Off the Ground: Early Days on the Diagonal, Part 3

Off the Ground: Early Days on the Diagonal, Part 3

(If you’re just joining this series, you really should read this first and work your way forward.)

July 10, 1979: The day we move to the shed. Small as it is, the shed feels immense compared to the tent. And it’s still standing, so perhaps we really can build a whole house.

In retrospect, 2017: We didn’t know how much ahead of the times we were. We built one of the world’s tiniest tiny houses way before tiny-house-living was a thing.

An army cot across one end with another along one side for the children gives us just enough room to lay a double sleeping bag on the floor for us. Putting it out of the way each morning gives us room to dress, eat, play board games, and draw house plans—as long as we coordinate. The cots do double duty as daytime seating. Improvised single shelves along two walls keep some of our stash off the floor. We have no door, just a three-foot wide doorway.

In retrospect, 2017: I wonder why the possibility of intruders never occurred to us. We felt perfectly safe from the human type, but why weren’t we concerned about wildlife? In the years since, we’ve seen everything from snakes to bears. We must have been crazy!


Our “kitchen” is just outside the shed on left end. The doorway is also on the left end. Suitcase and canned goods are lined up along our front “wall.”

With all outdoors for living, our little enclosure doesn’t feel cramped. Our “bathroom” in the woods boasts incredible scenery with its huge rhododendron walls for privacy—not that we need all that much privacy up here.

The shed’s plastic walls and roof provide plenty of natural light, but we discover the obvious—it’s either a steam room or a sauna, depending on the weather. No place to spend daylight hours, especially when it’s sunny. Yet, it’s the only suitable spot for drafting house plans.

July 11, 1979: The water inspector okays our septic tank, our first official approval of any kind. It feels like a huge accomplishment. But with one hurdle out of the way, we stumble onto another: the car won’t start. Fortunately, we find the problem and it’s an easy fix, but this experience magnifies our isolation. With only one car, no social support system, and no phone, our existence here is fragile and hinges on lots of things going right. We’ve already discovered they don’t always.

It’s only our second night in the shed and we have yet another heavy rainfall. The accompanying strong wind, which we’re coming to expect as normal, blows up under our plastic “roof” and tears holes where the plastic is strapped to the rafters. We get soaked. (It won’t be the last time.) A few repairs get us through the night.

July 12, 1979: We add a second layer of plastic, hoping it will be enough to protect us during the next big windstorm. We know there will be one.

While the Gnome works on the house plans we’ll have to submit to the county building inspector so we can actually start building, I chop down the few hundred black locust saplings covering our construction area. Everything’s happening a lot more slowly than we’ve anticipated. But it’s all progress.


The Gnome’s drafting table with stacks of reference books to the right. Too hot for a shirt in here. Note upper left of picture where plastic is raised to let in a tiny bit of air. Sleeping gear in background.

(Tune in next week for more adventures in Early Days on the Diagonal.)

Confessions of a Groupie

Confessions of a Groupie

I admit it—I’m a groupie. But maybe not the kind you’re thinking of. My fanaticism lies with the Mother Earth News Fair. I first learned about this terrific event back in 2013, a couple of years after I’d hit the retirement button on a public service career that had taken all of my energy. The Gnome and I thought going to the fair would be a great way to get our modern homesteading grooves back.

No ferris wheels or cotton candy at this fair. It’s all about sustainability and self-reliance. A perfect fit for two old, would-be hippies who wanted to get back to basics. Not that the fair’s attendees are hippies. It’s a broad spectrum of folks who fill the workshops and exhibit halls: young, old, rich, poor, hip, not so hip. They come for different reasons. I’m betting they all leave with new purpose and enthusiasm.

We took off to the fair in Seven Springs, Pennsylvania, for what turned out to be the beginning of a great new passion for gardening, food preservation, and more. I had gardened years ago back in 4-H, and the Gnome and I had tried our hands at before we moved here, but it had been a really long time. We needed some remedial education.

I can’t begin to tell you how excited we were to discover that they planned one for the next year in nearby Asheville, NC. We’ve been every year.

Here’s just a sampling of what I’ve learned at these events. From great garlic guru Ira Wallace, I learned all about growing garlic. Haven’t had  store bought since. Sherri Brooks Vinton put pizzaz in canning. When the holidays came, we bought a box of grapefruit from the Rotary Club just so I could whip up some jars of her grapefruit in lavender syrup. Yum!

Lisa Kivirist and John Ivanko shared their passion for community and reinforced what I already knew about the importance of prioritizing values when you’re striving to achieve an important goal. Deborah Niemann let me in on the secret that quiche is not just elegant, but a simple way to wow guests (and other ecothrifty ideas). Philip Akerman-Leist honestly laid out the good, the bad, and the ugly about homesteading in modern America. North Carolinian Linda Watson, who set out to teach people how to eat well on a food stamp budget, wowed me with inexpensive, delicious, and nutritious recipes. That’s a combination that’s hard to beat.

Niki Jabbour introduced me to all kinds of new vegetables and extolled the virtues of year-round gardening. If she could do it in Nova Scotia, surely I could in North Carolina. Craig LeHoullier, another Tar Heel, taught how to grow heirloom tomatoes successfully, always a tricky business up here in the mountains.

Well, you get the idea. At the Mother Earth News Fair there are workshops on things like foraging, wind and other alternative energies, animal workshops (raising, butchering, processing—not my thing), herbalism, composting, mushrooms, marketing your small farm or home-based business, edible landscaping, permaculture, cheesemaking, vermiculture, fermentation, ecology. There’s even a series of workshops for kids. There are exhibits and demonstrations and books. Oh, the books! We always bring home an armload.

Every year for the last five years, the fair has added a new location to its offerings. This year there are fairs in Vermont, Oregon, Texas, and Kansas as well as the ones in Pennsylvania and North Carolina. And the best part is it’s just about the most reasonably priced event you could hope to attend. A two-day ticket only costs $20 in advance ($30 at the gate). The same money gets you three days at the premier Pennsylvania fair—it’s HUGE!

This year’s Asheville fair is May 6th and 7th at the Western North Carolina Fairgrounds. I highly recommend it.

Our First Week: Early Days on the Diagonal, Part 2

Our First Week: Early Days on the Diagonal, Part 2

(If you’re just joining this series, may I suggest you start here.)

July 2, 1979: We arrive at what will be our forever home around mid-afternoon. We’ve not seen it since things turned green. What a surprise to be greeted by acres of my favorite flower, wild daisies.

We hop out of the car and sit on the ground to take in the beauty that surrounds us. And what do we discover? Scrumptious little wild strawberries—so much sweeter than the hybrids you find in the grocery store or even in a well-tended garden. We’re in heaven!


Wild strawberries!

It’s almost impossible to comprehend that we’re able to sit among these flowers and berries in a giant meadow against the backdrop of the Blue Ridge Mountains able to say, “It’s ours!” Butterflies dance through the air from one wildflower to another, fluttering around us as if we’re not here.

We set up our 8×8′ canvas tent. Punkin and Cuddlebug thrive in the adventure of it: being outdoors in pajamas, cooking over an open fire, teasing each other when the wind changes direction about whether smoke follows beauty or weirdness.


Punkin (red) and Cuddlebug (blue) investigate smoke in front of our first home on the diagonal

We get the lay of the land, set up outdoor toilet facilities, check out our creek and spring, and generally adjust to living in the wild.


Our creek in the woods is too far away to hear its burbling but it will become a crucial part of our new lifestyle.

It rains almost every day. We’re soaked, the tent’s soaked, our sleeping bags are soaked. It takes a trip to the laundromat half an hour away to dry them—over and over again.


Soppy kid; soppy tent (upper right), soppy soil

There’s lightning, too. When that happens, the only safe place for us is inside the steamy car.

We’ve been here barely a week, and already we have to reprioritize. We need more protection from the weather, and fast. Instead of clearing land for the house, we have to do it for our temporary living quarters, which we dub “the shed.” But boy, oh boy, does it have to be simple: just 8×12′, plywood floor, studs, and rafters—all to be covered in nothing more than plastic. Barely a shelter at all, but cheap, quick, and off the ground.


Cuddlebug tries his hand at digging post holes.


“Hold that post steady, Punkin.”


With posts and joists in place, it’s time for the floor.

All this work is with human-powered tools; we have no electricity. And we’ve just discovered that the site for our septic tank must be approved before we can get a temporary power pole installed. We schedule the inspector for next week.


Ready to move in.

In Retrospect, 2017: In general, we’re not big risk-takers, but this risk turned out to be a life lesson about what’s possible—not just for us, but also to our children. They got to see creativity in action, how to make do, and how to forge ahead, unafraid, in the face of the unknown. 

(Stay tuned to see what happens next in Early Days on the Diagonal.)

Early Days on the Diagonal: Part One

Early Days on the Diagonal: Part One

(The first of an eight-part series on our first steps toward modern homesteading.)

It had been building for years, this desire to make a bold move. The mountains had long ago wrangled a home in my heart, and they weren’t moving out. I yearned to make my physical home in the mountains, too. The Gnome’s long-term fascination with architecture was just itching for some creative expression.

We both imagined a bucolic life in the country, away from little houses all in a row where bedrooms were so close to the neighbors’ living rooms that they could hear every snore. We were two introverts leaning hard into recluse territory. The Gnome wanted to give our children an outdoor life, and he wanted to play in the dirt and build things. Me? I’m my mother’s daughter: I needed some elbow room, a place where no one was likely to drop in to borrow sugar or gossip over coffee. I dreamed of the freedom to roam the land, to run around outdoors naked if I wanted to (which makes me my father’s daughter, too).

So it was really no big surprise that in early 1979 we decided to make all our dreams come true at once. The only surprise was how long it took. But we’re not innately risk-takers. It was a slow, labored journey to convince ourselves we could make such a big change in our lives.

Once we got ourselves on the change bandwagon, the big question was where. Ultimately, we settled on western North Carolina, much closer to family than our current twelve and sixteen hour drives from our home in Louisville, KY, but still far enough to maintain our independence. The Gnome recalled a summer science camp he attended at a mountain college. That sounded like a good beginning point.

In April, we took a week’s vacation to look for land. Our good friends marveled at our daring—to leave secure jobs with no prospects, to take on a major designing and building effort with only books for guides, to move where we knew no one and had no support system. Yet, more than one of them admitted some envy and a secret wish to do something similar.

The local realtor who specialized in rural land took us all over the place, but nothing satisfied. Too steep, too near the highway, too close to neighbors. We were feeling pretty let down. It had never occurred to us that we might be unable to find anything suitable during our one-week window of opportunity.

We were ecstatic when Realtor John remembered one more piece of property. It met all our needs. At almost ten acres, half woods and half open meadow, we could count on privacy. The place was about a third of a mile from the graveled state-maintained road.


Portion of the meadow. In April, Spring’s still waiting in the wings.

Not a house to be seen. Exactly as we’d imagined. We had just enough time to sign on the dotted line before heading back home to prepare for the biggest move of our lives.


All manner of mosses, mushrooms, and lichens awaited us in our woods-to-be.


The locust rail fence along our eastern boundary captivated us.


We were delighted to find this creek on our property.

(Stay tuned for the next installment of Early Days on the Diagonal.)

Food in the Forest

This is the time of year when the Gnome and Crone’s fancy turns to thoughts of maple syrup. Yes, we make our own. It’s foraging at its sweetest and just one more door to modern homesteading.

It’s no way to save money, though. There’s a reason real maple syrup costs more than the gooey stuff made with corn. We figured our first cup cost us a hundred dollars in materials alone. If we factored in labor, the real cost would quadruple—or more.

First we had to buy taps (or spiles), blue sap collection bags, and metal bag holders. There are cheaper ways, like making your own spiles with sumac stems and hanging buckets under them to catch the sap. We tried that, but the buckets filled with bugs and bits of bark, and the sap didn’t always make it into the buckets. So we opted for a closed system.


Our sap-collecting system at work

Nor did it take many days of standing in the rain, wind, cold, and snow to decide that there had to be a better, if more expensive, way to monitor the heating and evaporation process.


Boiling sap in the snow didn’t last long.

We bought a turkey fryer and a couple of twenty-pound propane tanks and moved the operation to our covered deck.


With glass doors leading to the deck, we’re able to check on the syrup-making progress from the warmth of indoors, and it also allows us to do a few other chores during the hours and hours of watching the pot boil. It takes a lot of boiling to turn tree water into syrup. Ten gallons of sap will make only one quart or so of syrup.


The Gnome hauls eighty-five pounds of maple sap with each trip from the woods to our deck where it goes into the pot to boil. This amount will yield about a quart of syrup.

But you can never take your eyes off the pot for very long, especially as the sap begins to thicken, or you’ll find yourself with burnt caramel seriously stuck to the bottom of your pot. (Ask me how I know.)

Of course, our cost has dropped with each batch since most of those supplies were a one-time expense. Our method will never win any awards for efficiency, though, partly because of the on-going propane expense. Still, we keep at it. At the end of a good season, we find ourselves with twenty or thirty pints of that sweet amber liquid, enough to enjoy a year’s worth of maple syrup over pancakes, on yogurt, with acorn squash, in smoothies, and still have plenty to share with friends and relatives.

The syrup-making season is short and unpredictable, especially where we live. Conditions for collecting sap have to be just right: night temperatures in the 20s and sunny days in the 40s, all before the trees begin to bud. The last couple of years haven’t been good ones.

So, why do we do it? While living frugally is part of our mantra, homesteading—modern or not—isn’t always about frugality. It’s more about being in touch with nature, about discovery, about doing for oneself, as well as the self-confidence, knowledge, and self-awareness that go along with all that. We like knowing that if we have to, we can. Whatever it is.

Besides, there’s nothing quite like the light, sweet taste of warm maple syrup you’ve cooked up yourself.


One pint of  homemade maple syrup coming up