Quilt of many colors

The following book review appeared in Caelum et Terra, Winter 1994.

Review of Simple Living: One Couple's Search for a Better Life, by Frank Levering and Wanda Urbanska. Viking, 1992, 272 pp.

Reviewed by Mary Meehan

Wanda Urbanska and Frank Levering, a young married couple in Los Angeles, were free-lance writers trying to compete on the fast track when they finally realized that they were "secretly and utterly miserable" with their lives. The fast track was too fast; they were workaholics; they were tired of entertainment and status games; they couldn't save money; and they didn't have enough time for each other or for deep-down friendships.

Frank was the youngest of six children. He had grown up in rural Virginia, where his Quaker parents owned an orchard. When Frank's father had a heart attack at age seventy-seven, the young couple returned to the orchard for several months so Frank could help with the apple harvest while Wanda finished a book.

The beauty of the Virginia mountains and the more human sort of life there quickly captured them. So they made a partnership agreement with Frank's parents and moved to Virginia for good. Yet they were able to continue writing, as this book proves, while helping with the orchard.

The book is the story of how they adjusted to country life and quite deliberately de-escalated their consumerism. As they say, it is "about getting connected with natural rhythms and to life outside yourself...It's about mending and caring for things rather than discarding them at the first sign of age or wear...It's about the self-confidence gained by taking one's finances firmly in hand...and about working to make commitments rather than to guard options."

Wanda, of Polish-Danish descent, was brought up an Episcopalian, and the couple were married in an Episcopal church. Lacking certainty in religious matters, they now go to Quaker meeting with Frank's parents.

Politically, they are correct enough to belong to the Sierra Club and to believe that there are too many people in the world. They show encouraging signs of rising above this, however, when they note that "we hope to be" parents someday.

While religion is not central to their story, there are intriguing references to the Quaker faith and practice of Frank's parents, Sam and Miriam Levering. In speaking with older Quakers, we find, Sam still says things like, "And where is thy home?...And where art thou from originally?" The orchard has long carried a heavy debt--which the youngsters are trying to retire-- partly because Sam and Miriam have volunteered so much time to work for peace through the years.

Sam is highly principled, eccentric, and a very stubborn Quaker. He's somewhat like the supporting actor who is so good that he threatens to take over the whole film. Miriam is not as vividly drawn, though she has some of the best lines when she explains that you need not be perfect before engaging in social action: "I think you change as you do something. If you wait until you are the person of your dreams, it may be too late. Moses had his body in the water before the Red Sea parted. You take the self that you have and you put it in the water."

Sam and Miriam have lived the simple life so long that they're not obsessed by it, as Frank and Wanda seem to be at times. The older couple find real joy in their peace work. When they return from a road trip, "They're on top of the world, in fact. Bragging about their latest exploits. Talking excitedly about the people they've met. Laughing and carrying on."

The younger couple, by contrast, seem terribly earnest as they describe their efforts to simplify their lives and live by their ideals. Their account has something to offer everyone who is struggling with these issues. Whether you are just trying to retreat from consumerism, or considering a move to the country and self-sufficiency, you can learn from their experience.

You may also learn something from the experience of other people they describe who made similar changes. Some of them, such as Millard and Linda Fuller, who gave away a fortune and then started Habitat for Humanity, are using the benefits of simplification to help humanity. Others, though, seem self-absorbed. In any case, most have something interesting to say.

One of the first things Wanda and Frank did to simplify and save money was to get rid of most of their credit cards, keeping just one for identification and major transportation costs and paying its bill "before the exorbitant interest rates kick in." They bought second-hand when they needed a car, clothing, and much else. They learned to travel cheaply. They broke their old habit of eating TV dinners, instead taking the time to cook healthful food (much of it grown in the orchard or in their vegetable garden).

By practicing similar frugality in their business, and with the help of an incredibly abundant cherry harvest in 1988, they were able to reduce the orchard debt by half in less than three years.

Their recycling does not proceed merely from financial need, but also from their love of the land and their wish to keep it clean. They realize that perfection in environmentalism is impossible, but they try hard to minimize harm to land, air and water. In the orchard, this means minimal use of pesticides. In their climate, they say, "it isn't possible--particularly with stone fruits like cherries and peaches--to grow fruit that won't rot in large quantities without spraying. But there are ways to spray as little as possible..." They add that "compounds of the organic phosphates, which are the only spray materials we use, break down under weathering in a matter of weeks." And they do not spray near harvest time.

Frank and Wanda still work hard, but they have learned to take breaks and to enjoy the natural rhythms of the seasons in those magnificent Virginia mountains: "Wanda goes out in the twilight to gather the glossy leaves from the basil plants, filling a two-cup measuring cup to the brim. A neighbor's cow lows from the foot of the mountain. A bobwhite rings out its name..."

Scything alongside an old orchard worker named Garnet Dawson, Frank thought that Garnet "offered a striking contrast to Sam," who had "set out to change the world." At day's end, "Garnet put his work behind him and enjoyed a bone-weary sense of accomplishment that Sam never could or would enjoy. Sam's goals could never be achieved. But Garnet's almost always were." Frank was learning to de-escalate his own ambition, which was probably a good idea. Yet there is much to be said for Sam's practice of spending half of his time working for peace. If more people did that, we might actually have some peace.

Although Frank and Wanda are keenly aware of "the incessant bombardment of advertising" that drives American consumerism, they don't suggest an obvious remedy: getting rid of television. This shuts off much advertising instantly, ends other cultural brainwashing, leads to wondrous peace and quiet, and provides time for reading books. (The trick, of course, is to get rid of TV without developing a superiority complex. Instead of telling people that you'd rather listen to Chopin or read St. Thomas's Summa, just say that you like the peace and quiet.)

The young orchardists have many other suggestions, though, and their book is well worth a read. By buying it, you might help them keep the orchard--and simple living--in their beloved mountains. Keep those sweet cherries and peaches coming! Support the Stayman Winesaps, the York Imperials, and even the humble Granny Smiths!

Postscript, August 2007: We're happy to report that Frank and Wanda are still going strong in their writing and at the Levering Orchard. They now have a young son, Henry, "who loves roaming the fields, picking wildflowers and roasting marshmallows." For more information and driving directions, see Levering Orchard.