Small Conceits

Musings. Stories. Poems. From where I stand.


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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.