A deep relationship with nature built, in the snow drifts of EASTERn winter
Story and photography by
"...as I was harvesting the sumac, I was really paying attention to them. And even before, I was talking to them."
“When I was sixteen, I waited all winter for the snow to melt so I could build a debris hut. But the day I finally tried there was still snow on the ground. I wandered in the woods behind my house for a few hours and found what I thought was the perfect spot. I didn’t bring a blanket, I didn’t bring a ground pad, I was just going out to live the dream," the man laughs. “I didn’t put any insulation under me. I was just on the ground, which an inch below was still frozen solid. So I was just in this hut, in a very naive teenage way, thinking: This is supposed to keep me alive—and knowing that I’m getting colder and colder.”
Nick Neddo is standing in his Vermont house, overlooking a field. Wood is stacked outside, and a bright stove pipe goes up from a woodstove in the center of the main floor. In the distance a mountain range underlines the horizon, and pine trees edge the cleared areas. I sit with him upstairs, and as we talk Nick paints. He is working on a picture of a sumac plant, made with sumac leaf ink.
“Eventually I fell asleep,” he continues, “long enough to wake up a short while later shivering. So I got up, got some blood flowing, enough that I could lie down and try again. The second time I woke up, I was shivering more violently and my toes were numb, and so I tried a third time. The third time I woke, I was in the early stages of hypothermia, and so I had to hang my head down and walk two miles back home to rescue myself.”
As we talk, we sip tea. The colors of everything in the room, including the cup I place on his desk, have a similar tone: natural, subdued, earthy. Everything matches, even his leather jacket, which he made and tanned himself. He tells me about how he makes the ink he for his picture.
“First I harvest leaves, and make a really bitter tea from them,” he says. Sumac leaves, deep red, serrated and thin, fill a woven basket next to his desk. “Then I mix vinegar with rusty metal I find laying around, make a little rust farm, and then combine the two together.” The ink is a warm grey, and darkens as it dries.
Nick grew up spending time outdoors, making treasure maps and wandering around with his brother. It was mid April when he first tried to stay overnight in a debris hut, a shelter constructed of leaves, branches, and sticks, and the temperature fell below freezing that night.
“I was confronted with a reality that didn’t care how I felt," Nick says, explaining what he learned. "The reality was that it was fucking cold out. It was April in Vermont, and I didn’t have the skills. After that night, after walking home, I was humbled. I realized that I was also a little bit wiser. Things like that happen to me. And the important thing is when you fall down you get up. You do it again.”
After making roughly his 50th hut, he has perfected them. He can make them quickly, and, even when the temperature is below zero , can sleep warm in them all night, the only heat source being his own body. This knowledge has enabled him to teach many people how to do the same, which he has spread through the ROOTS school, a primitive skills school in Bradford, Vermont.
“We're looking at hunter gatherers all over the planet going extinct," he says, pinching his fingers together and drawing them apart. "All that's left is a thread off what it is to be a homo sapien on the earth. We can't offer what it feels like to be that way, but we can offer the skills. That's why I teach people survival skills. So that we can reconnect to the land, and understand how we fit.”
We finish our tea and travel to a nearby river to harvest sumac branches. We walk down a frozen bank, our feet deep in powdery snow, and come across tracks. Nick examines them, bending down close to the ground. The spacing and size look like coyote, though they could be mistaken for fox. The tracks lead over an upheaval of ice, where we find urine. Nick bends down to sniff it, and I join him. It is musty, very strong even in the cold air. Coyote, he decides, and if not, definitely canine.
Further downriver we find hedges of sumac, flinging their arms skyward. Atop each branch is a cone of deep red berries. Nick finds a plant that is damaged, a gash running down one side, and he clips off a branch. “This plant is already dead,” he says, selecting another shoot. He pushes the main stem back and forth, it moves easily; the roots have mostly let go. He leaves it standing and moves on. We duck through the grove, and Nick cuts more stems. The snow is waist-deep in places, and the landscape around is silent.
We go down the hill to the river, and walk back. Along the edges the ice crunches, and seems thin, but it holds. Nick carries the long sticks of sumac under one arm, planning to make pens out of the naturally hollow wood.
“You didn't see this,” he says later, back at home, “but as I was harvesting the sumac I was really paying attention to them. And even before, I was talking to them. I knew where they were a long the river bank and I was projecting my intention: ‘Hey, you guys, I'm coming to harvest some of you.'"
He pays attention to the feelings that arise when he puts forth this intention, which can be very subtle. “Sometimes the answer’s no,” he continues. “When I feel a resistance, the answer’s no. So I move on to another plant, another patch. I've noticed that as primitive skills have become trendy, people think that you go out into the woods and do this magical thing. People think it’s on demand, but the point is that you often find something else, or something even better than what you were looking for. And sometimes you find nothing. Sometimes you fall through the ice and get hypothermia.”
The reality, Nick implies, is that the natural world is not there to just give us things whenever we want. Living in and with nature is a conversation. You ask the forest to give you things, and you harvest them in such a way as to not disturb the forest, or even in a way that helps. Foraging, he says, is participating in an ancient, sacred dance of give and take.
Nick pulls out a knife and carves one of the sumac sticks, first removing the bark, then fashioning a nib. He cuts a piece of birch bark, and rolls it in on itself to make a minute reservoir. He dips the pen into the ink, and tests it, drawing lines, making dots. Then he sets to work, sumac pen in hand, filled with sumac ink, creating an illustration of sumac.
I look over at the painting, and wonder what there is left to add.
Nick says: “This is the part where it looks like its done, but it actually gets really slow. I have to work until it looks alive. The only way I know it's alive: it has to pop, it has to click.”
Time passes, and the even grayness outside the windows fades. The studio darkens, and Nick turns on some lights. He sits at his desk, dipping and drawing with this sumac pen. There is a strange cyclic feeling to all of this, like a koan: something not intellectually graspable, but feeling somehow like a completion.
“I’m doing this to make myself humble,” Nick begins to say. “I’m getting closer to the point of sumac revealing some of its secrets to me.”
As I drive home on the snowy, frozen roads, stars vault above, and shapes of trees and outbuildings loom. If a storm came, and you walked out into those woods, you might never come back. I think of this, as I head downhill into a place where the darkness seems to have pooled, and all the traces of the farms nearby have vanished. An old feeling creeps up, bringing a gentle smile to my lips. It reminds me, as it always does, of my place in the world.