Small Conceits

Musings. Stories. Poems. From where I stand.


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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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To Yurt or Not to Yurt

(Didn’t think that would be the question.)

Almost all of my concentration was focused on not rolling my eyes.

“OK,” I challenged him, “tell me why you permaculture guys are so against yurts.”

When we’d first spoken, Zev, the permaculture designer I’d engaged as a consultant, had similarly challenged me, asking me why I was so insistent on living in a yurt. “Is it just the cool factor?” he’d asked.

Well, sure, that’s part of it. Although there are plenty of other, equally cool alternative housing options out there, ranging from tiny houses to earthships to tree houses. One is limited only by one’s imagination. And building codes. And covenants and restrictions. And…

Whatever.

Why a Yurt?

In addition to the “coolness” of living in a yurt, I’m also attracted to the idea of living in a dwelling that blurs the line between inside and out. Yurts, with their fabric walls and central, domed skylights through which to view the stars at night, fill the order. My property is tucked just far enough away from the freeway that I should easily be able to hear the songs of birds and the movements of wildlife through the yurt’s sides. I look forward to hearing the sighing of breezes in the pines and the soft footsteps of deer passing through the woods.

Also, circles are sacred in many cultures, representing the cyclical nature of all life, the journey from birth to death and back to birth. My own experiences with round structures have always made me feel as though I’m being held in a soothing embrace. For that reason, I’d long ago decided to forgo erecting a large yurt and subdividing it into rooms. I mean, if I was going to live in a round structure, why in the world would I individuate living spaces within it using linear walls? So, my current thinking was that I’d start with a single, mid-sized yurt of no more than 24 feet and connect it to a smaller one at a later date to make my sleeping quarters and meditation space more private. I was even toying with the idea of eventually adding a third yurt to double as a dining area for when family and friends visit and a craft room where I could lay projects out with plenty of space to work. The three yurts could surround a small courtyard, where I’d have a tiny kitchen garden.

Ambitious yurtage, no?

But the bottom line for me is…well, the bottom line. Yurts are relatively inexpensive and easy to erect. Kits vary wildly in cost, materials, and degrees of completeness. Some are made of synthetic laminates, others of canvas, and still others of wool or wood. Some come with a base and a floor; some without. Some have window and door options, and some are more tent-like, with zippers and screens and acrylic window inserts for the winter. Some have insulating liners; others don’t.

I had two favorite yurt-makers, each with their own drawbacks. The one in Canada would require shipping the kit over long distances, making its carbon footprint a lot larger than I liked. However, their yurts are ecologically responsible and well-insulated, with a built-in floor and the option to buy a kind of foundation kit. The other was a local guy, which was more in keeping with my desire to keep my housing choices as low-impact as possible — not to mention the much-lower price tag. However, his yurts aren’t much more than framed-in tents. And their skylight domes are tiny, which meant star-viewing would be limited at best.

I’d already ruled out the yurt makers whose products are made from petroleum-based fabrics that not only out-gas but also have zero flame resistance. Their yurts also tend to be more permanent installations than the two styles I was considering, which would immediately increase the number of regulations I’d have to follow and permits I’d have to get.

So, back to my question to Zev…

Round Furniture and Other Concerns

Oddly (to me), furnishing the yurt was the first concern Zev — and Andrew, the original designer for the previous owner — raised. Don’t misunderstand me, I know I’ll face challenges trying to fit square couches into a round hole, but I’ve seen a lot of clever solutions to the problem. Modular furniture, several small satellite groupings, even custom islands and cabinets, if need be, could be fun to find or design.

He also raised several, more valid points. For instance, both designers also cited the fact that rectangular buildings tend to be more energy-efficient than round ones. A yurt provides less surface area for the sun exposure in the winter because the curve of the wall bows away to the east and west. I’d be less able to take advantage of passive solar energy, equating to using more wood to heat the structure. Yurts’ poor insulation also means they heat up more slowly and retain less warmth. The cost of wood — either buying it or spending the time to chop and haul it — would likely be higher, as would the environmental impact of burning more wood.

Rain-water collection — another important component of my plan for off-grid living — is also a challenge because it would require either custom gutters or some other less-effective work-around. Now, I’ve read there are folks living in yurts who rely on rain-water catchment to offset their well-water use, but I’m not sure if they’re collecting from the yurt roof, or if they have a barn, garage, or other building supplying non-potable water for showering, toilet flushing, and gardening use. It’s an important question, requiring further research.

Zev provided various and sundry other perspectives — some reflecting his knowledge of sustainable living; others clearly stemming from personal bias — but then he uttered the one word that gave me serious pause:

Mold.

The Realities of a Temperate Rain Forest

“I lived in a yurt near here for a year,” Zev told me. “Mold was a big problem. And not just the yurt,” he continued. “My stuff grew mold in there, too. Yurts don’t have great ventilation.”

Zev went on to explain that, because they’re made of fabric, there are plenty of tiny crevices where mold can take root and grow. Unless I wanted to do some serious cleaning and maintenance — quarterly, at least — I should consider another housing option. My neighbors, with whom I chatted later in the day, confirmed Zev’s prediction: I’d be battling mold, as everyone in the area did. (I later learned from the woman from whom I bought the property that she’d torn down the farm house on the parcel across the street because of an out-of-control mold infestation.)

Dang it.

While I found the idea of more frequent cleaning distasteful, it wasn’t a show-stopper. But my serious mold allergy was another matter. I was already stacking the deck against my health and comfort by living on a wooded plot of land. The idea that I’d have no haven from the threat of mold created doubt.

Is a yurt really right for me?

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Waiting for a yurt. Or…something.


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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.


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The Quest for Home, Part 2: Usable Mountain Land

“This isn’t going to work. We’re outta here.”

We’d just crossed the sixth one-lane bridge between the property we were driving into the mountains to look at and anything remotely resembling a town.  Six opportunities to be stuck on one side of a washed-out bridge or the other — going in or, more worrisome to me, coming out. Visions of not being able to get to a hospital spun around in my head.

My brother, John, didn’t take his eyes from the hairpin turns of the road I was cautiously navigating. “I don’t know why you didn’t turn around at bridge #3 when you first started saying that.”

I shrugged without looking at him. “Have you seen anywhere to turn around?”

“Good point,” he replied as a car whizzed past, its driver seemingly unconcerned that the two-lane road in the direction he was heading folded in half at the edge of a drop-off, then plunged up a blind hill. Maybe he was out of milk and eggs and had thrown caution to the wind, I silently posited.

I found a nearly-vertical driveway with a wide enough un-gated mouth to turn the 4Runner around without falling off into a ravine. It had a pretty decent view of the road snaking past it. Down below us, across the road, a cabin nestled in a sunlit clearing, the postcard version of all the similarly-nestled cabins we’d passed along the way. The cabin’s idyllic surroundings raised at least three flags for mistakes people make when buying rural land that formed the basis for my aversion to bridges. I peered as far up either side of the road as a I could, took a deep breath, and stomped on the accelerator, just as another car shot through the curve. I wasn’t comfortable with the margin by which we missed colliding but was thankful for it, nonetheless.

I risked a quick glance at my iPhone, where Google Maps was now showing us backtracking our route. The app had long since given up any active navigation and had simply been painting a blue line across the screen in the direction of the route it had chosen for us. As we retraced the route, the blue line became grey, indicating we were on the right road, which was a good thing, as I’d been so busy negotiating the crazy curves and hills that I wasn’t sure I could reverse the turns I’d taken on the way in without help.

“Google was showing we only had 10 minutes to go,” I smirked. “The listing said the property is 30 minutes from Asheville. I wonder if they confused 30 minutes with 30 miles.”

“The way people are driving up here,” John replied, “30 minutes and 30 miles are probably the same thing.”

Refining My “Requirements”

Western North Carolina’s rural landscape steals my breath away. Mountain coves hold in their embrace a patchwork of beautiful, rolling farmland and dark, stately forests stitched together by hair-raising two-lane roads. I found myself smitten with the area the first time I drove through it.

Just over a year later, having come to the realization that I’d been delaying a long-held dream to live more simply, more in sync with nature, I decided to make it my home.

However, driving through a place is far different from taking up residence. I was just now getting a taste for the challenges of mountain living. Although I plan to live off-grid in a yurt, I do not plan to homestead or live as a hermit, so there are a few modern conveniences, such as grocery stores, that I’ll still need access to. Because my plan also includes rental yurts for “glamping” — a trend that combines aspects of a camping experience with the ease of a bed-and-breakfast — I want to be reasonably close to restaurants and other attractions, without my guests losing the feeling of staying in a mountain retreat. And, frankly, at nearly 54 years old, I have to consider how likely it is that I’ll be able to age in place. I don’t want to build my dream only to find myself too frail to maintain and enjoy it.

Yes, it’s a tall order. My requirements, in fact, completely blew my budget for the land purchase itself because finding such a property requires more acreage than I’d anticipated. Not only were covenants and restrictions a potential barrier to living the way I wanted to live, but so (apparently) was finding land that was both accessible and level enough to build on.

“Usable Mountain Land”

“This is a great piece of property,” Pat, my realtor breathed, turning to take in the cleared knoll at the top of what, for me, was a nearly vertical climb up a goat-path attempting to pass itself off as a road. “You could cut in another 15 feet or so, all the way around, and you’d have a nice homesite, with room for solar.”

On the climb up, necessitated by the fact that Pat didn’t think his minivan would make it up the unimproved road — which the boulder jutting out of the center of one of the steeper rises validated —  he’d pointed out patches of less-crazily tilting ground. To my eye, these were mere ledges jutting from a forest that vaulted skyward. He’d point at one ledge or another, telling me, “You could put a guest yurt there…and one there…” I tried to imagine my guests struggling up a rutted drive, parking their vehicles on a narrow switchback, and hauling their gear or suitcases across a walkway spanning a deep rift in the earth before arriving at a yurt perched on a deck that jutted over the sharp drop.

I pictured my elderly parents afraid to visit.

The knoll was lovely, and the perc testing conducted by its current owners indicated that at least four people could live up there full-time. A broad stream bubbled along the bottom of the parcel, by the road, so water was plentiful. I wondered what kind of power would be required to pump that water all the way up to where we were standing, and what it would take to get any kind of pressure.

“You rarely see mountain property with this much usable land,” Pat said after a moment, grinning enthusiastically. “This is really sweet.”

My heart sank. If this was what usable mountain land looked like, and it was beginning to look like it was, based on our explorations that day, I had no idea what I was doing.


Later, at dinner, I shared my fears with my brother and his wife, Kim, who had come up to join us from their home in South Carolina.

“Maybe I should give this up,” I lamented. “Maybe I’m not cut out for mountain life.”

In fact, maybe, I thought, I am completely off my rocker and should be staying put, safe in my sweet little house in the city.