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  • Ken Ilgunas

Images of semi-sustainability

I don’t know anyone who loves a place as much as David loves Acorn Abbey. It’s not just the home he loves, it’s also the plants, trees, stream, and animals that call this place home, too. Even though Mr. Groundhog—our leaf-eating neighbor—is often found snacking in our sweet potato patch, David doesn’t have the heart to shoot him like any normal farmer would. When we went through a dry spell and the bees didn’t have enough flowers, he refused to cut the flowers off our basil plants because “the bees have to eat too.”

He spends a large part of his day scanning weather updates on the internet to keep tabs on the storms that will make the plants grow and help him realize his green-bearded, vine-choked vision of Acorn Abbey. David’s mood—I’ve learned—is oftentimes directly linked to the weather. If it’s hot and dry for a protracted period of time, his curmudgeonly side is sure to rears its head. When the radar shows that other counties are getting dumped on when we’re not, he’s overcome with envy.

“It’s just our luck,” he says, gazing at a hopelessly blue sky. “I swear I’m going to sell this place in move to the mountains where there’s rain.”

The truth is that we do get our fair share of rain. And sometimes—even when we do—David is still unhappy if he knows some other place is getting more. David could be standing knee-high in a flood and still be dissatisified. “You think this is rain,” he’d say. “You should see what Yadkin County’s getting on the radar!”

When we get dumped on with rain, though, he’s as happy as can be—which is, to me, a reaction that only someone who dearly loves his home and feels a sense of unity with the natural world can have.

Anyway, I want to point out that the following are images of semi-sustainability because—of all the lessons I’ve learned this summer—I’ve realized that it takes a lot of determination, sweat, blood, money, know-how (of which I had none), and—most importantly—rain to even begin to live off the land.

It’s David’s goal to set the clocks back to 1935; to grow his own food and to cut back on all the non-necessities. It’s a work in progress. When he bought his five acres of land, the plot of land where his garden would go used to be a pine forest standing atop eye-stingingly acidic soil. To go from a stand of pines to a fully sustainable garden overnight is impossible. It takes time and a lot of work. That’s why he gave me room and board this summer.

These are not images of complete sustainability (if that’s even possible) quite yet. These are images of the projects we’ve undertaken to begin to lessen our dependence on the corporate food industry, and to sow the seeds today, which—hopefully—will make Acorn Abbey’s inhabitants happier and healthier human beings when reaped tomorrow.

Our first order of business was to build a fence. David’s garden and orchard—if left unprotected—would be at the mercy of a large white tail deer population. We bought around 40 4×4’s and 400 feet of six-foot-tall welded wire fencing. David—who prefers work in the kitchen—groaned and moaned throughout the process. I, however, loved every minute of it.

In order to dig the holes, we rented a two-man mechanical hole digger. David’s lawn was so clay-baked that it took us several days for the machine to dig the holes. The key was to hold onto the handles tightly because the torque of the machine was powerful enough to throw you if an insufficient amount of strength was applied.

Around hole 30 of 40, I started day-dreaming and lost focus. When the digger jolted against a rock I accidentally released the handles. When I regained my balance, I saw David in the air flying across the garden—zero-gravity-Matrix-style—as if he just took a roundhouse kick to the chest.

I apologized profusely after he staggered to his feet. There was a good cut on his shoulder, and he seemed a little rattled. The digger was still swinging round and round, helicoptering uncontrollably in the hole. The handles were moving so quickly and so violently, we didn’t dare try to grab them.

Here’s David about to do something stupid, which, thank god, he didn’t do.

Once the fence was up, we started planting. This is a grape trellis. We planted two native varieties (scuppernong and muscadine). They’ll start producing next year.

Here’s the orchard. Last year he planted eight apple trees. This year we added two peaches and three figs.

Here are three blueberry bushes. We have reason to suspect that Mr. Groundhog has been stealing all our berries this summer.

Our compost bin, at the moment, is overflowing. It’s 3/4ths full of chicken crap, which—from what I’ve heard—is rich in plant-loving nutrients. All our food waste goes to the chickens, which then goes to the bin. Next year, David will mulch the garden with the compost.

Our fall veggies just planted: beets, mustard, and turnip.

Early in the summer we went to a berry picking farm and made about 20 jars of strawberry preserves.

This is homemade blackberry pie. I picked the berries, David baked the pie.

I planted Shitake mushroom spores into these logs by a shaded creek on his land. If all goes well, these logs will be covered with mushrooms in 5-12 months, and will continue to produce for 3-5 years.

After the fence was erected, we let the chickens out of their coop to roam and wander. Since then, we feed them 75% less chicken mesh because they now snack on insects all day. The eggs, since then, have been noticeably tastier, and the chickens, noticeably happier.

David has five acres of land. We’ve developed one acre, and have allowed the other four acres to exist as an animal sanctuary. We have many different animals that call Acorn Abbey home. Among them are a few bats that are endangered in these parts. We put up two “bat houses” to encourage population growth. Below, there’s a picture of a bat that watched us eat dinner by clinging to the window screen.

We planted our crops in straw bales because David’s soil is still too poor for a proper garden to grow. In time, it will be revitalized with mulch, fertilizer, and compost.

What we can’t get from the garden, we get from a local farmers market. Once a month, David drives into town to get what we can’t get from the market like cheese, pasta, and rice.

Inspired by the film No Impact Man, we decided to stop using toilet paper, which kills trees and takes far longer to break down than human waste in his septic tank. On my hiking excursions, I’ve used leaves, sticks and rocks, so using a piece of cloth is no great sacrifice for me. This will, however, most certainly not be a custom I carry with me to Duke because carrying stinky rags with me on top of the van smells that have saturated into my skin would certainly ostracize me even more from the student body.

One reason to attempt to live sustainably is to limit your impact on the environment. Our food industry is floating on a sea of oil. We drive to the supermarket to buy food that has been shipped there from the ends of the earth, using up costly fossil fuels in the process. Organic farming or buying locally reduce our reliance on fossil fuels.

But this is only half the reason why organic farming intrigues me. When in school, it’s easy for me to recognize just how incomplete my life is. When almost all of my time is spent in libraries and my nose in books, it’s only natural that I begin to feel desires for the fundamental ingredients of a happy life that are clearly missing from my day-to-day existence. For me, those desires—among others—are for physical labor and the outdoors.

One of my favorite pastimes this summer has been sitting on the porch and admiring my day’s labor. I love feeling tired, and fulfilled after a hard day’s work. I love wolfishly devouring the food I’ve planted in great quantities. Most of all, I love lifting heavy things, getting my clothes drenched in sweat, and being covered from head to toe in dirt.

Too much time spent on the computer last semester gave me my first nasty case of Carpel tunnel. My palms turn soft and delicate; my fingers, aristocratic. That’s my biggest gripe with my lifestyle at school: there’s a huge imbalance between seclusion and society, work and leisure, security and independence, work of the mind and work of the body. I could work sixteen hours straight on some meaningful essay or article, and go to bed not feeling half as fulfilled with my day’s labor as I would on a day that I’d planted trees for an hour.

What is the best way to live is a question I continually ponder. I certainly don’t have it all figured out, but after each endeavor and after each experience, I feel I’m slowly getting there. Just to throw a few numbers out there… I think this formula might best suit me spread out over the course of a given year: 5 weeks of hard physical labor (chopping wood, building fence, lifting heavy things), 35 weeks of light labor (maintaining garden, tending animals) and 12 weeks of ultra-light labor (cooking, cleaning).

My mind turns soft when my body does, so I view hard physical labor as less a pain and more an essential need. I like to bleed a little everyday. Maybe scrape my arm against a blackberry bush, or slice open a tender callus. I prefer tough, desensitized hands; the sort of hands terrible for love-making; hands—armed with jagged-edged calluses—that are so rough they’d leave white lines of scraped skin cells on a woman like barbed-wire scars on a cow.

When you’re working for yourself and living minimally, my experience tells me that work no longer feels like work. And no longer does your work life feel separate from your personal life; rather, they become intimately entwined. And the pace and seclusion of abbey life gives its monks time for meditation, art, books, and the enjoyment of simple things: watching the chickens scratch, looking at the stars at night, listening to the wind blow in the trees.

Of course, monk life is not without drawbacks. On my few excursions into town, I found that some of my social skills had atrophied considerably. When I bumped into people, I was overly self-conscious, even nervous.

Over the course of the summer, I’ve probably seen less than a dozen cars pass David’s home. Sometimes David will casually remark that the “neighbors are out walking.” I pretend not to be excited, but within seconds my palms are plastered to the window pane like a suction-cupped Garfield. I take in the views of their each stride with as much wonder and delight as if we’d spotted an alien starship carving crop circles in the field out yonder.

To get out more, I’d occasionally take runs down sleepy country roads to the Dan River. David loves apple pie, so when I spotted someone who has an apple tree I stopped to try to talk her into giving me some.

“Dems dare some mighty fine apples you got,” I said, admiring her tree. Why I suddenly started speaking in a caricatured southern dialect both baffled and worried me.

The woman looked at me curiously but kindly. “Well, thank you,” she said.

“Lord a’mercy, I reckon that they’d make a mighty fine pie. Any chance I could buy a few off you.” Lord a’ mercy? Why the fuck are you speaking this way? This isn’t even how southern people talk.

“These apples ain’t mine. Let me ask Genie if you can have some.” She looked over to the double wide and yelled “GENIE!!” A naked black toddler stumbled out, followed by Genie—a large white woman with straggly brown hair.

“This man here wants to buy some apples from us.”

“I’s jus lookin at dem mighty fine apples of yurs them-air yonder. I feels like I ain’t had sump’n teet so good as apple pie since Sherman marched through Savannah.” By this time, I wanted to forget about the apples and get away. The women looked at each other confused.

“Well, they ain’t ready yet,” Genie said. “But you can come back in a couple weeks when they’re ripe. Are you out runnin? Do you want a glass of water?”

“Oh no missus. I sure don’ wanna kick up a ruckus. I hafta get going anyway,” I said, starting to run away.

“Well you can pick the apples whenever you want. Sure you don’t want any water? It’s awfully hot out.”

“I do declare,” I said, now in mid-stride.

I made my way to the Dan. It was a Monday afternoon and I had the river all to myself. Below is my first and—don’t worry—last poem that will grace the pages of this blog.

I’m sittin nipple-high in the Dan

Ain’t got no schedule. Ain’t got no plan

Got nowhere to go. Got nowhere to be soon

Just thought I’d sit in the Dan this Monday afternoon

On the bridge ahead, one guy’s watchin me He’s wearin an orange hardhat I can see Wonder what he’s thinking of me just sittin there Without any worry, without any care

Maybe he’s thinkin, as he takes his breather that I got no job. No woman, no money neither And he can prolly tell that I got no 401(k), nor any insurance plan but that’s just fine, cause it ain’t me lookin at him sittin in the Dan

(Thanks go to David for a few of the photos, and of course for letting me stay with him.)

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