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.

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