Miriam Lancewood is 33, university educated, unemployed and homeless. She doesn’t own a car, a computer, a cellphone; a bed, a clock or a mirror. And that’s just the way she likes it.
In 2010, Lancewood, who is Dutch, and her now-husband Peter, a long-haired, weather-beaten former lecturer at Massey University, ended the lease on their white weatherboard cottage and headed into the South Marlborough wilderness.
Supplies had been calculated to the last teabag.
The couple were embarking on an experiment, of sorts. It had occurred to Lancewood, a trained PE teacher, three years earlier, that she lacked the skills necessary to survive an apocalypse.
It wasn’t an urgent concern, but it still bothered her. Could she and Peter live without technology, electricity or society for a year?
They could, and they did. After the winter in South Marlborough, the couple spent spring in the Nelson Lakes District, and summer and autumn on the West Coast, occasionally taking shelter in unpowered huts, more often dossing down in their orange Kathmandu tent. They lived by the weather patterns, rather than the clock.
After two seasons subsisting off legumes, rice and possums, Lancewood shot and killed her first goat with her bow and arrow. She’d taught herself how to use Robin Hood’s favourite weapon using a fixed target in the back garden.
The meat became riddled with maggots within days. She and Peter picked out the larvae, and ate the goat anyway.
They wouldn’t let the life go to waste.Lancewood had spent a year preparing for the expedition the good old-fashioned way: learning by trial and error rather than reading survivalist blogs or watching “how to” videos on YouTube. She and Peter went on 10-day hikes carrying heavy loads and practised lighting fires in the rain. They read books about edible plants, and Lancewood sewed garments from woollen blankets she’d bought at op-shops. A pair of high-waisted ski trousers with shoulder straps – “I thought it’d be very nice for the kidneys, you know” – proved to be both dorky and impractical when going to the toilet. The trousers didn’t last long. They didn’t have a GPS or an emergency locator beacon. They purchased backcountry hut passes from DOC, but didn’t register their itinerary. They didn’t have one. Some things only life in the wilderness could teach. Lancewood learnt how to be alone, how to be afraid, how to be bored. She learnt how to trap animals, skin and butcher them. She learnt how to cross a river, how to build a hut. She discovered the benefits of sleeping more than 12 hours a day. She learnt to put newspaper down a long-drop before using it. The couple was independent from society, but reliant on each other. Lancewood hunted, washed clothes and hitchhiked into town when supplies were low, busking with a guitar and self-styled folk songs outside supermarkets. Peter chopped firewood and cooked meals.
At the end of a three-month stint, the couple returned to civilisation – hot showers, evening news broadcasts, emails. When they emerged from the wilderness, Lancewood barely recognised her reflection, she’d write later.Her partner’s face had become more familiar than her own. I meet Lancewood in West Auckland, during one of these brief forays into society. Almost seven years later, the experiment is still proving successful; for Lancewood, living off the grid is not only possible but preferable. She had flown in from the Netherlands the day before, where she’d spent two weeks promoting her memoir, Woman in the Wilderness. The book – based on diary entries and lengthy missives she’d posted her family over the years – tells the story of those first four seasons in the wilderness, then, the years that followed. Often, she and Peter were four days’ walk from a sealed road. We convene at her friend’s house – the same friend who had gifted her his green Swanndri, and taught her how to shoot a rifle. Peter was in Wellington, awaiting her return. They had spent the months before her tour in the bush in Taranaki. Lancewood greets me barefoot in the rain, moving with square-shouldered confidence. She’s at ease sipping tea around the Formica table; her years of sporadic contact with society have left her with an openness to strangers, and a curiosity about them.
“Did you interview Lorde?” she enquires at one point. (It was the week Green Light came out). Lancewood may have hand-sewn herself a vest out of possum pelts, but she is not a socially-stunted weirdo.
She’s wearing a green cotton singlet from H&M, exposing enviably toned arms, and quick-dry cargo pants. The ensemble comprises two of about 20 garments she owns. Around her neck, she wears a pig tooth and the horn of the first goat she killed.
Lancewood and her husband had spent 10 months trudging from the top of the North Island to the bottom of the South on the great Te Araroa Trail, when she logged on to her gmail account to find an unexpected request. There was an email from a publishing company, asking her if she’d write a book.
It took her six months, writing from 7am to 9pm every day in a ramshackle cottage on a sheep station near Castle Point. The cottage belonged to a woman who’d picked her up while hitchhiking.
The publisher had learned of Lancewood, who still does not own a laptop or a cellphone, after reading an entry she had written describing a day in her life, for a national magazine.
“We’re lying in our little tent, in our possum-fur blankets and mats and are talking about the beautiful tahr we saw today. Slowly we speak less and less and we drift into a long sleep,” she wrote.
“We are not tired, but with a quiet mind, sleep comes easily.”
Writing a book, Lancewood says, was a very different prospect to penning a few pages. But, she thought, it was an extraordinary opportunity.
“I will just have a go.”
Lancewood’s book debuted at number four on the Netherlands’ bestseller list. It was on its third reprint within two weeks. In a country of 17 million people in an area the size of Canterbury, readers are intrigued by how she and Peter, now together for 11 years, survive in such close quarters.
In Amsterdam, Lancewood stayed in a five-star hotel and was driven around in a limousine. Over two weeks, she appeared on Dutch television three times. Makeup artists made her up like a geisha, she says, half-joking.
“It was fine. I think it looked good.”
The press and publicity is just another adventure, she says.
“I enjoy every minute of it because I know it’s only very temporary.”
Lancewood’s lifestyle is not a Survivor-esque stunt or Bear Gryllsy gimmick. There are no TV cameras or cash prizes at the end. She didn’t reject society after humanity let her down, or renounce material wealth when the weight of her possessions threatened to overwhelm her.
It only dawned on her, after a friend mentioned his brother assumed she had mental problems – that people might learn of her lifestyle, and think there was something wrong with her.
“I just wanted to live completely differently.”
Lancewood’s lifestyle is a choice, borne out of a paradox. She acknowledges that only from having had access to all the trappings of modern life, can she opt to walk away them.
“If you grow up in a poor household, you just want to get some physical security, and the possessions that go with it,” she says.
“When you come out of a rich background, like me, then you can say, ‘Oh jeez, actually, all those possessions don’t make you happy.'”
She was raised in a Dutch village of 150 people, the middle child in a family of three sisters. Her mum was a theatre director and drama therapist; her dad worked with people with disabilities. Now retired, her parents run a B&B in France.
Lancewood was never a materialist. As a child, she saved all her pocket money. She’s still living off the interest today, though she says the rate’s a little low.
As a teen, she harboured dreams of living in a Zen Buddhist monastery. Later, she dreamed of teaching in Africa, and spent the year after graduation in politically turbulent Zimbabwe.
She didn’t like it – “as often with dreams, they are totally different from reality” – and headed to India, where she met her now-husband.
Lancewood found a kindred spirit in the Kiwi academic 30 years’ her senior. He had sold his house and possessions in Palmerston North five years earlier, and moved to the subcontinent with only carry-on luggage.
The couple spent two months trekking in the Himalayas. There, Lancewood encountered sadhus, Hindu holy men who live ascetic lives, roaming the mountains as living embodiments of the divine.
Lancewood, then 23, thought: “That’s what I would like to do, too.”
No-one tried to talk Lancewood out of that first foray into the wilderness. And seven years later, she doesn’t feel the need to defend her way of life.
“If people don’t agree with the way I live, well it doesn’t matter does it?” she says with refreshing frankness, as if it’s the most obvious thing in the world.
She may not contribute much to the tax pool, but she doesn’t receive any government benefits, either. She’s very law-abiding, she adds.
“But I always advocate breaking the unwritten rules – especially when it comes to the person you love.”
Lancewood says her mountain-dwelling lifestyle would be “a terrible prison for a lot of people”. There are other ways to seek adventure.
This year, she plans to explore wildernesses in Eastern Europe. She and Peter haven’t set dates, or booked flights.
She’s learned things work out better without plans.