cover_story (2005-47)

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Narrow Ridge

The Farm

The Country Life

CERTIFIED ORGANIC: Gary Van Cott’s fallow rows will be verdant come spring.

The City Life

ROBBIN’ THE BEES: Alton Mercer and his grandson Josh harvest honey. Virgie Mercer removes a stinger from Alton’s head.

Composting toilets are not gross!” exclaims Tracie Hellwinckel as she demonstrates how one would plunk a scoop of sawdust or dirt into what looks like a normal toilet after doing his or her business. The waste collects in an underground receptacle where it composts and can then be used as soil—though Hellwinckel is averse to using it on plants intended for human consumption, it can be done. She and her husband Chad are shareholders at Narrow Ridge, an approximately 500 acre land reserve in Washburn, Tenn., about 45 minutes east of Knoxville on bumpy backroads.

In actuality, the Hellwinckels’ toilet is much more primitive than the one shown to me in the Strawbale Lodge, where students stay when they visit Narrow Ridge. Further down in the centralvalley from the lodge, Tracie points out her family’s plot of land. A grove of black walnut trees make a semi-circle around an old pill-shaped metal trailer that functions as a home away from home, at least until they build a permanent one, for themselves and their three-year old son, Blue. Marching up the hill behind the trailer, Hellwinckel points out a half-covered shack shading a big plastic bucket stuck in the ground. Topped by a toilet seat, the bucket serves the same purpose as the more refined contraption in the lodge.

Tracie walks off the estimated perimeters of the house they plan to build out of “cob,” a process mixing excavated earth with sand and water to create a paper-mache-like building material. “You literally build your home out of that mud. You can even use cow manure in the mix—so basically you’re living in a dirt and shit house,” Hellwinckel says with a grin.

Everything, including the basest human needs of waste disposal, food, shelter and water require much thought and planning at Narrow Ridge. It’s “off the grid,” an ultimate goal of sustainable living that refers to a place off the energy grid, with no electricity and no sewage. Homes are built with every possible conservation trick conceivable, in order to minimize any energy needs that will have to come from solar power. “I think of it as a return to the roots of humanism,” says Hellwinckel. “I think the biggest goal of this is to reduce the size of the footprint we leave on this earth.”

While the Narrow Ridge land trust was started by Bill Nichols in the mid-‘90s, the concept of self-sufficiency or sustainable living is as old as the caveman. In recent years, many groups have become more disdainful of our society’s metastasizing dependence on fossil fuels, not only for electricity and personal transportation, but for transporting goods and food. While these groups differ in ideology and methodology, most would agree with Hellwinckel’s goal to reduce the size of humanity’s footprint. For Narrow Ridge shareholders, as well as residents of The Farm, a one-time communal group in Middle Tennessee, the notions of land preservation as well as independence from mainstream mentality and “convenience” is a priority. Other groups try to integrate sustainable living practices into city life. Farmers’ markets and food co-ops foster an appreciation of locally grown produce that comes from small organic farmers who attempt to work with the land, rather than ravaging it through the deleterious practices of industrial farming. Likewise, CSAs (Community Supported Agriculture) are small farms that grow and deliver boxes of fresh local produce to city-dwellers that want to reduce the transport distance of their food, thereby increasing freshness and decreasing dependence.

Each of these practices hark back to a time when folks lived off the land out of necessity. And though humans have altered the earth since the dawn of agriculture, the last few decades have seen a massive increase in destructive environmental practices due to food production and transport.

What that means to the consumer is that, in the supermarket, it’s tough to know exactly where produce is coming from, when it was harvested and how far it traveled to get in your cart. Now more than ever, many forward-thinking people seek alternatives—either by striking out on their own in the woods, or by simply being conscious to choose local produce. There’s no one way to live a more sustainable life. Some prioritize growing their own food. Others tighten up their electricity usage and reduce automobile trips. Some are vegetarian or vegan; others eat organic or free-range meat. While there’s a common destination among those conscious to live a sustainable lifestyle, it’s up to each individual what size and shape footprint he’ll leave.


Narrow Ridge Facing west from the Hellwinckels’ trailer, the only visible sign of human life amidst the panorama of hills and trees is the solar panel in front of the nearest neighbors’ abode—a luxurious, yet earth-friendly cabin with hot water and lighting powered by the sun. Thirty-year-old Brad Foster lives at Narrow Ridge and acts as a caretaker, as many residents don’t live there full-time. He lets us into the cabin belonging to a couple named Marcus and Glenda Keyes, as if it were his own. The entire south wall of the spacious two-room/loft space is covered in windows. This is important in creating what is called “passive heat,” or heat that radiates from the southerly-positioned sun all afternoon. It is considerably warmer inside than it is outside, though the wood stove in the corner of the room is turned off.

Foster relates that the Keyes, as well as a couple of other families in the tightly-knit community, often have him over for dinner.  Otherwise, he subsists on peanut butter, rice and two or three apples a day when they are in season. “I’m a minimalist when I’m here. I have a mad stash of rice though,” he says. One might think this solitary life would get lonely, especially for such a young man. But Foster says that it’s just a matter of acclimating to the situation. “When I come off of a weekend in town [Knoxville] with friends, it takes me a good two days or so to get my mind here and to recognize what I’m leaving behind and what it is I have out here. There is a sense of loneliness at first, though.”

Foster and Hellwinckel would like to see more activity here. Despite the self-sustaining ideology, there is very little agriculture at Narrow Ridge and no livestock—at the moment, no one’s here to maintain it, as Foster has his hands full already. “I don’t think I could live here permanently right now in my life. I need some social interaction,” he says. “But I love the knowledge I’m getting about sustainability and slowing my life down. And I wouldn’t close the door on staying here permanently if there were more people up here.”

The Hellwinckels don’t live here full-time either, though they would like to one day. For now, they also own a small historic home in Parkridge, and they try to live as ecologically friendly as possible, sharing a car, tending an organic garden and shopping at the Knoxville Food Co-op. As she rips her turkey on whole wheat sandwich in half to share with me, she relates, “My extended family makes fun of me, they laugh at me. You know, people like their stuff. I grew up in a very normal, middle-class suburban family, and they look at how we’re living as sort of abnormal.”

Hellwinckel’s puzzled at how modern society has forgotten the “old ways” of living in such a short time. “We’re not that far removed from sustainable living. My grandfather was a farmer, in fact. But the people that do this stuff are old, and it’s important to learn these things before they’re gone,” she says. “There’s nothing ‘new-agey’ about this place. We just want to go back to the old ways.”

Still, there are some seemingly new age aspects of Narrow Ridge. Residents and visitors can participate in “vision quests,” in which they’ll be isolated for three days on a mountainside, fasting and reflecting. Afterwards, the participants will spend the night in a sweat lodge, a tiny domed teepee with hot stones in the center. Foster, who recently participated in the ritual, says, “I was dealing with some personal issues and it was a great avenue to be able to be free of all that—to go without food or any sort of stimulant and to be exposed to the raw for four days.”

Though these rituals are practiced by various groups, their origins are Native American, according to Dr. Mike Logan, professor of Anthropology at University of Tennessee and a Native American expert. With respect to sustainable living, Logan also points out the widespread myth that Native Americans lived in harmony with nature. “There’s a lot of misinformation out there about Native Americans. It’s often claimed that they were ecologically sound,” he says. “To me that’s bunk. Their forms of agriculture could be just as debilitating to the soil as any.” Also, he says they decimated populations of beaver and buffalo, often wasting carcasses, contrary to the popular belief that they used every morsel of an animal in some way.

Still, Logan points out that many Native American tribes did and still do practice polyculture, which involves pairing two plants in one field that are beneficial to each other, such as beans and maize (the beans climb up the maize stalks, and the beans fix nitrogen levels in the soil, which is beneficial to the maize). “There is a wealth of agricultural practices that we could learn from Native Americans. They had many species of maize and other crops, for example. Genetic diversity can be very valuable and we’re losing a lot of that.”

Modern culture could also benefit from Native American methodology. Logan says, “We’re very much divorced from the natural world in this day and age. Native Americans were, out of necessity, more tied to the soil.”

Similarly, by living as simply as possible, Narrow Ridge residents are inherently closer to the earth. But Hellwinckel is quick to point out that they aren’t making any grandiose claims. “We can look at the methodology of Native Americans,” she says. “But we’re not pretending to be Native Americans by any means.”


The Farm Visiting the famous communal group known as “The Farm” in Summertown, Tenn., is akin to the protagonist’s journey in the Celestine Prophecy . Though each person you encounter might have a different insight on life, nature or sustainable living, there’s the constant sense that the residents are witholding something. Perhaps they want you to discover the spirit of the place on your own, or maybe that spirit’s just not as defined as it once was. A man named Stephen Gaskin, whose online bio indicates his politics as “beatnik” and his religion “hippy,” started The Farm in 1971, and for a while it was a bona fide commune, sustaining a few hundred people at any one time through, as resident Albert Bates puts it, “lots of hard work.” But when the commune became unfeasible in ’83 due to a deluge of unpaid bills, residents had to either find work on the outside, or else find some way to create revenue within its parameters in order to keep their land. Some of The Farm’s capitalistic ventures include blueberry and mushroom cultivation, book publishing, and the production of handheld Geiger counters which were invented on The Farm to detect radiation. They also still operate a soy dairy that produces soy-based yogurt, tofu, tempeh and ice bean (soy-based ice cream). Their tofu sells in Knoxville under the name “FarmSoy” at the Food Co-op and The Fresh Market.

Nowadays, it’s hard to get anyone to talk in any detail about The Farm’s first years. A far-off look in some folks’ eyes hints that there are stories they’re not willing to verbalize. Though Gaskin, 70years old, still lives on the property, he doesn’t actively lead the community.

The modern day Farm shares a good deal of ideology with Narrow Ridge, in that one of its primary goals is land salvation. It stretches over three square miles, but its community always aims to purchase more of its surrounding land to save it from development. “Tennessee is really lucky to have saved some big chunks of land,” says Vickie Montagne, who runs The Farm’s visitor center. She’s been here since ’77, and though she doesn’t say too much about The Farm’s communal heyday, she has plenty to say about its present.

Beyond the visitors center is a maze of paved but unmarked roads, and it’s tricky for an outsider to get around, but you get the feeling that’s sort of the point. On the main road, silos are painted in technicolor imagery and a barn with a bright yellow sun caricature exclaims, “Wake up and Live!” Though cheerful enough, they stand like relics, unused and empty. On the residential roads, an array of houses, from polished to ramshackle, nestle among the trees, along with a surprising number of rusty VW bus shells, converted school busses and old cars. Out in their yards, some people rake leaves or hang laundry on clotheslines.

After a brief stint living on the outside, Jeff Clark, who first came to the Farm when he was 21 back in the ‘70s, moved back here 10 years ago. Upon his return, he decided he wanted to have a sustainable domicile, so he set about constructing his own “strawbale” home, a process that substitutes tightly-packed straw for normal building materials. He then sprayed a sandy-pink colored concrete on the outside to seal it in. Using cheap sliding door glass, he created a window covered wall on the south side of the house for passive heat as well as a charming view of the forest.

Though his house is ecologically sound, Clark says that economically, it’s nearly impossible to be completely self-sustaining. He admits that he and his wife work in Nashville, so they use a good bit of gasoline commuting. When The Farm was a commune, Clark was a printer and then a carpenter, and now he says he’s looking for his third career. Back then, he says, “Everyone did what they liked…People came here because they wanted to make the world a better place. It was a spiritual quest to make a utopian world. We gave it our best shot.”

Albert Bates, who runs The Farm’s ecovillage training center, also remembers the good old days, though he jokes, “I’ve only been here since ’72, so I’m a newcomer.” His silvery beard looks as if he hasn’t picked up a razor since he got here, but his wily upturned smile peeks out when he speaks. In the ‘70s, he says, “It was fairly austere from a material standpoint. People worked long, hard days, but there was a lot to be said for that—they were following a vision. No one had cars back then, because no one had the need to leave. Now we have a lot more permeability of outside culture.”

Even so, Bates looks forward to The Farm’s future. He’s at work on a number of projects that might help it become more sustainable, such as a “constructed wetland,” which recycles “grey water” from showers and sinks and “black water” from sewage into a series of naturally purifying steps so that it may be used to irrigate crops and even for home use. He estimates that, though only about 150 people live on The Farm, this system could handle the wastewater of about 300 people. “That’s about the size of your average neighborhood,” he says. “So we’re saying to developers that you don’t have to hook up to the main sewage line and ship waste off thousands of miles away.”

Entering the gates of the organic garden, a high-pitched chirping comes into earshot. Bates explains that the “sonar technology” increases plant metabolism by 400 percent by mimicking the pitch of a Robin’s chirp. He hopes such technology will aid The Farm in becoming more self-sufficient, as far as food, in the future.

Later that night, Vickie, her husband Patrick Montagne and their 23-year-old daughter Fiona blast Tracy Chapman as they prepare dinner in their warmly-lit kitchen. Over tofu pot pie and salad greens, the conversation revolves around Fiona’s life in Cookeville, where she recently moved. Her parents are curious, but not judgmental about her choice to start eating fish, mostly sushi.

Patrick has all the signs of an old hippie—long braided hair, wire rim glasses and a generally spaced-out but quiet, reflective demeanor. He finally starts talking when he’s asked about the house, which he renovated himself, including the intricate designs out of salvaged wood in the flooring. He and Vickie later express some disgruntlement at the current state of affairs outside The Farm, lamenting the recent announcement that Nissan’s national headquarters would be moving just South of Nashville to Williamson County from its current location in California.

The Farm may not be communal anymore, but the Montagnes and others still find solace here. “It’s not about being totally self-sufficient, although we try to do that to some extent,” says Pat. “To some of us, it’s more like we’re seceding from the Union.”

After dinner, as Fiona and her friend Coral lead the way through the dark full-moon-shadowed night, they say they couldn’t have imagined growing up anywhere other than The Farm. They recall mischievous teenage summers and old farm stories like the infamous “Ragweed Day,” which was declared a yearly holiday after officials mistook an overgrown patch of the weed for another type of “weed.” In actuality, they say The Farm made a pact to never grow pot again after a bust in the ‘70s for which Gaskin served prison time.

Though the girls have fond memories, both have moved away and found jobs, interestingly enough, in the auto industry; Fiona works at Advance Auto Parts and Coral works in automobile engineering. They seem happy to be back home, though, especially when greeting old friends at the house party we attend. There’s a bonfire, beer and a band grooving on reggae tunes, mostly Bob Marley. Despite the presence of a few kids and older neighbors, it looks like any other college party. Only here, listeners and band members alike, closing their eyes and swaying their heads, seem to genuinely believe in Marley’s optimistic words.


The Country Life Gary Van Cott appears out of nowhere along with his three dogs: a little scraggly mutt named Brown Girl, a chow named Cody and a bear-ish thing named White Toes. Van Cott is tall and wiry, with a blonde ponytail curling out the back of his dusty ballcap. “I didn’t know if you’d make it,” he says with a disarming country smile. It is quite a long and winding path to get to his hollow out in Sneedville, a sleepy community in Grainger County. Because he lives alone in such a remote locale, I had expected someone older and more reclusive, but the ebullient Van Cott can’t be a day older than 40. “I’m originally from Atlanta. I was in the trucking business and I lived in the city, but I got one of those body cleanses,” he says, rubbing his abdomen to indicate a colon cleansing. “And it just changed everything about my priorities. I had inherited some Exxon stock, but I didn’t like the way they do business so I turned it into this piece of land.” The lush hollow, bursting with fall colors and surrounded by high ridgelines, is the perfect place to be alone.

Van Cott travels for contract work from time to time, but for the most part, he’s a full-time farmer. His “home” is a one-room affair with a makeshift gas stove, a mattress on the floor and bare walls. He has electricity for lighting and a pot-bellied woodstove for heat, but for the most part, he says, “I’m just trying to live as simply as possible.” Besides, after living here in a trailer for four years, “this feels like the Taj Mahal,” he says. Mounds of squash varieties indicate Van Cott’s work on nearby organic crops, producing enough to sell at Knoxville’s farmer’s marketon Saturdays in Market Square as well as through the Appalachian Spring Co-operative, which transports produce regionally.

Though he’s relatively new to the farming business, Van Cott is already familiar with the plight of the small farmer. When he sells sweet cherry tomatoes to Food City, he says they pay him $1.10 for a pint, and then mark them up to $2.99 on the shelf. “It frustrates me to no end because the growers need to make more money,” he says. “That’s why I’d rather just come sell the stuff to people directly in Knoxville.”

The farming itself seems to come easily to Van Cott. Folks around here call him “Taterman” for his uncanny luck with growing potatoes. “The first year, my taters did really well,” he says. “So the old-timers told me to dig a big hole lined with straw and bury them over the winter. I pulled them out in the spring and they were still perfect.” He says he learns a lot from the older farmers in the area, like how to use an old-fashioned manure spreader he recently purchased. “Your neighbors are your neighbors here. I feel more of a sense of community here than I ever did in the city,” he says, surveying the stretch of land in front of him. There’s not a soul in sight.

Some people make a point of being self-sufficient, and some people just are. It’s the way they were raised. And even though Rickman, Tenn., a small community outside of Cookeville, recently got a brand new Wal-Mart Supercenter, many people in the area still live the simple life. Longtime Rickman residents Alton and Virgie Mercer, age 69 and 65, know how to grow and make just about everything. When you ask them about it, they’re a little bewildered as to why anyone would find it interesting. “Well,” says Virgie over the telephone, “what is it you want to know…I reckon we’re pretty self-sufficient. I make all kinds of jelly—you can make jelly out of the juice of apple peels. And I make my own pickles when I have something to pickle…okra, pickled tomato.”

Virgie doesn’t mention growing vegetables until she’s asked, probably because it’s just so obvious. “Oh we used to grow everything. We had times when we even had our own milk, but it was a lot of trouble keeping the vessels clean. We’ve had our own chickens, beef and pork too, and we’d get eggs from the chickens.” She can even remember when her family had a team of mules instead of a tractor, which they got back in the ‘50s.

While Alton is still out on the tractor in the backyard, Virgie talks about the times when he used to try to make homemade wine out of tomatoes, blackberries, elderberries, even onions. “He likes to brag around on it,” she says. “But I didn’t even think it was drinkable.”

When he gets in from the tractor, Alton talks about “robbing the bees.” He first got into beekeeping after buying a hive for his son’s 4-H project only to discover his son had a bee allergy. “So I took over,” he says. “There’s nothing to it. You just gotta fool with them. Mine haven’t been fed any sugar. Some folks will do that. I just let them go and if they live, they live and if they die, they die.”

Though they don’t do as much farming as they once did due to their age, Alton says they used to be almost entirely self-sufficient. “When Virgie and I got married, I made $30 a week before the takeout. And we raised the two boys on that. So we lived simple.”

For the Mercers, it’s not about ideology or principles. They were just as excited as anyone else when Wal-Mart came to town, but they haven’t changed their ways too much. “I like to go to Wal-mart, yeah,” says Alton, with his husky, yet boyish voice. “But I don’t ever buy anything. Virgie buys some groceries and things, but that’s it.”

Even though they’re practically models of self-sufficiency, the Mercers can see why folks don’t go to the trouble these days. The skills they know have just gone out of vogue. But there’s a hint of regret in Virgie’s voice when she says, “I think people could help themselves more if they tried. But then if they don’t know how to do it, they’re probably wasting their time and their money.”


The City Life There is nothing like biting into a homegrown tomato. With a little sprinkling of salt, its earthy, fleshy flavors seep into the tastebuds and slide down the throat. But with grocery stores and restaurants lining the streets in the cities and the suburbs, it’s sometimes hard to see the point of growing your own food. Still, many city-dwellers like the Hellwinckels plant “edible landscapes” in their backyards. Instead of planting ornamental trees, says Hellwinckel, fruit and nut trees offer aesthetic value as well as nourishment, and they don’t require much upkeep.

While vegetable and herb gardens do take time and buckets of sweat, they can also help save money and the rewards are delicious. “It’s possible to be sustainable in an urban setting,” says UT professor of environmental ethics, Dr. John Nolt. “We have about a 3/4 acre garden and we hardly ever buy produce. Of course, you can’t do that in a loft downtown, but you can compromise by patronizing local businesses and eating local produce.”

So folks that don’t have time or yard space to do their own gardening have a variety of options for making their choices more sustainable even in the city. Nolt also bikes from his South Knoxville home to campus. In some ways, he says city life can be more sustainable than rural life. “If you have a job in the city and live in the country and commute 30 miles, that’s not ecologically sound.”

Sustainable food choices in urban areas are becoming increasingly popular. Even big chain groceries carry organics, but most activists say that’s not good enough, partly due to the mark-up plight of farmers like Van Cott. Knoxville’s farmer’s market, which was revived last summer by a few young Knoxvillians, among them Charlotte Tolley and Dorian DeLuca, offers an opportunity to buy produce directly from the farmer. Almost all of them grow organically, which means no chemical fertilizers are used, though some aren’t certified organic because of recent government regulations. Also, they offer varieties that you won’t find at the grocery, such as fuzzy yellow or purple-striped heirloom tomatoes. Van Cott picks his produce the day before going to market, thus increasing the “Brix content,” which depends on the amount of time something stays on the vine—the higher it is, the more nutritious and tasty the food. Van Cott says that if tomatoes have been shipped across the country, they were most likely picked when they were still green, which accounts for their dry, mealy taste.

Though it hasn’t reached Knoxville yet, another trend in sustainable agriculture is the CSA farm, which stands for Community Supported Agriculture. “Shareholders” pay a flat seasonal fee, or have a payment plan, and pick up a box of seasonal fresh produce every week at local pick-up spots or at the farm itself. “The idea is that you’re investing in the farm,” says Liz Meeks, who works at Delvin Farms outside Nashville. “It makes sense to put money back into the local economy. It’s environmentally friendly because you cut down so much on fossil fuels used to transport foods.” The box is always filled with whatever is in season, from herbs to berries to veggies, greens and root vegetables. “I think it works because of the personal touch of everything that goes into it,” says Meeks. “You know the farmer that grows your food, so it makes you more comfortable and safe about what you are eating.”

Though the nearest CSA to Knoxville is in Cosby, Tenn., there is a community garden here in town. Beardsley Farm, run by AmeriCorps and located off Western Avenue, supplies produce to area food pantries. Also at Beardsley are 21 garden plots where Knoxville residents who may not have yard space can plant a garden. John Harris, director at Beardsley, says that the primary purpose of the farm is to educate the community about sustainable agriculture. And though the farm has impressive output, he sees room for improvement. “I want this to be more community-supported; right now it’s mostly UT students,” he says. “We’re located in a low-income area and we’d like to have more of these residents get involved.”

Whether in the country or the city, the common thread of sustainable ideology is thoughtfulness. Taking a moment to think about where food comes from is something that’s been lost with society’s increased emphasis on convenience. But as much as we like to romanticize the “good old days,” Dr. Nolt says that at this point, we can’t go back to a totally sustainable lifestyle. “There’s no way we can go back to hunter-gatherer times or even old farming ways,” he says. On the other hand, the old sentiments are valuable—becoming less dependent in any way, he says, requires a more active and healthy life and it also slows your life down.

Environmental statistics that humans are devastating the earth exponentially can be daunting, but Nolt says, “It’s a terrible misconception that nothing we do helps. Anything that a person does to save energy or keep things from going to the landfill helps the environment.”

Composting toilets aren’t for everyone, of course, but we could all take a little piece of sustainable methodology to heart. Munching on raisins and peanuts on the drive back to Knoxville from Narrow Ridge, Hellwinckel readily admits she’s not perfect. “We eat fast-food and ice cream once in a while, but there’s just little things you can do to make up for it.” She stops on the edge of Narrow Ridge’s property line to fill up 10 gallon jugs with spring water running down from a hillside through thick orange tubing. “I usually get these filled at the Co-op, but that costs a few bucks, so this is how I justify my gas money coming up here,” she says. The water tastes plain and smooth and cold. “I’m not saying everyone should live like this, but I feel more grounded as a person this way,” she says. “For me, it’s a challenge.”

© 2005 MetroPulse. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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