Land Search #2: The Draw

When I wrote about going to visit Lyndell’s land, I said: “We realized that it was ridiculous to expect that we’d find a place so perfect that it would take only an evening for us to unequivocally fall in love with it.” Lately I’ve been reassessing that statement.

I’ve known, in a peripheral kind of way, about the Draw for nearly as long as I’ve lived in Minneapolis. When I was moving into Sprout House, I met the guy whose departure had opened up a space for me, and he was leaving because he’d discovered the Draw and decided to move there.

I feel like it’s impossible to mention this without pointing out that the guy I’m talking about is Benjamin, who has something close to universal fame in the South Minneapolis constellation of community houses on account of being suffused with the purest manifestation of childlike ethusiasm and joy that any of us has seen in a person older than 10. Once you get to know Benjamin, every time he sees you—sometimes even if it’s only been a few hours—he’ll let out an uncontrollable shout of joy from across the room or the street and come running up to give you a long, heartfelt hug. So when he told me about the Draw, it was in the most glowing terms: he said it was a permaculture community in Bayfield, and it was beautiful, and he was deeply inspired by it, and he practically shouted about how excited he was to go live there. And that sounded great to me. But I also, knowing him, sort of guessed that his enthusiasm for it was more than most people might have, and it might just be a rather standard sort of homestead project that he discovered while he was in the right state of mind, so I kind of filed it away under second-tier information, which might be brought up a tier someday if I heard more about it or a moment arose.

Recently a moment arose and I heard more about it. Another of our old housemates, Makai, mentioned it to me and Misty, and I recalled some of the things I’d heard, so I decided to see what I could find out about it. They have a website, I discovered, and though it’s pretty basic, what I did find got me excited: They raise fruit and nut trees, and they in fact think nuts should be a staple crop (an idea I’d gotten excited about when Mark Shepard, the Wisconsin permaculture trailblazer, wrote about its plausibility with chestnuts in Restoration Agriculture—and also because I love chestnuts). They were at least deeply enough interested in permaculture to offer workshops about it on their land. I shuffled the Draw over from the mental category of “obscure and faraway” to “real and highly promising”, and decided we should visit as soon as possible. Misty didn’t take a lot of convincing, and that’s how we ended up, one day in early December, driving up to the northern tip of Wisconsin.

Up toward that little gray pushpin in a circle.

It was a 4½-hour drive, and we’d gotten up early, and the heater didn’t work very well, and I scraped the car against a guardrail on a sharp turn while both of us were at least a quarter asleep. The car was largely fine, and got us there, but we arrived in a strange frame of mind: a combination of understimulation and overstimulation. We found their driveway several miles down a narrow, hilly, wet, old highway, narrowed further sometimes with snow that hadn’t melted yet from their nine-inch storm last week. We pulled over next to their gate, with its signpost stacked with different handmade signs (The Draw / Permaculture Sanctuary / Waters Edge / Nursery / Garden), and discovered to our mild shock that we could actually stand and walk. I don’t remember any other occasions when I’ve been quite so thankful to get out of a car.

We walked in through the gate, and on the short walk to the house we still passed by a huge garden (not growing), a cold frame with lettuce thriving under it, and a chicken enclosure. The lettuce and the chickens both looked happy. The house, meanwhile, looked better and better as I got closer.

(We approached from the front left, though. This picture being from the front right.)

From a distance, I could see the solar panel and solar water heaters on the south peak. I noticed the window shutters—real, functional ones with thick quilted insulation. And when we rounded the corner I got a better look at the greenhouse, which envelops the front of the house. The walls themselves were sculpted of soft, friendly cob. This house had been built with love.

So early indications were good that we had found a place we’d like. We couldn’t find a doorbell to ring, so we stepped inside the greenhouse and tried to get someone’s attention through the front door or windows. As you’d expect for somewhere three miles from Lake Superior and on the same latitude as Duluth, it was cold outside, but in the greenhouse it was tropical—humid and warm, with a scent of loam and growth. A few times we saw children running around inside, and eventually one of them saw us and opened the door—a girl about five years old who offered to go get her mom, at the same time that her mom caught sight of us through the window.

Her mom was Shyam,1 and Misty and I had both talked to her on the phone before coming. Shyam welcomed us inside and then we all realized we hardly knew anything about each other, so we kind of launched into the stories of who we were and why we were there. Our story of why we were there was fairly simple and brief. Shyam’s was much more interesting. She laid down a broom she’d been using and started telling us.

Shyam and Nat have been together for about ten years. In their early days they learned about permaculture together off the coast of Washington state, at a permaculture homestead on Orcas Island, a place that’s had permaculture going on since barely after the word was coined. They were both full of the kind of energy that motivates young malcontents, an animadversion for The System, and they decided that founding a permaculture homestead of their own would be a way to manifest that in a way they really believed in. They had the resources to buy some land; this would be how they showed it was possible to live a different way.

Nat was the one who decided that the homestead should be located near freshwater, and decided that the best way to do that would be to put it within a few miles of the largest body of freshwater on the entire continent. Some searching turned up a parcel that had been rejected by speculators and developers and had its price slashed, all because it was chewed up with gullies and you could never build a good driveway or ATV trail through it. That, of course, made it even better: this would be a no-cars, walking-only zone enforced by Nature itself. And so they ended up with 265 acres between Old County K and the lakeshore.

Starting a homestead is, in case you wouldn’t have guessed, a big project. They focused at first on planting trees and building their house. The trees were the top priority, because if you want to eat from them before you’re old, you’ve got to get them in the ground as soon as you can. A Chinese proverb says, “The best time to plant a tree is twenty years ago. The second best time is now.” (I should point out that a Greek proverb also says, “A society grows great when old men plant trees whose shade they will never sit in.” No one’s excused on grounds of age.) There were also the earthworks—all the digging and piling that needed to be done to keep the water in the ground where it could enliven as many plants as possible before either trickling through Raspberry River into the depths of Lake Superior or evaporating up to rejoin the clouds it came from.

As you might imagine, all this took several years. They had help, though. They put out word about what they were doing, and people have come in smaller or larger numbers every summer since then, to learn by doing and to revel in being able to help a community live a life that’s profoundly human. Some helped build houses, some helped plant trees or tend gardens, some helped with chickens or the livestock in the barn. Would we like, Shyam asked, to have some lunch and then go see all this stuff she was talking about? At this point, I don’t think you could’ve stopped us.

We’d been in the kitchen the whole time, while Shyam’s friend Laura from Washington helped her do a deep-clean of the house. They put some finishing touches on some cabbage and chicken and called the guys in. These were Jeff (Laura’s husband) and Nat, who’d just come back from gleaning firewood from a small clearcut down the road. (By the way, it’s not as if cooking and cleaning are women’s work at the Draw while hauling heavy shit around is men’s work, it’s that Shyam was several months pregnant, which made it wise to avoid grunting and straining and chucking logs around.) The kids came too, of course: Shyam and Nat’s daughters Ophelia and Alma (five and eight) and Jeff and Laura’s son Cole (eight too).

Besides what Shyam had been cooking, there was also a jar of kimchi and a huge wheel of homemade Manchego cheese, taken from a stock of them coated in wax on shelves. (The whole kitchen was permeated with a warm, homey, dairy smell. They’d been heating up a giant pot of whey, for reasons that escape me now.) On the first bite, I instantly remembered the food I’d eaten when I stayed for a few days with Ken Keppers, the biodynamic farmer on Highway 8, just before I went to the Twin Cities for the first time. Everything had a flavor that was deeper and fuller than anything you can find outside of a really good farm.

After a little relaxing and chatting, Nat and Jeff went out to feed some animals, and Shyam led us out the greenhouse and around the corner, explaining everything we went past. The entire area was shockingly dense with stuff going on, even to the eyes of those who’d never seen it during summer. We walked past the chicken enclosure, with dozens of chickens, and Shyam showed us that the garden we’d seen on the way in was only one, and there were two more huge ones directly behind the house, another off to the side, and more that I didn’t memorize. Each one has a name and a different principle governing how it was put together. In one they’ve put in chinampas, for example, a system of gardening on half-submerged hillocks of soil that was hit on by the Aztecs and is one of the highest-yielding systems of cropping ever studied. Another garden is gradually being given over from annual lettuces that require reseeding every year to perennial greens, bushes with names I’d never heard of whose leaves you can eat year after year. Their biggest salad green during the salad season, she explained, is basswood, a tree that Misty and I both know, that offers you leaves that stay green and tasty until they drop, with no refrigeration or pesticides required.

At the back porch we had a view of these gardens, as well as the skinned carcasses hanging up to freeze from the porch roof, and the woodshed. Shyam stopped there and told us about how their vision of the homestead involves a slow transition from very little to subsist on, to a lot of annual crops grown sustainably, and eventually to almost exclusively perennial crops, all grown in “guilds” to benefit each other, with a little bit of intensive garden space for those plants that are really tasty but just aren’t perennials. That mirrors the transition that, all of us agreed, humanity will have to make—back to a perennial-centered system of polyculture that was what pre-agricultural people around the world relied on for most of their food. To become something like hunter-gatherers, that is: to stop forcing nature to do what we want by tilling it year after year, and start just gently guiding it to do what it wants in a way that allows us to eat while it does that.

We talked for a long time about that. Misty and I could already tell that their Shyam and Nat had their heads in the right place, but now we could tell that their philosophy was a distillation of all the things we’d been both thinking and trying to think. They’d basically done everything we would do if we started up our own homestead, from philosophical principles all the way up to fine details.

Shyam explains something awesome to Misty; Lou the dog provides fluffiness.

And the tour had just barely started. Shyam took us into the woods behind the house and showed us where they’d planted entire groves of trees. Chestnuts, apples, peaches, stone pines (for the pine nuts), hickories, pears, quinces, even a variety of pawpaws that can survive northern winters. They were growing trees that I would’ve guessed impossible. And in communities of untold numbers of species—all planted in careful chaos, just the way nature would want.

Back further the land sloped down in a series of “draws”—stormwater gullies—that flowed down eventually into the Raspberry River, which once ran muddy but is now clear thanks to the soil-gripping bushes they’ve planted in the erodible soil there. Around the bend a bit, we came to a tiny little porch-thing: an outdoor bedroom, nothing more than a platform with a bed and a little walking space, screened in against mosquitoes, where people sleep during the summer. In fact, when it’s warm, hardly anyone sleeps in the big house; it’s just a respite from the heat, or a place for the occasional project that can’t handle a breeze. At the end of fall, coming in is a big adjustment. There are a few of these outdoor bedrooms scattered around the land, some of them right next to the swimming hole (which they dug themselves). Also, Shyam pointed out, Nat’s in the middle of building a vertiginously high treehouse for the kids in one of the trees next to this bedroom, and has considered running a zipline from one side of the wide Raspberry River valley to the other.

Misty and I kept exchanging excited glances. They live outside all summer! They want their kids to take risks and do fun stuff! Can we move in now? And there was still even more to see; Shyam took us to the barn next, and introduced us to the animals. They have two cows now, one ornery one getting milked, the other allowed to feed her calf. Cows have astonishingly big eyes, or actually just giant heads in general. We petted them to the extent they’d let us. Back behind them, through a corridor of towering haybales, there were a dozen or so sheep, and a small gaggle of piglets that ran away when they saw us. We greeted the draft horse, a mare as sturdy as four trees, and her little friend, a pony the size of a big dog.

Astute observers will note that the sheep in this photo is not the pony I mentioned.

The pony does exist, though.

Once we’d satisfied ourselves with animal time, Shyam took us up and around to see the swamp where the cattails and other edible swamp plants grow,

and the swimming hole and the other outdoor bedrooms, as well as an entire house that had been built by people who’d stayed in previous years. (They started out calling these people “interns”, but that sounds like something a Fortune 500 company has, so they started calling them “co-creators”, which makes it clear that they don’t want to be the royalty of the Draw, issuing edicts; they want it to be a real egalitarian community.)

Basketball, Shyam says, is like meditation for Nat.

This naturally brought us to the question of community, which we’d actually been talking about here and there since we got past our hellos. The short version is that a community is exactly what they want, it just hasn’t come together yet. They came to this place nine years ago figuring that if they built it, people would come, and soon there would be a flourishing permaculture community with ten or twenty people. They built the big house with that explicitly in mind—the kitchen is designed to have room to cook for twenty people, and she said they could probably feed ten all winter long with what they’d harvested that year with just their own selves and a couple summer co-creators.

And people have come to stay for a while—it’s just that something or other always seems to drag them back out into America-at-large. Benjamin stayed for just one warm season before realizing that to follow his true passion of massaging and healing he just needed to be around more people. A few years ago there were a man and woman who stayed for two years (and helped build that house); the man would’ve stayed longer, but the woman couldn’t deal with being so completely off-grid.

Faced with these false starts, Shyam and Nat have sort of decided that “if you can’t attract a community, make one,” whence Alma, Ophelia, and the new kid she was carrying around under her coat. Hey, we’ll be your community! Misty and I both thought variations of that, and we could see it in each other’s sparkling eyes. We all but said it out loud, but stopped short because, of course, that’s basically tantamount to asking someone to marry you on your first date.

But our decision was clear without even asking each other. By this point, though, all of us were a little cold, so we walked through the nursery—where they grow the trees they sell for their main income stream—and over a footbridge that crosses a waterway they made, and went back inside.

There wasn’t a whole lot left to say, but we said it anyhow. In particular, it was nice to have everyone in one place to talk about stuff we hadn’t quite grasped, and Nat was there to break a taciturnity he’d kept while he was working; he told us about all the different kinds of chestnuts there are, and recommended books on how to read the landscape, and just generally overflowed with knowledge. They talked about the old days back on Orcas Island and about raising babies on an off-grid homestead.

Eventually, they started talking more among each other, and we took our cue. We told them we’d get in touch about sometime when we can come back for a whole weekend, and we said a long goodbye—which is a Minnesota thing, but was mainly my fault, because I was just too excited. We had a long drive ahead of us (in a busted-up car), and a lot to think about.

And that we did. I was going to blog about what we’ve been thinking about since then, but this got long enough already, and that’s a whole big new thing of its own—so I’m going to put it in another post sometime. For now, I think it’s enough to say that we’re entirely prepared for the possibility that Land Search #2 is the last one we’ll need to do. There’s a lot to do before packing it in and moving off-grid, but that’s for the post I’m going to write about what Misty and I have been plotting for the next year and onward. A lot is still up in the air, but I’ve rediscovered a deep well of excitement about the future, and I’m pretty sure it’s deeper than any other time I’ve visited it.


  1. Pronounced like Sean but with an m at the end. It’s a name from India. 

File under: permaculture, homesteading, The Draw, photos


david troxel

History

It's been nice knowing ya. I'll be watching for a carrier pigeon or smoke signal. Short of that, we'll see you at the apocalypse. I'll be the guy in a 1975 Winnebago with a homemade gun turret on top.

Reply

Chuck

History

When you run out of ammo, we’ll be here, if you can make it.

That’s the essential wrong premise of zombie-apocalypse prepper-hoarders: the only way they can conceive of solving their problem is by doing more of what they’re doing now (buying food) and getting violent to compensate. That mindset leads to an arms race, and even the winner of it is just left with lots of canned food and an estrangement from everyone around him. Building new systems based on cooperation with your community will win out every time over perpetuating the old system that’s built on competing with them. Competition only works when you can get more and more stuff. When there’s less and less to go around, that doesn’t work.

Reply

david troxel

History

I'll stick with guns, butter, and a stockpile of food. If the caliphate's a coming, I'll be a gunning. I will defend your castle, you can be king, I'll be the knight.

If the earth muffin nirvana revolution comes in like a dove, we'll melt all my guns and refashion them into farm tools in your blacksmith shop.

Either way we win!

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