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Back To Nature

The Sequatchie Valley Institute teaches the joys of a nature-based lifestyle.



Deep in the forest on the Cumberland Ridge in eastern Tennessee, solar panels rise from an organic garden.

This is the Sequatchie Valley Institute (SVI), a 30-year-old family homestead committed to living and teaching a sustainable, nature-based lifestyle on a planet they consider addicted to overconsumption and the abuse of natural resources. Students from Memphis -- and all over the world -- come here to study energy-efficient housing, subsistence farming, environmentalism, and nutrition.

"We want to offer an example of a lifestyle where we choose to live in harmony with nature," says Ashley Ironwood, one of SVI's seven residents. "We don't want to preach it, but if you come up here and experience it, that's good."

On our visit to SVI last week, Ironwood led us down a wooded trail off the main house to the hand-built domicile where she and her husband plan to raise their first child, due in March. Affectionately called the "Mud Dauber," it was built during a workshop on cob housing, a construction method using clay, straw, sand, and water on a foundation of native stone.

It's the hottest part of the afternoon yet it's cool inside the house. Ironwood says the house is built into a hillside to utilize lower subterranean temperatures. In the winter, large southern-facing windows, now shaded by trees, allow the native-stone floor to absorb solar warmth, she says. The house has a central fireplace that also serves as a staircase to the loft, but Ironwood says they only needed a fire six times last winter.

Ironwood and her husband Patrick are the second generation to live in Moonshadow, the main house that's the nerve center of SVI. Patrick's parents are science teachers who moved here in 1977 as part of the back-to-the-land movement. Eight years later, in 1985, they completed their house. Since then, their original 200-acre homestead has grown another 137 acres and become the teaching center it is today.

Rough-hewn wood and a native-stone floor and fireplace give Moonshadow the look of a 19th-century cabin. But it's balanced with modern technology -- a stereo and fluorescent lighting -- and artistic touches such as stained-glass windows and a cold-water tub lined with plants.

Three-year resident John Johnson says the house is solar-powered except for the propane stove, refrigerator, and water heater. During some parts of the year water and energy use have to be monitored by watching the solar-power reserve readout, he says. But Johnson thinks America would be better off if more people were conscious of their energy consumption.

"Out here we have to be aware of what we consume," he says. "People in the city are not thinking about the coal burned or the nuclear waste that lasts 250,000 years. They just pay the bill every month and everything just happens."

Moonshadow strives to use manmade resources efficiently as well. In many instances "dumpster dived" materials were used. Johnson says the new greenhouse will be built with discarded industrial glass and insulated with thousands of defective tennis balls.

Memphian Denny Henke says Moonshadow is a perfect example of how man and nature can live together. He says his visit inspired him to bring sustainable living back to the city.

"Their way of living is more respectful, rational, and balanced. There's an artistic quality to the way they live," Henke says. "Mainstream America buys their lives at Target and at the mall. Moonshadow works with the natural environment to create what they consume. It's a lesson in self-reliance."

One of the most important features of SVI is the garden, which was designed using a concept called "permaculture," or permanent agriculture. Gone are traditional rows, the use of pesticides, and large monocultures, says resident Leigh Scherberger. Plants are weeded less often, mulched more, and allowed to migrate to a place in the garden that suits them best. The garden looks wild and chaotic, a lesson in nature's way of growing.

"We live in the forest and we want to keep as much of it alive as possible, so we try to fit many plants in a small space," Scherberger says.

SVI teaches what it has learned by hosting field trips from local schools and offering internships and weekend workshops. This past week, classes natural medicine, beer-making, and gardening, were taught, Scherberger says.

In describing how logs are prepared to produce mushrooms, she begins to speak passionately about how Southern forests are being destroyed and replaced with pine farms to make paper. She expresses frustration and anger at a system that wastes natural resources.

Several residents of SVI work in the environmental movement teaching film-making, to document environmental problems, and participate in "direct action" -- such as chaining themselves to logging trucks or denying entry to questionable meetings, as was done in Washington, D.C., for the World Trade Organization summit.

Jim Brentley came to Moonshadow with his girlfriend and her child after graduating from the University of the South with a degree in environmental policy. He wanted to learn survival skills, because he believes the traditional American way of life cannot last much longer.

By the time we finished our tour of SVI the sun had set and we decided to stay the night. My sleeping bag was in the car and I asked to borrow a flashlight to guide my path.

Brentley said I had options and pulled out two flashlights. "There's the capitalist flashlight that needs batteries or the communist one that you power yourself," he said, demonstrating a flashlight powered by pumping a lever.

I chose the hand-powered light and stumbled out into the thick Appalachian night, blissfully self-sufficient with a cramping hand. n

You can e-mail Andrew Wilkins at

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