The Great Rural Pioneer living, in the present

A commitment to living much closer to the earth

They’re off the grid – and proud of it. And some modern homesteaders are on a mission to teach others about the need for self-sufficiency and stewardship of the land.

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By 2035, just 12% of customers in North America are expected to become energy self-sufficient, compared to 11% in Europe. Source: Accenture, a technology-services company

At 19, Natalie Bogwalker had a life-changing experience. 

An elderly woman driving a car turned a corner and hit Bogwalker who was riding a bicycle. The driver carried her about 30 feet before slamming on the brakes and hurling Bogwalker into a telephone pole. 

Bogwalker, who was then a junior genetic engineering major at the University of Washington in Seattle, suffered a concussion and was in a lot of pain, but she was alive. 

The experience made the college student take a look at her life and what she had been taught about how to succeed, do the best good and rely on education as the best route to get there. She decided she wanted to take a different path. She quit college and began traveling the world.  

By the time Bogwalker returned to her studies at Evergreen State College, she had a new college major – ecological agriculture – and a new outlook. 

After working in catering, she continued her childhood fascination with food by traveling to Europe to learn a range of gardening techniques. She followed her passions to a community in North Carolina, where she lived in a bark hut and cooked food over fires she started with friction. She also learned to tan deer hides. 

“I was not OK with what Western capitalism had been doing to the natural world in this country,” said Bogwalker. “I was really into self-sufficiency and I took it to the extreme.” 

Ten years ago, she settled on seven acres in the mountains near Asheville, North Carolina, which she named Wild Abundance. She lives there with other like-minded people who practice modern homesteading.  

At Wild Abundance in Weaverville, N.C., Natalie Bogwalker built her own cabin as well as buildings where she offers classes on homesteading. (Photo by Mallory Lance/Courtesy of Bogwalker)

Long before the global pandemic heightened awareness about the challenges of the modern world, interest in living off the land was growing, said Bogwalker and others invested in the alternative lifestyle.

According to BigRentz, a California-based online equipment rental company, over 250,000 people in the U.S., and 1.7 billion people around the world live off the grid, meaning they are not connected to municipal power, water or sewage. Some homesteaders that practice self-sufficiency do use public utilities. 

Daniel Mark Schwartz,  founder of Off Grid Permaculture, researched key factors such as building codes, water access and the size of the off-grid community to find the best states for living off the grid. In a March 2020 post on the site, which supports people living or interested in living off the land, Schwartz listed his top 10 states with the strongest off-grid community, ranking California, Oregon and North Carolina in the top three spots.

For some, the word homesteading has negative connotations – conjuring images of white settlers swooping into the West and displacing Native peoples – but Bogwalker thinks it is expanding to encompass a range of folks with a variety of beliefs. 

After Bogwalker bought the former dairy farm, she set about healing the forest. She removed trees selectively. She employed methods to stop soil erosion and built gardens. She decided not to raise animals, given the amount of work and expertise required.

Bogwalker continued to share her lifestyle and environmentalism as she had through her annual gatherings that brought together hundreds of people interested in learning primitive skills. She offered courses in carpentry, gardening and other aspects of the homesteading life to students around the country. 

For people who are not ready or able to plunge into an extreme lifestyle change as Bogwalker did, homesteading might begin as an evolutionary – rather than – revolutionary process. 

After meeting in graduate school in 1993, Erik Knutzen and Kelly Coyne returned to Knutzen’s home in Los Angeles to care for his elderly parents. The couple had always been invested in urban gardening and the do-it-yourself movement, but when their “Root Simple” blog led to a book, they became a model for urban homesteading. 

Knutzen said the lifestyle is evolving, particularly during the novel coronavirus pandemic. “What has been really important right now is forming mutual-aid networks,” he said. “I want to de-emphasize the individual in this and think about how do we form resilient communities.” 

Homesteading is a constellation of things – growing food, cooking from scratch, using alternative transportation – but Knutzen said it is important for those things to be done as a community. 

Knutzen also cautions prospective homesteaders to take it slow. “People have a romantic notion of farming, but it is something that is a highly skilled profession,” he said, adding that his initial approach to homesteading was a bit scattershot. “Lately, I have been focusing on things I can do and have experience with.” That includes carpentry, which is a useful skill for repairing their old home, as well as fixing things for neighbors who drop by his workshop. 

Carpentry classes for women are among the most popular classes at Bogwalker’s Wild Abundance. Interest in tiny-house living tends to skew toward the younger crowd – often first-time homeowners – who are interested in simplifying their lives. 

Almost everyone, especially during the pandemic, has been interested in gardening. “Wild Abundance is speaking to people where they are,” Bogwalker said. “There are so many things you can do, small steps that take you closer and closer to the earth and your empowerment.” 

Like Knutzen, Bogwalker emphasizes the importance of community. Wild Abundance is subdivided into residences with deed restrictions that ban the use of chemical pesticides in gardens, prohibit building homes larger than 2,000 square feet, and include an agreement to give each other first right of refusal to the land. 

“It is way better to find a community where these things are happening,” Bogwalker said. “All over the place, people are making the choice to live close to the earth.”

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Nedra Rhone

The Great Rural

Activism in Rural America

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Episode Pioneer living, in the present