Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Could You Live in the Woods with No "Conveniences"?

This morning I listened to David and Evelyn Hess being interviewed on OPB's "Think Out Loud," as they talked about living in harmony with nature. Unfortunately, I missed some of what they said because at the same time I was dealing with the guy from the environmentally sounding pest solution company who had come to help me get rid of my infestation of sugar ants. Made me feel a little guilty, I must confess. Then again, not many people I know could have chosen the same path as the Hess's and done it so successfully and gracefully.

Seventeen years ago, while in their late 50s, they made the decision to leave their home in Eugene with all of its comfort and modern conveniences and live full-time on their twenty-one acres in the foothills of the Coast Range, near the community of Lorane. While they now have a real house nearing completion, they have lived the majority of the time in a one-time storage trailer ("2-1/2 good paces across and less than 5 times that long") with no electricity or indoor plumbing. Now, more than seventeen years later, they can't really think of anything they would do differently in the move.

Tonight Evelyn Searle Hess joins us at 7 pm to read from her memoir about the decision and the experience, To the Woods: Sinking Roots, Living Lightly, and Finding True Home, published by Oregon State University Press.

They were excited when they first decided to make the move, knowing that it would provide not only a solution to their financial woes but also "a great adventure," " a tantalizing challenge," and "a respite from the noise and pace" of city living. But it turns out there was more: "We didn't guess what it would teach us about ourselves and our relationships, not only with each other but with the whole world."

While the trailer provided some basic shelter, their lives were really lived outdoors. They shared their land with voles, rabbits, chipmunks, crickets, bullfrogs, blue herons, hawks, ants (!!!), millipedes, slugs, worms, ducks, bats, raccoons, coyotes, deer, turkey vultures, porcupines (not seen but the evidence brought home by the dogs in their noses), mice, snakes, hummingbirds, and bugs of all sorts -- and even bear!

Without plumbing, they carried their water as they needed it: "I loved the inconvenience of having to carry water. It was a constant reminder to use as little as possible...and to appreciate water as not only vital, but as a blessing." Although Evelyn did acknowledge that the inconvenience was made a little easier to love by the fact that David did most of the carrying of water.

They lived without a telephone for years as well, until David suffered a brain hemorrhage that led to a long hospital stay and a couple of years of recovery out on the property. Now they have a cell phone that enables them to check messages and to make calls in the event of an emergency. David later told Evelyn that the main thing he learned from his hemorrhage was not to fear death. "The main thing I learned is that life is precarious and brief; and all the more precious on that account."

Now in their 70s -- they met in 1954 as college freshman -- David and Evelyn are preparing to move into the house they mostly built themselves, after many frustrating years of trying to satisfy land-use building plans, fire-break requirements, and other necessary approvals.

Before making this move, Evelyn managed the University of Oregon's greenhouse for ten years, taught native-plant gardening classes, established an operated a plant nursery, and served as a gardening consultant. "I had many years of gardening, schooling in horticulture and landscape architecture, respect for ecology, a life-time love of nature -- I thought I knew what I was doing." "I had always considered myself a student of nature, but it turned out I was a very young student -- a kindergartener."  Later, Evelyn notes that "I slowly and erratically began to accept the creatures that ate my garden, which pointed the way also to respect for the humanity of people I didn't agree with or understand."

Both David and Evelyn have learned a lot through this on-going experience and have reestablished a deeper communication and stronger bond with each other. It has also enabled them to see more clearly the differences between wants and needs. Most of all, "Living out in the woods we learned to see life as it is, not as we might dream it or see it on T.V. We became less caught up in ourselves and more tuned into the world. We began to see each other, along with the bugs and flowers and voles, as what we each were, our contributions, habits, needs -- not good or bad, just there. Pieces of life. Part of the whole."

Please join us tonight at 7 to hear more from Evelyn about why they made this move and what they have learned thus far along the way. It is a story both thought-provoking and engaging.


  1. This brings back wonderful memories of my (much) younger days as a back to the land person in Colorado and then in Montana. We lived in the foothills of the Rockies in Montana, 8 miles from the nearest neighbors, 20 miles from the nearest town, in a plywood shack with no running water or electricity. We hauled water from the clear mountain creek. We hunted and foraged and had a garden. I bought whole kernel wheat from a farmer and ground it myself with a hand grinder, and baked bread in our wood oven. Moose strolled by and in the evening we sang with the coyotes. It was a great time of my life and as your authors observed, I learned a lot about myself.


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