What Wild Roots Was Like

Shortly after starting the uncivilization project, I found a primitive skills community in Western NC known as Wild Roots. Ironically, I found it because Facebook had detected I liked primitive skills, so showed me a National Geographic article about the place. I have spent the past six months there, and while my time living there is done for now, I’ll be visiting it frequently, if only to teach newcomers the skills the community so graciously taught me.

In the Wild Roots garden. That’s the Pisgah National Forest behind me.

The History

The history of Wild Roots is blurry, but here’s what I gathered while I was there. About fifteen years back, some burnt out activists, anarchists, and rewilders decided to take a break from politics and learn primitive skills. One woman in this founding group had a sister with a lot of money, from an inheritance or something, and the sister agreed to buy the land needed for their rewilding project. The deal: as long as people who live on the land teach primitive skills and pay the property taxes, they can act as though the land is theirs.

After a few years, all the founding members had left, but nearly all of them went on to build major infrastructure for the primitive skills community and the primmie-colored environmental politics of Western NC. For example, one of the original members of Wild Roots, Natalie Bogwalker, helped spearhead Firefly, the largest primitive skills gathering in the world.

Today the only long-term resident of Wild Roots is Tod, who originally lived there with his girlfriend, Talia. Before they broke up, they had become the de facto leaders of the place, and to a degree Tod still runs the show today. (He says he hates being seen as a “leader,” but I think he knows its true whether he likes it or not.) While I was there, Tod, his current girlfriend, and his girlfriend’s daughter were the only stable presences.

Beyond that, the community is pretty transient. While I was there, only one or two other people were there at any given time, and they rarely stayed longer than a week. Almost everyone viewed it as a place to visit, and while this prevented me from forming many long-term relationships, it was pretty cool sometimes. One guy came all the way from Japan just to visit Wild Roots; another couple came from the Netherlands. And there were about six or seven people who visit Wild Roots for a few months out of the year every year, usually during harvest season. They’re often the kinds who travel with seasonal farming work and who attend all the primitive skills gatherings, like Firefly, Whippoorwill, or Falling Leaves.

The Property

The Wild Roots property is 30-acres right outside the Pisgah National Forest, near the border of Tennessee. It is in the middle of a mountain cove, and a stream from the national forest runs right through the place, clean enough to drink from. The property extends about fifteen acres on either side of the stream. About thirty years back it was logged, but by now the forest is looking extremely healthy. It’s plant, insect, and bird life is astounding. In fact, the forests of the Southern Appalachians are sometimes said to be the second most biodiverse ecosystems in the world, next to the tropics. You can tell.

Community buildings and personal residences are united by a main trail system. They were all built by people living on the property at the time of construction, and for the most part their materials are all from the land. Some buildings use bark for the roof, and most buildings are insulated with clay. The main stations of the trail include the following:

  • At the entrance is a community space known as the Rat Shack. It holds the library, a bed for guests, and a phone. (The phone is a landline that runs up the driveway; other than that there is no electricity on the property.)
  • Around the same area is a blacksmithing workshop, a stave shed, and a toolshed.
  • Then there’s a station for hide scraping.
  • Shitters.
  • Jar Haven, where we store all the jars we use for canning.
  • Squeaky Frog, a minor dam in the stream we use to collect drinking and cooking water.
  • Bark Lodge, where we cook and eat meals.
  • If you keep following the trail, you leave the property and eventually hit the Appalachian Trail.

The main trail system, above, wraps around the mountain cove. A minor trail system runs through the cove and connects the Rat Shack entrance to Bark Lodge. At the bottom of the cove we build a dam for a swimming hole, and there’s a camping area for guests.

What I Did

Most of my learning at Wild Roots was self-motivated. It isn’t very organized, and during my time there were few projects that involved every resident. It is, however, a pretty good climate for self-motivated learning because the people around you can offer so much knowledge and many resources. Tod gave me hides to tan, for example, and the eight-year-old girl taught me twenty or so plants in the area. By the end of my time, I had learned friction fire, hide tanning (bark and brains), how to efficiently use an axe, how to efficiently sharpen tools, how to fell small trees, how to skin and butcher animals, how to make jerky, how to render fat, and how to identify almost all relevant plants in the area.

All of the community projects took place during harvest season. This year, our main work consisted of processing apples, chestnuts, and bear. With the apples we lay out a tarp under a tree while someone shakes a branch overhead. Then we cut the apples into thin slices and dry them into chips, or we press them to make apple juice and cider. With chestnuts, we crack them in bulk, dry them, and then separate the meat from the hull.

Bear is more special. It seems to unite the community, and is no doubt the main reason the community has survived for so long. The hunters in the area tend to overkill, and sometimes let the bears they kill go to waste. To mitigate this problem, they give us some of the bear they don’t want (since they pass through our trail to reach the game lands anyway). We use that bear for leather, food, and crafts. It’s a massive process. We spend up to three days on any given bear, canning the meat and rendering the fat. This season I had the opportunity to do a large chunk of the processing work for one bear. I skinned it, butchered it, rendered the fat, and then, with one other person, canned the meat. It was both exhausting and fulfilling.

The Community

As I said, the community is pretty transient. It consists of about four different kinds of people: regular hippies, young traveler kids, drop outs (some of which used to work in finance, engineering, or law enforcement), and well-off yuppies. Each person there was great individually. The overall community vibe, however, was taxing. The transiency prevented me from forming many lasting relationships. And the primitive skills subculture has a lot of intolerable elements, like extreme dietary restrictions or a social hierarchy based on who has the most “skills.” Also, Wild Roots is going through a period of transition right now, the future of the community sort of up in the air. Tod may soon leave, and it’s unlikely someone will be able to take his place. Many people in the community don’t like each other. And the current property owner has hinted that she doesn’t want the land in her name anymore. This tumult is why I left in the end. It was too much to handle. Still, I’m glad I stayed long enough to learn the skills I did, and I hope during my visits I can return the favor by passing the skills on.

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