After living for 15 years in a tent and trailer in the foothills of southern Oregon’s Coast Range, Evelyn Searle Hess and her husband built a real house on their 20 acres. But they wanted their “better nest” to be off-grid, sustainable, and reflect the personal and community values they had developed during their years of camping life.
Her new book, Building a Better Nest: Living Lightly at Home and in the World, is the story of how they built their house and accomplished their dreams.
Evelyn recently took some time to answer questions for Rose City Reader:
How did you come to write Building a Better Nest?
My earlier book, To the Woods, was the story of our lives during fifteen years of camping. Though of course not without challenges, those years were rewarding in numerous ways: in new connection to the natural world, in growing self-knowledge, in improved interpersonal relations and, perhaps most importantly, in the kindling of gratitude for gifts of nature such as clean drinking water, that I had formerly taken for granted. When readers seemed to consider simple living a deprivation, I wanted them to know that, rather than a hardship, I found it to be an awakening and a joy. A wish to convey that message was my original impetus for writing Building a Better Nest.
But as I began to tell the story, it grew and branched and meandered like a river. A river and its watershed, because we don’t nest solely between walls. The ecosystem, the community and the planet all contribute, as we and our actions and attitudes also affect them. So that became the driver for the book. What kind of world do I want to live in? How can I be a responsible and effective organism within this tortured and wondrous biosphere? What models do I have in history and in my ancestry? What societal, economic and political roadblocks stymie cooperative sustainable living in each layer of nest? And finally, as climate and other environmental and social issues become increasingly dire, how can we not only lessen the impact, but also learn to live in the most comfortable and satisfying manner in a changing world? Building a Better Nest evolved chasing those questions.
What is your work background? How did it lead you to writing your book?
I have worked a variety of jobs, but primarily within the world of plants. For twenty years my husband and I owned a plant nursery and I designed gardens and often installed and maintained them. I managed commercial greenhouses, and for ten years ran the teaching and research greenhouses at the University of Oregon, where I also taught plant propagation. Watching plants grow, seeing their response to their environment and understanding their natural cycles and interactions with other organisms, all were important fodder for exploring wider connections in the natural world and our place in it.
Building a Better Nest is as much your memoirs as it is about building a sustainable, off-grid house in the woods – did you have any qualms about sharing so much?
I got through my qualms during the writing of To the Woods. That required a big psychological shift. Once I acknowledged that telling the story required an honest look within, the processing helped me accept my own flawed self. After making that leap, I didn’t mind sharing
Your book is beautiful, philosophical, and somewhat practical, but not technical. Who is your audience?
The audience is anyone who sees depleted resources, endangered species, economic disparities and the frightening potential effects of climate change; recognizes that society must change course, and that there’s no superhero to do it for us. Rather than being a manual (I’m no expert!) I hope Building a Better Nest will inspire discussion that may guide readers to find their own paths to building their personal and cooperative best nests.
Can you recommend any other books about personal home construction or living off the grid? Are any of them personal account like yours?
Charles Goodrich’s Practice of Home and William Sullivan’s Cabin Fever. I wouldn’t say they were either like mine or like each other’s, but both share personal stories within the framework of house-building, and both are definitely well worth reading.
What did you learn from writing your book – either about the subject of the book or the writing process – that most surprised you?
There were many surprises: that borax is anathema to ants; that a gopher snake with a body diameter of more than an inch could thoroughly enmesh itself in the three-quarter-inch grid of bird netting; that people were already arguing the necessity of sacrificing the environment to benefit the economy in the nineteenth century; that the brain is elastic and can continue to form new synapses and learn new emotional responses well into old age. But most surprising to me was my personal change through the research, observation and analysis, followed by the synthesis of writing.
Can you give us an example or two of advice you wished you had before you started to build your own house?
I’m afraid that likely advice would have been along the lines of, “You’re too old.” Or “You don’t have enough money.” Or “You’re not clever, organized or hard-working enough.” And though those statements may be true, I’m grateful we didn’t hear them. Sometimes the only way forward is on unfounded hope. But I do wish that I had picked up carpentry skills at some earlier point of life.
What were you least prepared for when you moved to the Oregon Coast Range, before you built your house?
In a practical vein, the necessity of driving more than we would prefer. When we lived in town, we mostly biked and walked. In a deeper—perhaps spiritual—vein, I was completely unprepared to face my duplicitous (or at least divided) attitude. On one hand, I considered myself a self-confident person happily turning her back on convention, on the other hand, I had to acknowledge that I had confided in almost no one about my new life. Intellectually dedicated, I apparently harbored a sub-conscious germ of society’s condemnation of the appearance of poverty. I desperately feared—and rejected the idea of—pity.
What kind of books do you like to read? What are you reading now?
I tend toward non-fiction, but my taste is eclectic. I just finished Barbara Kingsolver’sThe Lacuna, preceded by two novels by local friends, Deb Mohr’s Great Day in the Morning and Chris Scofield’s The Shark Curtain. I am currently reading The Age of Empathy by Frans de Waal.
What is the best thing about being a writer?
Exploring the questions constantly running in my head.
What is the most valuable advice you’ve been given as an author?
Tell the truth—the deep truth, which sometime requires some probing. Be specific, but don’t use the first description that pops into your head.
What’s next? What are you working on now?
I’m working on a series of long essays concerning environmental issues addressed cooperatively by diverse, sometimes even historically combative groups. Exploring how people find common ground has been exciting. I’m also cautiously exploring the art of the short story.
“Do you think we’ll have an apocalypse?” my seventeen-year-old granddaughter asked.
“The way we’re going, we just may.” was my grim response.
That reply haunted me for weeks, as the facts that informed it have for much longer. I kept wondering if I could soften it, while still being honest.
In November, David and I visited a portion of the Summer 2013 Douglas Fire Complex, nearly 50,000 acres that burned for over a month near the southern Oregon towns of Glendale and Riddle. It was a shocking scene–desolation, as far as the eye could see. The soil, tree trunks, shrub and tree branches, all were blackened: It was a scorched and surreal forest. Hades, rendered in black and gray. But before I gave in to despair, tufts of green caught my eye. New bracken fern waved triumphant fronds above the charred earth. Then I examined an emerald sprout at the base of a twisted and carbonized clump to discover a cluster of madrone leaves emerging tight against the burned trunk. Looking carefully now, we spied more and more verdant patches: manzanita, huckleberry, buckbrush, Oregon grape, close to nearly every ebony cluster. Amazingly, this superficially hellish landscape was capable of conceiving life from below the ground.
As my spirits revived along with the forest, I remembered the thrill of seeing life regenerate on Mt St. Helens after her 1980 eruption. And I just read about an ocean cove where a diverse and healthy coral reef thrives in water far more acidic than thought possible for coral life, holding species that perhaps will populate the reefs of the future, as excessive CO2 continues to raise the pH of the sea. We mustn’t underestimate Mother Nature. She can bounce back from disasters, adapt to change and even transform to new systems when necessary. Short of the sun burning out, or Earth’s being hit by a mega-mile-wide asteroid, the biosphere will find a way to carry on, whatever we throw at it. Various species however, including Homo sapiens, might not be so fortunate, as we continue to consume, pollute, and disrupt the systems and resources we require for life.
It is clear that if we wish to maintain the relationship to the natural world that we have come to expect, society must have a major shift in attitude and behavior. We need to acknowledge that the biosphere is a finite system and to consider how our acquisition of wealth or conveniences might affect other inhabitants of the planet. Yet, throughout our lives we have heard, “You can’t change human nature. We are programmed to look out for number one.”
Greed, fear and suspicion served our ancient ancestors well as they watched for marauding tribes or hungry tigers. Getting to the goodies first, gathering the most, and not allowing anyone near, helped early hominids survive long enough to procreate. Had they been more mellow, they probably would have been eaten, and we wouldn’t be here to worry about it. But today the world population is over seven billion and if that successful caveman stores up too many goodies, there won’t be enough to go around.
Currently, 780 million people—a number equal to two and a half times the population of the United States—lack access to clean water. In the United States, a country of plenty comparatively speaking, 60 percent of the lakes are too toxic for drinking or swimming because of runoff from industrial farmlands, intensive livestock operations, and of industrial weed killers. The water in over a third of our rivers and streams is too dangerous for fishing or drinking. Thinking primarily of “number one” may have worked in pre-industrial times, but in the twenty-first century, it’s time to re-evaluate. Empathy, compassion and community will serve us better today.
Until fairly recently, habits, thought patterns, and even the brain itself were considered to be relatively static. It was generally believed that you had all of the brain cells you would ever have by your young adulthood when, cell by cell, they began dying. But it turns out that, like our environment, human brains also are resilient, are able to adapt, and even to transform. Not in ways that can do without clean air and water, but in ways that can change our attitudes, responses, and behavior. Scientists have discovered remarkable plasticity in the human brain. Not only can we develop new neural pathways throughout life, but the brain configuration actually changes as we develop new ways of thinking. This new understanding of neuroplasticity is a godsend for people suffering brain trauma or illness, but also has exciting application for developing constructive relationships. If we understood the importance of our common goals, we could learn to work together. And what is more important to work on cooperatively than saving our life-support systems?
But relating, marriage and family therapist Linda Graham says, is the most complex thing that humans do. And, observing activities of governments, as well as many businesses, corporations, community groups, even marriages, we see relating is often not done well. So where is the hope that our species can cooperate for the good of our planet and of each other? For me, it lies in the multitudes of caring people that I know and read about, and in the awareness that change is indeed possible. New learning and experiences can re-wire the brain. It is possible to control the fear that can motivate aggressive, grasping, controlling behavior. Empathy actually increases the size and function of the pre-frontal cortex, which can then grow neurons that connect to the limbic system (the lizard brain, or fear-fight-flight system) to remove the fear response and replace it with a feeling of well-being. So the more secure we are, the more compassion we can feel, and the more empathy we practice, the more we are capable of. We feel more secure as our support groups, along with our pre-frontal cortex, grow, continuing the cycle.
Pepperdine psychology professor Louis Cozolino predicts “survival of the nurtured.” New attitudes and choices, reinforced through consistent practice with attention and passion, can change even a brain that has been injured, traumatized, or developed in a hostile environment. Though once responding with fear or anger, if we care enough, we can learn to feel compassion and work for the common good. We are capable of doing great things.
So I don’t need merely to soften my grim answer to my granddaughter, I need to believe in both the resilience of natural systems and in the possibilities for learning and change in the human brain. With compassion for other people and other species, and with the understanding that this planet sustains us all; if we are brave enough to do the work we are capable of doing, we can turn things around. Inspired by our grandchildren and all the children of the future, may we understand the effects of our actions, join together, and learn to live in a way so that the generations to follow us may enjoy lives that we would want for ourselves.
The last glow of sun splashes puddles of orange and purple sky that shimmer through tree trunks at my in-laws’ place on Hood Canal. The canal’s milky sheen shifts to shades of pink, and beyond the water, jagged blue of the Olympic Mountains edge the scene. As the colors begin to fade, clouds part, exposing the highest peaks just in time for their snowfields to be brushed with the palest pink. I drink in the color, feeling fuller and fuller. And then it is gone.
There is a sadness in the fading lights of a sunset. This solstice day has been as lovely as the first day of summer by rights ought to be, but now, as our part of the world turns its back on the sun, it leaves us with only its memory.
My husband David and I are here on the canal to empty my in-laws’ house-where neither of David’s parents have lived for years-to help get the house ready to sell. We look and sort, admire and assign: the bed with the turned spindles goes to Celina, the French Provincial dresser to Erika, the old hand bell that used to sit by the fireplace, to Jeff. We are emptying the house we helped build one summer when Erika was a toddler and Jeff still in a playpen, one summer some fifty-plus years ago. I think of that summer, and summers after: our children running down the driveway hill to surprise their grandparents before our old Datsun or VW Beetle announced our arrival; all of us picking our way down the steep precarious bank to the beach to gather oysters for breakfast; later, the thrill of descending in the neighbor’s outdoor elevator, to deposit us farther up the same beach. As I look out the window, I remember Grammy’s little poodle Tinker Bell, sitting on a daybed bought just for her, looking out this same window toward the water like those wives who pace their widow’s walks, waiting for their fisher-husbands to come home. In this house and view lie a half-century of memories.
But it is not only memories that fill the house, and of the more solid things, we must decide what to bring home and what to do with the rest. I have my eye on a chest, hand hewn by David’s great grandfather, William, to carry supplies on the long wagon trip from Kentucky to Oregon. In September of 1867, their wagon rumbling over mountain rocks and racing the early snows, William’s wife Priscilla gave birth to a baby boy who they named Samuel Barlow in honor of his birth on Barlow Pass, a gap on the south slope of Mt Hood. This Samuel Barlow eventually fathered Ray, the father of my husband.
I admire a grand piano, bought for the brother of my mother-in-law’s father. The brother was a storybook boy, not only talented but good, and beloved by all. And like many such storybook boys, he died young, devastating his family and friends. The piano needs some repair, but its tone is magnificent. I look at it longingly: I’d love to have a piano. But I’d have to build an addition on the house to have this one.
Our grandson-in-law, Geoffrey, spots a 30-inch-diameter round saw blade hanging on the garage wall. David explains that it was the blade of a towable community wood saw, its body made out of old car parts. The men turned a crank to start its four-cylinder Star engine. David remembers that the radiator leaked, and you had to keep a hose in the top of it, running at a trickle. We go on looking, sorting, remembering.
Joining us here is our old granddog, Homer. When Homer first came to our son’s house, seventeen or more years ago, he was a dark-eyed bundle of wrinkles, the abandoned pup bred of Shar-pei and Anatolian Shepherd parents. He has been with us on and off through his long life, but now, that life is nearing its end. The sweet old boy spends most of the time on his bed, his staccato bark informing us when he needs help getting up for fluid exchange—to drink or to pee—or when either of us strays too far from the flock for this shepherd’s comfort. His gait is stiff and wobbly, his rear end sometimes collapsing, and when he falls down, he often can’t get back up. But his spirit remains strong. If he can manage it, he’ll be right behind us as we go about our work. Sometimes, disdaining help, he even succeeds getting his failing frame up and down the low stairs, and I can almost hear a two-year-old’s “do it myself!” One night, body and spirit colluded to take him on an adventure that scared the bejabbers out of us when we couldn’t find him, with David eventually picking him up at the local Humane Society. But mostly he sleeps, eating little besides a bit of soup, unless someone scares up some chicken fat. It’s clear his life is fading, but it’s been a good life and one that has given us great pleasure.
Kathryn, my mother-in-law, would have still been fifty that summer when David and I and our little ones came to help on the house, her August birthday a month or more away. David’s dad would have recently become fifty-three. He built the house with the care and precision expected of his engineer’s nature, and boasted a full and active shop and a garden with broccoli as big as your head. But little more than a decade later, he would be gone, felled by a heart attack as he was getting the mail, with only Tinker Bell to deliver the message back home.
Now it is early July of 2013, and in a little over a month David’s mother will be 103. She left the house for an apartment at a senior center less than twenty years ago, but stayed active physically and mentally. After a couple of recent frightening falls, she consented to using a walker, though initially she fought the idea, proud of her independence. Her appetite is small now. Dinner consists mostly of a cup of soup, though she does still enjoy her desserts. Both her sight and her hearing are poor, but her memory remains sharp. Over a century of living makes for volumes of wonderful stories, and she tells them with gusto and with love.
As I sort through things in the house, I look for those stories. Here is Kathryn’s hope chest; here are pictures of the tent house where they spent the first year of their marriage, when Ray was working on Crater Lake’s Rim Road. Here is a picture of Kathryn’s great Aunt Clara, a story by herself. In 1900 Clara Barck (later Clara Barck Welles) founded Chicago’s Kalo Silversmith Shop, a business lasting seventy years. The Kalo Shop was a leader in the Arts and Crafts Movement and probably the most important silver company producing handcrafted work in the Midwest. As impressive to me as the quality of the work and the success of her business, was her advocacy for women’s participation in the arts. She began the business with six other women, all design graduates of the Chicago Art Institute, and continued to support women artists throughout Kalo Shop’s long life, this in a time when few women were active independently, but rather were defined only by the men in their lives.
Then, taking my mind away from the impressive New Women of the early 1900s, I come upon David’s grandfather’s mustache cup, a pretty white china cup decorated with purple iris and white pansies, and embellished inside with horizontal china batwings, a guard to protect his mustache from the sloshing liquids.
I want to hang on a little longer to the colors of the sunset, to Granddad Hess and Boppa’s Aunt Clara and Tinker Bell, to learn these stories and make the house’s memories my own. Among these things are people I have known and loved, and people I have never known. And in our little troupe of workers are some of those I love today, both human and canine. Together we work, enjoying the moment, looking back on yesterday. Looking back on years lived, lives touched and setting suns.
It has been a lovely day.
Our shuttle bus rumbled through the dark up Interstate 17. The hundred-plus miles north from Phoenix to Flagstaff, Arizona, is a prototypical ecocline–a gradient of ecosystems—first, saguaro cactus and teddy-bear cholla, then red-rock cliff country, and finally into Ponderosa pine forest. Though I couldn’t see out into the night, I knew what was there both from memory and from the feel in the air, so different from just a few hours earlier, in Eugene, Oregon.
I left Eugene in mid-April, before our crazy premature summer had arrived. It had been uncommonly dry all winter, but that day was a typical Pacific Northwest rainy-sunny-windy smorgasbord of a day. I had watched hail gathering in our house gutters before we left. Then winds blew the pile of gray clouds, exposing a sky of robin’s-egg blue. On the way to the airport I donned dark glasses against the brilliance of chartreuse big-leaf maple flowers; willows, maple and ash trees in spring green foliage; and emerald meadows, all glowing in the sun. Grass was already nearly knee-high; the entire valley, verdant and lush. Before we reached the airport, swishing windshield wipers whispered the return of the rain.
The flight to Portland was in a little prop plane, with a motor that sounded like a sewing machine. We flew among solid-looking flat-bottomed clouds—a flying fish among a school of flying whales. Four hours later, in a much larger plane, I descended toward Phoenix at sunset. The cloudless deep-blue bowl of sky, growing deeper still, was banded by a long, curved, vibrant sash beginning with the faintest touch of green blending into yellow, the yellow growing more fiery to orange and then an intense scarlet at the horizon. Below was a carpet of soft black. Dropping near the city, I was delighted to see lidded city lights illuminating the streets and sidewalks with minimal trespass into the night sky.
Then at midnight, I stepped out of the bus into Flagstaff’s twenty-degree star-studded night with the feeling that I’d emerged instead from a dehydrator, my nasal passages, lips and skin sucked dry. But the air was clean, cold, and lovely to breathe.
Erika and Bob, our daughter and son-in-law, and our granddaughters, Tasha and Camila, live next to national forestland. When the girls are in school and Erika and Bob are off to their University jobs, I snuff up some saline nasal spray, slather on moisturizing lotion, grab brimmed hat, sunglasses, and water bottle, call the dogs and head out. In my snobby northwestern way I once expected a forest to be dark with trees, and mountains to be topped with snow year around. But I’ve long since learned to appreciate the spare beauty that is a northern Arizona national forest, and though I’m loathe to call it a mountain, I love to explore the immense boulders that make up Mt. Elden, a dacitic lava dome, just a few hundred meters from the back door.
To my eyes, trained in shades of green, the ground initially looks bare. But though it is tan, dusty and rocky, green shoots emerge from centers of dry grass clumps and scatterings of ground-hugging herbaceous plants promise flowers in another month or two. Ancient junipers, their alligator bark interrupted by branches of smooth, silvered dead wood, testify to the trees’ adaptability through long, hard lives.
Nearby, colonies of twisted silver stems look lifeless. But looking closely, I see swelling buds that will be oak leaves, or sprouts of small, leathery, dark green leaves of mountain mahogany, or on yet another group of silver stems, smatterings of green along with remnants of the flowers of a cliff-rose. A few ponderosa pines tower above it all along with as many barkless snags. Young conifers sprout between boulders where enough dust and debris has seeped to give a seed a nursery bed.
I marvel at the toughness of all of these survivors—the tenacity, the adaptability these plants must have to live long and well in their dry world. I love it here: Love to gaze at the boulders, imagining their formation as the slow-moving, silica-rich magma accumulated; love to sit on a dead log and watch the squirrels, listen to a woodpecker, admire a two thousand-year-old juniper. But as I snort a bit more saline solution and take a swig from my water bottle, I wonder how long I could survive.
Channels show where water occasionally cuts through the soil, mostly snowmelt from the boulder buttes, but now those channels are dusty dry. Plants here conserve water of necessity. The healthiest of them are widely spaced, not infringing on their neighbor’s water rights. Few and scattered plants gave me my early impression of “barren.” But in fact there is much life here. They just know how to make it work.
Yet people flock to this dry climate, mostly to the Phoenix area, where it is on average thirty degrees warmer than Flagstaff, and much drier. How will they, who, unlike the plants, do not favor wide spacing, compete for water?
Eugene’s average temperatures are between Flagstaff’s and Phoenix, though closer to Flag’s. Our average rainfall, at over four feet, is more than double Flagstaff’s, which is in turn about three times Phoenix’s seven-plus inches. Phoenix has, on average, 167 days above ninety degrees. And people like that?!
By the time I returned to Eugene, it seemed to have forgotten how to rain. We are now fifteen inches behind the average precipitation for the year to date. Skies are sunny and blue almost daily. Will people begin migrating to our beautiful climate? Will they live close together and fight over water? Will the grass turn brown and the trees begin to die?
Given my choice, I’d rather visit Flagstaff, and welcome the rain in Eugene.
I awoke at 3:00 a.m. feeling trapped, half-breathless and nearly crushed by the weight of anxiety. The day before, in a far different mood, I had come upon rosy bells hanging in a dense veil on a flowering currant that I hadn’t known was on our property, and later, gazed in awe at glittering points spangling the night’s slate sky, with silhouetted black spires of firs and a still-leafless Oregon white oak in the foreground. But at that three o’clock hour of torment, I could conjure no such felicitous visions. Rather, what flashed before my eyes were scenes of despair: bleached and dying coral reefs, ancient forests leveled; fish, salamanders and insects lying dead and stinking beside murky fetid waters; mountain tops blasted off, mined, heavy trucks rumbling where once hikers trod and birds sang. I imagined animals crying out, the last of their species, or wailing ghosts of those already gone.
I wanted to blot it out. Shake it off. Truly wake from this non-sleeping nightmare. But how? What to do? I vote, sign petitions, write letters. Still, I feel helpless. Desperate. How can we fight the fabulously wealthy corporations and individuals who buy legislation that allows them to rape the Earth for their own profit?
A few hours later, still feeling swollen-head groggy, I stumbled to the computer and, breaking through my black fog, there was an answer!
“VICTORY!” the message said. “McKenzie River Protected. We won!”
This was a message from WELC, the Western Environmental Law Center. WELC, representing Oregon Wild and Cascadia Wildlands, had succeeded in stopping the Goose timber sale, 2100 acres of forestland near the community of McKenzie Bridge, thereby protecting domestic water supplies pumped from the McKenzie’s clear waters and preserving sensitive wildlife habitat and a potential wilderness area.
So that is exactly how we can fight the vested interests, and their money and power. We do it with our passion, with our knowledge of what is in the common good, and with the help of dedicated, informed professionals.
This is my open thank-you letter to WELC. (Here I excerpt liberally from their website at www.westernlaw.org/) WELC combines legal skills with conservation biology and environmental science to address major environmental issues in the West. A public interest law firm, WELC does not charge clients and partners for its services, but rather relies on charitable gifts from individuals, families and foundations. WELC uses the power of law to protect wild places for all of us and for our progeny, giving a voice to all of the West’s creatures. WELC fights dirty energy and promotes clean energy; protects endangered wildlife such as salmon, Sierra amphibians, pronghorn, gray wolf, lynx, and spotted owl; preserves wilderness and wildlife corridors.
WELC is the reason that I should not despair in those dark hours of the morning. Working closely with communities and relevant stakeholders, they are powerful and effective in Court, giving all of the West–humans, non-humans and the land, air and water that sustains us all–a voice. They are proof positive (to once again borrow from their website) that a small group of committed individuals can change the world.
Thank you WELC. Thank you for your knowledge, your hard work, your dedication, your passion. Thank you for giving me a reason to be able to sleep more comfortably, perhaps even past 3:00 a.m., and to dream more hopeful dreams. You allow me once again to visualize flowering-currant blossoms and nights of stars with a reason to believe that the birds, bugs and furry creatures, along with my great grandchildren, may be able to enjoy them as well.
In our mid-fifties, my husband David and I left the toys and noise of urban society for the company of jumping mice, winter wrens, and dark nights full of stars and cricket song. Our twenty-one wooded acres in the Coast Range foothills had neither suffered nor benefited by civilization--meaning there would be no house, no electricity, no indoor plumbing in our new habitat, but it would be an exciting spot to develop our fledgling plant nursery.
To the Woods is the story of the land and fifteen years trying to uncover the secrets of its inhabitants while we learned to grow plants and to live very simply. That simple living connected us to the lives of the rest of the world's populace, most of whom live more simply still. Living close to nature revealed both the intricate interrelationships within ecosystems and their potential for fragility. I frequently found myself dancing between delight in the miraculous biosphere in which I played a miniscule part, and despair over the assault we hominids were perpetrating on it. At the same time, freedom from society's constant barrage of corporate brainwash gave me space to see myself less in terms of an ideal and more as a mere being, trying (and frequently failing) to do my best. But underlying those times of discovery, concern, revelations and mishap remained a nearly constant bubbling joy.
Building a Better Nest is the working title of my book-in-progress that asks the question, "What is required to build a home in concert with both the natural and the developed world?" Its genesis was our long camping experience, plus responses to my book, To the Woods. From our years living in tent and trailer, I wondered how to apply a similar standard of light living to a more socially adaptable and comfortable lifestyle, even while still on a limited budget.
A large percentage of the nation says we are on the wrong track. Many are looking for a simpler way to live. Many are concerned about disappearing species, pollution and climate change. Baby Boomers are reaching retirement age and are looking for something more meaningful than a condo by the golf course. Almost everyone yearns for greater happiness. All of these groups will find something to grab hold of in Building a Better Nest.
Born and raised in Chehalis, Washington, Evelyn Searle Hess studied journalism at the University or Washington, landscape architecture and journalism at the University of Oregon and horticulture at Oregon State University, earning an interdisciplinary masters degree from the University of Oregon in 1986.
From daydreaming in the top of a willow tree to gardening beside her parents, from roaming Washington mountains in C. Leo Hitchcock's botany class to running the U of O biology greenhouses, from her garden design and maintenance service to a native plant nursery, Hess has always been most at home in the natural world.
Her most outstanding creative endeavors (with assistance from husband David) include professor daughter Erika; coach and teacher, son Jeff; and the genetic material contributed toward artist grandson Nate, yoga instructor/urban-homesteader/mother, granddaughter Celina; and student granddaughters, dancer Tasha and gymnast Camila.
Hess's book (To the Woods) tells the story of fifteen years that she and David camped on their twenty acres of wild land in the foothills of Oregon's Coast Range. It describes day-to-day challenges and health crises; tracks the natural history of place through the seasons, and explores the joys of living simply and awakening to the interconnectedness of all life.
Evelyn Hess's enterprise, it seems to me, is one of Thoreauvian simplicity. She and her husband, at considerable age, with humility and pluck, lived many years in a way that shows us possibilities we haven't imagined for ourselves."
--John Daniel, author of The Far Corner, Rogue River Journal,Of Earth: New and Selected Poems and winner of three Oregon Book Awards as well as numerous other honors
(Personal note) The descriptions (in To the Woods) are so evocative....I love the way you educate the reader about natural phenomena in a delicate balance of poetry and science....Thank you again for rich and memorable writing, and, possibly more important, lessons in life."
--Alison Cadbury, winner of fellowships from National Endowment for the Arts and Oregon Literary Arts, winner of a Pushcart prize, author of Panigyri A Celebration of Life in a Greek Island Village
(Hess's) wry glances at the human spirit and the complex ways of humans and other animals make To the Woods another in OSU's astounding list of strong, quirky works by local voices."
--Suzi Steffen, review in Eugene Weekly
To the Woods) will...appeal to many people around the U.S. and Canada who are conscious of the need for changing the way we think of ourselves in relation to the natural world."
--OSU Press reviewer
Hess brings a naturalist's appreciation to the details of the seasons and explains them with both reverence and lighthearted irreverence....Hess also writes well about contentedness without being mawkish. One August evening, sweaty from a day's work, she pops blackberries in her mouth with fingers 'stinking of fish fertilizer' while a wrentit trills nearby. In this moment she is 'completely and selfishly happy.' We should all be so lucky."
--Jamie Passaro, for the Register-Guard
The book provides timely philosophy--the case for people to remain connected to nature, to the earth and the bounty of the plants and creatures that coexist with humans. Living with, rather than off, the Earth. 'We alter the biosphere at our own peril.' This is a hugely important concept right now as our nation struggles out of an economic depression that was caused by the erroneous idea that consuming more implies success. Hess has a better vision."
--OSU Press reviewer
The book is entirely original and her research of land use, plants, and creatures is a wonderful addition for the reader. The genus of plant species, thoughtful descriptions of caterpillars, voles, hummingbirds, lichen, fungus, glowworms, frost, dewdrops, spider webs, wild fungi is detailed and her descriptions are elegant, educational, and a pleasure to read."
--OSU Press reviewer
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