William Powers spent a decade doing international aid work in Latin America and Africa among people who live at the very edge of subsistence. When he came back to the U.S. he was depressed and overwhelmed by the disposable excesses of American culture, and uncertain how to adapt. In the midst of this crisis he heard about a physician, Dr. Jackie Benton, who took herself off the grid, moving into a 12-foot-by-12-foot cabin in rural North Carolina and giving up electricity, running water and all but $11,000 of her six-figure salary. Intrigued by this voluntary austerity, Powers finagles an invitation to the property, then an offer to stay there solo through the springtime while Dr. Benton is traveling.
The 12 x 12 itself is a fascinating space, situated in the midst of the doctor’s permaculture garden near the shore of No Name Creek. With its raincatchers, composting toilet, sleep loft and little shelf of books, it’s an eco-fantasy come true. There are other people living off the land on nearby parcels, and their stories overlap as Powers finds his way around. From the homeschooling family who escaped a drug-laden trailer park to try their hand at organic farming to an undocumented Latino furniture maker, cultures rub up against one another, sometimes uncomfortably, among these people who want to “get away from it all,” but each for different reasons.
Twelve by Twelve is a fascinating look at a subculture making positive changes in the world, but the book is not without faults. The decision to organize it in two sections of 12 chapters each feels gimmicky and adds little to the reader’s experience. Powers also changed facts about Dr. Benton’s identity to protect her privacy, but it’s unclear how much of the information about her neighbors has been altered, which becomes worrisome when they occasionally hew to stereotype. Hardest of all, Powers refers endlessly to the 12 x 12, and what it taught him to “live 12 x 12,” and what “Jackie’s wisdom” imparted to him, but he doesn’t give us enough firsthand access to those insights to be able to judge them for ourselves. His lectures feel a little disingenuous when he’s biking into town for lattes or shopping at the expensive co-op. Still, for those unfamiliar with the permaculture lifestyle, this is a lovely introduction to its philosophies and principles, and a hopeful story as well.
Heather Seggel reads and writes in Ukiah, California.