The Utopia Experiment
The Utopia Experiment was always meant to end with a book. So when I left the experiment in September 2007, I started writing about tumultuous events of the previous year, which I had spent with a bunch of volunteers in the Scottish Highlands, trying to simulate life after the collapse of civilization. I wanted to make some sense of what had happened, and organize the various notes I had into some kind of vaguely coherent narrative. But it was hard. Every time I tried to recall the passage of events, I would wince at the painful memories, and I only managed about ten thousand words before I finally gave up and put the whole thing to one side.
Over the following years, my friends would occasionally ask me if I had written the book yet. And I would tell them that I had put it on the back burner for now, and that I would return to it in due course. But as time went on, I became less and less convinced that I would ever finish it, and the whole project faded away ever more indistinctly into the background of my new life.
It never went away completely though. At the back of my mind it continued to niggle at me, and I knew I would never really achieve peace of mind until I had finished the book.
And then, in Spring 2013, more than five years after leaving the Experiment, I realized I felt ready. I remember picking up the phone one day and calling my mother.
‘I’ve decided to finish the Utopia book,’ I told her.
She let out a small gasp of surprise.
‘I thought you’d given up on that project,’ she said.
‘I kind of had,’ I replied. ‘But it was always there in the background.’
‘Well,’ she paused. ‘I bet it will be rather different from the book you thought you’d write when you started the experiment!’
That, I thought to myself, was an understatement. Before I went up to Scotland to start the Experiment in July 2006, I had envisaged writing a heroic account of my transformation from a nerdy academic into a strapping backwoodsman, a hardy survivalist like Ray Mears or Bear Grylls. But that was not what had happened. By the light of my original goals, I had failed miserably. But now I began to see that I had succeeded in other, unanticipated ways. Maybe this was just the inevitable spin-doctoring of memory, retrospectively editing my past so that I could picture myself as the hero of my own story despite all the obvious failures. But maybe not. To find out, I had to finish writing the book. So I did.