Nature and Environment

Because at 160,000 years, the party is just getting started.

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Many years ago I was watching a show on television about gold prospecting. One of the people on that show said that most people are walking around on gold and don’t even realize it. That got me to thinking about our property and the two springs that run all year long. Those springs run harder in the springtime than the rest of the year and we believe they come from deep in the mountain. What leads us to think that is when we had our well drilled the well driller was a geologist and told us there had been several studies done on our mountain and there was an aquifer that ran the length of the mountain.

As can be observed from the photo the water is currently running pretty strong. Getting back to my pondering over our springs and possible gold emanating with the heavy flow of water I thought maybe I was ‘walking on gold’ and had never gaven it a previous thought. One of my hobbies is prospecting for gold so I took one of my sluice boxes and set it up near where the spring came up from the ground. That was during the year when the spring was running slower. I was surprised when I cleaned the sluice box out and there were a couple little pieces of gold and some flour gold in the box. Since then each year I wait until the spring is running hard and set my sluice box where the spring runs through it.

Over the years I have picked up a small amounts of gold each year and it sure beats the back breaking work of digging and panning for it. I usually determine when it is time to set up the sluice box (see photo) by going down to where the water runs into the ditch along the road and then carries further down the mountain. I take a few sample pans and when I get 10-15 small pieces of flour gold I know it is time to set up the sluice box. When the spring is running hard it brings that flour gold from deep under ground and washes it right on down the stream or better yet into my sluice box.

Flour gold is appropriately named because it is very fine like flour and more abundant than the more course gold. Gold is very heavy and so I like to set my sluice close to the source where it could be forcibly washed out of the ground and through my sluice box. Some years I find a little and some years not so good. That fellow on that gold show who said most people are walking over gold and never know it sure knew what he was talking about. Now I don’t even have to leave home to prospect for gold. With two springs coming forth from the ground usually one or the other will be productive. I will never accumulate enough to make it worth while but it sure is fun to be able to get a little now and then without having to work hard to get it. Of course some years I don’t seem to be able to get any and whether my timing is off or whether none is being washed up out of the ground I’m not sure. It is hard to fathom what is really going on under the ground or how far away or where that gold actually comes from.

Just getting a little now and then is fun and while most is just flour gold, sometimes I have little pieces I can pick out. No nuggets but I think of how nice that would be to actually find one in the sluice sometime. I have also noted that the gold I do get has a slight orange tint to it but when cleaned up it is restores to its natural yellow color. We must have some iron ore or other metal in the ground that tints it light orange. Our water does not have any taste that would suggest iron or other metal but it could be coming from deep within the mountain or from a long way. Our drinking water is pure and totally clear and gives no hint of what is under ground so the gold must be coming from deeper than our well. We also see quite a bit of black sand that is usually associated or found with gold. I have taken test pans from further along the mountain and there is no black sand or gold present in those locations. I did one test about a mile along the mountain from where our house is located and found two pieces that I could easily pick out of the pan with my fingers that were not tinged orange. One was shaped like a boot and the other was just a little non descriptive piece. That tells me it is not located everywhere along the mountain but only in certain places.

I have found that most people are just like that gent said - walking over gold and don’t know it. Had I not heard that I would never have considered any rare metal on our property. I have taken several sample pans throughout our community and have found flour gold in many of the places I tested. That man was sure right that we are walking around on gold and don’t even know it. It is spread out fairly well and to obtain enough to amount to anything would take several lifetimes at the rate I manage to get it however it is there if you look hard enough. As for me I’m just happy to find an occasional piece to two and being able to do it the easy way makes it even more rewarding. I suspect many of us are walking on gold and never give it a moments consideration.

For more on Bruce and Carol McElmurray and their type of lifestyle go to Bruce and Carol's website.

All MOTHER EARTH NEWS community bloggers have agreed to follow our Blogging Best Practices, and they are responsible for the accuracy of their posts. To learn more about the author of this post, click on the byline link at the top of the page.


The thirsty drink from a bowl made of mountains, hills, and trees...

In the rural area where I lived for 20 years -- and throughout Oregon, as well as elsewhere -- "watershed management" has become a common term. Farmers and ranchers compete with urbanites and salmon for water to feed us all. The media call them "water wars," but without water, no one eats and no one "wins." If the salmon lose, we lose too. The issue looms ever larger: climate change, population growth, and an economy on the verge of collapse. Fear makes it hard to manage anything, but we try. Meanwhile, "watershed management" has become a career path. Years ago, an earnest young woman came to a community meeting to asked us this question:

“What is the one most beneficial thing that a resident can do to improve the quality of watersheds?”

She was trying to organize a citizen's committee to come up with a "management plan," but I thought instead of all the waters that pour from the sky to fill the creek where I lived, which replenishes the wide ocean, as well as our cloudy Oregon sky. I saw myself standing at the creek watching the salmon spawn as they have spawned since long before my ancestors stood on two legs. I thought of the bucket I used to haul water to my little house. I felt, again, the immense gratitude and wonder I have for all the miracles, seen and hidden, that make my life possible. Rather than sign up for more meetings, I sent her the following message:

The most beneficial thing a resident can do to improve the quality of watersheds is to learn the value of water. But value is not a concept you can understand by reading. Rather, turn off your main valve, or your electric pump. Fill up your bathtub with water. Get by on one tubful per day, every day. Carry water from the tub to wherever you need it. Wash your hands with a pint of water, your body with a quart, your hair with 2 quarts. Learn what you smell like. Disconnect the drain under your kitchen sink. Replace it with a 5-gallon bucket to catch all your dish water. Go to your tub to fill another 5 gallon bucket with clean water, and use it to do all your washing for the day. Put drinking water in a special, beautiful pitcher that will give you pleasure every time you pour yourself a glass, or fill the kettle for coffee. Figure out what to do with the dirty wash water from the bucket under the sink. If you use it on your garden, think about what you washed down the drain before you put it on your lettuce.

Make a composting toilet, so you don't have to use any of your precious tubful to flush. Carry water in buckets to feed your garden plants (if you have a garden, you get extra). Learn to make a dirt bowl around every plant, so the precious liquid doesn't run away into the garden path, where it only feeds weeds or rocks.

You will learn to value water the way most of the rest of the world does.

Then you will know the value of watersheds.

Then you may ask questions: Why do we waste millions of gallons of clean drinking water to flush away all that valuable fertilizer? Why do we make huge houses (with 3 or 4 or 5 or more toilets) that only rich people can afford to buy and live in? Why, in order to build all those big houses, do we cut down all those forests that hold water in the soil, and keep our rivers clean and flowing? Why do we damn all those rivers to make all that electricity for all those big houses that only rich people can afford to buy and live in? Why do we drive so much? Why do we make it so important to drive, when we know that cars cause such damage everywhere? Why don't we have decent public transport? Why do we use so much water to grow so much grain to feed beef cattle, when we could feed lots more people, more cheaply, from that same land and water? Why do we eat so much meat? Why do we import most of our food from far away countries when we used to be able to feed ourselves? Why do we drink so much soda pop, when we know it's bad for our teeth, our bodies, our health? Why do we buy bottled or filtered water, when we can still drink what comes out of our taps? And why do we use so much of it to flush away all that good manure that our land and crops cry out for? Oh. Sorry. I already asked that question.

But why do we? Because we don't value water. Until we value water, we can't value watersheds. When we valued water, we didn't have to "manage" watersheds, because they were perfect. They gave us the essence of life -- and we were grateful. Now we've traded the immeasurable value of water for cash we can count, and conveniences we ignore: flush toilets, washing machines, big fast cars, other stuff -- and we have to ask ourselves how to "manage" watersheds that we abuse at practically every turn.

I never did get any kind of response, but for twenty years all the water we used in our house we carried in 5-gallon buckets and 5-gallon plastic jugs. In the winter, we heated water on the wood stove; otherwise, we used an electric kettle. To wash dishes we boiled a kettleful, and dipped cold water from bucket to basin. We got very good at cleaning a sinkful of dishes with a few quarts.

The first couple of years, I watered the garden by bucket from the creek, but when my wife moved in, the garden grew, and we extended the pipes from our 200 gallon open springbox so we could water it all; later a neighbor gave us an old pump to keep the springbox full and run the sprinkler. But when the weather's cold enough to freeze the pipes, we went back to the creek, and remembered bathing under the summer sun.

In winter, when the water's warmer than the sky, creek baths provide a different kind of exhilaration that made me feel tougher than I probably am. When we extended the water into the garden, however, we added a wood-fired hot water heater and outdoor shower. That made winter bathing a very tight-fitting kind of comfort that woke us up as well as making us clean. We noticed the stars.

Western Oregon, where we live, is famous for it's rain, and a watery place if ever there was one. Water shortages? In California maybe, but not Oregon. But every well taps an aquifer, and every aquifer or reservoir rises or falls, eventually, with the rain and snow -- which we've been getting less of since I moved here in 1992. And there are more people moving to the state every year, many of them escaping drought-plagued California. One well driller I spoke with told me he was not only drilling a lot of 2d wells because clients couldn't get enough water from their first wells, but he was drilling deeper to reach a receding water table. "you can only put so many straws in a glass," he said.

In California lives a doctor named Rachel Remen, who has spent a long career learning about the role of mind and spirit in healing. Widely lauded, she has suffered from Crohn's disease since she was a teenager, and her stories about the blessing of life don't grow out of medecine's power to "save" life, but from her experience of watching it end, as well as watching people survive terminal prognoses. She's come close, many times, to losing it herself. In a book titled My Grandfather's Blessings, she tells how her rabbi grandfather asked her to make a daily chore of pouring a small amount of water into a small pot of earth. She was only 6 or so at the time, and quickly found it boring -- but she persevered, for love of her grandfather. And watched in amazement as the dirt sprouted and became a plant. It appeared to her as magic. She asked her grandfather, "was it just the water?" "No," he told her, "it was your faithfulness." Life, he showed her, depends on us doing what we do, every day, w/out reward; our actions shape not only our own lives, but the lives around us.

In another story, she writes about a daily practice she learned from a Tibetan nun, who would start each day by filling a bowl with water. It spent the day on an altar, where it held the fullness of the nun's life, the full promise of the day and, of course, the holy gift of water. At the end of the day, she would pour the contents of the bowl out onto the earth, letting go whatever had happened, and watching the earth drinking it in. The bowl spent the night turned over on the altar, to be "ritually" refilled the next morning.

True ritual comes, I think, merely from understanding the truths beneath our daily acts. A Jewish friend studying to be a rabbi told me about the many prayers of gratitude he had had to learn, one for every act, from peeing and pooping to eating and drinking and making love. What's important, however, is not the ritual of prayer, but the true connection between our actions, and the source of all action -- whether you call it God, Good Sense, or even, I suppose, the Source of all Resources. The connection transforms act to rite.

As an artist, I was pleased, and not really all that surprised to discover that "rite" and "art" share the same root, which simply means "to fit together." But fitting together -- connecting ourselves to the land and life around us -- takes time, and work, and it takes recognizing the true, physical interconnectedness of all things.

Ritual only succeeds, however, when it can slow down our hurried minds, and help them adopt the measured, rhythmic, pace of nature. Whether it's prayer, dance, painting, song, work -- even the simple Catholic act of genuflection -- making the sign of the cross -- or carrying water -- if it slows us down to nature's pace, then we may see the nature of miracles.

After 20 years, we're moving to an acre in town and building a house. It's illegal, here, not to have the flush toilet, piped water and a pump to push it into every sink at the rate of many gallons every minute. And every sink has two taps, each of which take a quarter turn to unleash a 5-gallon-per-minute flood so we can wash our hands and brush our teeth to the sound of "running water" -- much of it hot! Even when we don't need it hot.

In town we'll actually have more land to cultivate than we had at our rural rental, but as we've been planting trees and fixing up the shop, we've rarely seen any of our neighbors outside. Why should they bother? All the blessings of water, wood, and sky have been converted to resources delivered directly into their bedrooms, bathrooms, and kitchens. They don't miss visiting because their friends are all on Facebook®. And they don't mind shitting in their houses because fans suck out the smell, and pipes filled with fresh drinking water flush all that good manure "away."

Speaking of "away," I should mention that we have never had "trash service." Anything we can't burn or recycle gets put into little bags. After about a week, when they're full, we tie them up and take them to a trash can in town. My wife feels more righteous paying the folks at the car wash, where she spends $1 to vacumn the car and deposit the trash in the cans they provide. That makes me wonder how many people generate more trash in their cars than four of us do at home.

We did make a lot of trash when we had to gut an old building on our new place, so I used the opportunity to show my boys where "away" is -- 10 miles out of town, where they're building a mountain called "coffin butte." Isn't that a good name!? We all get to help, not only adding our personal molehills to the mountain, but adding our cash to pay all the staff needed to manage it. The managers are pretty proud that they've trapped and bottled the stinky gases made by all that trash and converted it to a resource that they sell back to us. Trash...good for the, as presidents have told more! So you can throw it away. Not to be cynical but..."it's all good!"

In our old rural "mud hut," we bought relatively little, and lived happily, going outside many times a day to do things peasants do -- carrying water, chopping wood, growing and harvesting our food. We used to get our drinking water from our neighbor's, whose spring was more reliable than ours. Often, the quarter mile walk for water turned not only into a pleasant outing and exercise, but an opportunity to visit and catch up with the neighbors. Probably the "hardest" thing about our water system was the fact that it made salads a challenge. Since we carried our clean drinking water in 5-gallon jugs from the neighbor, a ten minute walk away, we had to be pretty stingy with it when we washed the lettuce. That made salad more of a treat than a staple, and we really like raw greens.

My wife is thus excited at the prospect of being able to immerse lettuce in a full sink of clean drinking water. And I confess, I am looking forward to having baths -- tho I'd trade them in a minute for a creek (even without the salmon). But the real challenge will be finding a way to continue the kinds of daily practice by which we acknowledge -- and say thanks for -- the value of our watershed.

First, we'll turn off the hot tap to the kitchen and bathroom sinks. We'll continue to heat wash water by the liter, so we'll know exactly how much we need to wash a sinkful of dishes. We'll re-design our "modern systems" to connect us with nature, instead of separating us. We'll save our dishwater, and take it outside to share with our new fruit trees. We'll make it a personal, mental, and spiritual challenge to design rituals to help us in our seeking after our common nature.

We'll have a compost toilet. We'll keep our beautiful pitcher for pouring our drinking water. We'll put flow-reducers in the bathroom faucet -- after all, all you need to wash hands or brush teeth is a dribble, and if you leave the tap on, you'll hear a tiny stream abundant enough to do what you need done -- and to remind you of the mist, drops, and rivulets that feed the great rivers, aquifers, and oceans.

How to make a flow-reducer: cut a small disk of rubber or soft plastic (a yougurt lid will do), and drill an eighth inch hole in the middle. Unscrew the aerator from the spout, insert the reducer, and put it all back together -- adjust as needed. And while you're at it, shut the hot water valve under the sink. Do you really need to wash your hands and brush your teeth with hot water? And how often do you mistakenly turn on the hot when you really want cold anyway? Your power bill will go down. Maybe you'll take to watching that tiny stream fill a bowl that you can put on your altar, or use as a reservoir for watering your house plants, or marvel at the gift of water.

This marvelling is how we bestow the human concept of "value" on the miracles of the natural world. It is the source of all worship, and the essence of a true economy. It is the necessary, and currently denied "other side" of the modern coinage we know as money, and tho we think of it as "ours" to save or spend it is, in fact, only ours to replant and cultivate for our children, and for our neighbors' children, both human and wild.

All MOTHER EARTH NEWS community bloggers have agreed to follow our Blogging Best Practices, and they are responsible for the accuracy of their posts. To learn more about the author of this post, click on the byline link at the top of the page.


Sage Grouse

WNET Thirteen’s new Nature episode, “The Sagebrush Sea,” tracks the Greater Sage Grouse and other wildlife through the seasons as they struggle to survive in a rugged and changing landscape. The program airs Wednesday, May 20, at 8 p.m. (ET) on PBS (check local listings) and will be available for streaming after the broadcast on the PBS website.

If you’ve ever been fortunate enough to make your way to the sagebrush steppes of the western U.S. during sage grouse mating season, you probably will consider the experience one of the highlights of your life. For pure theatricality and showmanship, a male sage grouse vying for female attention is hard to beat. They puff and pop and practically dance their handsome feathers off in a stiff competition to show to the females gathered on the lek (a sagebrush-ringed clearing) that they, not those other puny chickens, should be fathers of the next generation.

The heck of it is, it works. By some set of criteria known only to the ladies of the lek, one or two males get thumbs, er, claws up and they – and only they – are allowed to breed that season. How the remaining males deal with this disappointment is unknown, though it’s suspected they play a lot of video games in their parents’ basement and troll strangers on the Internet.

Fighting Sage Grouses 

What even the gallant grouse who win female approval can’t do, however, is stop the plummeting population of greater sage grouse in the immense sea of sagebrush sometimes called “The Big Empty” (or, if you’re Tom Petty, “The Great Wide Open”). Two hundred years or so ago, as many as 16 million sage grouse could be found in this sagebrush sea. Now, their numbers have diminished to fewer than 200,000.

Sage, which provides everything these birds need, survives in the arid West through long roots that stretch to deep underground water. Unfortunately, water is not the only key resource locked below the ground in this high desert. Fracking wells, pipelines and other intrusions fragment this sea of sage and profoundly affect both bird habitats and migratory corridors. Of the original 500,000 square miles of sagebrush steppe that once stretched across North America, only half now remains, and the future of both sage and grouse is uncertain.

Burrowing Owls 

Other species discussed in the program include the golden eagle, the burrowing owl and the great-horned owl, as well as cavity-nesting bluebirds and the American kestrel, sagebrush sparrow and other breeds particular to the Sagebrush Sea.

Photos courtesy of © Gerrit Vyn/Cornell Lab of Ornithology

(Top) A male greater sage grouse struts and displays for the ladies. Pinedale region, WY.

(Middle) Two male greater sage grouse fight at their territorial boundary on a lek. Pinedale region, WY.

(Bottom) Eight burrowing owls chicks huddle in the warmth of the afternoon sun at the entrance to their repurposed badger hole. Pinedale region, WY.

K.C. Compton is an editor for MOTHER EARTH NEWS and formerly was Editor in Chief of our sister publication, GRIT. She was a newspaper editor in Wyoming for several years and became well-acquainted with The Big Empty. She misses it a great deal, except in winter.


Recent studies show that the jet stream patterns have changed significantly during the last decade. The oscillations that bring the jet stream down to lower latitudes have increased in frequency and amplitude. This effect is a verification of the climate science models that predict the effects of global climate change as a result of carbon emissions to the atmosphere due to burning fossil fuels. How that happens is explained here in Why Life Exists on Earth.

I recently blogged about why everybody talks about the weather here. Now I’d like to tell you why you need to study the weather and figure out what you’re going to do about it. This is, as they say, “Serious as a Heart Attack."

Current Climate Denier Incheif

Consider the following:

• Oklahoma, home of Climate Denier In-Chief, Senator James Inhoe, endured the hottest summer of any state in 2010. This guy knows all about climate change. He is a US Senator.
• In 2012, droughts across the US were the worst since the 1930’s. In Kansas City it was 70 degrees on December 1st.
• Extreme storm events were twice as common between 2001 through 2012 as they were in the previous 22 years.
• Arctic sea ice is 50 percent less in the summer than it was in 1900.
• Atmospheric CO2 has increased 40 percent since the beginning of the industrial and the burning of fossil fuels 150 years ago.

The long term trend:

• Extreme heat in western states
• Drought covering most of the area between the Pacific Ocean and the Mississippi River, crop destroying heat waves.
• Colder winters in eastern North America and very wet seasons in western Asia.

What to Do and Where to Go

• Keep reading MOTHER EARTH NEWS.
• Learn to grow, preserve, and store food, save seeds, and build community.
• Move to a region that has been less affected by industrialization, agricultural contamination, and drought, and has a high density of organic farms.

Using the maps and links below will help you find a a place that is right for you.

Where To Go To Avoid Climate Change

Palmer Drought Severity Index

High Plains Regional Climate Center

Historical Maps of the Palmer Drought Index 

Map Measuring Human Influence On the Land, New York Times, Week in Review, July 31,2005.

More Information on the Jet Stream

The Jet Stream is Getting Weird, Scientific American December, 2014.

All MOTHER EARTH NEWS community bloggers have agreed to follow our Blogging Best Practices, and they are responsible for the accuracy of their posts. To learn more about the author of this post, click on the byline link at the top of the page.


beetle on flower

Using natural enemies to combat the pest population is one of the best ways to gain control over your garden. The best part is that you don’t need any insecticides or chemicals. All you need is knowledge of your enemies and their predators.

The Problem

The three bad guys listed below will ruin your crop in no time. Using insecticide to get rid of them is more likely to kill beneficial insects than your intended target. Identifying pest damage early is important because it can drastically reduce the damage done to your garden.


These small, soft-bodied, pear-shaped insects infect both gardens and landscape. Aphids will leave a sugary waste called honeydew on plants, causing leaves and stems to become sticky. Discovering sticky plants is a sure sign that you have an infestation.

Consider the following facts:

• Aphids will attack houseplants if brought inside.
• They have a proboscis that functions like a straw, allowing them to suck the fluids from plants or flowers, robbing them of their nutrients.
• Aphids can vary in color. They can be green, orange, yellow, pink, gray, black or white.
• Adult aphids are usually wingless, but they can grow wings to move to a new location when the population grows crowded and food availability suffers.
• Aphids may spread diseases to plants.


Thrips present a major threat to agricultural communities because they multiply quickly and will swarm a crop in no time. Consider the following facts:

• Thrips will leave plants discolored and scarred by sucking from them and scraping their leaves, flowers and fruits.
• Not only will thrips ruin a crop in record time, but they also spread diseases to plants like spotted tomato wilt and necrotic spot virus.
• Some species of thrips have been known to bite humans.
• To control thrips in your garden, remove grass and weeds that can provide a host for these pests.


I’m going to be honest: telling people how to get rid of hornworms makes me really happy. I hate these pests with a fiery passion because they manage to infiltrate my garden every year. Here is some useful information about hornworms:

• They are green caterpillars that love to munch on your fresh tomatoes.
• Their color allows them to blend into the foliage of plants where they eat non-stop, so spotting them requires checking under your leaves at least once a day.
• Tilling the soil at the beginning and end of each growing season can destroy overwintering larvae with a mortality rate up to 90 percent.>

The Solution

The good news is that there’s something you can do to keep these bugs from ruining your garden. Attracting beneficial insects to your garden will help drastically reduce the number of pests that you have to deal with.

To help you tell the difference between beneficial insects and harmful ones, here’s a chart from Safer Brand.


Ladybugs love to eat aphids, mealybugs and mites. Here is more information about ladybugs:

• Ladybug larvae actually do more damage than the adults; they have a voracious appetite for soft-bodied pests, especially aphids.
• You can attract ladybugs to your garden by planting things they can’t resist such as fennel, angelica, dill or yarrow.
• You can purchase ladybugs and make them stay in their new home by releasing them at night. They won’t fly at night, so water your garden before releasing them. Your wet plants provide moisture for thirsty bugs and their larvae.


Once again, the babies are the champion eaters in the lacewing family. Adult lacewings mostly feed on flower nectar. Consider the following information:

• Angelica planted for ladybugs will also attract lacewings to your garden.
• Lacewing larvae have a varied diet. They’ll destroy any aphids they find, but they’re also content to eat thrips, mites, small caterpillars, moth eggs and even hornworms.

Parasitic Wasps

I never imagined that a wasp would be my friend, but braconid wasps proved me wrong. Here is some helpful information about them:

• Braconid wasps lay their eggs on hornworms, where the larvae eat the hornworms from the inside out as they grow.
• The eggs looks like tiny white clusters of rice on a hornworm’s back. If you see these eggs, leave the hornworm alone. The wasps are taking care of the problem for you!
• The larvae cause the hornworm to stop eating, so not only are they killing the pest, they’re also preventing it from doing further damage.

Using biological control to deal with your pest population will keep your garden organic and free from unnecessary toxic chemicals. Utilize the natural predators of bad bugs and you can manage your garden naturally! This will result in healthy crops and protect your soil quality from chemical degradation.

All MOTHER EARTH NEWS community bloggers have agreed to follow our Blogging Best Practices, and they are responsible for the accuracy of their posts. To learn more about the author of this post, click on the byline link at the top of the page. 


Anima Wildlife Sanctuary, N.M. 

The further “out in the sticks” that a place is, the more likely it is to need resident help, and the less likely it is that they can afford regular salaried employees.  The people who actually homestead off the grid are often low income, struggling to take care of all the necessary tasks that this otherwise rich and rewarding lifestyle requires.  The same with small ranches, which barely make more money from their livestock to make ends meet.  Likewise, the nonprofit organizations and activists that operate beautiful conservation areas and wild preserves do so on a shoestring budget, funneling their limited funds back into land restoration projects.  This creates some difficulty for the owners and managers trying to hold on to their properties and never sell, but it simultaneously creates opportunities for those of you hoping to make a a healthy life out on the land possible for themselves and their loved ones. 

Wildlife and botanical preserves depend upon volunteers for most of the good work they do, from planting shoots and seeds to controlling invasive species that impact the native biodiversity.  In some cases they also have structures for volunteers or year-round caretakers to move into, or can be convinced to allow you to park a trailer there in order enjoy living on the land you commit to helping make thrive.  Ranches are known for often providing food and a cabin to individuals or families willing to take on the cowboy duties.  Backwoods homesteads tend to cycle tend to cycle though not always helpful, seasonal farm volunteers, but many can prove amenable to hosting long-term or even a life-long caretakers if you ask!

Elka gathering wild foods at Anima Sanctuary

Asking is the key, since the owners of most such operations either don’t think to reach out for resident help, are too dang proud too ask for it.  Others have tried but given up on running notices on the commercial “Caretaker” websites, finding that they mainly contain ads from busy resorts paying offering low wages only to the most qualified.  As a result, 90% of the real caretakership positions that get filled, do so as a result of old fashioned word-of-mouth.  Someone tells the grocer in the nearest small town that they could use a little help with their “spread,” posts a 3x5 card on a co-op bulletin board, or asks their friends to “keep their eyes peeled” for possible candidates.  Thus, it is only through unconventional efforts that one can uncover the kinds of situations that we may long for: out in nature, solar powered, involving work that helps instead of harms our precious planet.

A blossoming life, caretaking in a wild place.

Caretaking is not normal employment, it is usually an oral contract in which the land owner pledges to provide a home and possibly a structure to live in, in exchange for a relatively few daily or weekly hours of labor.  Some food may also be provided, depending, or even a small cash stipend, but it is generally a position that best serves either young applicants uninterested in financial gain, or else older applicants who have enough fixed income for their basic needs but not enough saved to buy their own property.  For nearly 15 years, I learned to reinhabit the mountains of the rural West by caretaking a number of places:  A wild turkey refuge on a creek 23 miles of dirt road into the forest from the small village of Pecos, New Mexico, planting oats for the birds and keeping the pipes thawed between the spring box and the log cabin provided.  A ramshackle cattle ranch west the ghost town of Chloride.  A-frame near the art colony of Taos, that I repaired and painted instead of paying rent.  In time I found wilderness property that I thought I could afford, selling everything I owned for the down payment... everything except for the hippie school bus that I somehow managed to drive through the seven river crossings and up the hill to serve as my minimal shelter.

Becoming more wild, as we tend to wild land.

For 35 years now, I have managed this inholding in the Gila National Forest as a botanical preserve, reintroducing medicinal herbs and other native plants to Anima Wilderness Sanctuary, and welcoming back a diverse tribe of wildlife from waterfowl to elk and bear.  In that time, we grew from only the bus-cabin to four different hand-built structures, including one that we are now dedicating as a home for future caretakers.  It took many years to afford it, but we now have solar power and satellite internet for our main space, and can plan on upgrading the amount of panels and batteries at the caretaker lodge as well.  The lodge overlooks the St. Francis river, the beavers and ducks that swim there, the trellising wild grape vines that drink from its waters and the javalina and deer that explore below... an enchanting location for the “coming home” of folks who may one day join us in devotion to the health and wildness of this canyon.

Leaving a normal life for a life fully lived!

Circumstances have led my partners and I from being caretakers of other land, to being open to caretakers that could help us keep this dream alive.  For the first two decades I was here, I had more than enough time to give to land restoration, trail borders, erosion control, and structure building and maintenance.  But for the past ten years, we have been increasingly consumed with the creation of books and a successful publication for folk herbalists, Plant Healer Magazine, and with the organizing of the amazing annual Traditions in Western Herbalism Conference atop New Mexico’s sky island.  As a result, it has gotten harder to give the land the attention we want to, to do the necessary regular maintenance on our exposed-wood cabins, or even to keep the firewood cut and split.  And our partner Elka could use sweet company as well as some help with wildcrafting and running the indoor and outdoor kitchens that keep us all nourished and well.  If you might be interested, please email me.

Building an horno oven at Anima Wilderness Sanctuary.

Now, as someone who has both sought out places to caretake and searched for caretakers, I can offer what may be a few useful tips:

• Be clear on what your needs and desires are, and how you’d meet them, including: environs, weather, shelter, electricity, food, income, and distance from the nearest shopping, schools, or hospital.
• Consider if you need a place where you can grow crops, or if you would enjoy wild lands devoted to native species.  And if you would prefer the social advantages of rural land surrounded by other properties and families, or the often magnificence of remote places near or surrounded by federal land.
• Consider whether there are ways you can make necessary cash, apart from a caretaker role.  This can be from savings, fixed income, investments, part-time work elsewhere, growing herbs or veggies to sell, or developing a home craft or mail-order business.
• If you have or plan to have children, decide if you want to integrate them into the homestead or wilderness lifestyle, and how if so.
• Decide the geographical region (bioregion) where you feel most drawn to, then begin to map out private land in the areas that are as remote or convenient as you and your family require.
• Research and record the locations of any possible homesteads, ranches, or preserves in the region, and try to make contact via email or phone.
• Travel to the areas you have selected, asking everyone you see if they know of any places like what you are looking for, that might also like to have some help.

Elka celebrating her life care-taking wild land. 

When asking owners or managers about caretaking for them, stress what you have to offer, not what you expect in return.  Describe your known abilities, as well as what other skills you would be willing to learn and apply.  Be clear with them as to how long you can positively commit to, as well as if you would possibly be interested in staying permanently if things worked out.

Whether we end up a lifetime caretaker or making years of payments, we each have the option and opportunity to live our wildest dreams – including a dream of living close to the land and the elements, inspired by its beauty, fulfilled by our earthen role and worthy tasks.

To read more about caretaking and wilderness homesteading experiences, turn to the Archives at Jesse Wolf’s Anima Blog.

All MOTHER EARTH NEWS community bloggers have agreed to follow our Blogging Best Practices, and they are responsible for the accuracy of their posts. To learn more about the author of this post, click on the byline link at the top of the page.


Today along with honoring my own mother, I want to honor some women I know that steward this land in a way that we should all learn from - they are true mothers to the earth.

These mothers of the earth are members of tribal communities that were some of the first to live off of this land, caring for the environment in ways we now seek to revive under various names like ‘sustainability’ and ‘permaculture.’ Today these women carry on the philosophies and practices of their ancestors that were around long before these popular terms.

I had the privilege of sitting in one of the Wisdom Gardens in Oregon of the Pacific Northwest, a region that is home to many different Indigenous tribes. Wisdom Gardens is a project to restore native food systems and promote health and wellness in Portland’s Native American community through horticulture education and healing. The gardens are run by Wisdom of the Elders which is an organization that, in their own words, “records and preserves traditional cultural values, oral history, prophecy and other messages of guidance from Indigenous elders in order to regenerate the greatness of culture among today’s and future generations of native peoples.”

Rose High Bear, Deg Hitan Dine (Alaskan Athabascan), and her late husband Martin High Bear, Lakota medicine man and spiritual leader, founded Wisdom of the Elders in 1993 because as they stated, “As First Peoples, we are humbled by the wisdom of our elders and the deep connection they share with Great Spirit, the world of nature and family. We regard our elders as rapidly vanishing, irreplaceable keepers of oral history, tradition and environment. Values they extol represent an ancient legacy of knowledge which has become as endangered as many disappearing species in our fragile ecosystem.”

Wisdom Gardens is reviving the disappearing plant species in their area and restoring the fragile ecosystem by planting native plants. In doing this they are also offering opportunities for local Native American communities to reconnect with the land and traditional foods of the region. The use of native plants is supposed to be the emphasis of permaculture, a modern term that ultimately points to a way of living and working with our environment instead of against it - a way of life that many Indigenous communities have carried out for thousands of years. But many permaculture enthusiasts today are planting invasive species while they focus on growing a variety of foods that may not necessarily be native to the region. Wisdom Gardens focuses on restoring the native food system by bringing back native plants for wildlife food sources as well as those that were traditionally eaten by Pacific Northwest Indians.  

Amanda Kelley-Lopez, Chickasaw, Choctaw, & Cherokee, is the gardener for Wisdom Gardens and gave me a tour of the garden where she is growing native species like huckleberry, elderberry, choke cherry, serviceberry, salal berry, as well as some hybrid blueberries, raspberries and strawberries. “We grow the hybrid because the native blueberries here like high altitude,” says Amanda, “so they wouldn’t like it as much on this site. However we take students out to see the native blueberries as well as wild blackberries and wild plums, so that they can still see what they are like.”

This garden site of the Wisdom Gardens sits within the Kelly Butte wildlife preservation area along the Johnson Creek Watershed in Portland. Wisdom Gardens works with the City of Portland Environmental Services to restore the natural ecosystem since it has been taken over by invasives like English ivy, morning glory and invasive trees. Amanda also works with the native ferns and other non edibles to amend the soil after the erosion and compaction from development and invasives. The native trees like the Douglas fir work well with the gardens too for sawdust mulch or to add acidity to the soil for the blueberries.

Amanda tells me about some of the educational workshops they host in the garden for the Native community, “We host an elderberry preserving demo each year where we demonstrate how to make elderberry syrup. Elderberries are high in antioxidants and are traditional medicine. Many berries are traditional foods here, but we also have camas bulb, which is a member of the lily family. We talk about how to harvest and cook it -boiled and mashed like potato. It’s great for minerals and calcium and helps with diabetes. Wopato root is also native here, it grows in marshy areas and the root is good for starch like camas bulbs. Sometimes we get surprises of native plants that come back to us, like the thimble berry whose seeds came up from when a tree fell over here and its roots pulled the old seeds up. Now that’s true heirloom.”

Rose High Bear wanted Wisdom Gardens to use heirloom as well as native plants for horticultural therapy to heal the historical trauma Indigenous communities have suffered from being removed from their native land and culture through the reservation system. She wanted the native plant gardens to bring people back to the land. Portland has one of the largest urban Native American populations with some of the larger confederated tribes like Grand Ronde, Siletz and Warm Springs represented. But there are many other tribal members from all over the country, like Amanda, who is still adapting to the Native traditions in the Pacific Northwest.

“Back East, we are agricultural people,” Amanda says, “We grow corn, beans and squash - the three sisters- and our ceremonies follow the growing season, like the Green Corn Ceremony that takes place the month before the corn harvest. But here there are river people and plains people where the ceremonies follow the salmon and the buffalo. I have had to amend the garden activities schedule because in the summer at the height of the growing season, people are out at pow wow or Sundance. So we focus on spring and fall gardening and wild harvesting.

"But gardening and the philosophy of growing what’s native to your region has always been a part of my life from as far back as I can remember. Back East we grow tobacco - not for commercial use but for the perennial that it is. Many people don’t realize tobacco is a perennial because the industry grows it like an annual, ripping it up each year. But it has a beautiful flower and can be grown as an ornamental that will get as tall as five feet and will come back every year. I still grow it and use its leaves for incense and ceremonial smudging. I also take the large leaves and dry them and use them as a canvas for my paintings.”

Amanda uses her tobacco leaf paintings of the Choctaw diamond and other Native designs to auction off for fundraising for Wisdom Gardens. She invests so much into the land she now calls home, restoring true meaning to the term ‘permaculture’ simply by carrying on the wisdom of her elders and caring for the earth under her feet, as any mother would.

Amanda Kelley-Lopez of Wisdom gardens was interviewed for The Color of Food: Stories of Race, Resilience and Farming, Natasha's book available now on Amazon.

Read all of Natasha's posts.

All MOTHER EARTH NEWS community bloggers have agreed to follow our Blogging Best Practices, and they are responsible for the accuracy of their posts. To learn more about the author of this post, click on the byline link at the top of the page. 

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