Photography

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

Meet a group of people in the mountains of North Carolina surviving on what can be gleaned from their surroundings. Tuesday, 31 October

By Daniel Stone
Photographs By Mike Belleme

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's longest-standing member, a man named Tod, who declines to be identified with a surname, 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 “skip 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.

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's also 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.

You can see more of Mike Belleme's work on his website.