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  • Ken Ilgunas

My return to Acorn Abbey

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 County—I will confidently and boldly say—is 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 wrong—I 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 van—because 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 meals—often 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 potatoes—all 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 return—I’m unhappy to report—gave 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 land—a project I accepted begrudgingly since it was difficult for me—a self-avowed treehugger -- to 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 to—through my alliance with the pine—feel threatened as well.

Personally, I find most any tree, pines included, quite pretty, especially when they add color to bleak winter vistas—but David can’t stand to look at them, calling them “weeds.” Hardwoods, on the other hand—like the beech, the poplar and the maple—are “noble,” he says.

I chopped away anyway since—I justified—some 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 flourish—the 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 personalities—I figured they’d all be wired the same way. Not so with our chickens—each has a distinct character of her own.

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 Thoreau—Life of the Mind—is 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 debt—a 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.]


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