Friday, May 8, 2009

Weekend At Koviashuvik With The Knapps

(This took place over Sat-Sun, May 2-3, 2009).

In the last part of The Earth Is Our Home Series with Chris and Ashirah Knapp, we joined them at their home this time (which also serves as The Koviashuvik Local Living School).

Upon arrival, we greeted one another, all friends by now, and I handed Ashirah some anise hyssop from our garden, along with a large shell that their son Owen claimed immediately. Next, we were given a tour of their land and buildings, all managed, built, and designed by Chris and Ashirah. First we toured their root cellar, which is an earth berm structure, so it stays a uniform temperature year-round. This is where they store all of their produce, meat and dairy. Ashirah shared with us some apples from last fall, still fresh and crisp.

Then Chris showed us the saw mill that they decided to purchase after considering the benefits it would bring. As all of the structures are built from lumber from their land, it was important and necessary to have a way to mill and plane the wood without the expense of renting tools or hiring someone else to come in and do the work for them. Chris explained that they share the mill with a friend, so the benefits of owning the mill serve them and another family. As Chris explained, Owen demonstrated proper hammering. He's three, smart and so knowledgeable already.

A short walk into the woods later, Ashirah and Chris showed us the spring they use for all of their water needs, how to properly collect water and how to keep the spring free of dirt and debris.

Next, we were shown another earth berm building, this time a greenhouse. This building was beyond cool. We all wanted to go home and build one the second we saw it. Chris explained that the building was just finished last fall and that it's not being used to it's full efficiency, but this tidbit was pretty much lost on all of us considering the two of them built the greenhouse themselves and there were actual growing plants in it. I told my kids not to ever complain again that we do too many weekend projects. Inside the greenhouse is where the Knapps keep their recycled washing machine that is powered by bicycle. They are still working out problems with this set-up at the moment, ones that the Knapps will surely solve in due time.

After the greenhouse tour, we were shown around the five acres of land they cleared by hand where the Knapps keep their gardens, orchard, chickens, two small ponds and home. Once again, Owen had food on his mind as he dug over-wintered carrots out of the ground.

After a quick hello to the chickens, we toured the Knapp home. They recently built an addition and they plan to move the summer kitchen up the hill. The Knapp home has a small footprint but is huge on space efficiency. And it was built entirely by them from materials gathered on their own land or from sources like Uncle Henry's.

Since Alex and I have dreamed of having a summer kitchen ourselves, it was inspiring to see how theirs worked.

And the cabin itself, with all of it's efficient beauty.

After the kids had some time to run around the land, Chris had the kids help him cut down a cedar tree (where the new summer kitchen will reside). He taught us how to angle the cut, determine where the tree would fall and how to saw the tree. Once the tree was down, Chris scored the bark of the tree and showed us how the bark could be pulled away from the tree in complete sheets. The cedar bark can be used for a number of things, from constructing baskets to making clothing.

When the cedar bark was completely off the tree, Chris showed us how the bark could be trimmed and used to make an eye basket. First the bark is turned rough side out and then an eye is drawn in the center of the bark. Using a knife, the eye is scored, with care as you don't want to cut all the way through the bark. When the bark is scored, the bark can be folded and it makes the beginnings of a container.

Chris also cut a small pine sapling and also scored the bark and removed it in sheets. Between the bark and wood of the tree is a slick, mucous-like substance that can be scraped with your finger or knife blade and eaten. It tastes like pine, bright with a hint of citrus, and it has a subtle sweetness. Alex said this was one of his favorite things from the weekend.

Chris also showed us one more useful tree, the basswood. He pulled up a log from the pond where he had been soaking it, which is what one does to prepare the basswood for use. Considered a trash tree by some because it's a weak tree and not good for burning, it's valued among many more for it's incredible usefulness in making strong twine and string for nets and lashing baskets and for carving. The log was rather smelly after softening in the pond water for a long time, but as Chris began stripping back the sinuous layers, it was obvious why the basswood is valuable. Chris related the story of a Russian friend who associated the funky rot smell of the basswood with being clean as the friend used the strips of basswood to make a scrubby for bathing. For right now, the eye baskets we made using basswood are outside until I can make a similar leap.

As the day wound down, it was time to collect firewood for dinner, help cut potatoes, parsnip, carrot and onion for a mash and rhubarb with apple for a crumble. Everyone pitched in around the firepit and soon we had a delicious meal prepared. All of us were hungry and none of us stayed that way. There's something truly sacred and inspiring about gathering around a fire and shared meal.

And just because we were out in the wilds of Maine, that doesn't mean the Knapps are without fine kitchen tools. Chris demonstrated this amazing potato masher that strongly resembled a piece of firewood. We joked that this could be a side income for some of us, marketing said potato masher to Williams-Sonoma as uniquely Maine, hand crafted, organic, all natural and you know, real simple.

Giggles were had all around as Chris feigned uppercrust Yankee (think Thurston Howell, III) and sprinkled just-cut pah-sley into the gourmet mahsed po-ta-toes.

Here's the rhubarb apple crumble with freshly shaken in a jar (not whipped) cream.

There were smiles all around for this sweet goodness.

After dinner and clean-up, we used the waning daylight and all took a short hike to Ballard Pond. Along the way we spotted some moose tracks and scat and we might have seen some animals if not for our own noisy gang of urchins, determined to burn off every calorie they had just consumed at dinner. Regardless, the walk was well-worth the exercise and views. At the top of the wooded hill, we could just make out the setting sun over Mount Blue.

At the base of the hill was Ballard Pond where beavers could be seen doing the busy work for which they are so well-known.

Treasures were found at the top of the hill also. This old camp as well as this giant, abandoned long ago by some receding glacier, with fissures created by the knife blade of time.

Twilight was upon us and we made our way back to the gathering spot, feeling tired and ready for a hot cup of hemlock (the evergreen) tea and story telling before snuggling into our sleeping bags.

About that hemlock tea...some of us came to the conclusion that it must also be a diuretic after many of us had to get up several times in the night to water the woods. Since then, my research confirms this. Note to self, skip hemlock tea prior to bedtime. Eh hem.

Just in case you're curious, here's where we slept. Yes, it was cold, as it got down to at least 32F (there was ice on the chicken's water in the morning and our washcloths were frozen).

Our lullaby for the overnight was that of peepers croaking away and of geese down on nearby Mud Pond. Loon calls woke us in the morning and slowly people began to gather, once again, at the firepit--Chris promised us acorn flour pancakes for breakfast. We also had scrambled eggs ("thank the chickens", Chris reminded us), made with help from little Owen. The pancakes turned out dark and nutty, hearty and very delicious. Truly. Really good. Yum. With the Knapps' own maple syrup, yogurt made overnight by Ashirah (milk mixed with a bit of yogurt for starter, wrapped in a blanket, ready the next morning), the eggs and chopped apple, breakfast was yet another welcome and satisfying meal.

It was a good thing the meal was so nourishing, too, as Chris had plans for us. Where the Knapps have been clearing their land, it's rocky and was once wooded. It takes constant hard work to clear it by hand, but hey, that's what friends are for! So to work we went, pulling out old roots, stumps and those rocks of all sizes that seem to grow in the soil. With the work we managed to do in less than an hour, we had a good section of ground cleared and the beginnings of a road made. It was pretty amazing and we were all happy to help. Chris admitted he'd keep at it all day if it was just him, but with us there, he was reminded that we had made other plans for the day.

We gathered up some cedar and basswood, jam and the leftover pancakes and we bushwhacked our way down to Mud Pond to sit on its shore and construct our cedar eye baskets. We began the way Chris had shown us the day before, by drawing our eye on the rough side of cedar, then he scored the bark with a knife. Using a darning needle threaded with strips of twisted (smelly) basswood, we laced the sides of our cedar containers together. Once both sides were laced, we used a strip of cedar to finish the top of the basket, lacing it again with more basswood. For every unreturned needle, Chris would conscript that person for more root pulling and rock digging. He got every needle back. Olivia was the only one of our family to finish her basket, so the rest of us packed up materials to finish ours at home.

As it was nearing lunch time, back up the hill to the firepit we went for our last gathering and meal together. Ashirah had prepared a large pot of bean and millet chili which was so, so good and that with bread and butter and more blackberry jam on pancakes, well, yum suffices. For whatever reason, one of the kids began humming a tune which got all the other kids giggling and pretty soon, lunch went from a quiet affair to a raucous one. Calories in kids = noise and merriment?

More clean-up, dishes washed, final visits to the composting humanure toilet, tent and gear packed, last attempts at frog-catching, wrapped up conversations and it was time to say good-bye to Chris, Ashirah and Owen, and all that they had shared with us. I'm certain we'll be back to learn more, to contribute, to be a part of Koviahuvik. We left tired, having learned much, our spirits fed and our souls nourished. Thank you for sharing it all with us, Ashirah and Chris.


  1. Sounds like an amazing weekend, I admit I am not a huge outside gal (my city roots showing) but your descriptions made me wish I was there having the experience. The food sounded yummy.

  2. Wow, what an amazing experience..

    My soul has been longing for a more simple way of life. Your photographs really connected deep within me.

    Thank you so much for sharing. :)

  3. that looked amazing. all that "simple" living is actually hard work. it was really nice of them to let you all in to get a feeling for what it is like.
    i have wanted to do something like that for years... but the rest of the gang is not so into that. lol
    great pictures. :)

  4. It was an amazing experience, and yes, I think it can be tremendous hard work but there are also so many gifts, many that we overlook in our mainstream lives. Thanks, All!

  5. i wrote a comment to this, but it seems it didn't publish right! i said that this was truly AMAZING. the effort they put into it is incredible. i wanted to ask, the room in the floor where they keep food (it looks like that, anyway) - is it instead of a fridge?

  6. Amazing! What a wonderful homestead. I can't get over the bicycle powered washing machine. How cool is that!
    Yeah, any tea drunk late in the evening is a bad idea for me:)
    What a blessing to share this with them.
    Thanks for this wonderful post Amy!
    I'm getting so behind on blogging!!!

  7. skymring--yes, when they first built their cabin, that cubby in the floor was their cold storage, no fridge. Since then they have built their earth berm root cellar that holds all of the other cold-stored food. Their homestead and they themselves are truly amazing, indeed.

    Anet--I feel I'm behind on blogging as well, it's that busy time of year! Thanks for taking the time to read and comment, Anet and All!

  8. I'm overjoyed that my wife and I just got a chance to visit Ashirah, Chris and Owen last week. And even more proud that Ashirah and I are cousins. What an incredible accomplishment and an inspiration for friends, family and beyond!



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