What Happened at Wild Roots, 3

Wild Roots began about fifteen years back, when 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.

Tod was the main caretaker of the land by the time I had arrived, and he was an odd dude. He spent his younger years going to school for engineering, hoping to create green technologies to address our environmental problems. But when the 2008 crisis hit, he and his girlfriend at the time, Talia, set off for Wild Roots to learn how to live life as primitively as possible. The two quickly became the commune’s power couple, and mostly took over after the original founders left.

Talia, although she didn’t get along with many and had what others would call “an authoritarian streak,” was the main force behind the Wild Roots gardens, both the regular one and the forest garden. “She had a hell of a green thumb,” Tod said. Tod, on the other hand, set up a blacksmithing station and did most of the tool maintenance and architectural design for the main buildings. He also spent a good deal of time converting his and other members’ cars to a veggie oil system, which he supported with weekly drives to local restaurants willing to give him barrels of oil for free. The system gave his rickety truck a cartoonish look: dials and switches littered the dashboard, and tubing looped around in weird places. Magnets on top of the airbags — unsafely — held all sorts of gadgets, gears, and nails, and hanging from the top of the truck was a smorgasbord of dead animal parts. When I rode with him, one piece in particular, a chicken foot, consistently blocked my view of the road. More than anything else the truck represents Tod’s personality perfectly.

At some point between dropping out of university and leaving for Wild Roots, Tod ran off to join the carnival. I didn’t learn this until late into knowing him, when he gave me a folder filled with his stories from the experience. He was an excellent writer. The stories were hilarious and had cheeky and interesting titles like “Knuckle Sandwich” and “The Worst Thing I Ever Did” (it was apparently stealing a carnival attendee’s wallet, which had fallen from his pocket while on a roller coaster — a common thing among carnies, called “groundscoring,” and not bad for the worst thing to have ever done). He often sung goofy songs from those days. One of my favorites, which apparently begins with what was a real Catholic school song, went:

Why does Jesus taste so good,
Like a virgin’s offspring should?
Holy, holy, holy ghost,
Mother Mary, we want more.

Be he live or be he dead,
grind his bones to make our bread.
Allelu, allelu, allelu, hallelujah! 

So yeah, Tod was cool, funny, and kinda weird. Exactly what you’d expect on a primitivist commune.

“Stickshack,” the house Tod and Talia built for themselves when they arrived at Wild Roots. The walls were constructed with wattle and dob and the roof was made from large slabs of bark.

At first Tod and Talia were devoted to doing things as primitively as possible, even to the point of building with sticks and clay and roofing with bark. Eventually, though, they realized that the land was too degraded to keep that strategy up. Hemlock bark, for example, was important for bark-tanning — the kind of hide tanning you do when you want to keep the fur — but if you remove all the bark from the bottom of living trees, you’ll kill them. Property laws plus the recent logging of the land ensured that the trees wouldn’t be renewed very quickly, so we had to stick to dead trees only. As another example, in the early 1900s the American Chestnut suffered a blight that pretty much wiped it out, and the nuts from that tree were once a main source of food for natives in the area, especially for the winter. The only half-way decent replacement, acorns, require much longer processing to get rid of their bitterness, and in random years don’t fall at all. They also taste like shit compared to chestnuts. And so on…

In addition to the land problems, there were more subtle difficulties with trying to live a traditional life in the context of modern society. When you make gathering and scavenging your mode of subsistence, it becomes a full time job, and necessarily shapes the rest of your life around it. For example, when fall hits — you get to gathering acorns immediately. Otherwise the squirrels will grab the bulk of them before you can get to the task, or you’ll find out too late that this is one of the odd years that the acorns didn’t fall. But the rest of the world doesn’t operate on that schedule, so the demands of your life will inevitably conflict with the demands of everyone else. What about holidays, or fall gatherings, or what if in the middle of processing a large animal you get invited to a dinner at a friend’s house? Short term these kinds of conflicts are tolerable, but long term they produce an excruciating sense of loneliness and separation from the rest of the world.

To mitigate this problem, the Wild Roots crew turned to “Mother Dumpster” — that is, dumpster diving. Now, mostly people already have an inaccurate picture of dumpster-diving. It isn’t the sole purview of the homeless and junk-collectors; in fact, when you know the rules and where to look, you pretty much always find high quality materials and food that has nothing wrong with it. But Wild Roots dumpster-diving consistently yielded especially high-quality returns. Because we only dove in dumpsters of organic food stores, we ate like rich people, albeit weird rich people. And because of Tod’s technical knowledge and connections from living long-term in the area, we almost always had a hookup when we needed this or that material for a project.

I’ve heard some people criticize the dumpster-diving strategy, calling Wild Roots little more than a “glorified homeless encampment.” But it did a good job mitigating the effects of loneliness. Having a consistent source of excess wealth to pull from meant that our time was freed up to engage in activities that would otherwise be difficult to engage in — like attending gatherings or dinners, or having free time to learn something new about the ecology of the land. It certainly isn’t ideal, but there is, unfortunately, no way to exist in parenthesis in the industrial world; the problems of the mainstream culture permeate everything.

For example, the difficulties of living close to the land extend even to relationships. By the time I had arrived Tod and Talia had broken up. The “official” story was that Talia could no longer live at Wild Roots because of a mold allergy. It was clear from conversations, however, that much more was involved. No one except Tod seemed to have really liked her; Tod was just heartbroken, and, eventually, a little angry. His new girlfriend, D., had an 8-year-old named Mace who lived on the property with us, and as backlash against whatever happened between the two, Talia threatened to call CPS on Tod and his new family. For the whole time I was there the threat loomed over the commune, a constant worry for D. And although Mace was better-adapted than most of the kids I’ve ever met, CPS would certainly have taken her away. Apparently it wasn’t the lack of plumbing either. When D. called CPS anonymously to discuss the situation, the one thing the CPS agent really reacted to negatively was the nudity — the nudity! It was no wonder there weren’t other families on the property.

All this, plus his constant back pain, seemed to have beaten Tod down. He loved the property, and was fond of the stream to the point of declaring that he would never live somewhere that didn’t have drinkable stream water. But by the time I arrived he had long since abandoned hopes of living a primitive life or even close to it. He was just trying to eek out a good living and enjoy the little time on the property he had left.

But — and this was what kept me going even through my terrible experiences at Wild Roots — he seemed to have seen a spark of optimism in me, because not too long after I arrived he looked me in the eye and said, “But maybe I do have hope.” And he suggested that maybe I take over the role of caretaker if he left.

I couldn’t believe it. I dropped out of college as a huge bet on my ideas, almost by chance I found the perfect place to test them out — and now I had the possibility of helping run the place.

But, well, there were all those difficulties I just mentioned, and more to come.

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