Arrival of the crew — learning skills — the empty space
Slowly Wild Roots came to feel more like home. The buildings and stations on the property were connected by a main trail system that curved around our stream, which we called Squeaky Frog. At the entrance was the Rat Shack, which hosted a library and annex where we kept all our snacks. When I arrived the library was in disarray, and I quickly took to being the Wild Roots librarian, organizing the books and reading enough of them that I could recommend one when it suited someone’s personal project. Nearby was the blacksmithing station, where Tod could often be seen working. Next to that, a station for hide scraping; then the toilets; Jar Haven, where we kept all the jars for canning bear meat… All the way to Bark Lodge, where we stored dinner materials and ate our meals. After that the trail extended into the Pisgah National Forest, and if you walked on it long enough you hit the Appalachian Trail.
Every morning looked about the same. I woke up, walked to Bark Lodge, helped start a fire or cook breakfast, and discussed the tasks for the day. Most days involved minor tasks and personal projects, but occasionally we would get a hookup from nearby farms. One woman who lived nearby, for example, had to shoot two of her chickens, and offered to give them to us to butcher and cook. That was fun, but plucking the feathers off was definitely weird. Another time, we got a whole goat, and most of my remaining time at Wild Roots I could see D., at some point in the day, struggling with that smelly ass goat hide.
I spent most of my time studying the plants in the area. At first, I needed a bit of help, which Mace, D.’s daughter, graciously provided. She took me on a few plant walks and taught me all the basics. After that, I established a study routine. Every day I would walk about the same length of trail, looking for any plants that stood out to me, and identifying ones I already knew. Each time I encountered a new plant I would spend some time with it, feeling it, smelling it, observing its patterns, looking at where it grew and what grew nearby. Then, I would either use an easy-ID field guide — Plant Family Patterns by Tom Elpel, or Newman’s Wildflower Guide — or I’d use one of our books on plant communities and scan through the photos until I found the plant I was looking for. I sometimes found myself wishing I could use one of those plant ID apps. It certainly would have made the whole process easier. But honestly, the brute force technique got the whole process of plant identification cemented in my brain.
I know it sounds weird to say, but after a while I started to develop a spiritual connection with the plants. Contrary to popular belief, most plants aren’t useful for food; only the starchy roots and meaty nuts provide substantial enough calories for a healthy wild diet. But unlike animals, they didn’t run away from you, they were always there; and as the base of the forest ecosystem they provided a means for you to learn a lot more about the ecology of the area. It helped, sometimes, to animate them by giving them personalities and behaviors. Virginia Creeper, for example, grows as a vine that is only loosely underground, slipping in and out of the leafy surface. Poking out of the wine were stems with 5-leafed stars on the top. While learning about it, I imagined the plant as a sort of vegetative dragon, each stem a spine, a creature slowly, imperceptibly crawling about the forest surface. Other plants, like smartweed, grew in clusters. I called those “social” plants, and you could always be sure if you saw a small cluster that a much larger cluster was somewhere nearby. Because they always pointed toward the sun, it sort of looked like the social plants were in a constant sun-worshiping rave, so I tended to enjoy their company.
I also experimented with novel uses of plants. One of my favorites, wood nettle, was a stinging plant that I had read made good medicine for the joints. So when I suffered from muscle pain from misusing the ax and pickaxe, I pulled a handful of wood nettles from the forest floor and slapped them against the aching area. The pain went away every time. We jokingly called it “urtication” — a portmanteau for “Urtica,” the plant’s genus, and “flagellation.”
Day by day new members of Wild Roots arrived. Apparently, the place wasn’t quite as dead as I at first imagined it. I just happened to arrive at a time when the only people there were the long term members. The community, though, is mostly sustained by travelling hippies, each of whom tend to jump from land project to land project with the seasons. Ultimately it was a good strategy, since it kept pressure on the forest and the commune resources low. It did, however, tend to produce a chaotic sense of community; often it felt like there was no community at all.
Some of the people were woo-woo hippies, like D., interested in all sorts of New Age stuff. Others, like Cee, were feral punks, and liked to wear a lot of animal skin and patchy, dirty clothing. Some, though, were drop-outs like Tod. One guy used to work for the CIA and was really good at tracking, another was a major figure in finance before getting fed up with the fact that the whole financial system is literally an illusory, constructed reality only exploitable by people in power. The finance guy’s name was W., and I’ll get to him later.
The three people I spent the most time with were about my age and travelers. One, Brendan, lived in a van and was a frequent visitor. He was tall and lanky, and while he didn’t talk much he was fun company, spending most of his time experimenting with primitive bread-making techniques. Tod and D. liked to call him their “son.” Another, Gecko, was one of Cee’s eleven brothers. He was one of the street kid travelers, and had just gotten back from working with a non-profit in Ferguson, where he got shot at and lost one of his front teeth. You wouldn’t think it from his raggedy look, but he played the violin — really well — and in our trips to Asheville he stood out among the street performers for it. Finally, there was Sparrow. She was one of the only women to live at Wild Roots for an extended period of time since the original founders had left, and she was absolutely beautiful, so a universal object of adoration. She had a motherly, pensive dog who followed her around everywhere. More than anything, Sparrow was a crafter, and in the community played the cheer-you-up role.
So that was the deal. Beyond the normal routine, we would all take weekly trips to Asheville, where we would dumpster dive for snacks and any substantial food we could find. And on the way Tod would always buy a Chai latte, and we would always visit the library, where I finally got to read Thayer’s famous books on foraging, and spent time updating my blog or trying to download music. Unfortunately, downloading the music never really worked, so my phone only ever had one party song, “Doses and Mimosas,” which I sometimes played in my cabin while drunk on apple cider. Other than that, the only music was from the banjo players, especially Sparrow, who got several songs permanently stuck in my head because of how frequently she played them:
Where’d you get your whiskey?
Where’d you get your dram?
I got it from that yonder girl
down in Alabam’.
I ain’t a bit drunk,
I ain’t a bit drunk,
I ain’t a bit drunk,
No, I’m just from Alabam’.
Sometimes Brendan, Gecko, Sparrow and I would go on walks on the trail together, sharing our knowledge of the place. Later in my stay we would spend time practicing archery, which I turned out to be pretty okay at. And so it went: start the meal fire, explore with friends, develop your personal projects… Live wild.