Here's What It's Like to Live in the Woods, Off the Grid

Meet a group of people in the mountains of North Carolina surviving on what can be gleaned from their surroundings.

In 2007, a man and a woman walked into the woods of North Carolina to a small camp. The camp turned into their home, and the home into a community.

So goes the story of the early days of Wild Roots, a forest commune in western North Carolina, built on a few founding principles—living freely, not wasting, and constantly learning. On roughly 30 acres, a group of people use what they call earth skills to eat, bathe, and survive. They build what they know how and let the forest teach them what they don’t.

Wild Roots' longest-standing member, a man named Tod, who declines to be identified with a last name, doesn’t have an anti-establishment creed or fear of developed society, just an aversion to it. “We are living off the fat of a ridiculous surplus society,” Tod told photographer Mike Belleme, to explain why the community’s members occasionally “dumpster dive” for supermarket leftovers. Around the camp they also harvest acorns and chestnuts, which they turn into a porridge.

Belleme first visited the community in 2009 and found about 12 to 14 people glad to welcome him but with a curious lack of shared philosophy. Unlike other communities that are devoted to the environment, or opposed to social norms, Wild Roots had no unified vision, its members saying they’re uncomfortable being put in a box, marginalised, dismissed. What they all had in common, Belleme observed, was simply the inclination to learn.

Tod built this house for himself and his girlfriend, Talia. The Wattle and Doub technique uses small live saplings woven between larger vertical logs to create the structure. A mixture of red clay, sand, water, and straw is then packed into the saplings for the walls and a roof of tulip poplar bark is added. This house was abandoned shortly after because the site was too damp. October 2011
PHOTOGRAPH BY MIKE BELLEME

Natalie and Greyson play in the leaves. October 2010
PHOTOGRAPH BY MIKE BELLEME

The ducks are a fairly recent addition to Wild Roots and are the first animals to be kept there. The property is not ideal for agriculture of any kind, so farming is limited and food supplies come mostly from dumpsters, road kill, animal donations from hunters, and some wild food harvesting. October 2015
PHOTOGRAPH BY MIKE BELLEME

Lindsey, centre and other members of the Wild Roots community prepare dinner over a fire. Fires for breakfast and dinner are started using friction. The diet has been described by members of the community as "opportunitarian" meaning that they eat just about anything that they can find for free. October 2015
PHOTOGRAPH BY MIKE BELLEME

Tod cuts open a deer head to extract the tongue from a wild game butcher's dumpster in Marion, North Carolina. Wild Roots has an arrangement with the business where they alert Wild Roots when the dumpsters are full. Pelts are collected along with tongues, some brain and eyeballs and bones to make stews and broths. December 2011
PHOTOGRAPH BY MIKE BELLEME

Niko, 18, poses for a portrait beside one of the community structures called the bark lodge at Wild Roots. Niko spent the summer of 2013 at Wildroots and was at the time the youngest person who had lived there.
PHOTOGRAPH BY MIKE BELLEME

Tod gives tips to Niki as she butchers her first black bear. One of the biggest sources of food comes from local hunters who drop off their extra kills during hunting season in exchange for access through Wild Roots property to the adjacent national forest. When a fresh kill arrives, everything stops and the two-day process of processing every part of the animal commences. October 2015
PHOTOGRAPH BY MIKE BELLEME

Tod dries herbs and acorns on the roof of the main workshop at Wild Roots. The main food supply at Wild Roots comes from weekly outings to dumpsters in nearby towns, but they supplement with wild foods, gardening, and eggs from their ducks. October 2015
PHOTOGRAPH BY MIKE BELLEME

Members of Wild Roots, a primitive intentional community in the woods, ride in the veggie oil-fueled truck back to Wild Roots after a full day of harvesting apples to make cider. The small community is about fifteen years old, with the longest current member living there for about ten years, and an ever-changing cast of folks passing through and staying for various lengths of time. Cider pressing is an annual fall tradition in the community. October 2015.
PHOTOGRAPH BY MIKE BELLEME

Jonathan helps butcher a black bear. One of the biggest sources of food comes from local hunters who drop off their extra kills during hunting season in exchange for access through Wild Roots property to the adjacent national forest. When a fresh kill arrives, everything stops and the two-day process of processing every part of the animal commences. October 2015
PHOTOGRAPH BY MIKE BELLEME

Tod and Talia prepare dinner over the wood stove in the Rat Shack. Even with snow on the ground outside, they often have to open doors inside to keep the tight spaces from getting too hot while cooking. January 2013
PHOTOGRAPH BY MIKE BELLEME

The Rat Shack is photographed on a wintry evening. The population at Wild Roots dwindles to only two or three during winter to conserve resources like wood. January 2013
PHOTOGRAPH BY MIKE BELLEME

A trail snakes through the 30-acre property of Wild Roots. After dinner, people leave the warmth of the fire and navigate the trail in the complete darkness to find their way back to their dwellings further in the woods.
PHOTOGRAPH BY MIKE BELLEME

In 2011, Tod, with so much time in the forest, began building himself a bark-roofed cabin made of only materials he could find. He whittled wood pegs, carved oak beams, and stripped the bark off poplar trunks. But it wasn't meant to be. Not long after, Tod abandoned the project. Too much mist in that area invited mould, so he moved on to something new.

Tod originally planned for the group to eat only from the land, but quickly realised that might be naïve. The number of animals in the area had been dropping with the disappearance of native flora. Occasionally, hunters will donate their extra kills to the community in exchange for access to the area. But such bounties don't always yield gourmet meals. During one of Belleme’s trips, the group processed a bear to eat its meat and then cooked down its brains, tongue, and eyeballs into a stew to put in jars that would last longer. Belleme tasted it.

Living in the forest tends to come with downsides. To live without technology can be freeing, but it also is isolating. Once a week, several group members take a truck into a nearby town to use the computers at a public library to email family or read the news. Occasionally they’ll visit a butcher and ask for scraps intended for the trash.

Over nearly a decade, Wild Roots has grown from a small group into an educational community, says Belleme. It now has a website and welcomes visitors, provided they get in touch first and don’t arrive sick. People fill their time cooking, blacksmithing, or woodworking.

No hierarchy means anyone can learn or teach, anyone can succeed or fail. But there does come a time when the seasons test those who are most committed. When winter arrives, the group thins. Sometimes, the only person left is Tod.

Header Image: Niki, left, paints Julia's face with sandstone pigments in the creek which runs through the Wildroots property in western North Carolina. The stream is the only source of fresh drinking water, and also how members of the Wild Roots community bath year-round. PHOTOGRAPH BY MIKE BELLEME

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