Small Conceits

Musings. Stories. Poems. From where I stand.


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A Woman Walks into a Yurt

…at the Home & Garden Show

I’m so behind in my posts on the story of my journey to living a sustainable, regenerative lifestyle — and this one will likely be a surprise, given my post “To Yurt or Not to Yurt” — but it’s time to talk about the yurt I decided to buy. Yep, that’s right: I bought a yurt, and it’s currently living in a storage unit until I can get my driveway and home site cleared to put it on. (And that is waiting on a septic permit and perk test by the county health department. Goodbye plans for a composting toilet — for now. Covenants and restrictions aren’t the only barriers to living off-grid. But that’s a topic for another post.) My decision process went, as it does for most major purchases, something like this:

  1. Research the purchase, as a general concept
  2. Bookmark the snot out of links to a range of products
  3. Agonize (which includes second-guessing making the purchase at all)
  4. Research more, expanding the range of products and throwing in a few more to add to the confusion
  5. Agonize/second-guess some more
  6. Narrow the choices
  7. Almost decide, but then agonize again instead
  8. Repeat Steps 1-5
  9. Wait too long, while some products drop off the map
  10. Get sick of the whole darned thing and pull the trigger

And this is why my friends laughed when I posted on Facebook about my “impulse buy” of a yurt at a recent Home & Garden Show.

The Materials and Construction Debate

Traditionally, yurts — or ger, as they’re known in their country of origin — are semi-permanent structures made of felted yak wool used by the nomadic people of the Mongolian steppes. They have a single door-flap, a central opening at the top to let in light and let cook-fire smoke out (much like the hole at the top of a tipi), and no windows. A few purists follow this tradition, but most modern yurts are built using a variety of fabric laminates, with a few made of wood, more resembling a traditional Navajo hogan than a yurt.

Yak wool seemed a less practical (and more aromatic) choice, so I quickly focused on the dizzying array of other available materials. Fabric-based laminates leverage everything from a polyester/vinyl composite to cotton canvas, affording varying degrees of water-resistance, mildew resistance, flame resistance, and durability, among other qualities. Each fabric choice has its pros and cons: petroleum-based vs. ecologically sustainable; breathable vs. not; low-maintenance vs. maintenance-intensive. None of these decisions could be made without considering my new home’s climate and how long I planned to live in the yurt.

Construction approaches also vary greatly. Some yurts come as more-or-less “complete” kits, including decking, snap-together flooring, and insulation as part of the package, while others offer only the basic tent-like structure, leaving many of the refinements up to the adventurous DIYer. And, of course, you can buy plans for the wood yurts, taking DIY to a whole new level.

While a wood yurt would be, from my perspective, optimal for long-term inhabitation, they’re cost-prohibitive for me at this point in my journey. My concerns about condensation and mold — two battles I’ll have to fight, no matter what I opt for, living in a temperate rainforest — can be significantly decreased, even in a fabric-laminate yurt, with a ceiling fan to help with air flow and ventilation. The ventilation issue, in fact, focused my search on yurts with larger, venting domes. (And it didn’t hurt that the larger domes met my desire to gaze up at the night sky at night as I drift off to sleep.)

Size Matters

“Will it have a loft? I love the yurts with lofts. Sooooo pretty!”

“Have you seen those yurts where they build walls so you can divide it into rooms?”

“Oooo…I’ve seen some that were, like 40′ in diameter!”

So, size. I wanted something semi-permanent that could be moved, without a lot of trouble, to another part of the property and offered as a vacation rental for a “glamping” experience. (I resist the term, so you’ll just have to keep reading it in quotes on my blog. Sorry. It’s a silly thing, but I find the word ridiculous.) I wasn’t yet certain that a yurt would be my permanent dwelling choice, as I was still exploring other options. The need for portability ruled out most of the larger yurts on the market.

As for rooms and lofts: The yurt Bodhi and I stayed in over a year ago, in Virginia, was divided into a kitchen, a bathroom, a downstairs bedroom, and a very roomy bedroom loft — which we had to reach using a beautiful iron spiral stairway.

Bodhi couldn’t even begin to manage the stairs, so we slept in the bedroom on the first floor, which was situated under the loft. And which also meant that we were sleeping in a conventional box of a bedroom instead of under the beautiful central dome with its view of the stars. (Insert sad trombone here.)

Our struggle with the stairs highlighted the fact that neither Bodhi nor I were getting any younger, and adding stairs at this life stage seems silly. Moreover, dividing a yurt into rooms flies in the face of why I wanted to live in a yurt in the first place: the cozy feeling of being held in a circular embrace.

So, my yurt needed to be small-ish, without walls and without a loft I’d one day be admiring from afar on the first floor because my arthritic knees won’t carry me up those pesky stairs.

A Yurt of One’s Own

And, so, we arrive at the Home & Garden Show in Charlotte, NC.

In the 18 months or so since I’d started my research in earnest, I’d followed my decision-making process right down the path to standing in a yurt with Kathy Anderson and Sharon Morley from Blue Ridge Yurts — which was where I’d essentially started, except back then it was at their factory, and now it was at the show.

I’d planned to start with at least a 24′ yurt, potentially adding two 20′ yurts later — one to use as a bedroom (for privacy) and the other as a dining-/craft-room — so I wouldn’t feel so cramped over time. I wanted to start slightly larger because I knew that the first yurt would be the only yurt for several years, assuming I did, indeed, decide to make yurts my permanent housing solution.

But there I was, standing in a 20′ model yurt, and Kathy and Sharon were offering me a reduced price, and I was shaking hands and making appointments to have it broken down and delivered to my storage unit, and we were laughing, and…

…that’s how I acquired my yurt. My yurt.

Wow. I really own a yurt. *swoon*

Yurt at the garden show, with Rick getting ready to break it down.

Yeah, I know: This is a GUY walking into a yurt. That’s Rick, Yurt Dude Extraordinaire, from Blue Ridge Yurts, getting ready to break down and deliver my yurt to storage.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


 

 

 

 

 

 


Learn more about Blue Ridge Yurts by visiting their New! Improved! website at http://www.blueridgeyurts.com

BTW: Their recent website upgrade removed the link to an article about the material they use, which is made to California-approved standards for fire-resistance. I figure that if Kathy’s and Sharon’s yurt fabric can stand up to regulations in a state where wildfires are a common occurrence, I can probably feel pretty good about it, too.

 

 


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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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NC Cooperative Extension Extends My Education

What I don’t know about living off the land, in all its variations, fills entire libraries.

During my “due diligence” period prior to buying my mountain property, I wanted to know as much as I could about the land on which I intended to live. What was the history of the place, its stories? Would the parcel yield enough water to live on? Was the soil conducive to holding foundations for dwellings firm? What kinds of beneficial plants were already growing there and could be foraged for food or medicine? If I did grow crops, which ones would grow best?

Lee Barnes, the water dowser had answered my questions about a viable well and provided me with soil surveys specific to the area, as well as some of the lore from its former Cherokee inhabitants. But I wanted to know more, not only about what was already growing but about what I might grow in the future. So I reached out and engaged the experts from the County Cooperative Extension.

Invasive Species in My Mountain Paradise

“You’ve got some miscanthus here,” Ross told me, pointing to a tall, ornamental grass I’ve seen growing everywhere, covering the mountain hillsides. “There’s not much, but it spreads fast, so you might want to dig up what’s growing in the sun,” he suggested.

Ross Young and Elizabeth Ayers from the Madison County Cooperative Extension were all I could have hoped for in guides. Not only were they willing to share their extensive knowledge of the area, they were a joy to spend time with — entertaining storytellers who laughed freely. And it didn’t hurt that they delighted in my Bodhi, who frequently interrupted his own exploring to lean on one or the other of them and get his ears scratched.

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Japanese stilt grass was once used as freight packing.

As we walked, I learned that the thorny bushes crowding out the native wild berries is multiflora rose. Introduced to the U.S. from Japan as an easy-to-grow alternative to livestock fence, multiflora rose aggressively spreads from seeds, crowns, and tips of branches touching and taking root in the ground. Another invasive from Japan, stilt grass, grows with fervor along the tractor road. “Long ago, it was used as a packing material for imported goods,” Elizabeth explained.

The list of invasives went on. Bittersweet vine, its shiny black berries loved by crafters who use it to make wreaths, spreads from tree to tree in the forest canopy. Mimosa trees, planted as an ornamental for its fern-like leaves and fluffy, aromatic pink flowers, produce hundreds of tiny seeds which can wait, dormant in the soil, for years before sprouting. I silently wondered how I’d ever win a containment battle, much less an eradication war. (I later learned new perspectives about opportunistic abundance as part of the strategy.)

Tree Diseases Reshaping the Forest

Invasive plants aren’t the only issue plaguing the property. As we walked, Ross taught me about an infestation known as HWA, or hemlock woolly adelgid — an insect which, like many of the invasive plants on the property, came from East Asia. While the tall pines on the parcel struggle with the pine beetle rampantly infesting most of the mountain forests, the eastern hemlocks are dying from HWA.

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Tiny silver-green bits of fluff indicate HWA infection.

“Hemlock trees are shade-tolerant,” Ross explained. “I can tell your trees are sick because they should have needles even on the lowest branches, and these are bare.”

“Here,” Elizabeth said, holding out a twig from a nearby hemlock sapling. “This is what’s killing your hemlocks.” The signs of the deadly insect are beautiful — a silvery, woolly tuft of fluff excreted by the bugs clings like fairy-cotton between the dark, green needles.

There are a few chemical spot-treatments available, varying in expense and difficulty of application. Because I’d like to eliminate the use of chemicals as much as possible, these treatments aren’t appealing to me. However, in a well-contained area of national forest land, a small lady beetle has been experimentally released to eat the woolly adelgid.

“We’re waiting for the results,” Ross told me. “So far, it looks hopeful, but it won’t be available to land owners for a long time.” It wouldn’t be in time to save my mature trees, but seedlings dot the understory. Their future might be more hopeful. In the meantime, Ross kindly provided me with the Hemlock Restoration Initiative’s contact information so I can further educate myself (and others!) about HWA.

Hidden Treasures and Hopeful Signs

“Ohhh…” Elizabeth smiled and gently grasped a nearby tree branch. “Copper beech. These are one of my favorites. You can tell them apart from birch because their simple veins all align with teeth at the edges of the leaves. See?” She pointed to a leaf on the branch she held and, sure enough, all of the veins followed the mid-rib out to the points on the leaf, with no branching. Elizabeth also told me that the smooth bark of the beech invites carving into it, which earned it the nickname of “message tree.”

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Copper beeches hang onto their leaves all winter.

Elizabeth and Ross identified poplars, hawthorns, oaks, and hollies. Ross expressed surprise about the biodiversity. The land had listed as “young pine forest,” but didn’t hint at the variety of other trees and shrubs growing on the property. After the disappointing reality of pine beetle and HWA plaguing my trees, that variety was a cause for celebration — the forest would continue to thrive, even if its shape and character changed with the growth of healthier species.

Every so often, the pair paused to point out a new treasure. Tiny orchids, rare medicinals, a variety of ferns. The pretty little ground cover with the bright red berries is partridge berry. The tall stalk with the plump seed pods might be a lady slipper. The stripe-leafed plant is, indeed, a wintergreen. Over there, an orchid called “rattlesnake plantain.”

And, of course, the large patches of slow-growing crowsfoot, leaping and splashing like a bubbling green flood over the gentle contours of the forest floor.

Soil Samples: Science to Grow By

As they prepared to go, Ross and Elizabeth handed me a sheet of paper with Ross’ contact information typed onto it and a stack of flat cardboard boxes. “These are for soil samples,” Ross explained. “Just follow instructions on the sheet and on the boxes, and send them in to this address.” He pointed to a couple of lines in the upper left corner on the front of the paper. “Email me when the report comes in,” he continued, “and Elizabeth or I will be happy to go over the report with you. They can be a little hard to follow.”

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Boxes for collecting soil samples.

I was thrilled at the prospect of learning more about my soil. I knew the acidity would be high because of all the pines, and Ross had pointed out a couple of places where blueberries would thrive. But I’d want to grow more than blueberries, and knowing how to amend the soil on different parts of the property would eliminate a lot of guesswork. I couldn’t wait to get started.

“And one more thing,” Ross paused, smiling at me. “Pay attention to the trees they knock down when they grade your road. You have enough different tree species and shade that mushrooms could be your first cash crop.”

WHAT?! A cash crop? I’d been focused on subsistence, on growing my own food, not on selling crops to anyone else.

“Shiitake mushrooms grow well in oak,” he continued. “But oyster mushrooms like poplar,” he said and pointed to a tree by the side of the tractor road. “That’s a poplar, and it’s ready to come down. You want to try get them while they’re dormant, if you can.”

“The Field and Forest catalog sells mushroom spawn,” Elizabeth told me, grinning at my excitement. “We’ll come back and show you how to inoculate logs when you’re ready. It’ll be something to grow while you’re shaping up the rest of the soil for other crops.”

 

With final ear rubs for Bodhi and hearty handshakes all around, the two got into Ross’ truck and drove away, leaving me dizzy with new possibility. This adventure of mine wasn’t going to be easy, but something told me it would be worth the effort.

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Elizabeth and Ross pose with a happy Bodhi after our educational walk around the land. 


Ross Young is Director of Extension Services for the Madison County Center of the North Carolina Cooperative Extension.

Elizabeth Ayers is an Agriculture Extension Agent (Local Foods) for the Madison County Center of the North Carolina Cooperative Extension.

Together with the rest of their team, they work with small farmers, homesteaders, and gardeners to help them better understand and optimize the land they’re working and the crops they grow. 

You can learn more about North Carolina State University’s Cooperative Extension at https://www.ces.ncsu.edu/.

To learn more about chemical approaches to treating HWA, download this PDF from the Hemlock Restoration Initiative of Western North Carolina. Please note that all resources mentioned in the guide are local to that region. HRI General HWA Treatment Info_Nov2016 (PDF)


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Surprising Perspectives on Invasive Plants

“I can take those out for you when the machines come through,” Sam offered. He was referring to two huge multiflora rose bushes at the mouth of the tractor road he’ll be improving for me. Their long, densely-thorned canes claw at my vehicle every time I turn up the road onto the property. “Multiflora rose is no one’s friend.”

Sam isn’t the first to express this opinion about one of the invasive species growing on the land I affectionately nicknamed The Boot. My guides from Cooperative Extension Services had warned me about them, too, along with several others: bittersweet vine, mimosa trees, miscanthus (Chinese silver grass), and Japanese stilt grass. Whether they were introduced accidentally or for some well-intentioned purpose, they’d all escaped into the wild and often suck up resources native species need to thrive.

My first instinct was to wage full-out war on them, eradicating them as best I could. But as I am learning about sustainable living, other perspectives have edged into my awareness and are shaping how I look at the landscape.

Partners in Permaculture

I was frowning at the mimosa trees and telling Zev, the permaculture design consultant I’d engaged, that I needed to get busy digging them out.

Zev replied with a non sequitur: “Did you know there are types of tea bushes you can grow here in the mountains?”

WHAT?! Tea is one of my favorite beverages. Tea not only warms me but also provides comfort, soothing my often persistent tension. I did a happy little jig and told him I hadn’t heard that before.

“Mimosas make great companion plants for tea bushes,” Zev continued, connecting the dots between my threat of planticide and his odd response. “As the first tea buds come out, the mimosas shade them. Later, when the bushes have fully leafed-out, you cut the mimosas back to give the tea more sun. And mimosas are a high-protein fodder for goats and sheep, if you’re planning on raising livestock.”

I have no plans for livestock, but the companion planting information thrilled me. One of the core principles of permaculture design — and sustainable living, in general — is optimizing opportunities for growing food. Terms like “edible forest” and Hugelkultur have slowly crept into my vocabulary, casting a different lens on how I might live sustainably and harmoniously on the land. I made a mental note to research carefully the impact of any plants I planned to remove before I dug them out, in case there were opportunities for symbiotic pairings.

Opportunistic Abundance

“I’m excited that you have multiflora [rose] on your land!” wrote Sara in a message. “She taught me a lot about having healthy boundaries and what it means to love and nurture myself… I hope that she’s an equal gift to you!”

I’ve been following Sara on Instagram for about a year now. Her sensitivity to the stories that shape and are shaped by landscapes was one of the first things that drew me to her. Following her reading recommendations, I became familiar with the writings of Sharon Blackie and Mary Reynolds, both of whom dive deeply into what it means to be in relationship with the land. More recently, I’ve begun referring to Sara as one of my informal teachers in foraging and herbalism. While watching her recent live Instagram video story, I’d asked Sara if multiflora rose was appropriate for making tinctures and teas. She’d enthusiastically replied, “Yes!” before adding that the benefit of using invasive species was that you couldn’t over-harvest them as you could the dwindling native plant species.

Freely foraging invasives is a theme running through the foraging and herbalism communities, in my online classes and on various social media.

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Rose tea. Photo by Marco Secchi on Unsplash

While no one condones cultivating or propagating invasive species, foragers and herbalists alike encourage opportunistic gathering for food and medicines. Rose, for instance, is an astringent and an anti-inflammatory and can be used both topically — as it often is, in creams and cosmetics — and internally, as a delicious tea. I’ve also found rose tincture to be an effective tonic for soothing grief. Multiflora rose, now naturalized and considered wild, brings a particularly tenacious energy to its gentle healing properties.

Even parts of that pesky mimosa tree I wanted to kill can be used beneficially. It’s good medicine for burn and wound care, soothing coughs, and relieving oral discomfort. It’s also an immune booster, for which the less plentiful, native echinacea (a certain species of coneflower) and golden seal plants are known.

Non-Native Species: Invasion or Evolution?

“Landscapes change,” Zev told me. “You can’t really stop evolution.”

He had a point.

While many non-native species such as kudzu and garlic mustard are reviled, others have been accepted and even cultivated. Many types of fruits and berries — including blackberries and raspberries (both considered invasive in certain regions), along with apples, pears, cherries, and all edible citrus fruits — were transplanted from Europe and Asia but have become vital food sources. And these are just imports from the plant kingdom. Starlings, several species of sparrow, and even a species of grey squirrel were introduced from other continents. In fact, voracious “infestations” of the Eastern grey squirrel have all but decimated native populations of the smaller red squirrel. Yet these species have not only been accepted as residents but, in the case of the fruits and berries, have even become important commercial crops.

So, what is the middle way? I wondered. How do I help contain species that threaten the availability of native plants but still make use of their beneficial aspects? 

I think the balance, for me, will be opportunistically harvesting invaders, while also doing what I can to protect and restore native plants through seed collecting and trading in my tiny corner of the world.

For the moment, I’m sticking to my plan of living as lightly as possible out there — once I actually get out there — and observing the land for a year before doing any planting or clearing, outside of what I need for a home site and access to it.

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The native partridge berry has medicinal properties, but over-foraging has endangered it.


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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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Useful Off-Grid Skills: Tending Fire

You might be wondering: So, Denise is planning on having this grand off-grid adventure somewhere in the mountains of North Carolina. Does she have the requisite skills to survive out there?

I’m wondering that, too. (I know, I know: Not comforting.)

I accidentally got the opportunity to test one of those skill sets back in November when the furnace in the cabin where I was staying crapped out, leaving me with only a wood stove for heat.

The Setting: 200 Acres of Woodland in Southern Indiana

Shortly after my Bodhi died, dear friends of mine extended the generous offer of their cabin for a couple of weeks so I could process my grief in solitude. Situated by a small lake and wrapped in 200 acres of forest, the cabin provided both comfort and healing hours of walking in nature.

The cabin itself, built in the late 70s, has several bedrooms, a full bath, and a roomy, albeit simple, kitchen. A lovely loft overlooks the spacious living room, where a large wood stove stands on a raised hearth of local stone. I used the stove more for the enjoyment of a crackling fire than for heating the cabin, which task falls to the furnace and heat pump.

And then, just a few nights before my soul-soothing stay ended, the furnace gave out.

Wood Stove Fires vs. Campfires

The temperatures had dropped to levels appropriate to a proper autumn, so I definitely needed heat. I glanced out the front window to the load of wood a neighbor had gone to the trouble of stacking before I’d arrived. Ironically, I’d only built a couple of fires in the stove, and then only because I felt like an ingrate. The logs were hefty — not split — but I had plenty of tinder and kindling, so using the large chunks of wood hadn’t been an issue, and their size meant not having to feed the fire as often. There was plenty of wood. I’d notified my friends, and they’d scheduled furnace repairs for the next day, so I really only needed to keep the fire going for the rest of the afternoon and through the night.

Let me emphasize the challenge here: I really only needed to keep the fire going for the rest of the afternoon and through the night.

Now, I’ve done a fair amount of camping over the decades, and I’ve successfully built a good number of fires, even in wet, rainy weather. Before that week, however, I’d never fired up a wood stove, but even with the large logs I’d done well and soaked up the comfort of the crackling flames with a big cup of hot chocolate as I relaxed in the evening. From my YouTube research (Yep. Did that.), I learned that although laying a stove fire is a little different from laying a campfire, the basic mechanics are pretty similar.

But laying and lighting a fire is only part of the experience. Keeping it going is a whole other story. The rules change when you’re relying on a fire for heat — and, therefore, survival.

When I’m out camping, the specter of potentially starting a forest fire hangs heavily over me. (Anywhere from 60-90% of forest fires are caused by careless humans.) A gust of wind, a fallen branch, or wildlife visitors can stir even a single coal into sparks that will take out thousands of acres of forest, as well as any homes and businesses within range. So any campfire I build is carefully extinguished before I turn in for the night.

In other words, the exact opposite of what I needed to do with the stove.

What I Learned

As it turned out, the overall experience wasn’t as challenging as I thought it would be. Yes, I had to get up two nights in a row at about 3:30 a.m. to stoke the fire. (The furnace repair guy was delayed by a day.) But I managed to keep the coals alive, which allowed me to light the next morning’s fire quickly and easily a Good Thing, since two days of rain meant all the branches I needed for kindling were soaked. But I did learn a few important things:

  • I’m completely convinced that the stove I buy will have soapstone inserts. They radiate heat after the fire goes out, which means I won’t have to wake up in the middle of the night to tend the fire.
  • Hot coals are critical if I run out of tinder and kindling, and
  • I need NEVER to run out of tinder and kindling.
  • Dryer lint makes a freakishly effective tinder material. Seriously. (You want a sobering experience? Light some dryer lint in a fire-safe place sometime. You’ll never let lint build up in your lint catcher or dryer vent again.)
  • I really need to practice with wood-chopping tools. Really. REALLY. Because I’ve never had to do it before, except with a small hatchet on small logs. Very. Different. Experience.

And, pursuant to that last bullet point (and for your amusement)…the video.