Modern jobs give us longer hours, more money and less life. But two bike riders are meeting the people pushing back.
Published in Smith Journal, Volume 4
WHEN you’ve been cycling for three full days in constant rain – and when you know that everything, everything, is wet, and you are 2000 kilometres into a monstrous 5000-kilometre adventure – well, by now, you’ve had plenty of time to contemplate how and why you got here.
For Greg Foyster and Sophie Chishkovsky, these are some of the reasons: catastrophic climate change, the cello, and philosopher Henry David Thoreau; a panic attack, a 30-year mortgage, and the biggest question of all – how can you shape a life that makes your soul sing?
The couple set off from Melbourne in March, marking the occasion by stripping off for the World Naked Bike Ride. Since then, they’ve cycled and camped through Tasmania and Victoria and interviewed three-dozen people along the way, from the founder of permaculture to a forest activist living at the top of a tree. It’s only the beginning. They’re on the slow road to Cairns.
When we speak on the phone, he and Chishkovsky have just dried out from those interminable days of rain. They’re in the Bega Valley, in south-eastern New South Wales, staying with a couple who raise pigs and grow shitake mushrooms. “They’re downshifters. They used to work in IT in Canberra,” Foyster reports. “Now they’ve got a funny sign on the gate that says ‘Beware of roaming piglets’.”
The pair’s journey is a tour of tactics for simple living, documenting the alternative ways we can meet our needs, from food, water and shelter, to community, work and health.
“What we’re doing isn’t new,” he stresses. “There’s a long history of people choosing to reduce their reliance on material things and explore a more direct way of living.”
It’s true: way back in the 3rd century BC, the philosopher Diogenes spruiked simplicity through the streets of Athens (apparently he lived in a barrel).
Simple living is a thread that unites Eastern and Western philosophers, writers and religious teachers, from Buddha and Lao Tzu to Tolstoy and Gandhi.
Perhaps its most famous adherent is Henry David Thoreau. He was nearly 28 years old in 1845 when he ventured to the woods on the shore of Walden Pond, near Concord, Massachusetts. He lived there for just over two years.
His book, Walden, partly written in his hand-built cabin by the lake, is the classic case for plain living and elevated thinking. “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived,” he wrote.
Walden is dense and difficult reading, but it’s closely stocked with quotable wisdom. On the supposed connection between wealth and happiness, he wrote that we “labour under a mistake”; on material possessions, that people “have become the tools of their tools”.
Foyster and Chishkovsky’s quest, however, is also propelled by the crises of 21st century global capitalism. “By geological standards, humans have only been around for a short time, but we’ve already increased the level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere by a third and multiplied the species extinction rate by as much as 1000 times,” Foyster says. “And the biggest and most damaging changes have occurred during the consumer boom of the last 60 years.”
The simple life is now a matter of moral necessity, not only spiritual wellbeing. But simple doesn’t mean easy. How can you afford a home? And what about kids and a career?
Foyster is 29 and, lately, he’s noticed those social expectations loitering in the corners of his mind. Chishkovsky, a cellist and music teacher, is 23 and already more accustomed than him to the idea of living differently. Soon after leaving home for university she became vegetarian. “When you think about animal rights issues, you start thinking about other social and economic issues and about the planet as well,” she says.
“I had a natural inclination towards it, whereas Greg has to intellectualise something before he adopts new habits. He needs a very specific motive, backed up with reason and statistics.”
Foyster never was a flowerchild. He was an ad man. His epiphany started slowly.
For five years after university he slaved over TV and print commercials for big brands such as Heinz, Holden, CUB and ANZ. Despite the creative thrills, the money and the corporate sheen, he couldn’t shake a niggling scepticism about his profession.
When he began moonlighting as an occasional environmental writer, the contradiction pressed hard on his mind. He’d learnt that overconsumption in rich countries was the main driver of climate change and other environmental crises. But he was writing ads for a car company.
At an industry awards night the hypocrisy finally cracked him. “Why are we congratulating each other for making the world a worse place?” he thought. Part way through dinner, he escaped the stifling self-celebrations and found himself sobbing next to a nearby pier instead.
That lucid moment was the easy part. Foyster tried avoiding the accounts he abhorred, but it wasn’t enough. Four months later, he quit. The following day, numb all over, and breathing fast and weak like a wounded rabbit, he admitted himself to hospital. It was a panic attack, the doctors told him.
In the next phase, the epiphany’s long tail, Foyster channelled his workaholism into freelance journalism, covering environmental and social issues. Still in his mid-twenties, he moved into a “hippy sharehouse” in Melbourne’s north. When they started going out, Chishkovsky introduced him to her more radical friends – artists and activists who lived another kind of existence, one where money was scarce but passion and free time were thick on the ground.
“It was a good time in my life,” he says. “I was making a small income doing something I loved and my environmental impact was very low by Australian standards. What I believed and what I did were finally aligned, and that made me happy. But the situation couldn’t last.”
Like many people who work in creative, interesting, low-paying jobs, Foyster and Chishkovsky are in a bind: renting doesn’t offer the secure tenure they want (unlike in some European countries), but buying is unaffordable. If they shackle themselves to a typical 30-year-mortgage, they’ll have to forgo doing what they love.
“Housing is definitely the biggest barrier to living a simple life in Australia,” Foyster says. “Homeownership is tied up with the accumulation of wealth and that means people see a home as an investment property, which pushes up prices.”
With this in mind, they’ve been pedalling between alternatives. Near Castlemaine, in central Victoria, they met a filmmaking couple who took three years off to build their own house and who emerged with a beautiful dwelling and without much debt.
Not far from there, they visited Peter Cowman, who trained as an architect, but now describes himself as “an itinerant shelter-maker” – he teaches people how to build tiny houses, measuring three metres by three metres.
“His idea is that we’ve forgotten what a house is actually for. We think it has to be a permanent structure that increases in value over decades, but in many other cultures a house can be a temporary dwelling you abandon when it no longer serves your purpose,” Foyster says.
So far, the tiny house is the idea that’s stuck. While their wheels turn, in their daydreams they see a mini-dwelling in the corner of one of their parents’ blocks. “We’d be putting the capital in that property to use, rather than letting it sit there. And then we can establish a life with variation – something physical and something mentally challenging each day,” he says.
Their vision mimics the elements of their journey: both the legwork and the new ideas they traverse as they pedal and greet.
In a typical day on the road, they spend about five or six hours in the saddle. To their surprise, it usually takes about that amount of time again just to secure their necessities: water, food and a safe place to camp for free.
More than ever before, they’re fronting the essential facts of life. And it turns out that the weather matters more than they thought. Just as the days of rain were cause for misery, so the sunshine brings joy. So much joy, in fact, that Foyster lists fine weather, along with flat roads and food, as their prime sources of daily exhilaration.
Above all that, however, are the people. They’ve interviewed so many folks with sparks in their eyes that it can’t be a coincidence.
“Everybody we’ve met has been happy and content and very much in control of their lives. They’re not the sort of people who complain about their lot in life – they’re all very proactive, positive and full of energy,” he says.
“The most inspiring moments have come after we’ve had a conversation with someone and Sophie and I lay down for bed and start talking about some of their ideas and how we’re going to apply them in our own lives.”
The day after we speak, the two are off to battle the high pass to Cooma, over Brown Mountain (if it rains, there could be snow and sleet). The road rises 900 metres in 17 kilometres and Foyster expects it might be the hardest stretch they’ll do in the whole trip. He is no athlete, he assures me, and expresses concern about being hit by a car.
I check in a couple of days later. “We made it up the hill in the record slow time of 3 hours, 53 minutes and 22 seconds, including a leisurely one hour lunch break at a look out,” Foyster writes, by email. “We’re soft-core.”
They’re already a month a half behind schedule, delayed by the flu, floods and Foyster’s gammy knee. They should make it to the tropics in time for the worst of the wet season. But no matter – today they’re warm, dry, well-fed and chipper. It’s simple, really. What more do you need?