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Here's What It's Like to Live Deep 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 and a few friends walked into the woods of North Carolina and
decided to make a camp. The camp turned into a home, and the home into a community.
So goes the origin story of Wild Roots, a forest commune not far from Hot Springs, North
Carolina, built on a few founding principlesliving 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 dont.
The man who started Wild Roots, named Tod, who declines to use a last name, doesnt 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 communitys members occasionally dumpster dive for supermarket leftovers and
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 theyre uncomfortable being put in a box, marginalized, 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. For days, Belleme helped Tod whittle wood pegs, carve
oak beams, and strip 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 made the wood too damp, so he moved on
to something new.
Tod originally planned for the group to eat only from the land, but quickly realized that might
be nave. 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
Bellemes 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 declined to eat
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 the communitys van into a
nearby town to use the computers at a public library to email family or read the news.
Occasionally theyll 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 dont 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 seaons test those who are most committed. When winter arrives, the
group thins. Sometimes, the only person left is Tod.
The Contentious History of the Passport
The concept of a worldwide passport standard is relatively new, created in the aftermath of
the First World War.
In black and white photos and crackly films shot through with static, a classic image of the
United States at the turn of the last century emerges: a near constant rush of immigrants,
most destined to pass through Ellis Island. There they were given a cursory disease check,
questioned, and in most cases, allowed to proceed on their journeys inward. This was easy
enough to do without a global standard for identifying documents. Now, as immigration policy
takes center stage worldwide, its hard to imagine just how they got through without them.
With their microchips and holograms, biometric photos and barcodes, todays passports can
seem like stunning feats of modern technology, especially when considering their origins can
be traced back to the biblical era. Centuries ago, the sauf conduit or safe conduct pass was
designed to grant an enemy passage in and out of a kingdom for the purpose of his
negotiations, explains historian Martin Lloyd in The Passport: The History of Mans Most
Travelled Document. This was little more than written plea that acted as a type of gentlemans
agreement: that two rulers recognized each others authority, and stepping over a border
would not cause a war.
In addition to a black market of stolen and fake passports, some countries have willingly
opened up their borders to the highest bidder.
Of course, its not too easy to enforce the rules when theres no agreement on them. This all
changed in 1920, when the idea of a worldwide passport standard emerged in the aftermath
of the First World War, championed by the League of Nations, a body tasked with the heavy
burden of maintaining peace. A year later, perhaps recognizing a political opportunity, the
U.S. passed the Emergency Quota Act of 1921 and later, the Immigration Act of 1924 limiting
the inflow of immigrants. The emergency? Too many newcomers from countries deemed a
threat to the ideal of American hegemony. How to identify an immigrants country of origin?
By a newly minted passport, of course.
Cooked up by a Western-centric organization trying to get a handle on a post-war world, the
passport was almost destined to be an object of freedom for the advantaged, and a burden for
others. A passport is a kind of shield: when you're a citizen of a wealthy democracy, explains
Atossa Araxia Abrahamian, author of The Cosmopolites: The Coming of the Global Citizen. A
Canadian-born Swiss citizen of Iranian parentage, Abrahamian puzzles over the construct of
citizenship, I don't have a particularly strong emotional attachment to any of my passports; I
see them as accidents of birth and I wouldn't identify as any nationality if I didn't have to.
Like Abrahamian, critics of the 1920 resolution argued it was less about creating a more
democratic society of world travelers than it was about control, even within a countrys own
borders. In the early 20th century, married American women were literally a footnote in their
husbands passports, reports Atlas Obscura. They were unable to cross a border alone, though
married men were of course free to roam.
Some nations foresaw the darker implications of the passport and spoke out against what
they saw as Western dominance, Mark Salter explains in Rights of Passage: The Passport in
International Relations. Although many countries wished to dispose of the passport, because
a few countries would not give up the passportin fact, no country could afford to give up the
passport. This catch 22along with a heavy dose of angstwould make sly, quiet
appearances in 20th-century travel literature, including works by Paul Bowles and Joan Didion.
No one, it seemed, much liked the idea of being labeled, packaged, and dehumanized within a
passports pages, but no one could get around without one.
In recent years, passports have faced a distinctly 21st-century identity crisis, becoming a
highly sought after commodity, like real estate and fine art. In addition to a black market of
stolen and fake passports, some countries have willingly opened up their borders to the
highest bidder. When I discovered [during my research] that there was a whole legal market
for passports, it validated my feeling that citizenship was a pretty arbitrary thing,
Abrahamian notes. For example, countries like Malta and Cyprus essentially sell citizenship
the former for over $1 million, the latter for significant investments.
Beyond the one percent, a shifting global landscape of new states, changing borders, and
discriminatory ethnic policies has further reinforced statelessness: those who do not belong to
a nationality of any country. At least 10 million people around the world are stateless,
according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. These people are often
denied passports, and consequently, freedom of movement. These extremes again illustrate
how murky our notions of citizenship really are.
Today, U.S. State Department statistics report 18.6 million passports issued in 2016the
highest annual number on record. The popular online search tool Passport Index offers up
ways of comparing passports via interactive tools reminiscent of fantasy football scoreboards.
Magazines like Travel & Leisure breathlessly announce the winners of best and worst
passport rankings every year. As other nations join the new U.S. administration in toying with
the idea of closed borders, it is worth meditating once again on the passports essential
arbitrariness.
Depending on our country of origin, a passport may grant us extreme privilege or extreme
distress. It may be a sheltering sky or a burden to bear. The passport isnt going anywhere,
but the carefully thought-out precautions meant to shape it over a period of decades into a
near-perfect document must now evolve as our world changes. So what will it look like next?