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Rustic living

Martin Bellmann limits his contact
with modern society in a log cabin
he built 30 miles west of Columbia.
Sunday, May 16, 2004 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 3:27 p.m. CDT, Saturday, July 19, 2008

About 30 long miles west of Columbia, Martin Bellmann has built a cabin even Henry David Thoreau would respect on 17 acres that just might be prettier than Shangri-La.

It is a place where the wind plays through groves of walnut and oak like breath on a flute, where neighbors are separated by acres of grass and oaks and where farmers ride tractors through sweaty afternoons and beg the sky for a cloud to blot the sun.

But mostly, it is a place that demonstrates one man’s symbolic stand against modern convention: a rejection of luxury condos, designer suits and fast cars. This place, Martin says, is a chance for him to show by example how the world 200 years ago knew some things that today’s world doesn’t, like how to live simply, purely and harmoniously with nature.

Martin, 42, has lived here for two years, and as long as he can still work, he will stay here until he’s buried. He’s a tall man, scrawny and lean, with a body that looks like it was built from a salvage yard: long, wire-thin arms hang on broad, bony football-player shoulders, all supported by a scrawny torso and the lithe, graceful legs of a dancer. His hippie-long hair frames an elfin face that looks as if it hasn’t aged a day in 20 years.

Nothing shows his attachment to the 1800s like his wardrobe, which he may well have borrowed from Davy Crockett’s closet. Most of the time, he wears hand-sewn cotton shirts, moccasins and buckskins, at least if he’s trying to be comfortable. When he goes to work — among other things, he’s a freelance handyman — he pulls on a pair of tight jeans, reluctant as a child dressing up for Sunday church.

Take one look at Martin and you can tell he’s different. And his friends say living differently isn’t easy, especially when you choose a life that demands swimming amid a churning current of social expectations. They say it’s a wonder he didn’t drown.

But the catch is that no matter how different Martin appears, one thing has always bothered him — that idea of resistance, of going punch for punch with the meanest bully a man has ever seen, even if that bully is modern lifestyle. “Resisting gets you nowhere,” he says. “You have to learn to embrace those kinds of differences.”

Harmony with nature and the past

It’s one of those cold, clear nights you can only appreciate so many miles from the city, where you don’t have to squint past streetlights to see the stars. Martin’s cabin is almost invisible from the dirt road that lopes past it through fields of dead grass that look like tousled hair.

Nothing dramatic is happening here. It’s just another dinner on another quiet night, and Martin is chopping fresh celery, broccoli and carrots for a stir-fry with surgical precision. His knife rolls back and forth on the cutting board like a rocking chair, knocking along with the seconds ticking on the wall clock.

Daoists tell a story about a chef who spent 19 years chopping through racks of tough meat and bone with the same knife. They say he never sharpened it even once. When asked how he could do it, he said he learned to slip the knife into the natural grooves of whatever he was cutting, as though he could see all the atoms and quarks and weave the blade around them like a skier on a slalom course.

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Martin Bellmann surveys the wildlife found across his 17 acres of property. “When I come out here, I love looking up,” Bellmann says as he observes the trees around the area where he originally intended to build his cabin. (Parker Eshelman/Missourian)

Usually, Martin treats nature with that same obliging peacefulness, or at least he tries to. Nature guides him, so it deserves respect, he says, something most people don’t understand. The Daoists get it; so do the Native Americans. They are more mature, less wasteful. They appreciate wisdom in the littlest things, he says. Even celery.

It makes sense that a man like Martin, someone who works his hands to the bone for fundamental wisdom and stability, would feel out of place in the city. Happiness seems shallower there. His cabin, on the other hand, is the product of honest work he can appreciate right up close — something permanent, not fleeting. In that way, his friends say, it’s his refuge.

He finished building it two years ago for about $3,000, paid for mostly in favors and sore muscles. It was intended to be an art studio, but by the time it was done, he was too poor to live anywhere else. Soon after, he decided a steady job was too confining. He figured he’d rather take his chances with bills you can set your watch to and an income less stable than a $200 car.

“I figured if I was going to have to worry about money no matter what, I’d just come out here and be happy doing it,” he says, his speech calm and measured like a therapist’s. “I’m confident that if I had to get by with nothing, I could.” He doesn’t reject all things modern, he just tries to work around them: He wishes he didn’t have to drive his cherry-red 2001 Ford pickup. He’d rather everyone rode horses. He doesn’t want to use a Web site to sell his artwork, but he had one built anyway. Conversation is more fun than watching television, but there’s nothing wrong with a good movie now and then. He says it’s just a matter of preference.

“I’m not trying to recreate the 18th century out here,” he says. “I think my lifestyle just shows that, no matter what you have, how much or how little, you can still make a good life for yourself. Think how different the world would be if everyone realized that.”

A troubled family history

It would be easy to say Martin is a product of his childhood, his friends say, even though Martin says that’s too simple: He lives simply because his family had so little, he’s peaceful because he grew up in the 1960s, around families where fathers slapped mothers if they nagged too hard; he keeps to himself because he didn’t feel his family supported him.

“Sometimes I’m just afraid he grew up to be so peaceful and giving for really sad reasons,” says his friend Cat Garrett from Kansas City.

If there ever was a regular source of conflict in Martin’s life, it has been his family, no matter how hard he has tried to avoid it. And in many ways, his friends say, that throbbing conflict has served as a model of how not to live, pointing him toward his pacifistic lifestyle today.

He grew up in suburban St. Louis with a father, mother and two brothers in a one-story ranch house with a backyard, which is a lot more than most folks had then. They didn’t have a lot, but they were comfortable, at least for a while.

That changed in 1968, when Martin was 7 years old. During a family trip, his father tried to pass a truck on a two-lane road, mashed the gas pedal and misjudged his distance from an oncoming car. By the time Martin came to, the steel Buick’s hood and front seat had folded up on each other like an accordion.

His mother, Janice, had crashed through the windshield, beginning a painful odyssey of rehabilitation and impossible hospital bills. His infant brother, Timothy suffered brain damage so severe that strangers still call him slow. His father, Ronald, was pinned behind the steering wheel with crushed ribs and would let the accident gnaw on his conscience until he died in 1992, almost like he shot someone by mistake, Martin says.

“From that moment on, the fighting got worse,” Martin says. “My dad was trying his best to make ends meet. Sometimes (Janice would) yell at him about this or that and he’d hit her … John and I learned pretty quick that if we got hit instead, it was the quickest way to stop a fight.”

For years, Martin and his brother John, who is one year younger than Martin, would take care of Janice and Tim at home while Ronald tried to earn a living. There was less food, more handouts, more stress and more fights. For years, Martin saw himself as the mature one, and he began to resent it.

He came to MU in 1981 to study forestry, and that would become his escape. His college roommate, Matt Shaw, now a returning graduate student at MU, said he first saw Martin as a picture-perfect disciplined Lutheran, buttoned collar and everything. By the time Martin graduated, Shaw said, his hair had grown past his shoulders and he was wearing buckskins.

“Generally, he probably changed the most over those few years,” Shaw says. “He started to realize that our culture is one of style, not of substance, and that it concentrates on convenience and disposability. That’s where his self-sufficiency came in. If you make something, or if you do it for yourself, you’re more apt to appreciate it and hold on to it … That helped him find his spiritual center.”

So many parents have tried, many in vain, to change their children into conscientious, thoughtful, polite adults like Martin. Considering his childhood, his friends say the end result is a miracle. But still Martin says his mother was never fully satisfied. He says she resented him for dressing strangely and having long hair and especially for not having remained Lutheran. Because they didn’t get along, he barely visited her for years, and she resented that, too.

John takes care of the family now, still in St. Louis, and Martin visits once in a while. Timothy lives with them, although he doesn’t talk much unless it’s about baseball. Janice is dying of cancer now, so she and Martin have started to make peace.

“She’s gotten a lot better,” Martin says. “She started to realize that what I do isn’t so bad. We’ve both had to grow a lot to get past these differences. … She wasn’t wrong and I wasn’t wrong, but we just took different paths. We learned a lot from each other, I think.”

A romantic artistry

His cabin is filled with his paintings. If you suspend common sense, you might think they were photographs stacked in dusty corners. Or maybe windows mounted on these crooked walls, staring back into the simple era Martin romanticizes.

He worked for months on most of them, sometimes just learning to draw the reflections of trees or the ripples of a pond under a canoe paddle. Once, he spent a week just trying to mix a color that looks like just plain black.

But that’s Martin, methodical and meticulous. Always tweaking, training, changing something to bring his work or himself closer to a plane he considers better. Martin thinks in planes — maturity, tolerance, spiritual growth. For perspective, he says he’s higher than George W. Bush, but a lot lower than Gandhi, whom he says had it figured out, mostly.

“His painting symbolizes his life in so many ways,” Shaw says. “He trains himself so hard, just concentrating on every little detail. To get the way he is now, he had to train like a marathon runner.”

Whether he’s proud of it, whether he thinks it’s extraordinary, Martin has reached an uneasy peace with his life out here in his cabin. Through so many years of mental conditioning, the chip on his shoulder has all but disappeared, or at least he has learned to hide it well, his friends say.

But there’s still work to be done: a Japanese garden this year, maybe, and hopefully a bathhouse someday. And a sweat lodge. And a swimming hole. He doesn’t need these things, he says, not any more than city folks need fancy sports cars, but they sure would be nice.

In that way, Martin’s friends say, he really isn’t that different. Like everyone else, he’ll never be satisfied. There will always be something new, until the day he dies. He can still be happy with what he has, but so can most folks. It’s just the wanting, the constant wanting, that shows how Martin’s American Dream is no different than most anyone else’s. He just paid for it differently.


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