In late 2000, Utah native Daniel Suelo traveled by bus, ferry, and foot from Seattle, where his sister lived, to a remote Nova Scotia outpost called the Gandhi Farm, an organic, off-the-grid commune deep in the woods. Suelo, almost 40, had been living frugally for years, testing his religious studies and his own beliefs about the meaning of life, commerce, and compassion. But when he arrived, he found the farm abandoned. He was down to his last $50. Hitchhiking back to the States, he had an epiphany at a truck stop: He bought a stamp and an envelope and sent his sister $20, settling his last debt, a parking ticket he’d gotten with her car. He left the rest of the cash in a phone booth. After years of thinking about what it would be like to renounce money entirely, he finally took the plunge.
A dozen years later, Suelo still has no income. He lives in Utah off the land, out of Dumpsters, and from the kindness of others. Using Internet access at public libraries, he has become a kind of contemporary prophet, a thought-provoking blogger who identifies with Jesus and Thoreau. “He’s like Basho,” says one acquaintance in Mark Sundeen’s persuasive quasi-biography, The Man Who Quit Money, which combines the details of Suelo’s crusade with a broader examination of modern American values. Like the medieval Japanese wanderer and poet, Suelo “wants nothing, is trusting of the universe to deliver, and accepts what is delivered.”
Though Suelo has worked in homeless shelters and food banks and on a dock in Alaska, his true vocation is freelance philosopher. The youngest son of fundamentalist parents, he has spent most of his life making literal practice of the lessons he learned in the Bible. Sundeen recounts many incidents that helped shaped his subject’s thinking: After spending time in South America with the Peace Corps, for instance, Suelo was struck by the generosity of the impoverished people he met. Back at his parents’ home in Colorado, he was walking through the neighborhood and cut across the lawn of a man who berated him from the doorway. “It made Daniel think,” Sundeen writes. “The people who had the least were the most willing to share… Similarly, generous cultures produce less waste because excess is shared, whereas stingy nations fill their landfills with leftovers.”
Sundeen adds plenty of context to Suelo’s saga, which features enough episodes of despair, accidental poisonings, and one miraculously non-fatal plummet off a cliff to qualify as a true quest. There are detours into the 1999 World Trade Organization protests, G. Edward Griffin’s anti-Federal Reserve manifesto “The Creature From Jekyll Island,” and the decades-long protest march of the woman who called herself Peace Pilgrim.
In the Sermon on the Mount, as Sundeen notes, Jesus lays out Christianity’s basic tenets: Love your enemy, turn the other cheek, judge not, and so on. He also urges his disciples to let the wind carry them where it will: “Who of you by worrying can add a single hour to his life?” A monkish humanist and naturalist who has come to terms—on his own terms—with his religious upbringing, Suelo has made himself a test case for letting go. He isn’t a preacher, but a leader by example. Sundeen tells the eccentric story of the Man Who Quit Money with a gentle, sometimes wry touch, and it pays dividends.