Little ole cabin in the woods

Last weekend, we fell in love with the Appalachians again.

Paul and Lara's cabin
Paul and Lara’s cabin

The cabin was built in the 1840s. Our friends, an older couple named Paul and Lara, live there. Lara is a storyteller, folklorist, and knower of the natural: birds, animals, plants, trees, and how to make everything out of them. How to build a hearth out of river rocks, how to milk sheep, how to heal ailments with herbs. Paul is a teacher, woodworker, and alternative energy expert. He rigs up electric cars, teaches middle school kids how to make wood crafts, and builds just about anything. Together, they run the Coweeta Heritage Center on their property.

These people have more projects going than can be imagined. They have interns and volunteers to assist sometimes, but it is often just the two of them, and they are not spring chickens. The land is strewn with partly born ideas: a gutted van, a camper, lumber carefully milled from felled trees and stacked under tin roofing with cement blocks. A fish pond, a small waterfall. A clay oven now riddled with holes from mud-loving insects. The barn where the sheep used to be. (Have you ever tried to milk a sheep? It’s hard.) Lara tends the goats and makes goat’s-milk cheese, buttermilk, butter, and milk. She works in the small permaculture garden she has begun. As she does, she thinks of stories.


So it was time to visit. Saturday morning, we dragged the poor, low-riding Mazda 3 an hour and a half out of the city and up the alarmingly rutted Coweeta Gap Road, into a narrow valley with a stream running through it, to their 52-acre plot of hilly land.

The rigors of the Trail, the fresh memory of the majesty of the West, and our rough start in Asheville had erected a barrier between us and the Appalachian mountains we’d loved so long. They were my first mountains. I interned for a summer at the Twin Oaks commune in Virginia during college, and the hazy Blue Ridge rose from the western horizon. They were maternal, mysterious, ancient, abundant. They provided orientation, perspective, grounding, and a reminder that the earth is a moving, shifting creature. I loved them immediately.

Thus, it had been unsettling to find myself disenchanted. But here at last was an opening, between two narrow ridges, through which to begin to love them again.

As we had hoped, Paul and Lara had set out projects: J. would help Paul build a sauna behind one of the cabins, and I would paint a small case fridge for them to sell their cabbages and mustard greens at market. After a few hours of work in the chill afternoon, we went down the hill to the cabin for dinner. One skinny-necked guinea screeched ceaselessly at our approach, while the flock of hens calmly clucked out of our way.

As we sat around the table in the tiny, hearth-heated room, Lara put out cornbread from a cast-iron skillet, a bowl of butter beans, roast turkey, and fruit salad. Rusks and rinds were strewn upon the wooden floor, crumbs on the table, and a thick layer of history on each wooden chair. The kitchen table legs stood in teacups. Tapestries, woven wicker baskets, and tools hung on the walls. Every corner was packed with books, jars, and dust. The cabin’s interior is as enveloping as the womb of the Appalachian Mountains themselves. It is a one-room museum of the people who come from these mountains.

Red glass bottles

After dinner, Paul poured us mugs of pocahickra: hickory nut milk, flavored with both nuts and shells. It is a brown milk that, served warm with a spoon of maple syrup, smells and tastes wonderful. Perhaps the proof of its countryness is that no spelling of its name elicits results from Google. However, I am reading the excellent book 1491 by Thomas Mann, and it had just mentioned hickory milk, as part of a thesis that the Indians had strategically planted chestnut and hickory all along the East, in natural, life-giving orchards, far from the stereotype of savages in untouched wilderness. Mann’s first cup of the milk was as pleasurable as mine. His was served by St. EOM, an eccentric artist from rural Georgia who claimed Creek ancestry. (J. and I once visited St. EOM’s rambling, strange estate, Pasaquan, as a day trip from Koinonia Farm. The saint died years ago, but his compulsive mosaics remain. You can also find a roomful of it at the High Museum of Art in Atlanta.)

As we talked, Paul showed us the ingenious but simple pattern for making a wooden spoon. J. ran his hands over it, satisfied. He had wondered how those spoons were made ever since our first visit, five years before. We had volunteered for ten days, and afterward, Paul presented us with a cooking spoon made of cherry that we treasured and used for years. This time he gave us an ash.

After saying goodnight, J. and I climbed the hill to the visitors’ cabin. No computer, no internet, no cell phone reception. While these are useful tools, we were satisfied gazing at the fire and peeping into a few of the hundreds of books on botany, construction, and the like. When it was time to sleep, we unrolled the futon by the hearth, and J. loaded the fire so hot that there was no need to feed it overnight. It rumbled and blazed and, citified as I am, I kept thinking I heard a log roll out onto the floor, or smelt smoke pouring through some vent to asphyxiate us. But we slept.

In the morning it was goats’-buttermilk pancakes with blueberries that had been picked nearby and then frozen. When you stay in a place so long, you know where to find the hickory nuts (the tree behind the library), yellow raspberries (an open field of brambles near town), and everything else (the woods, usually). For tea, Paul set out dried herbs, a strainer, and a pot of boiling water. Choose your elixir: will it be chamomile flowers, spearmint leaves, clover flowers, whole cloves, or even catnip?

Then it was back to work. J. was in paradise. Working on an off-grid construction project outdoors in the woods gladdened his soul. They got out the ol’ post-hole diggers to sink four big posts upon which they built a platform for the sauna. They did have power, and power tools, but the power flowed from the creek, not from electric lines. A long wooden track, built by Paul, diverts a bit of the water temporarily, where it runs downhill and spins a little wheel, which fills batteries. So they have such luxuries as hot water and lights and tools, without a power bill. What a gift, a stream on one’s land.

talkin rock fridge

After I finished painting the fridge and listening to NPR on the scratchy radio, I put on my running clothes and headed up the mountain. It entailed big, confidence-boosting jumps over several not inconsequential streams that ran right across the road. The sunlight through the bare trees evoked the season we started our hike: generous, brilliant in the winter air, soon-to-set. I knew the Appalachian Trail ran along the nearest ridge, which looked so close but was too far to reach on a jaunt. I pined for the magical line, even though I never need to hike the whole thing again.

Lara’s grandparents had made their homeplace not far away, one valley over, but high on the hillside–they could not afford the flatter land below. She told me how to find their homestead next time–I was just one turn away. Next time I’ll find it.

So we will be back. For many reasons. But especially because something somewhat like this is part of our dream, no matter where we find it.

Old things.
Old things.

P.S. Based on the comments left on my last post, I ought to make two quick notes:

1. I did not actually visit the Isle of Man.

2. I am doing fine. My intention was to show the rise from (certain shallow) depths. I’m not staying down there. I’m lucky, and I’m also not built for that. Thanks to everyone for the kind and heartfelt words!


I suppose it is high time I explain what we are doing here on the Caribbean coast of Costa Rica, aside from stargazing and birdwatching and eating bizarre fruits. We are here for a month at Nuestra Finca as guests of Mike and Yvonne and their little daughter India. They live in a very nicely appointed shipping container with a large porch, and we stay in the original cabin further into the farm. We are part time volunteers, receiving lodging and cooking gas in exchange for 20 hours of work per week. Three times a day, five days a week, we care for up to 700 free range chickens: letting the big ones out to pasture or herding them back in, feeding and watering, scrubbing poo and feathers out of the troughs, adding fresh woodchips to the coops.

I must say that working with chickens doesn’t exactly build compassion for them. They are interesting to observe, but stupid and stubborn. This is forgivable in chicks, who are also adorable, but less so in adults who require much goading because they can’t figure out where to go. They have an amusing way of plumping themselves down during herding: they drop heavily into a roost of convincing permanence. Picking them up out of the squat with both hands, it is bizarre how much their bodies feel like… chicken breasts. Warm and panting and chicken-skinned, even through feathers. Observing the chickens makes me imagine a couple aliens looking down upon earth and shaking their… whatever they shake… in pity and slight annoyance. Still, I try to be kind.

Neither does the chickens’ lack of intelligence make me want to eat them. It may be strange to hear of a vegetarian volunteering on a chicken farm. I am complicit, just not with a fork. These are pretty lucky death row inmates: fresh water, organic grass to peck, good air, no antibiotics or force feeding, not overcrowded. I hear their flesh is extra tasty and tender, presumably due to the decreased stress and natural living. (In which case, I reckon I’d taste pretty good myself.) We all consume, we all end life to sustain our own, but I have no interest in these ladies; I don’t want to eat creatures, intelligent or otherwise.
Aside from hen duties, we also have projects suited to our skills: J’s carpentry and my sign painting, both of which can be put to good use here. The chicken business provides the family income, but the passion is a fledgling permaculture community growers collective. Vegetable beds are going in, volunteers need updated housing, eco-tours may be added one day, and a greenhouse is on the horizon. (You may wonder why anyone would need a greenhouse in the tropics: not for heat, but for protecting delicate lettuces from torrential rains.)

We want to be extremely helpful. I love the idea of being a break for someone, to create even a month of breathing room despite a constantly demanding business, to lend time for family, for projects that would otherwise remain back burner, even for doing nothing at all. We have received so much, and continue to… we want to give back.

En casa / At home

The sunrise corner of the cabina boasts two mismatched plastic chairs at a blue plastic table, adorned with brilliant pink and red flower plumage in a jar of water. From my seat I survey our “new” home, and dream about our unknown, off-the-grid future. Perhaps we will learn here some of what will be born there, wherever that is.

(This experience is something students would pay for, I reckon. Aside from chicken care, we’re learning Spanish, history, permaculture, botany, biology, cuisine, and also how to deal with spiders rappelling into your salad.)

Our home for a month is the old farm cabina where the man who sold our hosts his land used to live, before he moved someplace where it is easier to be old. The cabin is precious, and humbly earns our reverence as a part of history and culture and architecture. I loved it at first sight. Some might see the cheap foam mattress, the absence of certain useful kitchen implements, and the gaps between pieces of screen. But, we saw with joy the refrigerator and freezer, the little gas range, and the light bulbs, and the non-flushing toilet. To us, a composting toilet is better than crapping into gallons of clean water every day and hiring someone else (and their chemicals) to take care of it.

There are two toilets, actually. One is for pee only, and drains into a raised garden bed (more on that next time). The other is for shit and wood chips. Both have nice, clean, regular seats, with lids. There’s no stink. Seriously. My favorite part of the bathroom, though, is the emerald vine creeping inside the screen, coiling like a decoration around the corners. I’ve always dreamed of having a house that is alive, whose border against the outdoors is pleasantly blurred.

And is it ever blurred. You can hear everything: the animals, insects, birds, the guavas dropping with a bang onto the tin roof of the nearby shed. The farm dogs barking from the big house when they tree a wild thing. We are told that we will hear the ocean waves crashing when the wind is high.

And there is just as much window as wall. There are two rooms to the cabin, the bedroom and the kitchen/dining/living room. The latter is all screen from hip level up, so sunrise and moonlight and rumbling clouds and wildlife are never segregated. Even walls and floors are more suggestions than solids… we can see fine slits of earth two feet below, between the floorboards, and plenty of cooling breeze passes through the gaps between the stick frame walls.

In such a climate, this construction style denotes not laziness or poverty, but adaptation to the environment. Long eaves shade the walls from the equatorial sun, an elevated building and single walled construction allow air movement in the heat.

The shower is a thing of beauty. A concrete slab with the back abutting the cabina, two tin sides, and a plastic curtain opening to a jungle view. The shower head doubles as the water heater; it’s technology I’ve not seen before. Something about rinsing off in womb-temperature air and water, in natural light, feels extra clean.

The clothes washer is a basin that one fills with biodegradable soap, water from the hose, and dirty chickenshit clothes. It agitates gently on its own, but takes a few human-powered steps (drain the soapy water, refill, drain the rinse water) and some electricity. It still seems a lot less energy intensive than the usual machine, though I can’t say for sure.

The dryer is, of course, a clothesline. And that concludes the tour. I wish I could post photos, but those will have to wait for a better Internet connection. Until then, imagine ferocious, vivacious growth, ants helpfully pointing out where a crumb of bread has fallen, and friendly bug-eating anoles of all colors moving about our bright home with us, and you will not be far off.