Saturday, February 4, 2012

Wild Roots: A Community Homestead Returns to the Wild

As I sat in an earth home last night at the Wild Roots community near Asheville, North Carolina, listening to the crackling campfire while stewed fruit simmered on the stove, I was struck by the diversity of places where this story gathering project has taken me. Two weeks ago, I was standing in Zuccotti Square in Manhattan as Occupiers celebrated the barricades being taken down. Tonight, instead of navigating my way through the subway system, I’d navigated my way through wooded roads and a forest path. The lights of Time’s Square were indeed far behind me.

Wild Roots was more my speed than a concrete jungle, though. The close-knit community lives closely with the land, on thirty acres that border a national forest. They gather food like acorns and chestnuts from the woods, finding other foods opportunistically. They aren’t shy about eating road kill or dumpster diving, and make regular trips to the city—usually about once a week—to gather food, using their veggie-oil-powered vehicle. So much good food goes to waste in the city, said Tod, trained as an engineer, that it’s silly not to use it.

They have no electricity. No running water. In the warmer months, they bathe in the stream; in the winter, they haul a bathtub to the creek and build a fire beneath it to heat the icy cold water. They practice and teach earth skills such as shelter building, and other practical skills like canning and using hand powered tools like crosscut saws.

Earlier, as I walked up the wooded pathway toward the dwelling where Tod had told me to meet them, I passed a small but beautiful cabin with a clay exterior. Its creator had sculpted an embossed design of leaves and flowers into the surface. A simple deck stood behind it, overlooking the ravine to the side of the path. What a simple yet enchanting life this would be, I thought.

They don’t claim to live completely sustainably. But I’d say their consumption is certainly far below that of most Americans. They don’t have massive, elaborately constructed houses and huge plots of wasted land. Their small houses, made of natural materials, are tucked into the woods, a simple earth pathway leading from one dwelling to the other. They don’t have mass amounts of material goods, just the things they need to get by, like storage barrels and tools—most, something tells me, recycled.

I was wondering what the neighbors think even before Tod brought it up. He told me how one neighbor said most of the others don't really "get" the Wild Roots lifestyle. But, he said, the neighbor then added that he thinks everyone will come to people like the Wild Roots community when our unsustainable contemporary way of life eventually collapses. 

Many of the neighbors are third-generation descendants of the area’s original homesteaders, so their ancestors depended on the land for their own livelihoods. Still, they didn’t live quite like the Wild Roots community, as Tod pointed out. Tod, his wife Talia, and the other folks at Wild Roots have had to work to relearn the skills that, for so many people in contemporary society, our ancestors lost many hundreds or thousands of years ago.

Learning these skills gives people an easy confidence, said Talia. It’s not a prideful confidence, she and Tod both added, more like a steady sureness in themselves. When people grow re-skilled to live on the land, they know they can take care of themselves, whatever happens to the economy and modern society, they said. And, I’d imagine, the knowledge that life doesn’t have to be frantic and stressful would give a person a deep sense of peace. Leading a calm, simple life means we don’t have to worry so much. We can just be, knowing how to tend to the few basic needs we have, with plenty of time for the other things we love.

As we talked this chilly January evening, they told me how the lush vegetation springs forth to crowd the homes when the forest reawakens. People often visit the Wild Roots community in the warmer months to learn from them and experience the feeling of living with the land. After my own all-too-brief visit, I just might have to come back to live and learn with them too.

Friday, February 3, 2012

A Farm Thrives in Lower Manhattan

In a small coffee shop in Brooklyn Heights, I met with Camilla Hammer, the manager of the Battery Urban Farm in Lower Manhattan's Battery Park. “People would walk by and say, ‘What are you doing?’” she laughed, describing the farm’s beginnings. “We still get this all the time—‘What is this? A farm in Manhattan? Why are you doing this?’” Still, most people were very positive, if surprised, she adds.

The farm encompasses about an acre, shaped like a turkey and surrounded by a bamboo fence, which gives the space a protected feel, says Camilla.

The Battery Conservancy, a nonprofit that works alongside the parks department to maintain Battery Park, hired Camilla in January 2011 as an intern for its farm project. The Conservancy was just initiating the project at that time. They essentially wanted her to guide the project, and in the span of one growing season, they promoted her to project manager and then to farm manager.

I asked her if the city kids are eager or afraid of getting dirty. There’s a misconception about city kids not wanting to get dirty, in her experience, Camilla says. “Some of them love it, some of them don’t, just like kids in the country,” she says. “It’s a real mix,” she says. Some of the private school kids with country homes love to garden; others don’t.

“The kids love the worms,” Camilla says. “I have to hide them; they get so distracted. One girl had never seen a worm before, she adds. “This one girl came to the farm, she was probably six, and she had never seen a worm before. She was kind of shocked, I mean, she was scared,” she continues. “But then I picked it up and held it out to her and said, ‘Come here, come look at it, this is a worm.’ She knew what a worm was; she had just never seen one. She actually kind of ended up liking it. …Even the ones who are initially grossed out by the worms, eventually, once they see the other kids touching them, and they see that it’s okay, they just love them.”

In addition to educational programs for kids, the farm gives all community members the chance to come out and volunteer for a day, or on a regular basis. Short-term opportunities are important because they let people try it out, Camilla says. In the project’s first year, half the space served as a community farm, and the other half became adopted plots where individuals, families, or businesses could grow their own food. They’re phasing out those plots to make the whole space an educational community farm, she says, to make sure the space is used to its maximum potential.

I asked Camilla about the challenges she dealt with in the farm’s first year. “The rats were a problem,” she said. “And because I was the only paid employee—I had ten interns—because I’m the farm manager, and it’s kind of my responsibility to deal with the rats, it’s hard for me to make the unpaid workers do it.” They had a powdery mildew issue and a few minor crop diseases, but nothing major.

The city is planning to install a bike path through the farm in the coming year, hopefully after the growing season, Camilla says. However, they’ll move the farm to another, permanent location, taking a year off during the construction phase.

Originally the farm was just a one-year project. That has since changed. “We’re going to make it permanent,” she says. “And that’s a really incredible thing, and it just shows what happens when people really come together.”

This means a lot to the kids, she says. “They get really proud of it. That’s a big thing. They’ll always bring their parents and say, ‘This is my farm.’”