The riddle of modern day hermits

Every now and then, people who have rejected society get caught under its radar and their solitary lives make it into newspapers. Three recent stories in the papers talked about such contemporary recluses living simple (or, rather, very difficult) lives away from humanity and close to nature. The unimaginable lives of modern-day hermits hold many people’s minds in a grip of fascination. Millions of websites with examples and tips come up if you search for “living a simple life” or similar on the Internet. Here are just a few articles that caught my attention recently:
– A Russian family of six who lived a solitary life in the forests of Siberia for over 4 decades, unaware even of World War II, were discovered by geologists in 1978 (read a wonderful article here
Emma Orbach, an Oxford graduate who has now lived for 13 years in a mud hut in Wales.
– An experiment in reclusive living for a year done by Peter Owen Jones (those of you based in the UK can view a documentary about Peter here)
– Mary Cathryn S., a catholic hermit (article here)

Russian hermit sisters Natalia and Agafia. In 2013, the last survivor of the family, Agafia, still lives alone in the family hut. Photo: 1977 Source: Smithsonian.com

Karp Lykov and his daughter Agafia Lykova in 1977, wearing clothes which the geologists gave them as presents. Sourse: Smithsonian.com

In an interesting paper from 1977, two sociologists, Elgin and Mitchell, study what they call ‘voluntary simplicity’. Interestingly, they draw a distinction between voluntary simplicity which normally happens in urban areas and does not involve reclusive living, and ‘back to nature’ movements. Bearing in mind this distinction, we can nevertheless see strong links between the two phenomena – with the back-to-nature movement being a the more extreme and rare expression of the more or less the same core values. Elgin and Mitchell describe the reasons for choosing a voluntarily simple lifestyle in the USA and the living patterns common for it, as well as the social and business implications. They pinpoint an important feature that is the sense of ‘urgency and social responsibility’ (p. 3) common to the choice of a simple life which, when the paper was written, struck them as a novel phenomenon which had not existed a decade previously. The underpinning values that they identify appear very similar to those today: material simplicity, human scale living (small is beautiful), self-determination, ecological awareness, and personal growth. It is also interesting to compare their somewhat optimistic predictions for the year 2000 with the benefit of hindsight. The popularity of simple living seems to have grown indeed, but on a much smaller and less society-encompassing scale as the authors predict.


Categories: Rethinking The World, The Idle Ethnographer

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