An Independent Existence

By  | March 28th, 2012 | Buzzsaw Magazine

Stories of life off the grid

With an increased and ever-growing demand for technology, it may seem nearly impossible to log off Facebook or go without electricity. However, thousands of Americans each year are choosing to “unplug” in favor of a simplistic life, living off the land.

The concept of living off the grid, or in other words, independence from one or more public utilities, has jumped into national prominence over the last few years. Nick Rosen, author of Off the Grid: Inside the Movement for More Space, Less Government and True Independence in Modern Americaestimated in a 2010 article for USA Today that about 750,000 U.S. households were living off the grid, with an expected increase of 10 percent each year.

Amid soaring electricity prices and high unemployment rates, individuals are looking for ways to cut down on expenses. Since energy in off-the-grid housing is primarily based off solar panels and other environmental-friendly energy sources, electricity bills become a thing of the past.

Nick Weston, author of The Treehouse Diaries, which tells the story of the six months he spent in the woods of southern England living off-grid in a tree house, said finances were the main reason he started the project.

“Why did I have to spend so much money on bills, rent and other pointless things I didn’t need, when nature has been the ultimate provider for thousands of years?” Weston said in an email.

For the Kuncaitis family, the pressures of everyday life contributed to their decision to move to the countryside, to an Amish farm in western Michigan. Angela Kuncaitis said there was “friction” between her viewpoint and the structure of society, which often places an emphasis on personal appearance — something that wasn’t as much of a priority for her.  Kunicaitis also longed to have a stronger relationship with her children and husband.

“The decision to go off-grid was about me and how I wanted to live my life,” Kuncaitis said. “I had to get out of the box.”

Living off-grid allowed Kuncaitis to explore the way they truly wanted to raise their family. The family does chores and daily farm tasks together, and at night they crowd around a single bright light in the kitchen to recap the day’s events.

Kunicaitis said that the farm provided the family with a community, as they were exempt from most societal pressures often present in mainstream society. She said prior to moving to the farm, her children were pressured to conform to society’s standards for appearance, but with their arrival in the countryside they tossed away the make-up and just ran freely outside.

“It was a beginning for us, it was freedom and it was so beautiful,” Kuncaitis said. “I just knew that this is who I was and how I wanted to raise my family.”

Beyond just the search for liberation, living off-grid becomes a search for one’s identity. Corbin Dunn’s decision to live off-grid in a tree house for five years in Santa Cruz, California was more about feeding his desire to be surrounded by nature than to escape society. For the duration of the adventure, Dunn had the treehouse wired with some electricity and water, and even sought out an office job at Apple on Cocoa. The treehouse was more of his spot, something to identify with.

“I built 90 percent of the treehouse myself,” Dunn said. “It really was my own place. It was kind of my own identity, my own thing.”

Weston eventually became unhappy with the low-income lifestyle he was living in London and nostalgic for the simplicity of his childhood. He returned to the countryside to live in a self-sufficient manner.

“The treehouse was the catalyst I needed to change my life and put it back on track and in the direction I wanted to be going,” Weston said. “I think the reason going off-grid is so appealing is because it is a metaphor for all the things you could want in life: Being your own person, not having to answer to anyone else and being responsible for your own future.”

While living off-grid is supposed to be a life of simplicity, it is difficult to pull off in the modern world.

The Kuncaitis family reexamined their lifestyle after a member of the family got severely sick last year. In January they invested in a washer, dryer, three outlets, a lamp and an indoor toilet.

Dunn, on the other hand, said that he never saw living in the treehouse as a permanent residential option.  Factors like the location of his job and desire to maintain an electrical car prevented Dunn from seeing off-grid living as the best choice for him.

“I think it’s possible to break off the grid completely, but it’s very difficult,” Dunn said. “You have to make some choices. You have to give up some things.”

Beyond maintaining a lifestyle of off-grid living, Kuncaitis said the real difficulty is breaking off from mainstream ideals and pursuing the lifestyle you want.

“Everyone is looking for the utopia,” Kuncaitis said. “People are sick of the rat race. People want liberation but they just don’t know where to start and how to get off the hamster wheel.”