Sunday, December 19, 2010

My return to Acorn Abbey

Last week, I got the van up and running again after having a new battery installed. I also quit my job as a tutor, and had my final class for the Liberal Studies program. I am one step closer to graduating debt-free. All that's left is my "final project," which will be my sole duty for the spring semester.

Because I don't have to be on campus for the final project, I decided to move back in with David at his home called Acorn Abbey, situated in the hills and forests of Stokes County, North Carolina. From here, I'll write my final project free of all distractions.

Stokes CountyI will confidently and boldly sayis one of the most beautiful places on earth. The county, home to few humans, is densely populated with every conceivable shade and style of green: On a drive up and down a winding country road, one is sure to come across, at every turn, lush, tree-topped hills blooming like broccoli heads; or bucolic farm country, complete with crisply shaven lawns, cozy hamlets, rows of squat tobacco and stands of erect corn; or impenetrably-thick, howlingly-wild forests so leafy and lush it's easy to forget the Sonocos and strip malls that dominated the landscape I inhabited before.

On gently-sloped fields, wind makes sandy-colored waves of wheat flail as if something were tickling the ground beneath them. If it were a different century, such might be a fitting scene for a trio of mounted and marooned native warriors to “whoop” after wide-eyed buffalo. The soil here is “clay red”soil so dark and rich that it sometimes takes on a purple hue, as if the ground had been anointed with the blood from some ancient genocide.

Now that it's winter, the green's gone, and the growing season's over with. But as any farmhand knows, there's always work no matter the month. I have the great fortune to resume work as David's groundskeeper, for which I will receive room and board.

The arrangement is mutually beneficial: David no longer has to do the outdoors work he loathes, and I get both the pleasures of manual labor and a setting that'll improve my writing and benefit my productivity. And of course a couple of hermits finally have like-minded companions.

Because I intend to stay here all next semester, my vandwelling days are winding down. (Though I must make several trips to campus, so surely I have yet to sleep my last night in the Econoline.) Don't get me wrongI love the van, and I will miss many aspects of vandwelling. Yet I must admit that I've already begun enjoying some of the upgrades of conventional living. No longer must I swaddle myself with every piece of clothing imaginable to stay warm in a frozen vanbecause I now have a warm bed every night.

And no longer must I eat out of the same unwashed cereal bowl every morning with powdered milk (that tends to turn my feces a pale, ghostly green)because I now enjoy David's elegantly prepared mealsoften made with vegetables from our garden. Below, we are about to eat chili, green peppers, sauerkraut, homemade bread, and vegan sausages. The day before, we had beet soup, turnips, and sweet potatoesall of which I planted in August.

David makes his own sauerkraut with locally grown cabbage. It ferments in these two German-made crocks. (You can also see his cat Lily behind one of them. She, upon my returnI'm unhappy to reportgave me a reception best described as "cool.")

What must I do for all these luxuries? My first project was to remove all the pines from his acre of developed landa project I accepted begrudgingly since it was difficult for mea self-avowed treehuggerto justify cutting down a tree for mere aesthetic reasons.

I've openly accused David of being a tree-racist since he has prejudices against certain species. When I casually mention the pine, he becomes uncommonly vulgar, even ogreish. He'll begin to imagine the pines propagating, multiplying, taking over (!) his property, casting his home under a perennial shadow with their sharp, needle-like quills. They'll pop up in his garden, destroy his lawn, and crash through his second-story windows when pretending to be swayed by the wind.

It's then when he begins to seethe; he'll take on a rigid, territorial disposition and cast slurs at my bushy, spiky-haired friends, as if they were a swarm of gypsies he'd caught squatting on his land and sifting through his garbage. His revulsion is so palpable that I begin tothrough my alliance with the pinefeel threatened as well.

Personally, I find most any tree, pines included, quite pretty, especially when they add color to bleak winter vistasbut David can't stand to look at them, calling them "weeds." Hardwoods, on the other handlike the beech, the poplar and the mapleare "noble," he says.

I chopped away anyway sinceI justifiedsome hardwoods would take their place in due time. And also because there may be nothing more fun than chopping down a tree. Here I am taking out a Locust tree to make room for a Persimmon tree so that it may grow and flourishthe latter of which bears fruit that's replete with medicinal goodies.

I'm also in charge of the chickens, but they're fairly self-sufficient; I only have to make sure that they're fed, and that their coop gets locked up at night. The three of them, in total, produce about two eggs a day. Here's Ruth, who looks like she's put on some weight since summer.

None of our scrap food goes to waste. Here, the chickens are eating our leftover grits.

On the left is Chastity, and in the middle, Patience. I never knew that chickens have such distinct personalitiesI figured they'd all be wired the same way. Not so with our chickenseach has a distinct character of her own.

This winter we'llunless David balks at the costinstall a hive and begin keeping bees so that we can produce our own honey. We'll also expand our shiitake mushroom farm, start our crops from seeds indoors, plant two black walnut trees, and make further aesthetic improvements to the landscape.

This all sounds like a ton of work, but I'd say, on average, I'm only outside working for an hour or two a day. The rest, I spend on my scholarly pursuits inside, often in front of the fire reading, which is, for me, a pleasure almost without equal. Here I am reading Walter Harding's biography on Thoreau, which is superb. (Robert Richardson's bio of ThoreauLife of the Mindis equally good.)

Despite my aversion for accumulating a mess of things, I have some strange hoarding tendencies. One of which is my need to always have an absurd amount of books at my disposal. From the Duke library, I picked up lots of Emerson and Thoreau, three books by Thorstein Veblen, as well as a good mix of literary fiction, non-fiction, poetry, and travel books of course. While my multi-disciplined coursework has been enlightening, I have been looking forward to going back to books that are more in accord with my particular interests.

I don't want to say I'm done with vandwelling; I will, after all, need to spend some time on campus next semester, but my experiment is most certainly winding down. And now that I've finished my coursework, I enter a new phase of my "intellectual journey."

And so begins my next endeavor, which is, like my last, overly-ambitious and certain to fail. Starting tomorrow, I will begin my final project, which I've decided will be a full length book. It'll be like any good travel book, I hope: it'll be a tale of a journey both without and within; it'll be half about living in a van and staying out of debt, and half about traveling across the continent and getting out of debta journey that, more than anything, made me a vandweller "in spirit." Somehow I hope to tie the two together in coherent fashion. If I deem it worth a damn, then maybe I'll try to publish it.

So I suppose this blog will change in theme somewhat. It'll be less about vandwelling and more about sustainable living, mixed in with lamentations about my anxieties as a wannabe writer, as well as some old adventures I've been itching to put to page. I hope you'll come along.

[For other stories of Acorn Abbey, you can find them in my "Other Travels" section.]


Mike said...

Ah! Peaceful exercise for the mind AND body. Congratulations on completing your class requirements and good luck with the final project.

Since I still have another year and a half of graduate classes to go through before I can get my own plot of land with chickens, fruit trees and a vegetable plot, I'll be living vicariously through your posts throughout the spring.

Brian said...

So your final project book, is it going to essentially be a re-write of this blog? Considering the topics you pointed out, it seems like this blog is one heck of a good out-lined to get started with. Good luck.

TYoung said...

A full book for a final project?! That's awesome! Let me know when you're back on campus and we'll grab a beer.

AMber said...

Your pretty awesome. Ishmael is an interesting book. I think you will enjoy it. =) -Ber

Anonymous said...

This is my first time commenting, though I have been reading your blog for a few months.

Ishmael is an interesting book.

Good luck with your final project.

Anonymous said...

you write so beautifully. good luck on your next journey after graduating.

-Heidi said...

Maybe not quite so much a Vandweller... but you are certainly a Vansteader! It really made me smile (a goofy one at that) to see Ruth (and the other girls) again!


-Heidi said...

I also hope you'll share a review of Ishmael. I understood the "idea" of the book... *BUT*... well, my comments would not be kind to the "followers" of Ishmael...
Anyway, I'd be interested to hear what you have to say about the book.

Ken said...

Mike--Indeed, the combination of physical work and a tranquil setting does wonders for one's scholastic productivity, not to mention one's peace of mind.

Brian--Ha, yes, that's a good way to put it. Though I've hardly--except for my first hitchhike and a few anecdotes--mentioned the journey portion of my story on this blog--so that will certainly be new material and will take time.

Tim--We'll see how it turns out. Today I read for about 6 hours, wrote for 5, worked outside for 1 , and spent the rest eating or idling away. I got tons done--I'm hoping everyday this semester is like today. Beer sounds good.


Ber, Alicia, and Heidi--I had no idea that book would stir so much commentary. I took it out on a whim, because's "recommended books" feature kept recommending it to me. I've put it next on my reading list--and I'll share my review in this section when I'm done.

Mike Troy said...

... "If I deem it worth a damn, then maybe I'll try to publish it"... My easy prediction is this will be the first of many.

..."my anxieties as a wannabe writer"...Hmm, you are a writer.

Kevin M said...

Your day-to-day sounds perfect - a little hard, physical work mixed with a dose of intellectual pursuit. Happy holidays Ken, and good luck with the book. After reading the blog for a few months now, I have no doubt it will be worth a read.

Josh said...

Ken, I hope you keep the blog going, even though your vandwelling days are winding down. Overall we, your readers, come here mainly for the stories you tell, not just for vandwelling tales.

I hope you somehow manage to get your book published too. If you do I'd definitely track down a copy to purchase. I usually just borrow books from the library, but I'd actually purchase yours to support the author. :-)

Dian Yang said...

Acorn Abbey sounds like a beautiful place. It must be really nice living there.

Good luck with the book! It's always an exciting time when starting a new project like this. Hope to read your book some day.

Natalie said...

Great idea for a final project! I'll be dealing with mine a year from now, and a book sounds like an amazing idea. I think you'll have more interesting content. :) I'll be interested to hear how it goes!

Ken said...

Mike—I am a writer in that I write, but I am not a writer in that I can make my daily bread from the hobby. While I will be a writer in the first way for my entire life, I’d like to be able to make a buck or two while I’m at it. You’re encouragement is appreciated as always.

Kevin M—Indeed. And the cold weather is much more pleasant that the 90-100 heat wave we had almost all last summer. Last night we had a pagan, winter solstice bonfire, which was a delight.

Josh—if I taught anyone anything, it would be to buy the cheaper version of the book online ;) I wondered about when I should end this blog. I thought I could go out strong by ending it when I graduate, but I can’t imagine doing that. It’s become an inseparable part of my existence somehow.

Dian—thanks, it is lovely here.

Natalie—I have a lot of nice things to say about the liberal studies program. We have almost complete freedom to do whatever we wish with our final project. One of my friends is studying the history of African Americans and the National Park Service. Another used his experiences on the Appalachian Trail to examine our aesthetic sensibilities with different types of landscape. And of course we have freedom to write works of fiction, non-fiction, poetry… We can do almost anything as long as it’s at least somewhat relevant to what we studied in our courses. I have friends at elite institutions who—in far more rigid academic programs—have little to no freedom in deciding what their thesis or dissertation will be. I’ll take my worthless MALS degree any day of the week, so long as I can study what I wish to.

Anonymous said...

Today, I rediscovered "the seven storey mountain" the autobiography of Thomas Merton, available at There you can read the Introduction and Note to Reader to sample what is the 50th Anniversary edition of a remarkable all time best seller.

I doubt that you are unfamiliar with Merton, but didn't want to leave it to chance that you might miss him.

The stack of books you intend to read inspired this comment.

Tom in Orlando

Ken said...

Tom--I must admit I am unfamiliar with Merton. I'll pick up his book next time I'm on campus. Thanks for the suggestion.

Ken said...

My Ishmael Review-- Overall, I enjoyed the book. I thought the light plot, and the conversational format was refreshing. And of course it was crammed with ideas--most of which I agree with. One of my side interests is nature lit./wilderness philosophy so some of his stuff didn't strike me as new or wow me the way it might have before I read books like Berry's "Unsettling of the American Mind" or Nash's "Wilderness and the American Mind" and "Rights of Nature." While I'm at it, Jack Turner's "Abstract Wild" is a wonderful read as well. But "Ishmael" was a nice reminder that our creation story--even the secular version--is a myth. Quinn does a great job emboldening just how anthropocentrically we tend to think. It wasn't always this way, and it doesn't always have to be. I like that message.

bersresponse said...

Ha. I didn't think it made any sense to comment on Ishamael...
Though, upon seeing the book I was reminded of the natural delight it brought me which called for at the very least, a meek suggestion concerning the work.

To join in on the deluge of suggestions this page as aquired you, check out

Dyson Freemon's,
"Disturbing The Universe"...


bersresponse said...

Say Heidi, Ken gave his review...So how about you share said "followers" with your view. Give us an actual opportunity to see a different perspective and perhaps even agree with you.


Ken said...

Ber--thanks for the recommendation. I'd also be curious to hear someone else's not-so-favorable take on the book.