WORDS AND IMAGES BY Mike Belleme
"we are living off the fat of a ridiculous surplus society and just kind of enjoying it."
“Yodelayheehoo” echoes out into a wooded valley, in an undisclosed location in the hills outside of Asheville. The roosters call a response from a distant corner of the 30-acre homestead.
Breakfast is ready, and thus begins another day at Wildroots. The offerings that await could range from a breakfast mush made from acorns and chestnuts—the result of months of meticulous harvesting, crushing, shelling, drying and leaching—to last night’s leftover bear stew comprising any number of organs, eyeballs, tongue, testicles, and intestinal fat cooked over a fire made from friction.
This is not the story of a Brooklyn couple who decided to try life on the farm and sells stylishly packaged goat cheese. You will not be following along with their adventure via #livesimply on Instagram. No. According to Tod, a 10-year resident, Wildroots is a neo-pre-post-apocalyptic, white-middle-class phenomenon. But that’s just his smart-ass way of saying he hates labels. So for now, let’s call it an open community where you can go learn about how little you know.
Trial and error
Wildroots is a difficult place to characterize. Anonymity breeds an air of secrecy; full names and location are usually withheld to avoid unwanted attention. A constantly evolving, amorphous entity with an ever-changing cast of characters, the community defies packaged definition. All who go there have their own reasons and their own set of ideas of what the place is. The resentment for labels could be written off as pride—not wanting to be so simply put in a box—but the more time you spend at Wildroots, the more it becomes clear that labels truly are insufficient.
With no electricity, computers, or clocks, and very limited outings into civilization, time functions differently at Wildroots. Activities are based on weather, season, and the sun’s location, rather than any sense of obligation.
"We're all just going to chase our tails until we're dead"
"The lifestyle we have here is a total candy land," says Tod, who at 49 is one of the community’s most senior members. "We get out of bed when we feel like it, we go to bed when we feel like it, and almost every day is like, What am I gonna do today?"
There are no rules, and no one is in charge, but a natural order does emerge, along with roles and expectations. Someone must empty the composting toilet, split wood, start fires, prepare food, and fetch water from the stream. Over the years, people have been asked to leave if they are unable to find their place as a productive member of the community. The most important criterion to be a member of the community, though, is an eagerness to learn without a fear of making mistakes along the way.
When I first walked up the path to Wildroots (which wasn’t navigable in a Toyota sedan), in 2010, the sight that greeted me was a dead raccoon hanging from a tree limb. A young woman, Elizabeth, pulled indelicately at the hide. Another woman, Natalie, with soft features, a disarming smile, and an aura of absolute power and confidence, stood nearby. She had a comfort in her body that I’ve since come to recognize as a trademark of people immersed in this type of living. Natalie had processed countless animals and was much better suited for the job, but she simply offered Elizabeth bits of advice before getting back to her own projects.
This is the way things operate: The least experienced person is often put in the charge of a project, even though the whole community will have to live with the results of their trial and error. Mistakes made during the learning process—as long as they aren’t dangerous or harmful to the tools—are completely embraced.
“It has metastasized more into a teaching community as its main purpose, rather than a community where what we’re intending to do is go back into the woods and be self-sufficient or something,” says Talia, who was in a relationship with Tod.
Though the two often found themselves in a teaching role, they remained keenly aware of how much is left to learn. One of Tod’s biggest lessons came when he built his own bark-roofed cabin in 2010. I spent part of that fall helping him with the tremendous amount of work required for such a small structure: whittling pins, hewing oak beams, debarking poplars for the roof, weaving saplings for the wattle walls, which were then packed with a mixture of red clay, riverbank sand, straw or deer hair, and water. Months later, I ran into Tod and asked him about the house. He said they had to abandon it because the site was too damp. There was no sense of frustration or anger in his voice. It was just another learning opportunity.
Before giving up hope for society, Tod and Talia were actively trying to save it. In addition to attending protests and trying to minimize his environmental impact, Tod was enrolled in an engineering program at the University of California at Davis, where he was developing technology for fuel-cell vehicles. Even back then, he hated computers, school structure, and career paths, but it was his mission to be part of the solution. The more he learned, however, the more the facade of sustainability as an industry dissolved.
“One day I’m sitting there working on my master’s thesis with these great big gloves and a respirator and thinking, Alright, am I gonna save the world by wallowing in poison?” he remembers. “It just doesn’t work that way. You can’t save the world from poison with more poison.”
His despair was confirmed when he attended a symposium and mingled with the directors of green initiatives for several major American automotive companies As Tod tells it, they candidly admitted to each other that their efforts were more about making money than an environmental difference. “Every single cent we spend in this economy contributes to our demise,” Tod says. “It’s an extractive economy and when you extract you destroy. I think we are fooling ourselves to think we can actually make the system better from within the system.”
“I felt a lot of impetus to get the fuck out of the city and learn something that actually made sense to me,”
As world events intensified, their thoughts grimly turned to societal collapse. “We both felt pressure that this shit could really fall apart, and we were sitting there surrounded by hundreds of thousands of people that were just as helpless as we were,” says Tod. Predicting the housing bubble, he put his home and property on the market.
Meanwhile, Talia was learning about primitive skills and heard about Wildroots, which was a new experiment at the time. The house sold almost instantly at a huge gain, so with pockets full of money, the couple headed across the country into the mountains of western North Carolina.
When Tod and Talia arrived, there were about five people living at Wildroots. The owner of the land, Marian Boone, had already left, but generously allowed the community to remain on her property. In those early years, the residents focused on trying to be hunter-gatherers. “We were doing experiments like going the whole summer eating nothing but gathered food,” Talia recalls.
But it wasn’t long before they realized that they had been naive in their expectations. Buzzwords like “self-sufficient” and “sustainable” are tossed around casually these days, but tell someone at Wildroots that you are self-sufficient, and they’ll probably have a good laugh. “Bit by bit, we learned how infinitely far from self-sufficiency and sustainability us modern humans are,” Tod says. “It’s not going to happen for me.”
With that realization, the community has come to a sobering conclusion about what societal collapse would mean for them. “I don’t think we’d last that long here,” Tod admits. “If there’s a big wave of death, I’d rather ride it out here than somewhere else. Let it wash over me while I’m bathing in a nice, cold, clear stream.”
As someone unaccustomed to the Wildroots lifestyle, a week there can leave me aching for a hot shower and modern comforts. The constant work strains muscles that I’ve forgotten I have. So to hear Tod say that the community can’t be self-sufficient brings a whole new respect for the Cherokee and early settlers, who made survival their full-time job. It must be noted, though, that it’s not just an unwillingness to put in the effort. We live in a different world than they did. Hundreds of years of irresponsible exploitation of resources and disregard of natural balance have systematically depleted every aspect of our ecology. Emotion wells inside me when I walk through one of the few remaining old-growth forests, seeing the beauty of nature left alone. Once, forests like this spanned the entirety of the southern Appalachians.
However, there’s one glaring difference at the heart of why the hunter-gatherer lifestyle is no longer realistic. In the early 1900s, blight wiped out the American chestnut, totally changing the face of these woods. “An area like this might have been 60 percent American chestnuts, and each year they dropped a huge crop,” Tod says. The chestnut were central to the diet of Appalachian humans and wildlife, and the loss of these enormous trees (along with the poisoning of the water supply) had monumental effects at all levels of the food chain.
This land can support life, but it takes a daunting amount of constant attention and the kind of knowledge that comes from generations just to get by. “None of us have ever lived with the examples of someone who’s done it,” Talia says, further alluding to their reliance on outside support. “Back in the day, people lived in the same community as they were born in. ”
That’s why the folks at Wildroots are more than happy to get a little help from “mother dumpster.” The vast majority of the food they consume was first discarded by someone else. On weekly trips into town, members of the community fill the bed of Tod’s vegetable oil–fueled truck with trashed goodies. There is no need for them to hunt, as they get meat from roadkill, taxidermists, butcher dumpsters, and sport hunters who are only interested in the kill and regularly drop off bear during hunting season. “We are living off of the fat of a ridiculous, surplus society and just kind of enjoying it,” explains Tod.
This gets at why Wildroots is hard to define. They don’t make up arbitrary rules about how primitive they are going to be. They are floating along, trying to find some fulfillment along the way. “Instead of trying to get to a position where we are truly independent of mainstream society we’re just finding our way to live on the fringes of it with some relative amount of comfort and happiness,” Tod explains.
In my mind, Wildroots and Tod and Talia were all one and the same. The story has taken twists and turns and continues to evolve, but they were the one thread that kept the narrative continuous. That all changed this summer when I went out for another stay and found that Talia was gone.
I decided if I can’t really live here and feel good, then there’s not really much point in doing it.”
She had moved back to California and, except for a brief visit this past winter, she never plans to come back. “I have a really bad allergy to mold,” she explains. “My body just doesn’t like this ecosystem, you know? I fought this for a number of years and I’m just tired of it.
Tod and Talia still talk on the phone, but are essentially broken up on a technicality. Talia spent the fall staying with a friend and working on a marijuana farm to save some money. Aside from spending a year or two at an all-women’s Buddhist monastery in the Southern California desert, she doesn’t have any specific plans for the future. For her, emotion has no place in decision-making.
“I have a huge amount of sadness about her leaving,” Tod says. “We’ve done so much here. We’ve had a really good life here together.” He has, of course, considered joining Talia in California, but since his family is on the East Coast, he feels that traveling back and forth would conflict with his lifestyle. “I’d probably never see my mother again,” he says. In addition to the emotional connection that Tod has forged with Wildroots, he has practical concerns, such as the lack of water in California.
However, Talia’s departure creates another concern. Life in the woods can be dangerous. When Tod has been injured, she has cared for him. Since Wildroots usually thins out to just the two of them in the winter months, the risks multiply exponentially without her. “It’s actually really scary for me to be on my own,” he admits.
But Tod is facing part of the season alone with a smidgen of excitement tempering his anxiety. “I haven’t been alone in many, many years. I think it will be good for me,” he says. “I’m a little afraid of it just because of the loneliness thing, and you know, what if I hurt myself?”
With his 50th birthday approaching, Tod’s concern for how long he can last without Talia’s support is understandable. But when time is not such a tyrant, the future feels distant and less daunting. For now, he chooses to stay true to his mission and focus on what’s in front of him. The shitter is full, the workshop needs to be expanded, and finishing touches need to be made on the knife he made as a parting gift for Talia.
The root of it all
Wildroots is not a romantic comedy. There are no hilarious misadventures and learning montages. This is not a Tom-Hanks-and-Meg-Ryan story. Instead, it offers a reminder of something we know innately but that rarely crosses our minds in a society built upon ones and zeros.
We are animals. Biologically, little more than extra neural pathways divide us from our closest relatives in the animal kingdom, yet because we are surrounded by a world that we have constructed for ourselves, it is easy to forget our more primal roots. On a walk through the woods at Wildroots last summer I noticed that the bark of a dead hemlock tree had been peeled away from the base. I couldn’t immediately tell if an “animal” or a human had done it. I remembered that the bark’s rich, red color can be used for tanning hides, but the gravity of the question lingered in my mind. It was the first time I had seen the mark of a human mistakable for that of another species. The only thing that is truly remarkable about this is that it’s remarkable at all. My time at Wildroots has taught me that we’ve gone wildly astray if a delicate interaction with nature is worthy of note. Tod once told me:
“Everyone thinks it’s amazing that we can drink out of the stream, but what’s really amazing is that we’ve poisoned every other water source.”
This is not a manifesto advocating the return to a truly primitive way of life. The reason that this is a story at all is because we are fascinated by the idea that people would dedicate their life to the pursuit of obsolete knowledge. It’s a story because we see their views and choices as extreme. But perhaps it’s time we stand back, take a long, hard look at what we’ve done to the earth, and think again about what’s extreme.