It’s been two months since I left Earthaven. It was time to leave the hardships behind, and clear my head. So I headed west… into the heavy snow in the Cumberland Hills of Tennessee, into the ice storm that shut down everything in eastern Arkansas, and into a whiteout blizzard on Colorado’s Front Range as I was nearing home.
Apparently I packed the hardships along for the ride! The ice storm that hit Arkansas was not as bad as the one that hit Slovenia in February but it sure put a kink in my knickers. Clear roads in western Tennessee did not prepare me for what followed. Half-way across the Mississippi the bridge suddenly sprung half a foot of snow and ice. I hastily took the first and barely navigable exit out, and smacked up my car in some casino’s parking lot amid a rising feeling of panic, surrounded by dark, surreal landscape peppered by stuck cars and bundled humans trying to dig out.
Only persistence and sheer luck got me what must have been the last motel room east of Little Rock. We holed up for two days, me and my kitties, then finally got out by following the locals’ advice to bypass the stuck portion of the highway on side roads (which, sadly, had yet to see a plow). The thing is… when Arkansans saw it coming, they briefly reflected on their dearth of plows and snow shovels, and simply gave up. Crossing the parking lot at the motel meant navigating heaving frozen waves of an ancient ocean and gingerly stepping up to the rooms on stairs padded with three inches of granular snow.
But the real heartbreak was all the fallen, broken up trees along the road — heavy with opening buds, they could not withstand the weight of ice that clung to them for days. I will never forget one red maple — still young, so full of spring joy, clothed in the red glory of its flowers — lying fallen at the edge of the forest. May it grow forever in paradise.
Well, enough about the hardships visited upon the American midwest the year Siberia enlarged its domain within the northern hemisphere. Let us now speak of the hardships of Earthaven, the idyllic dell high above Black Mountain, North Carolina. In summer, its lovely warbling creeks bring not only life to the watershed, but also smothering humidity amidst the heat, aiding and abetting the vast armies of the Mold Kingdom. People pack their winter clothes in plastic bags and chase the mold on all surfaces with vinegar and peroxide. Forget about bringing pictures with you to enliven the walls — the damp will ruin them, as I learned the hard way.
Just after I showed up, the torrential rains that made last summer the wettest in 53 years in that part of Carolina came down with no let up, affecting people’s sanity, ruining the third successive plantings of area farmers, and swelling the creeks with muddy runoff.
Then, the bugs. Ah, yes. The bugs. People say if you live there long enough, the itch gets less itchy. I am not sure I believe it. Chiggers, skeeters, fleas, gnats, who knew them all? I went to bed dabbing iodine all over me, and woke up scratching. One night, I woke with my arm afire. A spider? But a happy exception amidst the itchy carnage — EH is an oasis amidst the Lyme plague-ridden lands of the eastern seaboard. There are occasional dog ticks, but no deer ticks. A true blessing.
And there were the ant invasions. Storing food inside my hut — da Shed, I called it, as it is in fact a modified shed — became impossible. I had no refrigeration and so stored food in the car, and ended up eating a fair amount of non-perishable crap-foods which I rarely do in Babylon. Feeding the cats outside on the porch, however, precipitated one of the conflicts of EH’s perennial pet wars.
Autumn was clement and dry enough to permit several delightful gatherings around the fire. Then, winter set in. I tried sleeping in my clothes. No go. Only when a neighbor lent me a fluffy feather duvet was I able to warm up. And then I discovered that it was not lack of coverings that made my nights so miserable, but rather the fact that my mattress and the space underneath were sucking heat from my body. Once I laid down insulating layers over the mattress, the misery finally abated.
The deep freeze of the polar vortex reached down like the finger of Satan all along the Appalachian ridge, my boots sprung leaks, the snows came, the water froze, and I was running to town every couple of weeks to refill the propane bottle that fueled my little stove so the hut could stay nominally warm. By day, I survived in the Council Hall whose Taylor stove, fed prodigious quantities of wood, capably warmed the building via its floor heating system. At night, I bundled into bed, cranked the heater for a couple of hours, and tried to sleep. Sometimes with success. The old timers told us it was the coldest winter in 130+ years.
A strenuous life on the edge invites accidents. I fell down the steep, minimalist stairs from my loft one day. Then, I burned my hand while feeding the Taylor stove. Only a few days later, a neighbor burned her hand on her wood stove so badly she ended up at ER. When you body gets sluggish from the cold or fatigue, a momentary inattention can lead to harm. I fell, many times. I cut my hand… stopped counting the smaller insults to my body. But the cold damage to my joints was the worst. The jury is out whether it will heal yet, or whether it will give me a good dose of arthritis in the years ahead. The cold of the Appalachians is not like Colorado cold — this is damp, insidious cold that creeps into the marrow of your bones and refuses to leave.
My hut had running cold water for washing up which froze for much of the winter. It had a two-burner Coleman stove which was unusable because an attempt at cooking produced copious quantities of condensation and subsequent mold chasing. Still, though, the place was clean if spare.
The water in da Shed came from a spring reputed to harbor some tiny critters frowned upon by the health department, so a betook myself to the Council Hall every couple of days with a gallon jug to bring well-water home. Cleanliness? Well, our neighborhood had a greenhouse with a hot shower. Ok in the warm part of the year. Come late fall, many of us went dirty much of the time, and the joys of peeing outside sans toilet paper lost some of their luster. A few times, I bummed a tub bath from kind neighbors; the rest of the time I felt right at home when people began to crack jokes that began “when was the last time you took a shower?”
Even the young people at EH feel the harshness of life there acutely. Earthaven is lacking in infrastructure, and frequent runs into town on a half hour worth of switchbacks becomes a necessity for food, laundry, supplies, library, and contact with the outside world. And much of the housing is, well, er, what mainstreamers opaquely call substandard. But who cares about mainstream standards? It’s what I politely call inadequate.
But not all of this was a downer in the end. I threw myself into a demanding way of life that involved a lot of walking everyday, work for the community, participating in various events and activities, seeking out neighbors, hiking around the lovely hills and hollows, and making the steady effort it took to survive. It changed me. I went from a near-recluse who had gotten way too sedentary over the last years of my life to someone who is active again, back to her youthful weight, and fit. And remarkably stress-resistant. This newfound vigor has stayed with me as I enjoy for the moment the luxuries of the outside world. I am grateful to Earthaven for this unexpected gift.