Learning To Live With Less

By: Mary Richmond

Mary Richmond illustration

After the wind and rain of a winter storm, the beach was quiet and empty. Seaweed and seashells had been tossed about and gulls in dull winter plumage watched me warily from their spots on the upper beach as they waited for the tide to turn. There wasn’t a sound except the slush of the waves against the sand. The sky was full of fat clouds tinged with lavender and the raw, damp cold seeped in though every opening in my clothing.

I shoved my hands deeper into my pockets after pulling my collar up around my ears. If one could say anything positive about mask wearing besides its obvious anti-viral qualities, it may be that it keeps your face warm on bitter cold days. A big black backed gull stood by the water’s edge, its unwavering gaze a bit unsettling as I passed by.

I couldn’t help but wonder if it was cold, that gull standing on wet sand in the December wind. Feathers are great insulation and I know that the network of veins in their legs and feet helps keep them warm, but still, birds look and seem so exposed in winter.

Mammals grow extra fur to keep them warm. The inner coats are fluffy and short, close to the skin, while the rough outer coats are coarser, allowing for some protection against the rain as well as the cold. Most seek shelter on really awful days, and for some that means simply curling up in a ball in a snowbank and waiting out the storm.

Wild animals and birds must seek fresh food on a daily basis. I realize some are scavengers but even they must keep an eye out for fresh supplies on a regular basis. Winter is a tough time for many. Food can be scarce for many reasons.

A few creatures stash food for these tough times, but those places may be forgotten or raided by others. If you’ve watched squirrels, jays or woodpeckers stash tidbits away you can see how either of these events could occur quite easily.

And yet, they all persevere. There is always some loss during winter due to extreme or unfavorable conditions, but to be fair, that happens the rest of the year as well. Most will survive, if not thrive.

Very few wild animals have belongings which makes it easier to find places to hide or rest. There are a few, such as the infamous pack rats and crows, that collect things, but even they will move on, leaving those behind when it becomes necessary. Animals and birds pretty much carry with them only what they are, what they know, what they can do.

Imagine that. Early people were migratory and carried with them only what they needed to have or to build shelter, a few tools, perhaps a bowl or a cup, and weapons for protection or hunting. Once we settled into somewhat permanent housing, we began to collect and keep things. The more things the better.

When I was in college in the early '70s, National Geographic published photos of people from different cultures around the world with what they owned. As you may guess, Americans had an embarrassing overabundance of things while some people in India and Africa had a blanket, a bowl, a spoon, and a spear in addition to the clothes on their backs.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot as I work my way through decluttering my home of a lifetime of accumulation. Having cleaned out the houses of our parents and other relatives, if I know anything for sure it’s that we don’t take any of it with us and no one else wants it, either.

It’s been an interesting process, for I have discovered we own multiples of all sorts of things, mostly due to having cleaned out aforementioned places. Frankly, it’s been very freeing.

It goes without saying that this past year has been a doozie. But, perhaps it has shown us we can live with a lot less. It has given us some time and space to consider the difference between want and need and to determine what really is important.

I probably will never be as carefree as the gull or the funny little squirrel in my own backyard, and I don’t think I have to be. I do live in a human world, after all. But I can live with a lot less.

We stopped buying anything but necessities about nine months ago when the virus first hit. It was a sudden financial reality but to be honest, not much changed. We had what we needed. We were fortunate to be able to keep up with our home and energy bills by getting rid of all extraneous services and expenses. Life became quieter, less hassled. Maybe those wild things really do have the secret of life. Maybe it’s been us that have been fooled all along. Learning to live with less may be the best gift of a year that has been a challenge in so many other ways.