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Twelve by Twelve: A One-Room Cabin off the Grid & Beyond the American Dream

Chapter 7. Mom And Leah Visit

[Editor's Note: This is a remarkable book and one that I intend to revisit every year or two. Like an onion, it goes deeper and deeper into questions about sustainability, 121st century American culture, and personal issues. If you are reading this before 11/5/10, please see my full review at If it's already behind the firewall, please see it on Amazon —Shel Horowitz]

I drove back to Chapel Hill and picked up my mother, and we drove back to Jackie's. Instead of relaxing in the deep countryside, however, she grew increasingly anxious as the quiet isolation swallowed us, and particularly as we turned onto Jackie's dirt road and parked in front of the 12 x 12.

"Now you're really keeping the car," she said, a horrified look on her face as she regarded the miniature house on No Name Creek. I remembered my own first reaction: embarrassed for Jackie that she lived in such cramped quarters.

In awkward silence we walked through Zone 1 and entered the house. My mother sank into the old rocking chair and soon remarked at how surprisingly roomy the place felt. We brewed tea from rainwater, picked mushrooms and asparagus for the evening meal, and watched the bees — as Jackie had predicted, they were now "swarming like a freight train" around the hive. After her initial wilderness shock, my mom blended rather easily into 12 x 12 life. Perhaps it was because she had a reference point: she'd served as a Catholic nun for fourteen years. Amid Jackie's material simplicity, my mom talked about entering the convent at age eighteen. She'd wake up joyfully in her cloister at five am each day to pray in silence. When she left the convent at age thirty-two to marry my father, she had almost no material possessions.

Nor did my father. He'd been a Catholic priest for fifteen years, mostly in the Brooklyn diocese, leading the Spanish Mass for Latino communities. It was the progressive sixties, and disillusioned with the slow pace of Church reform, he left the priesthood to start a family. He met my mom at a Peter, Paul, and Mary concert and lured her out of the convent with love poetry. Then came my sister and me. My parents became college professors, and we moved into a middle-class home on Long Island, where our backyard was a forest of pines and oaks with a maze of contemplative walking paths that dead-ended or looped into themselves. My father baptized my sister and me at home amid their group of intellectual Catholic friends from the university. In our house, there was a sense that every object — from the piano to the Renaissance paintings to our gardens — spoke of that-which-is-more-than-just-human. I think it was this unusually contemplative upbringing that opened me up to the idea of living 12 x 12 and also what led my parents to have an entry point for understanding it.

My mother and I hiked deep into the woods, past abandoned farmhouses, stopping to pick grass and feed it to two horses, one beige and one patterned like a chocolate chip cookie. On the way back, as the sun dipped deeper into the western sky, she told stories about my childhood, ones I'd heard a dozen times. We wondered aloud about the thirty-acre intentional community — Jackie, the Thompsons, José, Graciela — whether that kind of harmony between humans and nature could actually be brought to scale in twenty-first-century America.

We were almost back to No Name Creek when we both saw it at the same time: a big snake, not two feet from us.

We froze. It must have been six feet long and was dark brown, a constrictor by all appearances. Not the least bit worried about the pair of tool-making bipeds standing before it, the snake ribboned its way into a bit of bush and climbed the nearest tree, a twenty-foot oak sapling. My mom and I stood in rather awed silence as it muscled itself straight up the thin trunk. The tree had few branches, so the snake gracefully utilized any available niche to hold its lower body as it arched and wound itself skyward until its pointy head rose above the sapling's tip. Then it turned quickly into a right angle, eyeing a larger pine tree several yards away.

It eased itself up still higher, now seeming to defy gravity. Half its length rose as a straight broomstick above the tree, and it shook the tree back and forth, trying to get within jumping range of the pine, but its efforts were in vain. The pine was simply too far away, and the snake, if it did attempt the leap, would certainly fall to its death onto the rocks below.

"Help it out," my mother urged. I stepped past the bush and pushed the sapling. It swayed under the efforts of the snake, and as it swayed forward I leaned into it. Our joint effort bent the sapling far enough for the snake to finally take courage. It leapt. Suddenly the snake was suspended in the gap between the trees. In slow motion, this slender cord soared through the air, its body like the bends of a river. It landed, crouched in the pine needles, and then foot-by-foot graced its way up the pine until its head rose above the highest pine branch.

At the end of the day, my mother drove herself home in the car. I waved good-bye as she reversed onto Jackie's lane. The sound of the motor softened, then disappeared. The dust settled on the lane, and a blanket of silence covered Jackie's little homestead. The place where the vehicle had been wasn't empty; spaciousness filled the gap, the elusive contours of enough in the ripening leaves of the forest.

I biked down to the bridge, gazed down at No Name Creek, lost in thought. My mother and I hadn't talked about theories of living better vs. living well or the perils of degrading and erasing subsistence cultures. It was the snake that changed her mind about the car. The silence and strength of it brought her back to those reverent five a.m. moments in the chapel, incense burning, when she was a young nun obedient to a vow of poverty. The snake didn't possess anything in this world, but still it rose to the tallest branch, proclaimed and celebrated its being. Do we really need so much more than that snake? Do we need Hummers and Sony Playstations? China cabinets and electronic sensors in our running shoes?

I took lots of long walks. Rambles, you might call them, without specific route or time frame. The day after my mother's visit, while rambling, I did an experiment. I tried to see the world around me in "color patches." In a book at Jackie's, I'd been reading about recovering cataract patients at the turn of the nineteenth century, and several used this expression to describe their first experience of vision after being cured. Each place they'd fix their eyes was another glorious set of colors. One patient was exhilarated by the fact that everyone looked different; another asked the doctor about the black stains on paintings. "Those are shadows," the astounded doctor explained. The world looked beautiful to me, seeing it as if through freshly cured eyes, one color patch after another. I looped around from the tracks onto the highway, back to Jackie's. My sense of whimsy sobered as the colors came to represent strewn garbage under my feet. Old 117 South's shoulder was littered with Coca-Cola, Fanta, and Diet Sprite cans; Jack Daniels and beer bottles; paper and Styrofoam cups; Snickers and Three Musketeers wrappers; cigarette packs. New grass sprouted around the colorful debris, tentacles enclosing it bit by bit until it would disappear from sight all summer, reappearing, if faded, in the dying grass of fall. It just seemed wrong. Spotting a plastic bag, I began collecting trash.

The bag filled quickly, and I grabbed another one that had snagged onto a bush. As I filled the new bag, I tried to connect the faces of the drivers and passengers in the minivans, SUVs, pickups, and sedans passing me with the rainbow of trash I walked through; I could not. All I saw were beautiful faces, and I began to wave. That slight nod, the lift of wrist and flash of those two fingers. Sure enough, the hands came out the windows, not to toss an empty Marlboro packet at my feet, but to snap an NC wave.

They chuckled at this fool. The dark pleasure of schadenfreude. They liked the fool for being carless, worse off than they. They liked him for picking up their trash. I didn't even have to initiate the NC wave. People started waving first, and I felt happy. It didn't matter that Dr. Pepper was dripping down my pant leg and onto my shoe through a hole in one of the bags. I found myself whistling and waving, everyone exchanging the greeting, until one person in one car didn't return my wave. In fact, the car stopped, turned around, and headed back my way, stopping beside me. The door opened — and out stepped Leah.

Lost in my long walk, I'd forgotten about her visit. She looked angelic, her blonde hair, freshly washed, falling over her shoulders. A corded wool sweater. Her blue eyes radiated intelligence along with dismay. She looked at me, horrified, this guy with a three-day stubble and sweat pouring off him.

I stretched out a hand to shake, then realized it was shellacked in Dr. Pepper. We shrugged awkwardly. "I bet you're ready for a nice hot bath," she said, trying to ease the tension. Then she remembered there was no bathtub at the 12 x 12 and backpedaled, "I mean..."

Back at Jackie's, I'd forgotten to put the solar shower bag out to warm that morning, so I scooped cups of cold water over my body behind a bush and lathered up. Meanwhile, Leah wandered through Jackie's gardens, trying to respect my privacy by not glancing my way. She squatted by Jackie's bees and remained there, engrossed, for some time.

Leah and I had met a year ago. I was on a book tour, with readings every evening, media interviews, and daily travel, all the while getting up before sunrise each day to work remotely on my rainforest conservation project back in Bolivia. When Leah first called me, I was in the Christian Science Monitor studio in Washington, DC, having just finished an interview about Bolivia's indigenous struggles for the rainforest with Terry Gross for the NPR program Fresh Air.

"I'm Leah Jackson," she said, "producer of a radio program based in Chapel Hill." Leah asked me some pre-interview questions, and a week later, she came to a reading of mine in Chapel Hill. Coming up to me afterward, she said she couldn't fit me into her radio show, but she offered to buy me a coffee if she could ask some informal questions about my work. "One of those alumni interviews," she said. We'd both gone to Brown University; she'd graduated eight years after me. We went to Cafe Driade, sipping cappuccinos in a small garden while she grilled me on everything from ways to avert species extinction to structuring op-eds.

At that time, her light blue eyes were almost hyperactive, shifting nervously as she flipped from one topic to the next. Her energy was scattered. She'd had two car accidents in the previous month, and she was restless after three years with the same show; she longed to be a reporter, not a producer, to have more control over her stories. She was also caught in a cycle of breaking up and getting back together with her boyfriend of two years, now a soldier in Iraq.

During the past year we had exchanged the occasional email, and when I came to Chapel Hill to visit my father in the hospital, we had met for dinner at Glass Half Full in the town of Carrboro, Chapel Hill's funky little brother. I almost didn't recognize her. She'd just returned from Senegal and Mali and was tan and more beautiful than I remembered. She talked passionately about the inequality she'd experienced in Africa, and the way Western corporations were raping Africa's natural resources, colonialism under a new name. She came across as self-assured, content with her job and life in Chapel Hill, the very same job she'd hated a year before. She had also permanently ended her relationship with her military boyfriend, started going to therapy with a spiritually inclined psychologist, changed her diet to organics, and begun a rigorous Zen meditation practice. Little in her external life had changed — same job, same little beater of a car, same apartment — but her perspective was completely different.

All wasn't fabulous. The spiritual path brings perils; Leah now felt more sensitive to her own hyper-individualism, as an only child of divorced parents, shuttled throughout her Colorado childhood back and forth between the front range and western slope of the Rockies. "I'm well acquainted with saying good-bye," she said. She also noticed how she tied her self-worth to stuff, living constantly at the edge of her budget, still immersed in the consumer pattern even as she awoke to it.

When I told her about my plan to stay out at the 12 x 12, her eyes lit up. She wondered aloud if she might come out to visit sometime, saying it might help her "sort some things out."

I finished the shower and put on a light green button-down shirt and my faded blue jeans. Then we wandered down to the creek. She hadn't stopped smiling, and as we crossed the creek and headed out into the forest, she said, "This is so brilliant out here. It's perfect."

We bent down in unison to admire a spider web. But nature is a now-you-see-it, now-you-don't kind of thing. The sunlight turned the web into a fragile tangle of shimmering swords. Then clouds passed over, the light dimmed, and the web was broken glass. "Thank you for popping into my life," she said.

She talked about her ex, James. He was a West Point graduate who had been sent off to Iraq. His was primarily a desk job, but still. Their biggest fights had been about the war. He wanted to serve his country; she felt he was being used in service of a lie. She followed him faithfully to rugby matches around the state. He wanted to marry her, said he'd try to get out of the military and into politics, eventually. She couldn't picture a life moving from military base to military base, socializing with other military folks, taking their kids to rugby matches.

"So why did you stay with him that long?"

"After growing up in my family — divorce and a general lack of communication — he and his family showed me what a real family should be, what love is. Love is something that's slathered on.

"In the same way, my job. The reason I've spent four years there really is because it's a caring, supportive team. Everyone works together, supports each other. Between that and James's family I've learned that it's possible for me to have that kind of cooperation and love in my life."

We'd come to a sharp bend in No Name Creek. We stopped and lay down on the mossy banks, listening to it gurgle past. She took off her shoes, got up and wandered around, staring at the grass.

I lay back and looked up through the trees, just barely showing their sticky buds, into a blue sky. After a while Leah came over and said, "I have a gift for you."

She led me over to a patch of clovers right at the creek's edge. My eye caught it immediately. Amid the near identical plants, one stood out: a four-leaf clover.

I touched it. "I can't believe you found this," I said. I'd never found one.

"They're everywhere once you have eyes for them."

Later beside No Name Creek, Leah dangled two caterpillars from their silk like tiny puppets over the book she was reading: My Name Is Chellis and I'm in Recovery from Western Civilization. In it, psychologist Chellis Glendinning argues that our fast pace, technological and chemical addictions, and lifelong traumas are linked to our dislocation from the natural world. She uses examples from nature-based societies to show how to reconnect to the living world.

As I boiled water in the 12 x 12, I watched Leah by the creek; she seemed lost in thought, staring past the caterpillars into the woods. Her shoes were off, bare toes curling into the mossy bank. I walked down to the creek with two steaming cups of chamomile tea and handed her one. She dropped one of the caterpillars onto a leaf and carefully accepted the cup in her two hands like an offering.

I moved a finger to intercept the silk thread of the remaining caterpillar, and let it dangle before my eyes. We were both quiet for a while, lost in our own thoughts as the creek flowed by. I dipped a toe in. Still cold, but not the freezing water when I arrived in early spring. The day was half gray, with intermittent light streaming through the clouds; the sun mostly hidden. A breeze from the east suddenly brought the smell of the chicken factories, and I felt myself seize up a little, flattening and hardening to my surroundings. I made an effort to come more deeply into mindfulness, feeling the small perfection of the creek's warming waters. A rebellious fragment of light broke through on the edge of a cloud, bejeweling the creek's surface with a hundred diamonds.

Then they were gone, and the surface was gray again. I looked at the inchworm dangling from the silk in my hand and said to Leah, "Think of how nature makes things compared to how we humans make things." We talked about how animals don't just preserve the next generation; they typically preserve the environment for the ten-thousandth generation. While human industrial processes can produce Kevlar, it takes a temperature of thousands of degrees to do it, and the fiber is pulled through sulfuric acid. In contrast, a spider makes its silk — which per gram is several times stronger than steel — at room temperature in water. Humans manufacture ceramics with similarly high temperatures, but the abalone makes its shell in seawater by laying down a small layer of protein and precipitating the calcium out of the seawater around it. The abalone shell is "self-healing" because cracks within it actually strengthen the ends of the cracks so they don't get bigger, unlike, say, an auto windshield. We're just now learning to make dental ceramics this way.

"Imagine we could design our built environment as gently as the caterpillar," I said, noticing how the 12 x 12, from this angle, looked so slight that it faded into the natural background.

Leah touched the silk thread, which the caterpillar makes benignly from the protein fibroin, and placed the dangling black caterpillar back on a leaf. "And think of its metamorphosis," she said, "in its cocoon, a churning of natural juices, enzymes — and out comes a butterfly. Where are the toxics in that?"

We decided to explore Siler City. Because I only had the one bike, we took her car. Along the four-lane highway, we passed Wal-Mart and other box stores, finding Siler City's Main Street abandoned. The box stores had turned the old downtown area into a ghost town: stores boarded up, hardly anyone on the street. The seizing up I'd felt by the creek, that nagging tinge of hopelessness, slid into me again. For a moment, I was certain that the world would slip, inevitably, into a genetically altered, overheated place of lost uniqueness and forgotten joy.

But instead of being this negative state, I simply observed it. I was coming to realize that the ideal of warrior presence is not a constant state. Today, I consider it a peak that I scale up, often slipping off, but I can always see it there. Even those rare humans who have lived lives of total love write intimately about their fears. Mother Teresa, for example, revealed in her private diaries an entire lifetime of doubt, a current of negativity that she battled daily. Gandhi, too, wrote of his weaknesses, his feelings of greed. Martin Luther King Jr. said once: "I have so much to do that I shall spend the first three hours in prayer." If these heroes had to struggle daily to overcome the world's negative mental-emotional force field, imagine how much more the rest of us must struggle to maintain warrior presence.

Leah and I wandered on foot into one of the few downtown businesses that wasn't boarded up, a Mexican grocery. We stopped in front of a wall filled with clear plastic bags of herbs, leaves, teas, and spices from Mexico. Leah picked up several, each eliciting a different memory from visits to her mom's home in Mexico. Her mom retired from financial planning at forty-eight and, with her third husband, bought a house with an ocean view. There, she'd been living for the past few years, neither happy nor unhappy. Leah said that her mom described this state as a "permanent vacation," piña coladas accompanying every sunset.

Out on the street we passed a domestic violence counseling center, the signs in English and Spanish. "And there's Triple-A," I said.

"AA, you mean. Alcoholics Anonymous, not the automobile club."

"Of course," I said, squinting to discern an odd sign that read "Holy Congregation of the Bladder" in front of a tiny church that seemed recently opened. "What strange salvation," I said.

"Salvation from what," said Leah. "Urinary tract infections?"

Whatever was not boarded up seemed to be either an odd religious cult or a substance abuse program. We didn't pass more than a handful of people on the street. I thought of my neighbor José, who told me he'd walked backward into America. He'd crossed illegally at night through the Arizona desert and said he'd heard the federales counted the number of Mexicans who came in by looking at the footprints in the sand. "I walked in backward," he said, "so they'd think I was going back to Mexico!" Had I, too, walked backward into America? Compared to the slow-living subsistence cultures where I'd spent the past decade, Siler City seemed devoid of life. The town is more than half Latino — most are workers in the dreaded chicken factories — and Mexicans and whites alike drove along the Wal-Mart strip in oversized pickups, loading them with "Made in China" junk.

Is this what America is becoming? Are we as a society accepting a corporate personhood? Just as our personal legal liability has been shifted to the corporation, it seems that we have given ourselves up entirely to this arrangement, as though we are no longer liable for the maintenance of our own souls. Limited-liability living. It's impossible for me to believe that in our deeper, silent selves we really prefer the efficiency of Siler City's box-store strip to the humanity that used to exist downtown. I thought of the colonial plazas throughout Latin America, where people today stroll for hours, greeting strangers under palm trees; Gambia's kundas, where extended families share everything; the bustle and color of outdoor markets I've walked through in India.

Of course the Global South is also being colonized by Wal-Mart — now the biggest retailer in China — and its corporate ilk. Nevertheless, substance and traditional cultures exhibit a resiliency that works against the trend, and they tend to be faraway places that are harder for the corporations to reach. We in the West are subject to marketing's relentless bombardment from birth. A South Carolina friend told me about a competition they had in her third-grade classroom: the teacher put them in groups of two, with the task of identifying as many corporate logos as possible. "That first time, we only confused the Black Hawks with Suzuki," she said. "By the end of the year, we could all name hundreds of corporate images. At the time, we thought it was so much fun."

We generally think that colonization is something that happens only in other countries, but aren't we in America also being colonized, constantly and relentlessly? Which is easier for corporate-political power: controlling people a continent away or those right next door? Americans watch an average of four hours of television a day. Our creative action is limited by an accumulation of regulations, taxes, and rules to an extent that eclipses much of our individuality. As Leah and I walked through the dead zone of what used to be Siler City, she talked about how she felt complicit in the way cities like this are changing. "I am a consumer," she said. "It's not even software that I can remove. It feels like it's built into my hardware."

Just as we were beginning to feel down, we began to notice a change. As we walked into the very heart of Siler City, like little wildflowers bursting through cracks in asphalt, stubborn shoots of life emerged between the boarded-up shops and nineteenth-century tobacco warehouses: a tiny café, a pottery studio, a shop selling paintings and sculpture.

This was Bradley's work. In my mind, I put the pieces together. Before she left, Jackie had mentioned Bradley Jamison several times. He taught permaculture at the local community college and was president of a company he started, Environmental Solutions, through which he bought up large parcels of land, a hundred or two hundred acres at a time, and made them available for eco-communities. The thirty acres that Jackie, the Thompsons, Graciela, and José lived on had been one of Bradley's purchases. His idea: Maintain a beautiful natural landscape by putting only a few houses fairly close together, and leaving the rest as shared natural space for the community — for hiking, fishing, meditation, gathering firewood. Bradley insisted that physically buying up the land was the only way to permanently hold back sprawl. And permaculture was the key to living sustainably on it.

Bradley also had a vision of how twenty-first-century urban spaces should look, and he'd begun dabbling in Siler City, pressing the town to provide tax incentives to attract artists and small businesses. Leah and I wandered through this revitalizing space and talked enthusiastically about it on the drive back to the 12 x 12. She dropped me off there as the sun was setting, saying she had an out-of-town trip planned the next week but hoped to visit again. I told her she was more than welcome.

I bumped into bradley a couple days later, while hiking near the spot where No Name Creek meets Old Highway 117 South. A pickup pulled over and a bearded man got out and shouted over to me.

A little startled, I began heading back into the woods along the path, and he continued after me. I spun around, calling to him from a distance: "Can I help you with something?"

"I own this land," he said. "Can I help you with something?"

"Bradley?" I said.

He nodded, approaching me. He was nothing like I pictured. He had a shaved head, smoky beard, and red baseball cap, much too big for his head, that read "Libertarian Party." His body was tight, sinewy.

I explained I was living at Jackie's and he nodded, saying he was busy and only had a moment. He talked about how he allowed eleven-year-olds into his permaculture courses at the community college, saying, "If people want to learn sustainable living, why should the government tell us how old they have to be?" Then he extended his tiny hand, passed me a business card ("Environmental Solutions, Inc., Bradley Jamison, President"), and he was gone.

Bradley was so busy, evidently, because his Siler City idea was evolving into something bigger. Along with encouraging eco-development in rural areas like Jackie's, he wanted to roll into towns. His most ambitious plan was to buy up a massive tract of land abutting Siler City's shell of a downtown. There he would develop an ecological community using permaculture principles — dense concentration of family houses surrounded by a large, thriving green space — but with a difference. Bradley would cluster the human settlements right around Siler City's dying downtown and thereby revitalize its businesses through ecologically inclined residents wanting to shop locally.

A related development trend was then going on in North Carolina's Research Triangle: Southern Village outside of Chapel Hill. I'd been there once, before coming to the 12 x 12. It's a massive village — 550 single-family homes, 375 townhomes and condominiums, and 250 apartments — but none of it seemed like Levittown suburban monotony. The designers had created a beautiful town plaza: an organic co-op grocery, clothing stores, bookstores, and jewelry shops ringed it and seemed to thrive. Though it has the positive effect of allowing folks to feel more community and walk and bike everywhere, there are big drawbacks. Southern Village has no expansive green spaces to speak of, just the thousand dwellings. It also duplicates Chapel Hill's downtown, thereby actually putting a bit of a strain on its economy by creating two competing centers. And it's very expensive. Very little affordable housing was included in the design, so Southern Village is populated with mostly white and Asian professionals, employees of the hospital and university. A little too lovely, too planned, Southern Village lacks the authenticity, charm, history, and spontaneity of an old tobacco town like Siler City.

Bradley's dream wasn't to create a Southern Village from scratch, but rather to adapt and reshape what already existed, so that people could feel the nurturing cycle of personal authenticity, robust community, and connection with nature. Residents of Bradley's eco–Siler City, once it was completed, could grow their own food organically, exchange it in farmers markets, create and sell art in the new galleries as part of the growing tourism economy, and perform any number of services virtually over the Web, while still living in and maintaining a wild, beautiful place.

There was just one problem. The town council and other powerful people in the community had launched a legal effort to stop Bradley from doing this. To them, his vision sounded like an effort that would hold back development. These were people who could no longer hear the earth beneath the asphalt. People, I had to admit, not unlike me.

From the book Twelve by Twelve: A One-Room Cabin off the Grid & Beyond the American Dream. Copyright © 2010 by William Powers. Reprinted with permission of New World Library, Novato, CA. or 800/972-6657 ext. 52.

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