I'D ONLY JUST TURNED 20 but thought of myself as much older than my peers, who unlike me had actually listened to the advice of their elders. This meant that while I'd been working full-time to get my husband through college, they'd been happily matriculating at prestigious campuses around the country. I consoled myself with the notion that, unlike them, I was an adult. And that my time would come, which finally it did.
I enrolled at the local city college and arrived on campus on day one as thrilled as a freshly scrubbed first-grader, energized by the semiguilty thought that my real life, or rather that cluster of potentialities that lay like a vein of unmined ore somewhere deep inside me, was finally about to reveal itself. Who would I turn out to be? Though I had assumed I would discover this when I became a grown-up (one of the reasons I'd found the supposed emancipation of teenage marriage so compelling), so far I didn't have a clue.
My first class was biology. The professor, reedy and earnest and not much older than the rest of us, announced that we would not, as I had expected, be studying mitosis, but rather something he called "environmentalism." It was 1972, and Planet Earth was in peril, he said; if our habits did not change dramatically, within 35 years we'd be coping with the harbingers of an environmental apocalypse.
Shocked and upset--my most profound religious experiences had come during childhood as I communed with nature, and even though I could no longer believe in the Christian God, the only place I felt close to being whole and good was in the natural world--I went home that night, sewed myself a crude backpack of sailcloth and unearthed my ancient bike lock. And for the next two semesters, I peddled to school, 11 miles each way, because knowing what I now knew, there was no other choice.
Forty-two years before my own great awakening, a young Englishman named Alan Griffiths, along with two friends from Oxford, embarked on what he called an "experiment in common life." The three were appalled at the environmental degradation caused by the Industrial Revolution, but even more so by the resulting damage to the culture. They set out to recapture some of what had been lost by adopting a premodern way of life "primeval in its simplicity," as Griffiths puts it in his autobiography The Golden String.
After some months of searching, they bought a small Cotswold cottage without electricity or running water near a village called Eastington. Griffiths, committed to walking rather than driving or taking trains, made the daily trek each day to fill their clay pitchers at the village pump. The three of them cooked meals on the fireplace: porridge in the morning, vegetable stew and cheese cut from a large round of Double Gloucester at midday, and eggs, laid by their foraging ducks, in the evening.
Griffith's visionary enthusiasm occasionally proved too much for his companions. However, he loved the sense of being at one with nature, which at 17 had given him his first genuine religious experience, an event so overwhelming that the post-Victorian Christianity in which he'd been raised paled in comparison. His new spiritual guides were the great Romantic poets: Coleridge, Keats, Shelley, Wordsworth.
Yet at Eastington even these 19th-century poets were too recent. Wanting as authentic an experience of premodern life as they could get, the three limited themselves to books from the 1600s or earlier, often reading these in their original languages. This misty, bygone world still shimmered in the great medieval churches that loomed like God over Cotswold towns and villages. Soon, as though it were a natural next step, they were spending part of each morning, "while the porridge was cooking on the fire and the candles in winter shed their mellow light on the crockery," immersed in their Bibles.
By the time the grand experiment ended less than a year later, they were praying on their knees and fasting, and Griffiths had begun worshiping at the village church. …