1987 Newspaper article on Bill

 

Keeping life to the Essentials     A.M. Profile The Kansas City Star      Sat June 27, 1987

By Karen Uhlenhuth

–Lawrence— If there is one guiding principle in the life of Bill Hatke, the philosopher-gardener of Lawrence, surely it is this: “You’d be surprised how little you really need.” Consider a partial list of what Hatke doesn’t need: a television, a stereo, a motorized vehicle, grocery stores, electricity, a furnace, indoor plumbing or locks on his door.
Hake claims, and several of his friends confirm, that his budget generally runs about $120. That’s annual. His distrust of the dollar is such that when he discovered last year that he’d earned about $150 from the sale of his peas and tomatoes, he actually began to worry.
“I’m cutting back on my gardening, because I’m making too much money,” he confessed. “I find if I make money, I spend it. I just get in the habit.”
Already, he says, he’s amassed enough to pay his bills through 1989.
Over the last ten or so years Hatke, 41, has gradually stripped himself of luxuries and “necessities” alike, arriving at a life that is simple, but certainly not easy.
“Many people think you just can’t live without all that stuff,” said Kathi Firns-Hubert, a friend of the philosopher-gardener. “Bill definitely is making a point.”
It’s not that Hatke set out to prove anything. But as a graduate student at the University of Kansas 20 years ago, he acquired a dim view of a life defined by the earning and spending of money.
“In graduate school, there was this constant worrying about jobs,” he said. “It was everywhere. It didn’t make sense to me to be dependent on money. The obvious thing seemed to be to not spend any more than you had to.”
Propelled by childhood memories of the feel of soil crumbling between his fingers, Hatke said, “I had an idea that I wanted to get back to gardening.”
He began with a small plot sandwiched between some concrete slabs near downtown Lawrence.
“The idea hit me that maybe I could make a living at this,” he said. for a couple of years he’d been working at two jobs—eight hours of analyzing social science surveys by computer at the university, followed by eight hours spent mindlessly stacking paper at a printing firm.
In 1979, having earned enough to pay for his $7,000 house, he quit both jobs. The gardening became an obsession. At one point, he was working “dawn to dusk,” tending eleven gardens in back yards of friends and acquaintances. Taking heed of a Buddhist warning, though, he decided he’d better cut back.
“The Buddhists say you shouldn’t become addicted to intoxicating drugs or perverse sexuality,” he said. “Maybe it’s the same thing with gardening. It’s like the executive thing: ‘I have to get this many rows done’”…
Hatke hopes to reduce his workload to four hours daily. But at the same time, he claims a powerful allegiance to the work ethic. That’s why he has declined purchasing a motorized tiller, relying instead on hand tools and his impressively muscled arms to weed his acreage.
“I don’t feel good unless I work.” he said. “Doing it by hand helps even more. I get tired and I feel good at the end of the day.”
While Hatke has cut back on his output and income, he also has eliminated his monthly bills, one by one.
“The first thing I decided I could live without was the phone. At first it was inconvenient but then I didn’t miss it.”
Running water was the next to go.“  I thought, “I’ve got so darned much water around here; why am I paying for it?” Hatke rigged up a system that collects runoff—and an occasional earthworm—from his and his neighbor’s roofs, and channels it through a gully into a cistern under his bathroom. He draws it up, in five-gallon buckets through a large hole in the floor.
It tastes different from city water,” Hatke conceded. “For the kids that come over—they won’t touch it—I go next door and get city water for them. But mine is almost clear. You just have to let it settle.”
It’s crazy paying for gas when people are throwing out wood and putting it in landfills,” Hatke declared. He purchased a used cookstove for $10 and installed it in his living room, directly below his doctoral sheepskin, now barbecued to a light brown from the smoke that doesn’t find its way up the chimney. Dead trees provide his fuel. Hatke estimates he has three years’ worth of wood in his yard.
“Electricity I held onto until the very last,” Hatke said. “That’s the hardest. There seems to be no substitute. That was the last thing tying me to someone else (providing for my needs). I threw that away because I decided I was going to learn to live without this.”
It wasn’t the first time he went without basic household amenities. Hatke’s childhood, in a family of six boys on a farm ten miles from the nearest hamlet in northern Idaho, was anything but luxurious. His father died when Hatke was young, leaving his mother to raise the family alone.
“We didn’t have electricity until I was 8. We had no indoor plumbing until I was 12. And we didn’t get TV until I was 17.”
Whatever he can’t simply shut off, Hatke generally supplies for himself. The produce he doesn’t eat or sell during the summer he puts up in the dust-covered glass jars that line the walls of not just his kitchen but his bedroom and bathroom as well.
A window in his living room opens onto a wooden lean-to, where Hatke keeps his fresh meat supply—17 rabbits, seven hens and 20 chicks.
“I pride myself on my fresh eggs,” he said crossing the room with a specimen, still warm, from one of the nests.
His egg and meat supply is nearly free, because Hatke is more resourceful than to pay for animal feed and bedding. Instead he scavenges grain and hay that falls outside commercial storage bins in town.  That’s not all he finds laying on the ground and inside dumpsters.
“If you go to the student ghetto at the end of the semester, you can get clothes, new clothes. I have enough clothes to last me the rest of my life. I don’t go to the student ghetto anymore because I already have too many clothes.”
What he can’t provide for himself, or barter or scavenge, Hatke neither possesses nor seems to covet.
“Anything that requires money I don’t do,” he said. “It’s a matter of principle. I stick to it to the point where some of my friends think it’s absurd. Spending money develops a momentum which generated more and more dependency. You can get a momentum in reverse, in not spending. That’s what happened to me.”
“Last year, for example, Hatke says his expenses were limited to $5 for vegetable seeds, $5 for a hand saw blade, $5 for 10 chicks, and $3 for chick feed, and $98 for property tax. Well on second thought, there was also $4 spent on one movie ticket and a few dollars for transistor radio batteries—but they were on sale.    “I should be honest about this,” he said, a little sheepishly. Even the philosopher-gardener indulges occasionally.  “Because the culture has it to offer…I go to one movie a year, almost out of a sense of responsibility,” he explained. “I try to watch the best movie of the year.” He saw “Amadeus” a couple of years back and this year, “Tin Men.”  “Even then,” he said, “I don’t think it’s a big thrill. It doesn’t even register in the unconscious. It’s a waste of time.”
His only real concession to modern media is his transistor radio. And even there, he’s careful.  The radio only goes on for a half-hour a day,” he said. “I don’t want to get too hooked into it.” He hears the news every couple of days, and alternates among “the hard rock, the golden oldies, the country and classical. I try to be eclectic.”
Hatke spends his free hours largely pursuing a life of the mind. That’s not too surprising considering his string of graduate degrees from KU—master’s degrees in analytic philosophy and clinical Psychology, and a doctorate in sociology.
Again there was no master plan.
“The GI Bill kept paying me to go to school,” he said. “I had to keep getting degrees to qualify for the GI Bill. So I kept getting degrees. It seemed the sensible thing to do.”
Currently Hatke is reading Virgil’s Aeneid, having recently completed a collection of American classics.
“I get up and read for an hour every morning,” he said. “I write for another hour. In the wintertime every other day I write for four hours. It’s basically just a journal. I’ve been trying to do poetry and a novel. A friend wanted to send it to a publisher.” He says he discouraged that scheme because “there is already too much in print.”
Hatke would be gratified if some of this friends and neighbors would embrace his unadorned manner of living and share his rejection of the popular culture. It is a hope he has clung to for years.
“I guess as a native idealist, I thought society would at some point change…after people had examined this in the ‘60s. But reality seems to be setting in that there isn’t going to be that much change.”  That realization sent Hatke’s life into a bit of a tailspin a couple of years ago.
“I began to think maybe I had misjudged; maybe I’d be happier if I got a color TV—or at least turned the electricity on. You look for confirmation of your values in other people. You can’t maintain your values indefinitely in isolation. At some point you need somebody else to live like you do. I can find someone who’s fed up with Americana, and will do it for a year. But no one wants to do it as a life commitment…My last lover decided to break off because I want going to make anything of myself. He wanted to go out to dinner, to go to Jamaica…the things a little money can buy. So I wonder ‘Why am I still doing this?’ It leaves you shaky.”
But even in his darker moments, he said, “I stay here and cope with the dissatisfaction, I will ride it out. I’ve decided the house where I live is where I’ll die. This society moves around so much. We just move when we get dissatisfied. It’s classically American.”
When he was reading lots of western novels some time back, Hatke said, he saw himself in the “dog soldier,” a stock western (Native American) character who spears the ground with his lance and stays put, come what may.  “He provides the stability that others can rally around,” Hatke said. “I couldn’t help but think of myself. Some of us have to stay put.”
Although he’s had his doubts about his own status quo, Hatke said his friends provide him with a lot of verbal support. But he guesses there may some self-interest at work.
“People seem to have something invested in me continuing to live the way I do,” he said. “And that bugs me. It’s like the bad kid in the class. If you have someone deviant, the people who do the regulating are not directing their attention at others. It lets them get away another week without mowing their grass. It lets them walk down the street without wearing the best pants in their closet because Hatke is wearing pants with holes in them.”
In fact, the city of Lawrence did get after Hatke for several years, citing him for the woodpile in his front yard, and the bean plants in the parkway in front of his house. They reached a treaty of sorts in 1984.   “His lifestyle is different,” said Margene, Swarts, a city inspector. “But we haven’t received any complaints“ in three years.
His “midlife crisis” as Hatke terms it, has him wondering whether it isn’t time for this “countercultural dropout” to “drop in” he said.  He’s been offered work as a chauffeur, carpenter or stonemason in the past couple of years.
“I’ve been tempted so much in the last year to take one of those jobs,” he said. “It’s not the money. There’s nothing I want to buy. I guess I was curious about what new people I would meet. People are basic in (filling) your needs.”
And given that Hatke lives and works alone, he decided to interact with more people. “I have bridge every Tuesday night, and Scrabble every Thursday night. I baby-sit Saturday nights.”
Keeping the late hours such socializing entails is “something I shouldn’t be doing,” he said, joking. “I stay up until midnight, sleep till 9. I know someone in this lifestyle is supposed to get up at around 5:30.”
Interacting with others has its frustrations, Hatke said.  “I would like people to be less obsessed with their life’s agenda. They become overly concerned about things like taking out the garbage.  “So it piles up for a week? I was at bridge last night. I didn’t get to take a shower and I had been in the garden all day. I smelled. Nobody said anything about it.” But he grew self-conscious; he thought his partners, two lawyers and a university employee must be thinking about it. “After all,” he said slyly, “I have a Ph.D.”
“That’s the problem with interacting with these people. You pick up on their value systems. And you evaluate yourself accordingly.”
Keeping out from under those influences requires Hatke’s constant vigilance.
“Society,” he said firmly, “is not going to change.”   But then again, neither is he.

–Caption under picture of Bill shirtless in garden. “Believing that the bright light of the sun helps diminish any feeling of depression, philosopher-gardener Bill Hatke sees several benefits of working in his garden in Lawrence. He shuns power tools, using hand tools and the power of his arms. Hatke lives on what he can grow, barter or scavenge.

–Caption under picture of Bill in his front yard: “Lawrence used to cite Hatke for having a wood pile in his front yard and having bean plants in the parkway in front of his house, about, but in 1984 they agreed to a truce. At right, Hatke uses his wood-burning stove to cook and heat his house during the winter.

–Caption of Bill with his rabbits and chickens: “Hatke lives without the luxuries of television, stereo, electricity, a furnace, indoor plumbing and locks on his door. Just outside his living room window is a wooden lean-to, where he keeps his fresh meat supply—27 rabbits, seven hens and 20 chicks. Hatke said that his neighbors have never filed any complaints about his lifestyle.

 

 

 

 

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