The passages that follow were printed in the fall 2010 edition of Aperture magazine, excerpted from interviews conducted from 2006 to 2009.
Kaleb (North Carolina): The more I thought about what was wrong with the structure of our society, the more I felt like our biggest problems came from being disconnected from everything in our lives—from our clothes, from our food source and from the authorities and the power structures that influence our lives so heavily.
I was nineteen when I left home to hitchhike and hop freight trains. Being a traveling kid is a pretty feral existence. You sustain yourself from day to day. You don’t know where you’re going to sleep necessarily. You don’t know where your food is going to come from. It’s a very primitive sort of existence. As I did that, part of my purpose was to travel and see the country . . . but the whole time my goal also was to learn more about living as naturally as I could, without having to purchase food or clothing. It had a dramatic effect on my view of the world when I suddenly went out and every day had to find somewhere to sleep and food to eat.
Natalie (North Carolina): A lot of us who live here came with a kind of post-activist outlook—realizing that the world is really messed up, that nature is being destroyed, and being incredibly dissatisfied with consumer culture and the whole idea of success in modern society. All of us wanted to live close to the land, and realized that the way things are going to change is not through activism.
Of course it’s not perfect, but it’s the closest that I’ve ever seen when it’s functioning . . . we’re getting most of our food from the land and living mostly outside, getting to know the natural materials of our area—what we can make shelter out of, what we can eat, what we can make medicine out of. We are coming to understand how it’s possible to live without civilization.
Lowell (Tennessee): A milk goat is the most valuable thing you can have. If they like you, they’ll go anywhere you go. They live off of nothing. They furnish you with milk. They furnish you with meat. Before long, you’ve got a herd of them. Take five milk goats and you can live anywhere in the world. With that and a sack of sweet potatoes, you’ve really got it made.
Kaleb: America is a land of such abundance that it’s really difficult not to survive, for an able-bodied individual. There’s an abundance of everything to be had for cheap or free if you’re willing to be resourceful about how you get it and what you do with it. And life feels so much freer and more spontaneous when you’re not working for someone, and when you’re not tied down to paying rent or mortgage . . . you can fulfill the natural instincts that humans have to just get out and roam, and find food every day—have every day be a new and exciting experience. It’s totally possible in America.
Doug (North Carolina): Bees usually swarm just as the nectar flow starts. They make new queens, and they go off and find a place to stay for a little while—a few hours, a couple of days. They send off a scout bee to find their new place, and then they’re gone. But if you get to the bees while they’re there, you can shake them into a box and you have your own swarm.
So there’s this swarm of bees in a hickory tree, about forty feet up—just hanging there, teasing me where I can’t get to them. But I can’t cut it down, because if you cut a tree it just crashes down and all the bees go flying off. So I think: “Could I possibly cut the tree using some artful logging technique?”—to try to control not only the direction but the speed of the fall. So I cut a gap on either side of the tree so the center becomes a kind of hinge—and it works. The tree just goes down slowly, gradually, and the swarm hangs in place. For the last little bit it kind of free-fell, but we were able to put the bees into our swarm box.
And that hive produced a whole bucket of honey between May and August. A bucket of honey. We stripped the bark from the tree for baskets, and I soaked pieces of the wood in the pond and made tool handles from them (hickory is one of the best woods to use for tools). And I used the rest for firewood. Sometimes things work neatly like that around here.
Lowell: One problem you run into is everybody’s kind of independent. Most people who are independent enough to try to live separate from worldly things are too independent to listen to each other. They’re headstrong.
The Amish have it figured out. On Sunday afternoon, they decide what they’re going to do for the week. When I lived near them, they’d come to me and say: “We’re going to lay the blocks for your house Tuesday, so have everything ready.” I mean, it’s not “We’ll help you do it,” it’s “We’re going to lay your blocks.” It’s just so much easier when you do things that way.
Conrad (Tennessee): Have you read the Scripture? Satan is bringing all humankind into bondage. Through the international banking system, he’s accomplishing his goal. The international bankers say: “You can’t live without us, so all of you owe us for your survival.”
Well, I relinquished my driver’s license. I relinquished my Social Security number. I stopped banking. I don’t have insurance. I don’t have benefits.
They see everybody as a salable object, and they’re going to try to put us all in the same box. I’m just saying you can’t number us. See, you can’t treat us like that. Because we’re not part of that system.
Lowell: The last year I worked in business, I made over $250,000. The next year I made $3,600 [laughs]. It finally worked up to about $6,000. And we’re doing fine. You don’t spend money, so you don’t have bills.
Rita (Tennessee): When the banks go down, people will see that they can’t get any money, and then they’re going to try to get whatever they can with what money they have—stuff they’re going to need. Food is going to be number one, I think. Next is guns and ammo. Then probably gas. And then medications. But they’ll be thinking, “This is going to last six months, maybe.” They won’t be looking five years down the road.
We’re getting ready. We’re gathering lots of seeds. We can grow food. We figure we’ll probably end up feeding a lot of people. But if things go from bad to worse— You’ll have to post people all around the place to keep other people out. They’ll show up and say: “We’re hungry; we haven’t eaten in five days.” You’ll just have to tell them: “No, you can’t come in.”
We’ll be able to make it when most other people won’t. A lot of the Rendezvous [Primitive Skills Rendezvous in Georgia] knowledge will come into play. Fire without matches. Learning how to tan hides and make clothes out of them. Using the sinew off of deer as thread. Did you know you can use kerosene on wounds? You can pour sugar in a wound, or honey. And they’ve got bows and arrows. And duct tape. You can do a lot with duct tape.
Colbert (Georgia): Probably 20 percent of my food comes out of the swamp. Counting the meat, I get probably 80 percent of the wild meat out of the swamp. Beaver, otter, deer, raccoon, fish. Whatever I bump into. I’ve eaten owl.
Lowell: You know what frogs’ legs taste like? Blue heron tastes just like it.
Natalie: When I skinned my first raccoon, I cried. It looked so much like a fetus to me. It was really hard. But it’s easy now. It’s interesting how that changes.
Kaleb: How would I define feral? It’s basically when you go from a domesticated, civilized state to a more wild and natural existence. It’s not just being wild, it’s becoming wild—whether by choice and consciousness or through necessity.
Talia (North Carolina): Over the years I’ve come to realize that most people are not going to, nor do they have any desire to, radically change their lives. Most people simply aren’t doing anything because they have no idea where to begin. What would help?
I do think there are things that people can do without radically changing their lives. Most people can’t walk away from the kids’ schools or their jobs or their mortgages, or whatever. They just can’t, and it would be asking too much for them to do it. But they can take some steps in just teaching themselves—learning more about gardening, learning more about food preservation and taking care of their own health.
So there are things people can do to become a little more self-sufficient . . . if there’s any hope at all of being able to transition into a less chaotic life.
Frank (Florida): The natural order of things is when a species gets dominant in its niche it overruns it completely to the point where it eats all of its food and then it crashes and burns. In my opinion, if we ever succeed in being sustainable, it will be the first non-natural thing we’ve ever done.