractions of the modern world. The year 1900 was almost within grasp -- both my grandfathers were alive then --and yet it occurred before the dawn of the automobile age, before the advent of mass communications, before electricity. At least in rural America, and the majority of Americans in 1900 were still rural.
And why a farmhouse in rural Virginia instead of Wisconsin, Nebraska or some other state?
Years before, Heather and I had both fled the South, fled what we considered its small-mindedness and suffocating traditions. But now we were ready for a change. So here was a chance to reconnect with our southern roots. Heather's from Alabama, and I'm from South Carolina.
We had no desire to return to the Deep South, so we stopped in Virginia, home of Thomas Jefferson, who penned many a passage about the independence and dignity of the small farmer. Of course, the agrarian ideal may have been easier to uphold for a slave owner. But a 1900 dirt farmer who didn't borrow out the nose for fancy farm machinery (the way those in agribusiness do today) would have been pretty independent.
How did you muster the courage to turn your back on contemporary conveniences?
I wouldn't call it courage. Curiosity about what it would be like maybe? Utter frustration sometimes at how complicated modern life can be. Also I remembered with fondness the year I spent in Kenya teaching school and how pleasant that pared-down existence was.
Of course, it's human nature to forget the pain, like scrubbing my clothes with a soapy brush on a big rock out back or 2 a.m. trips to a rat-infested cho (African outhouse) with an exploding, amoeba-infested gut. I always laugh when I hear people haul out that Santayana quote about those who forget history being condemned to repeat it. Hell, humans are hardwired to forget!
How did your anticipation -- or trepidation -- compare to the reality of taking your first steps into the past?
Reality hit me like a ton of bricks -- or more accurately, like a ton of horse flesh. Our draft horse, Belle, was the embodiment of all that I didn't know. And unlike other potentially lethal things, like guns or cars, she was alive and with ideas of her own.
The day she arrived, we got into a wrestling match when I tried to unharness her. Later, I felt sick to my stomach. I hadn't taken any lessons. I didn't know the breeching from a back strap. I thought, what the hell have I gotten myself into. Like so many other things -- gardening, cooking with wood, milking goats -- I would have to muddle through, only muddling through with a big ornery draft horse could mean serious bodily harm.
In retrospect, what were the three greatest rewards you encountered during the course of your visit to 1900?
It took a while, but certainly the sense of accomplishment I felt learning to drive Belle and gaining her respect. My improved relationship with Heather after working through some pretty rocky days early on. By the end, we shared a deep respect for one another. Learning the importance of community and that self-sufficiency is not all it's cut out to be. Not necessarily in that order.
And which two or three things you gave up did you consider the most difficult or regrettable sacrifice?
In terms of actual things: Heather would say the washer/dryer for sure, since laundry was her chore. I missed the kitchen sink. Before 1900, I completely took the tap and the drain for granted. Every ounce of water that entered our house we had to pump and haul, and most of it we had to haul back out and dump over a fence. Also music: Neither of us played an instrument, nor do we sing all that well. We even forgot to take songbooks. So sitting around with Luther, we'd launch into a song and soon we'd be filling in lines with nonsense words, like da, da, da.
What would you rank as your greatest moment of doubt during the year -- and how close did you come to abandoning the experiment?
The day the horse arrived was a major moment of doubt and the project had yet to begin! And then there was the time I threw the wheelbarrow at Heather…but still the project had not yet started.
Let's see, in July, we found ourselves in the grips of a drought. The garden that was supposed to sustain us for the year was stunted. We couldn't pump enough water to do any good. The most we could do was to walk the rows at night after long days of chores watering the new sprouts by the light of our oil lamps so the sprouts wouldn't shrivel. We felt helpless. Our neighbor gave us a bucket of tomatoes for canning. The August rains came just in time, and we eventually had plenty of tomatoes and lots of other veggies. We even paid the neighbor back in beans and corn. Still, we were determined not to give up.
When the terrorists struck on 9/11, we almost gave up or at least abandoned our rules to watch TV and use the phone. Our experiment felt silly in the face of such tragedy. But we stuck by our rules. As we did during the drought, we realized we were not in control and in this case technology was not going to help us regain control. In the end, what happened on 9/11 strengthened our resolve. As people around the country talked about shifting priorities to home and family, we remembered that we had already done that in a major way.
How would you compare or contrast the act of stepping back a century to the act of returning to the present day? Which did you find more disorienting, and why?
Returning was by far more disorienting. We poured so much time and energy into creating a plan for accurately recreating 1900 life that we didn't leave ourselves any time or energy for laying out a reentry plan.
During our 1900 year, we had the luxury of focusing on the here and now. Most of our cares lay within a couple hundred yards of the slam of our screen porch door. When the project was over, we found ourselves staring once again into that abyss called the Future. We had to earn a living and pay bills, apply for credit cards and make the house liveable by 21st Century standards. Less than three years after the project ended, we sold the farm and moved 12 miles away into Staunton, the nearest town.
What were the three greatest lessons you derived from your visit to 1900?
Three that come to mind are: There is absolutely nothing wrong with a rainy day. Snakes are our friends. And community is real important.
How have you applied each of those lessons to your life since you returned to the present?
We never take rain for granted, even when it's ruining a picnic. We have nestled into this community, walking everywhere, shopping locally whenever we get the chance, volunteering, giving and getting in return. It has given us a sense of security and purpose we never felt in New York. Oh, and I give a dozen or so rat snakes the run of the house.
Now that you've returned to the present day, what do you most miss about your stay in 1900? Our deep and daily interaction with nature. How we relied on the soil for so much. How our lives changed with the seasons. That and the lack of distractions. I'll probably never again go for a year without hearing the phone ring or knowing that no one on the entire planet is expecting my call.
In writing See You in a Hundred Years, who did you visualize as the audience for the book?
Not sure. I have noticed how members of my parents' generation have taken to it, maybe because they represent the transition away from this way of life. They were close enough to touch it, and yet today they talk on cell phones, exchange digital photo by e-mail, fly around the globe on jets. People younger than I am look at me like I'm weird. "You mean you didn't have a TV?"
Now that you've lived in 1900, what other years might you like to inhabit?
I'm a sucker for the simple life, so maybe 1903. No cars, phones but I'd be able to shave with a safety razor.
How is visiting 1900 similar to visiting southwestern Bolivia, and how is it different?
Pretty different. On that trip, we drove a Land Cruiser sloshing with big cans of extra gasoline across a dry and desolate landscape of salt flats and high desert. We ate llama meat and burned moss for heat. It was more like dropping down on Mars than landing in the verdant Shenandoah Valley in 1900. But hey, both were adventures.
Amazon.com customers who bought See You in a Hundred Years have also purchased Conquering the Impossible: My 12,000-Mile Journey Around the Arctic Circle, by Mike Horn; Gardening When it Counts: Growing Food in Hard Times, from the Mother Earth News Wiser Living Series; Shattered Dreams: My Life as a Polygamist's Wife, by Irene Spencer; Away, a novel by Amy Bloom; and Circling My Mother, a memoir by Mary Gordon. Are you comfortable in that company?
Why, are they coming over?
Which two other books might your recommend to buy as complements to See You in a Hundred Years?
Omnivore's Dilemma, by Michael Pollan, an enjoyable and important book by one of the best journalists alive. Incidentally, his hero, Joel Salatin, was our neighbor in Swoope. The Final Frontiersman, by Wisconsin's own James Campbell, about Heimo Korth, a trapper who lives with his family in a cabin above the Arctic Circle. Talk about simple living.
What accounts for your friendship with James Campbell? How and when did you first meet? What qualities did you perceive in him or his writing that you found sympatico to your own?
We met back in the early 1990s, when we were both freelancing in New York. He moved away for graduate school in Colorado. Later he moved back to City Island in the Bronx, and we renewed our friendship. We both share a love of adventure and nature and, I think, look to book projects for a reason to explore the world. He went the Alaskan wilderness to a grueling expedition over New Guinea's highest mountain range. I lived the life of a 1900 dirt farmer and have begun an on-foot exploration of suburban sprawl for what I hope will be a new book.
The theme of this year's Wisconsin Book Festival is "Domestic Tranquility." How would you define domestic tranquility, and how did your stay in 1900 shape your definition?
One definition might be home life without distractions. During our 1900 year, we never traveled more than six miles from our kitchen stove. If someone was beyond shouting distance, we wrote them a letter. We mostly focused on ourselves, our animals and our immediate neighbors. Without a major life change and deep commitment to see it through, I'm not sure that sort of domestic tranquility is attainable, and I'm not even sure it's what Heather and I want. But for a year, it was pure magic.
Have you read The Year of Living Biblically: One Man's Humble Quest to Follow the Bible as Literally as Possible, by A.J. Jacobs, with whom you are scheduled to appear at the festival?
No, but it sounds fascinating and very funny.
Among this year's other Wisconsin Book Festival presenters, who might you be most intrigued to see?
James Campbell, the author I mentioned above, who will be speaking about his second book, The Ghost Mountain Boys. And Rick Bass.
What were the last two books you read that you would recommend to friends or strangers, and why would you recommend them?
I just finished Oil on the Brain, by Lisa Margonelli. She follows the supply chain of oil from the pump to the pipeline. An entertaining read and very important stuff. If the U.S. doesn't wean itself off oil, we might all be living in 1900. Before that I read an advanced copy of my friend Kim Sunee's forthcoming memoir, Trail of Crumbs, sort of a food-centric search for the self. I highly recommend both.