Wildroots

A Photo Journey by Mike Belleme

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. I mostly tell the story through the longest running members, Tod and Talia who have lived there for a decade. Tod and Talia first came to Wildroots from California where Tod was poised to enter a lucrative career in Engineering making fuel cells for electric cars. During his studies, he became disillusioned with the whole alternative energy industry and decided to give up trying to save the world, and learn how to save himself.  Tod and Talia started finding information that led them to believe that a collapse in civilization was imminent and there was nothing they could do to stop it. When they heard about Wildroots from some online research, they sold their property and left for the mountains of Western NC. When they arrived they found out that their vision of a living off the land was a bit of a stretch from the reality. “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.” These terms like self sufficiency, are thrown around fairly casually these days, but few really understand what it means to take care of all of your needs without any outside help. It’s a tremendous amount of work and involves generations worth of accumulated knowledge from people that have shared the same land for many years. The ecology of the region has also been deeply effected since the times before first European contact when hunting and gathering combined with some agriculture was the lifestyle of this region. The loss of the American Chestnut in the early 20th century had profound effects at all levels of the food chain, and the poisoning of most of our water supplies has had a huge effect as well.

Today, most of the food supply at Wildroots comes from dumpsters. Once a week they load up into Tod’s veggie oil fueled truck and fill the bed with food from bakeries, chop shops, and grocery stores. “We are living off of the fat of a ridiculous, surplus society and just kind of enjoying it,” explains Tod. They keep a nice garden going and regularly supplement with wild mushrooms, greens and nuts.

There is no need to hunt at Wildroots as there is a steady supply of meat acquired through dumpsters, road kill, and relationships with hunters, wild game butchers and taxidermists who donate extra meat. During bear season, several whole bears are usually dropped off by hunters who pass through the Wildroots property to hunt the national forrest beyond. 

Talia recently left Wildroots to return to California because a severe mold allergy made it impossible to live comfortably in this region. Tod is now adjusting to a very new dynamic especially in Winter when the size of the community shrinks to almost nothing and he is left all by himself for stretches of time. At age 50, and with a back injury that sometimes leaves him immobile, Tod can’t help but wonder how long he can keep it up without the support of Talia. He chooses not to dwell too much on the future though, and takes it one day at a time. During the warmer seasons the community peaks at about twelve people. Some staying for long stretches of time, and others just passing through. 

There are no original members of the community still living there, butthe owner and founder of the property allows people to live there for free only paying the property tax. 

LIFE AT WILDROOTS

Most days are spent working on either personal or group projects. Blacksmithing and leather work are among the most common hobbies. There is usually at least one house or public space that is in progress. The lengthy process of building a structure involves almost all natural materials collected nearby and no metal fasteners or adhesives are used in construction. The wattle and daub structures are made by weaving small saplings between larger log pillars and packing the spaces around the saplings with a mixture of sand, red clay, water and a binder such as straw or deer hair. Roofs are usually made from the bark of tulip poplar. When boards are needed, they are split using wedges from full logs and joined using hand whittled locust pegs. Wildroots is lucky to have a spring fed creek running through the thirty acre property, so hauling fresh water from the creek is a daily chore. 

Firewood is a constant effort, with no electric tools or chainsaws, logging expeditions are a team effort using cross cut saws to cur the rounds. Meals are cooked with cast iron pans over a fire made from friction for breakfast and dinner. The evening often winds down with singing around the fire, but soon, exhausted from a full day, each member of the community disappears into the darkness of night, comfortably navigating their way through the woods by moonlight.

MY JOURNEY

As a kid, I didn’t have Cable TV and video games, I just had twelve acres of woods and a creek in the small town of Saluda, NC. I learned about gardening from my parents, caught snakes and turtles with my dad and brother and learned about wild food and the uses of many of our local plants. As I got older, these interests faded and that information lay dormant in a far back corner of my brain until the first time I went to Wildroots. My urge to reconnect with nature returned instantly and feverishly. During my first ten day stay there in 2010, I relearned many of the edible plants and trees that I knew as a kid along with some new ones. I leaned to use a cross cut saw during a two day logging expedition, I learned to make a saw horse using only a hand drill and hand whittled pegs, I learned to make repairs on a wattle and doubt house and how to split logs into boards to help Tod make a bed for his house. I learned a lot about what I was capable of. I made my first friction fire from a bow drill that I made for myself, and learned how to regulate the fire to minimize smoke while cooking indoors. New Ideas were introduced to me that posed difficult questions about my involvement in the destruction of our planet. Soon, my girlfriend and I moved out of Asheville into a tiny treehouse in the woods in Mars Hill. For three years, we incorporated parts of what I was learning at Wildroots into our daily lives. I started attending the annual Firefly Gathering, where I met other people interested in primitive skills and cultivated a community with a wealth of knowledge that I can benefit from. 

The truth is that I am very far from being ready to devote my life to living like they do at Wildroots. Even getting out there for a week is difficult in a lot of ways, but knowing that they are there and I can escape the trappings of civilized life any time and learn more about how little I really know and what it is to be a human means the world to me. I am grateful beyond words that Tod, Talia and other other members of the community over the years have let me into their lives and have changed my life is so many ways.

ABOUT THE FRAMES

The main lasting effect that I have personally experienced from my time at Wildroots is an absolute passion for trees and working with wood. It’s a constant obsession. It’s a filter through which I see the world, almost more so than the photographer’s eye. I constantly identify every tree I see, and make mental notes about where they are growing, what species tend to grow together, which turn colors first in the fall and bud first in the spring and on and on. During my first stay at Wildroots I whittled my first spoon since I was a kid. Since then, I took up whittling, then bigger woodworking projects as my main hobby. I source all of my wood from dead trees on my property and occasionally lumber from abandoned buildings. For most projects, I stray from the basic hand tool techniques of Wildroots using instead a combination of power tools and hand tools. These frames were made from black walnut, black cherry, mulberry and red oak all from within 100 feet of my front door in Swannanoa.