I’ve been familiar with Ardea Homestead Sanctuary for a while now, connecting to the founders online back when The Wildernist was still publishing. The couple, Alex and Stacey, met in 2011 at an herbal medicine school in Asheville.
Stacey’s family had a piece of property in King’s Mountain, an oak-hickory forest in the North Carolina foothills. It already had a house, which functions as the home for them and their baby and as an office for their business. Alex moved there in 2012, bringing with him the practices and thought behind permaculture and rewilding. Initially Alex engaged with the Feral Culture folks, who are trying to build a network of land projects that live as closely to the primitivist ideal as possible. But in the end he and Stacey decided to go their own way: the Feral Culture idea wasn’t engaging as strongly with Alex as he had hoped, and the couple had a baby, diverting their energies to sustaining a family. The project now is still in its preliminary stages, but already they host primitive skills and related educational events. It helps that Alex had long been connected to the primitive skills community of Western NC.
Another internet friend of mine, Matt, moved onto the property shortly before I visited. I’d run across his blog Transition Rewild about a year ago. Then, I was a few months into my uncivilization project; he was only just starting to indulge in primitive skills and wilderness living. At Ardea the skills have begun to blossom. Matt modified a structure on the property with a workspace, sleeping place, and kitchen run through gravity-fed rainwater. Although at first he tried using only fire for cooking, he’s turned now to a gas-powered stove. He’s teaching friction fire at Firefly, the primitive skills gathering started by one of the founders of Wild Roots. And he built a functional — though not-yet-perfect, and certainly modern — wigwam in the deeper parts of the Ardea property.
I spent most of my time talking with Matt and preparing mushroom logs with him and Alex. The process was simple: punch holes in logs, fill them with sawdust mixed with mushroom spores, and seal the holes over with wax. After heavy rain mushrooms will pop out of the logs, providing food and income to the Ardea crew. Stacks of logs littered the place.
While plugging spores I talked with Alex about how he got there. His father, he told me, was a staunch communist and tried to indoctrinate him early on. But in his early twenties he rebelled, finding more sympathy for anarchism and coming to identify as a primitivist. He was a punk — judging from the patches he still wears, he still is at heart — and he was a traveler, hitchhiking around and traveling through the U.S. Today he’s abandoned his political convictions, trying to focus more on, as he put it, “building a relationship with the land.”
“I think humans should just do what feels good,” he tells me, and he doesn’t sound like a spacey hippie. He clarifies: it’s not about hedonism, like the modern citizen’s constant search for dopamine bursts. We’ve lost our cohesive social groups and rootedness in the world, he says, so almost nothing we are expected to do in our daily life is attuned to what really satisfies us.
It’s a standard primitivist idea: the psychological tension of civilized life, especially the cities, manifests itself in the body and keeps the individual from experiencing real pleasure at being in the world. Being in more solitary conditions of the wild, the body and mind open up, beginning to become conscious of aspects of our perception we normally block out — our whole field of vision, for example, or the movement of our body hair against the wind. I’d certainly experienced that while at Wild Roots. One of the more interesting examples is when I began to see the movement of seemingly every ant on the ground in front of me as I was working in the garden. And while at Ardea, too, the experience returned: having been so stressed from life in the city the previous months, I readily embraced the openness afforded to me by the sanctuary. At one point, sitting with Alex and his kid by the lake, I sat up and saw the intricate, small movements of the tree leaves in the whole field of view; and, relaxed, the knots in my back became imperceptible. Occasionally I could see spider webs filling the forest canopy.
There are clear historical reasons for this. The manners we follow today, down to the way we walk, didn’t just come to us. It took a long and painful “civilizing process” by mostly upper class Europeans to create the modern norms of walking, posture, and manners we follow today: our “higher” or “second” nature. Wilderness advocates have long described the positive effects of being released from their burden in wilder conditions, even back to pioneer times.
After a while Alex and I moved on to other topics. What did he want to do with the land, I wondered, long term? He told me that eventually he wanted it to be something like an eco-village, with families living on the undeveloped property in shelters they built and maintain themselves. But, per usual, there were hurdles to that, the same in the way of every land project: building codes, property laws, the difficulty of raising children in such isolated conditions… He thinks they’ve got a way around most of them.
Later in the evening Alex showed me his pigs, three sows and a boar. One of the sows had just birthed a sizable litter. Apart from providing their food and cooking fat, the pigs helped out a lot ecologically, clearing portions of the land in ways that provided more natural growth patterns. Alex mentions that he used to be vegetarian but later reneged on the conviction for practical reasons. “It left me tired often,” he said. Stacey, too, was a vegetarian for years, but also abandoned the practice when she started homesteading. This kind of thing isn’t uncommon. A lot of eco-folks tend to be attracted to certain dietary practices, like vegetarianism or veganism, because it seems to jive with their overall ethic. But the land has a way of weeding that kind of thing out; it’s just not practical.
At dawn the crew and I sat down for a meal in the main house. The food was typical for people living off the land. The greens were grown or picked wild, the meat cooked with pig fat, the basic stuff, like rice, bought from the stores. Stacey had cooked most of it while sorting out the business portion of the sanctuary and taking care of her kid, Meissa.
I asked her about raising a baby out on the land. Most of the time families who try to live on the land do it, at least partially, because they believe growing up in nature is better, psychologically, developmentally. But nearly always it means there aren’t other kids around. Stacey, too, noted the problem. Meissa was still young, she said, so she doesn’t need to worry about it too much now. But when she gets older, Stacey and Alex don’t really know what to do other than increase their budget for gas.
Alex offered Matt and I some duck eggs for the morning, and we went off to our respective shelters. In the morning we cooked them — much better than chicken eggs, in my opinion — and headed back to the city.