I parked my car on the dirt road, slipped through the handmade twig gate, and followed a winding path through the frozen garden just as the first snowflakes began to fall.
Thirty years ago, the owners of this remote bit of countryside had two young sons, no money, and a dream. They wanted a good life, a house of their own, a piece of land on which to grow food for their family.
When I met Bill and Eileen for the first time last summer, I was struck most of all by their joy. And then by the improbability of their secluded paradise–twenty-five resplendent acres of organic vegetables, exotic trees, berries, poppies and peonies, and a wealth of rare ornamental plants–all hidden away at the end of a long dirt road on a wooded hillside. The overall effect was at once sacred and exuberant; the garden as sanctuary and playground.
I fell in love with it at first sight. And I’ve returned a few times since that hot July day when poppies and day lilies ran rampant and raspberries approached their peak. “Come whenever you like,” Eileen had said, “just close the gate behind you.” And so I took her at her word, and visited the garden in the fall, just before frost, and again in the barren chill of early winter. Wandering the empty paths, listening to the whuush of wind through the pines, sitting on a bench and allowing the stillness of this lovely spot to work its magic on me, I wondered about the people who had created it.
Finally, this morning, I went back to get properly acquainted. We sat in the kitchen, cozy and warm near the old Waterford cookstove, as snow fell thick and fast beyond the window. The beams in the cabin, Bill told me, were all from oak he’d felled right here. He and Eileen had cleared the woods themselves, cranked the stumps and split the logs with an ax. They dug a cellarhole, mixed cement in a wheelbarrow, and built a foundation of rocks extracted from the earth beneath their feet. And then they built their cabin, as well as a small outbuilding for their teenaged sons, with their own hands, learning as they went.
Meanwhile, they practiced self-sufficiency for a year in a rented house down the road, to make sure they had what it takes to live the simple life they envisioned: no electricity, no telephone, no running water or flush toilets, no refrigerator, no central heat. By the time the cabin was closed in, Eileen and Bill felt they were ready too.
After thirty years, and two sons grown and gone, the novelty of going to bed with the sun and rising at first light has long since worn off. And what began as a great experiment in subsistence has evolved into a deeply cherished, profoundly satisfying way of life. Bill was delighted to show me his ingenious plumbing system and his hand pump in the basement — ten minutes of vigorous pumping in the morning yields enough water for the day. Eileen led me into the “tub room” for a peek at her hand-powered wringer washing machine and a deep old-fashioned bathtub surrounded by candles. I admired the jars of food put by, beans and tomatoes arranged neatly on pantry shelves. I paid a visit to the composting toilet, admired the cabbages wrapped in newspaper in the root cellar, and felt a twinge of envy as I scanned the floor-to-ceiling book-lined shelves, the beginnings of a jigsaw puzzle on a table by a window, the hammock hung high between two posts in the living room, the pair of reading chairs set side by side in the bedroom, where Bill and Eileen begin each day with books and mugs of tea. Such intimacy. Such quiet. Such peace.
“Most of the other back-to-the-landers from the seventies ended up getting divorced,” Eileen said, laughing. “Or else they got a little money in the bank and traded up — to the kinds of comforts we decided we could do without.”
And yet, comfort is exactly what I experienced as I sat with these two brand new acquaintances who felt, immediately, like dear old friends. Friends and mentors, I should say, who know in their bones what it means to live in the moment, in harmony with the seasons, with a deep, abiding love for what is.
“Your life is your practice,” says Zen writer Karen Maezen Miller on her daily blog. I’ve been been absorbing the truth of those words for a week or two now. This morning, I understood.