Small Conceits

Musings. Stories. Poems. From where I stand.


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(Re)Naming “The Boot”

Would a Boot by Any Other Name Smell as Sweet?

“What are you going to call it? A property this pretty is going to need a name.”

Ross and Elizabeth from the county Extension Services were wrapping up nearly a half day of walking the 11 acres of wooded land I was in the process of buying. I’d contacted their office for help with assessing the health of the trees and the opportunities for growing food crops for myself in the red, mica-flecked soil on the western side of the parcel. With their help, I’d been identifying trees and plants and asking advice about siting my home. It had been a beautiful, sunny day, pleasant not only in the gorgeous fall weather but in the company I was keeping. Conversation with the pair was easygoing and punctuated by laughter. I was learning much and enjoying it greatly.

Ross had asked the question, but he wasn’t the first, and he wouldn’t be the last.

“I’m calling it The Boot,” I replied, glancing up just in time to see Ross trying to arrange his face to hide his surprised inner critique of my mad property-naming skillz.

“Uhhhh…” he began. Again: Not the first; not the last.

“So…you don’t like it,” I more stated than asked and heard Elizabeth subtly clear her throat behind me.

“Well, if you look at the aerial view of the parcel, it’s boot-shaped,” I tried to explain, my own opinion of the name starting to tarnish a tad with Ross and Elizabeth’s skepticism. When I thought about the hours of research I generally put into naming my dogs, “The Boot” was a little embarrassing. Too literal, like naming a pet “Spot” because of a dot of color on an otherwise white face or “Socks” because of white paws on a darker background. Or, in the case of my first childhood pet, Puddles. Because, obviously.

And, here I was, naming my new home, a place I hoped would hold and support me for the rest of my life and heal all those who sought peace within its bounds, based on a shape no one would ever see unless I posted the survey map on a wall somewhere. And outlined the shape in yellow highlighter. Maybe drew a few red arrows around it, just for good measure.

*sigh* Really?

A Better Fit for Crowsfoot and Pines

Months later, as I woke from a dream on a sunny morning, hours away from the tall, stately pines and masses of crowsfoot carpeting the ground beneath them, it came to me: a name with many layers and plays on words.

It’s a name that echoes the translation of my name, which is “joy” or “joyful.”

It’s the name of a stronghold for hearts seeking refuge, harkening back to the Arthurian legend I read as a young adult and so dearly love for its lessons about love and friendship and the ways they break us open.

It’s a name whose sound plays on the gardens I hope to co-create with the land, which is untamed but with its own wild food to harvest and spaces that can be lightly cultivated for growing vegetables and fruits.

It’s a lofty name for the simple life I hope to live there. But, you know, I think it fits — better than a boot, more like a glove:

Joyous Gard

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I Win the Nerd Contest

At the Home & Garden Show Yurt Break-Down

The scene: Rick and Erika (representing Blue Ridge Yurts) and I are breaking down my yurt for delivery to a storage unit until I get my home site cleared and a deck foundation built for it.

Rick, out of the blue, pauses in his disassembly to say:

“Did you know that when Erika was a teenager she was such a big Lord of the Rings fan that she named her hamster Gandalf? Have you ever heard of anyone so nerdy?”

Erika: “Heyyyy!”

Me: “In my 20s, I was such a big LOTR fan that I named my little grey rabbit Gandalf.”

Erika <high-fiving me>: “Ha! So there, Rick!”

Me <continuing>: “And I named my 1982 Ford Mustang Shadowfax. I think it was the Escort wagon I called Samwise because it was my faithful companion on all my adventures in my 30s. I later named my Toyota 4Runner Frodo. Oh! And my sister and I used to write each other letters in Elvish. And somewhere in a box is a notebook with Dwarvish runes — which, by the way, is only a slight variation of the Anglo-Saxon FUTHARK, if I remember correctly.”

Rick and Erika <gaping>: “…”

Rick <sounding slightly awed>: “I think you win.”

Me <smugly>: “Yes, yes I do.”

Erika: “Whoa…”

(Heck, and I’m not even the biggest LOTR fan I know.)

Rick, securing the window covers before taking down the sides of the yurt, while Erika and I start on the cables.


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A Word About “Unrestricted Use” Land

…And that Word Is: %&#?@!

The situation is actually kind of funny, in a way — and a cautionary tale, in another. It certainly highlights my inexperience (and naïveté) with buying raw land. The land I bought — The Boot (my nickname for it, based on its shape from the air) — was listed for sale as “unrestricted use.” Rife with possibility, n’est-ce pas? So it seemed…

“That’s great because it means you can do anything you want on the land,” folks said. “You can just pitch a tent and live however you like on it!”

The prospect was exciting to me because I knew that building my new life would be a multi-phase endeavor, as time and finances allowed. I wasn’t concerned about living in more primitive conditions than most folks might enjoy because my ultimate goal is to live as lightly as possible on the land. For me, this equates to some combination of:

  • Digging and excavating as little as possible
  • Living off-grid, using well water, solar power, and composting toilets
  • Catching, storing, and using rainwater run-off from roofs of any structures on the property
  • Foraging where possible, with small gardens to supplement my food supply
  • Erecting structures that minimized my ecological footprint, as best as possible
  • Offering a “glamping” experience that would allow guests to enjoy the natural beauty of the property without having to set up their own camp

Smaller, more affordable properties I looked at came with covenants and restrictions and were often situated in growing developments, where almost none of these things would have been achievable. Unrestricted land, where I could shape my life around the land without making too big a dent in it, seemed the perfect solution.

I Don’t Think that Word Means What You Think It Means

“Uhhhh…you know you’re going to have to dig a septic system, right?”

Ross and Elizabeth, from Cooperative Extension Services, and I were paused in a tiny grove of dying hemlocks, where I’d asked for their opinion on it as a potential home site. My reasoning was that the trees were dying anyway, so cutting them down to clear the site would have less impact than other places on the parcel. I’d mentioned my plans to use a composting toilet so I wouldn’t need septic. Ross and Elizabeth exchanged glances, then Ross spoke up.

“If you have water pumped into the dwelling, you have to have septic coming out. Health deparment regulations.” Ross finished.

“But the land is unrestricted use. My understanding is that I can pretty much set up camp here if I want to,” I replied. Ross assured me that the county health department and I had different ideas about the definition of unrestricted.

I’d planned to do some research, but my sweet Bodhi’s passing just two days after consulting with Ross and Elizabeth engulfed me in a grief and depression that crippled me for months on end. Instead of investigating further, I rather robotically went ahead with the closing. Believing as I did — as I do — that this land and I were somehow meant for each other, I buried my head deep in the sand, telling myself I’d figure it out later.

It’s later.

“Oh…that’s Illegal”

Ross was the first to poke at my definition of “unrestricted use.” Sam, the fellow I consulted with regarding road improvements and home site clearing, seconded Ross’s warning. I dove into the county website to review the regulations I should have reviewed before buying The Boot. (Gotta love hindsight!)

And, dang it all: Composting toilets truly are illegal in my county.

OK, I thought, I can still phase this. I’ve heard of other folks (in other counties and states) who’ve put a Porta-Potty on their property or had a permitted outhouse installed as a temporary measure while they built their home. I filled out the septic application so I could get the perk test I needed, just so Sam would know where to excavate my driveway and home site in the meantime, and called the county health department to ask about options. The information I received was pretty simple:

  • Composting toilet: Illegal.
  • Outhouse: Illegal.
  • Porta-Potty: Illegal.

“But I don’t plan to make any of them permanent solutions!” I told the woman on the phone, exasperated. (Not strictly true in the case of the composting toilet, but my vision was beginning to…evolve a bit.) “I live three hours away right now, and I just want to be able to live on the land so I can get started with the work.”

“Well, what did you plan to do until your home was built?” the woman asked.

“I was basically going to camp,” I ventured.

“Ohhh…” she replied, “camping on residential land is illegal.”

“What?” I gasped, my options not only dwindling but becoming increasingly expensive.

“Well,” she asked, her tone efficient and practical, “where would you go to the bathroom?”

“Unrestricted” Doesn’t Apply to Pee and Poop (and What Else?)

Yep, folks. It’s all about the waste. Now, don’t get me wrong. I don’t want to live like an animal, peeing and pooping, willy-nilly, wherever I darned well please. I have neighbors, after all, and I really like them.

But technology for septic-less toilets has advanced considerably, offering a dizzying array of hygienic options. Processes for handling the transformed waste — be it composted, incinerated, or turned into white doves to release at weddings* — have also come a long way. Some of these technologies and processes have been developed, in fact, to relieve squalor in places where plumbing isn’t possible. And, as our rivers, streams, and oceans become increasingly polluted, we need more eco-conscious ways of managing human waste, in all its forms. Septic systems solve part of the problem, but not all of it.

The biggest — and most paralyzing — concern for me, however, has less to do with pee and poop, specifically, and more to do with my broader fears: What other rules and regulations have I missed that will become a barrier to living on The Boot? Will I be able to build my new life in stages, as I’d planned, or will I have to figure out how to fund all of it at once?

So, for those of you wondering why I don’t poop or get off the pot with this dragged-out adventure of mine, my answer is: Which pot? And what’s lurking under the lid waiting to bite me in the butt?

 

* I might be kidding about transforming poop into white doves. In case you wondered.
View from the tractor road, late winter.

The road out, where coyote, deer, and bear poop without restrictions. But I’m not bitter.


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Grab a long tape measure piece of string and a friend or family member.

Find a large room in your home — your living room or family room; maybe a clear spot in your basement or garage. Or go outside, if you must. But I suspect most of you have a big enough space in your home.

Have your friend stand in the middle of the space, holding the end of the string or tape measure. Pull your end out to 20′ and slowly walk in a circle, your friend turning with you. See the circle. Feel the circle.

Now, imagine:

  • Where would you put your bed?
  • How would you create a miniature kitchen?
  • What furniture would you need to carve out a comfortable place to sit?
  • Where would you store clothes? Your dishes? Your books?

Never mind the bathroom for now. Just the living space. Focus there.

Ask yourself: What is truly necessary to live a life of contentment?

My yurt, at the Home & Garden Show, awaiting disassembly and delivery.


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A Walk with a Water Witch

The autumn sun streamed into the clearing, dusting the surrounding trees with gold. Lee squinted, more with concentration than from the intensity of the light, as he peered up into the forest to our east.

“This is a pretty clear draw,” he told us, tracing a slight depression in the overgrown slope with his forefinger. “The question is: Is it just surface runoff, or is it a deeper fracture?”

I breathed in slowly, gazing first at the brilliant blue sky, then down the length of the rutted tractor road running along the edge of the treed parcel of land I hoped to purchase. Some of the leaves were beginning to turn, but many had dried out and fallen off the trees in tired, lifeless crinkles. The last time I’d visited, the shower of leaves had been so thick that it was clearly audible in the breeze, a chorus of whispering sighs mimicking the sound of the rain the land sorely needed. I’d learned from a soil survey of the area that the whole county sat in a rain shadow, producing at least five inches less rainfall than surrounding areas.

I was walking the boot-shaped, 11-acre parcel of land I sought to buy with a man I hoped would give me answers about the availability of water here. Lee Barnes is a “water witch” — a dowser — and this meeting was the first step of the due diligence phase that had begun a few days prior, when the signed purchase agreement had gone into effect. Much rode on his findings: No water, no sale.

I turned my attention back to Lee, who was now pacing back and forth, in lines roughly perpendicular to the first small, blue flag he’d planted. Held loosely in his hands were two wooden handles, with L-shaped metal rods swinging freely from their tops, the long ends terminating in tiny spheres. Lee’s face was a study in concentration, his expression one of intent listening. Suddenly, the rods whipped sharply to the west, although Lee had made no movement with his hands.

“I never experienced that!” my father exclaimed. He’d done some dowsing for the family on occasion. I’d invited him along on the trip, knowing he’d find watching a professional dowser interesting.

Lee smiled without looking up. “That tells me the direction of the flow,” he explained, pausing in his pacing to add a flag a few yards north of the first one. “This looks like a pretty wide fracture,” he went on. “I’ll come back and mark a center-line once I’ve located a couple more possibilities for you and we’ve taken a look at where you think you might want your home site. That will give me a better idea which places I should mark for drilling.”

My Witch Hunt

Even before I found the land, I knew I’d want to work with a local dowser. Although well drillers are generally adept at predicting where to find underground sources of water, may factors play into the cost of a well. I’d heard too many stories about drilling through thick bedrock or hundreds of feet into the earth or even multiple drill sites, sometimes only to come up dry — or with slow-flowing or poor-quality water — all of which are expensive.

I’d learned a little about dowsing as a child, when my father bent two pieces of coat-hanger at the suggestion of a friend, and went in search of a water line break on our rural acre in Pennsylvania. He’d walked slowly back and forth across the yard, intently watching the ends of the hangers. When they’d slowly touched at their points, he’d marked the spot to guide the company doing the repairs, subverting the need to dig up the entire yard to find the leak. I figured if my father could locate an existing water system with a couple of bent coat-hangers, a professional should be able to accurately locate a site for a new well.

As I searched for a local water witch, one man kept surfacing as “the” dowser to work with: Lee Barnes. Coincidentally (or not), he was also re-elected by the Appalachian chapter of the American Society of Dowsers as their returning President. The more I read, the more I believed Lee was my ideal water witch. His first email — packed full of links to and attachments of resources to give me context for what he does and how he does it — sealed the deal. This man was, indeed, a professional. He has a PhD in environmental science and worked as a realtor in the area, giving him layers of intimate knowledge of local mountain properties. The fact that he offered a money-back guarantee on his dowsing consultation fee didn’t hurt, either.

Combining Science with Intuition

Dowsing for water combines principles of hydrogeology (a branch of earth science specifically dealing with the flow of water through aquifers, etc.) with intuition. Before he ever sees the site, Lee extensively researches regional soil surveys, topography, and other geological resources, which he also provides to his clients for reference. In fact, Lee maintains that the first step to knowing a bioregion is becoming familiar with its bedrock — in my case, a study of Appalachian hydrogeology, specifically — which is certainly critical information for drilling a well.

Once he’s on-site, Lee applies the research he’s done, observing variations in the landscape that indicate where water might be hiding: gullies, draws, and even overgrown ditches or streams. He then walks transect lines — or lines crossing the property — using his intuition. Lee has trained himself to notice fluctuations of energy in his body as he passes back and forth over the area. His dowsing rods, also sometimes called “divining rods,” confirm and clarify what he senses by moving toward or away from each other or, as my father was surprised to see, sharply to one side.ASD-smaller-logo

Dowsers use a variety of tools, including pendulums, bent metal rods, and the more traditional Y-shaped wooden stick or rod (which the American Society of Dowsers uses as their logo). Lee prefers the bent metal rods to other tools. At the beginning of his dowsing career, he used the traditional Y-shaped rod, which the dowser loosely grasps by the two short ends of the Y, using the longer end as an indicator. When I asked Lee why he no longer uses the traditional rod, he wryly replied, “They have a tendency either to jerk violently upward and nail me in the forehead or downward and hit me in the crotch. Neither experience is particularly pleasant.”

As Lee walks, he holds his dowsing rods close to his chest. “Your heart’s electromagnetic field amplitude is 60 times that of your brain’s,” he explained to my father and me, reminding me of the oft-heard, “Follow your heart.” Where he feels the strongest vibrations, and where his divining rods draw together into a point, Lee places a small, plastic flag to mark the spot.

My father, an electrical engineer, had some insight about the relationship of the energy fluctuations to the behavior of the rods. “The rods are closing the circuit,” he told us. “If you’re working with electromagnetic fields, and the rods are conductors, the rods will want to close the circuit. That’s why the tips move together like that.”

Beyond Simply Finding Water

“19, 20, 21, 22, 23, 24…22…22,” Lee whispered to himself, tipping one of his dowsing rods up and down in front of his body. “Write down the number 22 next to the heading for gallons per minute,” he instructed before returning to whispering and tipping the brass rod. “60, 61, 62, 59, 58…” I fumbled with my phone, which I’d been using (ineptly) to capture video of him working and jotted the number into a small notebook he’d given me.

Lee was using one of his dowsing rods as a pendulum at this stage of his search.  He explained the process as “asking simple yes/no questions, allowing my sublingual self to provide thoughtful answers with the movement of a simple tool.” The result is that he’s able to predict the flow and quality of the water, as well as the depth of the hole that would be required to reach it and the depth to which the casing would have to be placed. It’s here that I lose most folks when I tell them about what Lee does. This, to them, is “mumbo-jumbo.”

Lee simply gave me a one-shouldered shrug when I mentioned others’ doubts. “You can believe it or not. The results are what matter. My clients will be happy to tell you that my results are good.” And they are: Lee has had a 90% success rate across 500 wells, over 25 years. With his preferred well driller, his success rate rises to 95% across about 50 wells.

Lee looks for well sites that are not only accessible to machinery — making them affordable to his clients — but also with plentiful, high-quality water. He selected two likely sites for me, which I later marked with sturdier stakes and flags, knowing it would be months before I’d drill.

There was still much more to do, and the due diligence period would soon come to a close.

Coming soon! I’d planned to include a video of Lee’s walk around my property, with clips focusing on his process and the movement of the divining tool. I decided not to let the post continue to languish while I did my editing, though, so…stay tuned. 


If you’d like to learn more about dowsing, check out the American Society of Dowsers. Their website offers a wealth of information and resources, as well as a member directory to help you find a dowser in your area.

To learn more about Lee Barnes, head out to the website for the Appalachian Chapter of the American Society of Dowsers, or take a look at his article about the practice of dowsing on the Free Library site. 


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The Quest for Home, Part 4: The Boot

Have you opened your email yet? came the text. I’d heard the notification, but I was still snuggled up with Bodhi, my big red Golden Retriever, and hadn’t wanted to dive into the day just yet.

Nope, I texted back.

Well, hang onto  your hat, came the reply. I just sent you some information from the seller’s realtor. You’re not going to believe this.

Intrigued, I opened my email and found the message from Pat, my realtor. There was a PDF attachment, so I opened that with only a glance at the body of the message, which was pretty much just, “I found this and thought your client might like to see it.” The PDF, on the other hand…

I bolted upright in the bed, nearly rolling Bodhi onto the floor. I’d just opened a preliminary design document for the 63 acres that included the 11-acre parcel Pat and I had looked at the day before. The last page of the document was a hand-drawn map of buildings and features and pastures and plantings…and for the first time, I saw the boot-shaped outline of the land I’d become increasingly interested in buying. It wasn’t just any development design.

It was a permaculture design.

The woman who owned the land had had big plans for the properties. And they were plans that spoke to the very heart of my own hopes and dreams. As I flipped through the 23 pages of the report, I could barely believe it. The spaces mapped on the 11-acre plot for intern cabins could easily be for guest yurts. The grey-water marsh could still serve the main house’s needs. The greenhouse could be the geodesic dome I wanted to use for winter gardening. Clearings were marked for passive and active solar, a bath house, a humanure composter, a cistern for rainwater collection.

I think I just peed the bed, I texted back to Pat.

Well, get yourself cleaned up and call me. We have work to do.

Walking the Boot

The day was grey and threatened rain, so I’d left Bodhi back in our room which also afforded me time to focus on something other than keeping track of his whereabouts. I parked my 4Runner near the entrance to the tractor road, which turned out to be a right-of-way separating a small stream from the main part of the property and ended at a farmer’s gate at the very back of the boot-shaped parcel. The area around the stream — or, more likely, drainage ditch — was choked with thorny brush and weeds, so it was impossible to know if it ran. The trees to the east of the drive stood tall and stately, silent and waiting.

I pulled the hand-drawn map out of my backpack and unfolded it. I told Pat I wanted to walk the land using the map as a reference, a way to envision a future in this forest. The seller’s realtor wasn’t able to accompany us because she had training she needed to complete that day, so Pat and I had the place to ourselves again.

I stood for a moment, trying to ground myself. Energy seemed to buzz up through the ground, mixing with my excitement and muddling my thoughts. The place felt strangely electric, magical. I closed my eyes and breathed in the pine-scented air, then started to walk toward the place marked as the main home-site on the map. Pat dropped in beside me then, suddenly, out of view. He popped up a moment later, holding something in his hand.

“For you,” he said. “I think it’s a hawk. No…a turkey. I always get them confused.”

As the feather crossed my palm, I thought I heard it say Barred owl. I stood staring at it, my head spinning. I managed to thank Pat in a hoarse whisper before moving on.

Summer’s exuberant growth slowed us as it had on our last visit. Blackberry thorns and multiflora rose canes tugged at our clothes, and we stepped carefully around healthy swaths of poison ivy. Here and there, we spotted tattered flags of colored landscape tape clinging to trees and marking goodness-knows-what. The sketched map was not to scale, so it was difficult to pick out the places the permaculture designer had designated for buildings and infrastructure. We followed the contours of the land, stopping now and then to peer at the map, point at a space, and imagine how my small yurt complex would nestle into the folds of the rises and hollows.

As we followed the line of the land down to its lowest point, I noticed the large colony of bright green crowsfoot I’d previously taken as a sign that this might be my Place. Then I saw another. And another. The pines and hemlocks swayed and creaked in the breeze as the sky darkened. The woods seemed so big, so…untamed. I suddenly felt intimidated by the place, by my own audacity. What am I thinking? I asked myself. I can’t do this! I can’t make a home out of all this wild space. I must be out of my mind. But as I walked, the idea of the place — its beauty, its quiet, its strength — began to take hold of me.

Touching the Tree

When we reached the lower edge of the property, we stopped. I looked back up the gentle rise, along the flat ridge bordering a neighbor’s property. I could just make out the roof of their pole-barn and a white flash of siding from their house through the undergrowth. My entire body was buzzing with energy.

“Well, what do you think?” Pat asked quietly, searching my face.

A light rain had begun to fall. I held my face up to it, letting it run down my cheeks and onto my neck. My head was still spinning — with questions, with answers, with fear, with excitement.

“I…I need to think,” was all I said.

“OK,” Pat said simply and let me stand there for a moment silently accepting the rain.

I heard a rustling sound and a small thump nearby. I opened my eyes and glanced in the direction of the sound to see that Pat — my absolutely perfect realtor — had taken a seat and was meditating. Excellent idea! I thought, and I found a place by a big pine to fold my own limbs as best I could in my hiking boots and close my eyes, leaning my back against the tall, rough trunk.

I slowed my breathing, focusing on the feeling of the rain still sweetly falling on my face. The woods was silent, still. When we first walked up the tractor road, it had felt like it was waiting. I got the same feeling again as I sat and tried to collect myself. I put my hand down into the dirt and felt for the tree’s roots.

I have nothing to offer you, I told the forest. But will you accept me? Will you allow me to build a place here for healing myself and others?

I breathed deeply and felt a small opening, a shift in my chest. The rain slowed, then stopped. A warm breeze lifted and played with my hair. My head began to clear. A calm knowing seeped up through the earth and into my palm.

After a few moments, I stood and brushed myself off. Pat was standing off to the side, looking out toward the road. He turned when he heard my footfalls in the thick covering of needles on the ground and smiled at me, waiting.

“Well,” I told him, “it isn’t what I was looking for, and it costs more than I wanted to pay, but I think it’s Home.” Tears welled in my eyes and spilled down the tracks left on my cheeks by the rain. “And I’m a silly old woman who’s crying over a piece of land.”

“I think it’s beautiful,” Pat said smiling, and we made our way back to my truck.


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The Quest for Home, Part 3: Follow the Signs

“Found it!” Pat called out to me, waving a piece of paper over his head without taking his eyes from his computer screen. Bodhi, my big, red Golden Retriever, reached him first, all wags and smiles, and Pat reached over to scratch his ears and give him a good thump before handing the paper to me.

“Uh…this is a little more than I intended to spend,” I said, gaping at a number five times larger than even my new, doubled budget. “And I thought it was only 11 acres, not 52.”

Pat laughed. “No, that’s the property across the road,” he told me. “We’re going to use it as a reference for finding the one you’re interested in. They’re both owned by the same person.”

“Ah,” I said, pursing my lips primly. “I thought maybe you were engaging in a little up-selling. Like, ‘Hey, take a look at this! Oh, this one seems a little steep? Well, then…have I got a deal for you with this other property — at only half the price!'”

Pat smirked, a mischievous glint in his eye. “Nah,” he said, jabbing a thumb over his shoulder at a man sitting behind him. “That guy’s the used car salesman. I’m on the up-and-up.” His poor colleague glanced up from his phone call, cocking his eyebrow at the two of us laughing at him before deciding he didn’t need to know.

“Let’s go!” Pat chirped chirped to Bodhi, and we were off.

Looking for Signs

Discouraged by my explorations the day before, I’d nearly quit my quest for finding rural mountain land. Intimidated by the remoteness of the properties and unsure of how I would afford one that met my needs, I’d sent up a prayer for a sign that I was on the right track. Typically, I ask the Universe to send crows as messengers because they were few and far between in my Indianapolis neighborhood, so I could consider a sighting as reasonably significant. However, as I drove back to my Airbnb lodgings that evening, I noticed that crows were as common as country daisies.

“If we’re going to use crows as our signal,” I muttered under my breath as yet another black flash of feathers crossed the highway in front of me, “you’ll have to send a whole damned murder of them.”

Crow sightings weren’t the only sign I needed. Pat and I had tried to find the 11.6-acre parcel after our nearly vertical climb to the top of a beautiful but — from my perspective — not very usable mountain property. We’d driven up and down the road but had seen no realty signs, which I’d learned from another property owner was not uncommon out in the country. And, because the land we were looking for was undeveloped property, listed as “young pine forest,” there would be no mailbox sporting a street address, assuming the numbering proceeded as logically as one might hope — and it often didn’t. The listing for the 52-acre parcel Pat had brought with us as a reference was for a small farm owned by the same person selling the land I was interested in. We had both an address and a farmhouse with a mailbox to use as a landmark.

OK, so maybe there wasn’t a farmhouse anymore…

“Uhhh…I think this is it,” Pat said, indicating a tractor road roughly cut into the hillside across from a mailbox bearing the address of the farm across the road (where a heap of stones indicated a former farmhouse). I turned my truck onto the deeply-rutted track and parked. We decided it would be imprudent to go too far up the drive until we knew whether or not we could get back out again.

Pat and I hopped out, and I released Bodhi, who immediately galloped about, pausing to sniff before charging off down the tractor road. Pat and I kept a more sedate pace behind him, peering into the undergrowth at the top of the road bank.

“It looks like they started to cut a driveway in here,” Pat said, indicating a pile of brush next to a partially-cleared swath through the trees, about two thirds the way up the road. “Let’s start there.”

A Murder of Crows(foot)

We had to move slowly at first; the brush piles from the aborted road excavation created more of a barrier than an inlet. Once we got past the initial jumble, the going got somewhat easier, and I could get a sense of the place.

There was much more biodiversity than the listing implied. Beeches and oaks and poplars and hemlocks grew among the pines. On the ground, I spotted something that looked a lot like wintergreen, although the leaf shape and coloring were unfamiliar. Pretty swirls of silver-painted, dark-green leaves grew here and there. I glanced up at something Pat was standing ankle-deep in, a vague memory tugging at me.

“Hey,” I said, pointing to the fans of evergreen ground cover. “I think I read somewhere that the stuff you’re trampling is endangered.”

Pat lifted a Teva-ed foot to look beneath it. “I dunno,” he replied, frowning. “I see it all over this area.” He turned to take in his surroundings, gingerly moving off of to one side. “And it seems pretty plentiful here.”

A large growth of the stuff blanketed the slope in a brilliant green. It was breathtaking. I added its photo to the ones I’d been taking of the other plants so I could look it up later.

As we walked the parcel, a cautious hope welled in my chest. The slope was gentle, with one or two deeply-cut washes scoring its breadth. A nearly flat ridge ran along the eastern boundary, tapering gradually down to a large level area near the bottom of the plot before it dropped off to the road. There were numerous places to put a yurt. Pat and I darted about like wide-eyed children, calling out to each other with increasing excitement. “Here!” he’d yell. “You could put a yurt here!” “Check this out!” I’d yell back, waving him over to see a sunlit opening in the trees. And so it went for the better part of an hour until we loaded Bodhi — happily exhausted from his own exploring — into the truck and drove away.


Later, in my rented room, my head spinning with exhilaration and doubt and fear and hope, I found answers:

Striped wintergreen. Rattlesnake plantain. American holly. Partridge berry. Sensitive fern. Ladyslipper. 

Google returned a photo of the pretty evergreen fans that had, indeed, been listed as endangered at one time but were making a slow comeback. It was a ground cover. I gaped in disbelief as I read its common name, the hair on my arms standing at attention:

Crowsfoot.

It was a whole damned mess of crowsfoot.