The sun loops lazily from east to west. Having pounded us all summer, it has now lost its ambition, fatigue dragging it back from the apex of the sky. The rustling draws near enough that I open my eyes. I’m sitting in my forest reading room. Two red squirrels, no more than a metre in front of me, are frantically yanking carobs from an old tree. The branches bow and bounce as these furry acrobats leap from one precariousness to another, stuffing the long brown pods into their mouths as they go.
As I watch them gorge, I ponder on the subject of need. Do those squirrels really need all those carobs? Are they being greedy, or just trying to survive? What do I need? What do you need? What exactly is need?
Most are au fait with Maslow’s famous hierarchy of needs. It’s been more or less engraved upon the educated modern mind. According to this wonderfully simplistic diagram unbacked by any empirical study and yet nonetheless taught to high school students the world over, needs are fulfilled in a set sequence. According to Maslow our primary needs are related to physical survival, once they are fulfilled we strive for psychological security, then emotional fulfilment, and then self-expansion. Apart from the ubiquitous skyward ‘thrust’ of the thing, it errs in many other directions, as properly pointed out by this BBC article. For example, if our survival needs are the priority, why do some people leap from buildings when they lose their job or fail an exam? Why might someone risk their life for a love affair? What about homeless artists or death-flirting adventurers? It seems our needs are less organised than we are given to believe.
Over the past few years, I’ve had my own preconceived ideas about need turned royally upside down. I’m now altogether uncertain where the line between ‘need’ and ‘desire’ actually is. Before my home was complete, back in the days when I still owned a car, I had a vision of what I thought I needed. Basic requirements were: a fridge, a washing machine, hot water and wheels. According to every disaster news broadcast I’d seen, to live without the above was to have slipped into the ragged economic terrain of the world’s impoverished. It wasn’t sitting with a swollen belly and flies gathering about my eyes, but it was one step away.
Thus, at the outset of this Mud adventure, I made up my mind to acquire my basic essentials one by one. You know; to have a ‘proper’ home with at least the minimal ‘necessities’. And then something odd happened. Rather than acquire more, I started getting rid of the little I had (the car and my fridge have already left The Mud). I still have no hot water. I’ve got used to cold showers and heating water on the stove. Even the washing machine idea has hit the wayside. Huh? No washing machine? Why?
It has dawned on me this year that acquiring a washing machine is more of a pain in the butt than the washing it’s supposed to liberate me from. It means scouring the concrete-throttled streets of a city for someone who can a) sell me some solar panels and a larger inverter b)install the afore-mentioned technology, c)is prepared to drive about 30 km to do this d)is competent enough to set up the system without screwing up the system already in place. It also means I’ll have to construct some type of shed for my machine so that it doesn’t get wet. Then it is going to go wrong (because technology always does). I’m going to have to find a repair person willing to drive 30 km to repair it, and pay them half the price of the machine to do so. You see, when I in remote Mud Mountain land look at that financial outlay and the effort involved in owning a washing machine, then look at my meagre washing pile, it just doesn’t make sense. I quite like hand washing my clothes. When you’re not roasting for 8 or 9 hours a day in corporate hell, you’ve got plenty of time. So who cares? And for my bed sheets? As you know, I also have good friends, all whom own washing machines, who’ll help me out once a fortnight in return for some organic beans:)
The point I’m trying to make in this rather convoluted rinse and spin cycle, is that so many of these ‘basic necessities’ are simply options. For me, this distinction is crucial, because the idea that you need something creates a lot of fear and stress. It squashes you into a corner and impels you to do things you’d perhaps rather not. If you think you need something, you become easy to manipulate.
But let’s get back to Maslow and ridiculous diagrams that really don’t explain anything. Just for the devilish fun of it, I’ve created my own utterly erroneous, over-simplistic chart of need/desire. And just for a change (because we could do with a change, we really could) I’ve ditched the pyramid, and drawn a spider. Why? Why not? I like spiders. They have eight eyes and no eyelids. They have threads coming out of their bottoms and make silk art out of them. And you can never really be sure if they’re moving up or down or round and round.
So the spider’s body of need is all the stuff that we die without; food, water, air, decent sleep which is probably dependent on shelter. Once we’re breathing, have had a drink and filled our bellies, for a few hours at least we’re zipping along a web of choices. Do you prefer a more solid roof over your head or a new pair of jeans? Do you prefer health insurance or an internet connection? Would you rather have a washing machine and do a job you hate, or paint rocks and wash by hand? There is no hierarchy. There is choice.
But wait. My spider is coming unstuck already, because this analogy doesn’t work any better than Maslow’s. What about happiness? Peace? Creative expression? Love? Can we really live without them? Are they less important than breathing? No, I’ve got it all wrong. I see. The body of the spider can’t be food, air and water. I’ve inadvertently fallen into Maslow’s trap of prioritising the physical. Why is happiness so important to us? Why do we need meaning and joy? Because we don’t exist only as physical beings. Our souls fight to survive just as hard as our bodies. Happiness, joy, meaning and love feed our will to live. It’s that will which is at the heart of it all. Lose that and you’re already dead.
I’m back in the forest. A confusion of twigs and branches grope at the shade. I've made no progress. Needs are weird. I can't nail them down, or separate them out for long enough to make head or tail of them. They come and go like rain clouds.The carob tree in front of me rustles again. One of the squirrels stops mid-munch and notices me sitting there. Cocking her head, she gives me a once over, the branch bobbing below her like a springboard. Her mate then performs a staggering tree-to-tree leap that looks pretty much like flying to me. The pair of them hop and skip and bound along the arms of the pines, followed by their cheerful red tails. The squirrels know autumn is knocking. It’s time to fill bellies and store. But hey, let’s be honest, it doesn’t look like a drudge job. Need, desire, play and adventure are intertwined, not separated into competing choices. As I crane my neck to watch them disappear, a flush of wonder rises in my chest. Life on Earth appears not just to be programmed to survive, but to enjoy surviving, to express that joy and to share it, mostly all at once. The natural world doesn’t really do plodding hierarchies. It’s not fond of tidy conclusions either. It prefers interconnected webs, scampering from limb to limb, and taking maniacal leaps of faith, instead.
Any better ideas? Feel free to add them in the comments below.
Atulya K Bingham
Sick of the screen?
You can now get a beautiful, illustrated paperback edition of Mud Mountain.
"Beautifully written and inspiring." The Owner Builder Magazine.
Want to follow my journey?