Solitude And Splendor: Living In The Schoolhouse In The Forest
Some years ago, I chose a very different way of living that would let me be as close to the wild beauty of nature as I could possibly be. I was blessed by wonder as I lived in an old one-room schoolhouse in the healing solitude and splendor of an endless forest. It was an amazing experience and challenge that I will treasure always. I was near trees, flowers, birds, and deer and as close to the beauty of nature as I wanted to be. I enjoyed the solitude I had yearned for despite some times of painful loneliness. I also welcomed the challenge of living well without electricity and a phone. Although I knew survival would be difficult because of the extreme cold of the Maine winters and the remote location, I could not ignore this dream.
My new home was a more than 150-year-old one-room schoolhouse with an attached outhouse in a very rural part of western Maine called Albany. It was not even a town but an area that fell into that official tax category of un-organized territory. This area of deep evergreen forest with fir, spruce, hemlock and pine and abundant maples and oaks also used to be known as Mud City for reasons that were real obvious during the spring thaw.
For two years, I lived alone here deep in the thick forest and surrounded by the White Mountain National Forest, which was designated by the government to be preserved. The nearest neighbor, phone and electrical outlet were a mile away on Flat Road.
I had often fantasized about living in a forest. This wasn’t possible when my twins were young and needed to be in school. I needed to be in a city to get work. Now my sons were grown and gone and I had new options about where to be. For the last ten years I had been coming up to this area often to hike back and forth on the Appalachian Trail, twenty miles to the west in the unspoiled wilderness of the Mahoosuc Mountains. I also became familiar with the nearby town of Bethel, Maine. And I took out a subscription to the local newspaper.
I began to dream of living in Maine as I avidly read the real estate ads. When I saw my schoolhouse with eighteen acres of forest advertised at an affordable price, my heart leaped. I knew that I wanted to buy it and live there even though there was no electricity, phone or indoor plumbing. It would be like living on the trail — but in a house.
My old schoolhouse remained square to the sky and quite sturdy despite the passage of many years and fierce winds and the various rodents who inhabited its walls and the crawl space below. Somehow they had been selective enough to desist from gnawing on the structural parts of the cedar frame. The schoolhouse obviously needed a lot of work, care and love. It was definitely a handy-person’s special. I was well suited for this project since I had carpentry skills and physical energy. I moved in and started working in the cold of winter.
I struggled with a lot of outdoor work in the summer when the air was thick with black flies. The schoolhouse became my artwork as I began to creatively correct the many years of neglect, clean out trash, dead chipmunks and mouse droppings. For the last forty years the schoolhouse had served as a hunting camp and most of its windows were broken and had been boarded up. Soon I installed a wood stove. I used oil lamps and candles and had warm light and heat when I needed it. I scrubbed and painted the interior, made bookshelves and a closet, and hung up my artwork. It soon was home with a peaceful aura. The best part was that I could look in any direction and see endless forest.
The land around the schoolhouse had a big granite outcropping called Codfish Ledge — a perfect place to sit and enjoy the views or see the stars. Slowly I succeeded in clearing the dense overgrowth around the schoolhouse. I was delighted to find that roses and lilacs began to emerge along with tons of bright orange day lilies in July.
Life Without GE
I enjoyed the work and figuring out ways to do things without electricity. I had the power of my own labor, my hands, my ingenuity and my ability to learn new things. As an artist, I always felt that using my hands was important to my art. Now I could see how this translated into the skill to live well in the forest where I couldn’t simply turn on a light switch or faucet. I discovered tools that worked fine without electricity. A bow saw cut wood with ease and in delightful silence.
Since I did not have electric light, I learned to use to advantage as much daylight as I could, especially during the short winter days. I would draw during the middle of the day when there was the most light. I could read long into the night with the light from a single oil lamp. In the winter, a refrigerator was not necessary with all the abundance of cold, snow and ice. But for other times, I learned to keep food fresh without refrigeration in the nearby brook. I also dried meat, vegetables and fruit by hanging them over the wood stove. In the fall, when the apples were harvested, I sliced them into rings and hung them with string from a pole hung horizontal to the ceiling. I had sweet dried apples that lasted until summer.
In the cold weather, I always kept a pot of water on top of the wood stove and always had hot water for tea, cooking or bathing. I had plenty of natural running water from the little brook that was just a few feet away from the schoolhouse. Miraculously, it never froze even in the coldest parts of the winter when its edges were ringed with lacy scallops of ice. I usually carried in a bucket of water each day, which was all I needed. There was a spring nearby with crystal clear drinking water if I wanted to tramp though the woods a bit. But if the snow was really high and too thick to walk through, I would just reach out the door with a kettle and scoop up some of it to melt.
Of course, I did not have any worries about freezing pipes. There were none. For the first time since I can remember, I had no utility bills! I liked the free feeling of being self-sufficient here. The old outhouse worked just fine although I did have to get used to it. For a while, I instinctively wanted to flush it. I learned to throw in ashes from the wood stove to keep the smell down in the warmer months. I replaced some of the loose rotting boards around its base, which I then covered with wire mesh to keep out critters. I liked the simplicity of using the outhouse and was aware that the waste would simply and safely biodegrade into the forest soil.
I knew I was in the right place to escape the chaos and clutter of modern life. I was intentionally living as if I were here one hundred years ago. I was comfortable and wanted nothing material. I needed to be in this place of peace with no television, telemarketing, junk mail, sound bites, sit-coms, phones and all the other stuff that I could never escape in the city. I could sit quietly here and experience the wonder of dusk and hear the birds sing lullabies to each other. I could just sit around the wood stove calm in my aloneness or with friends, like it was long ago.
A Gallery Of Natural Art
In the forest I had plenty to see and experience. I was always exploring the forest and inside I could look out the windows and watch the weather, the tall tops of the pines singing in the wind, or the chattering chipmunks and the squawking blue jays that woke me up looking for their breakfast in winter. I got National Public Radio loud and clear on a battery-powered radio which was news enough with nice stretches of classical music. I played my guitar with zestful energy and sang with full voice since the nearest other human was a mile away. I enjoyed all the books I needed from the library in town.
As an artist I felt inspiration clearly, free from distracting noise and static. I was immersed in feelings of wonder and beauty. On clear nights the shimmering of the stars into infinity made me feel like a speck in the perfection of the cosmos. Each month and season had its special delights. The snow wrought magical transformations in the forest turning it into a different planet. When the moon was shining, I was delighted to see everything so perfectly in light blue shadow touched by pure magic. I have even been able to read by moonlight. In the city I never could experience moonlight so intensely because of all the competition from electrical lights.
The drama of the seasons unfolded continuously. Through March and April, the ice and snow slowly melted. I began to see the leaves emerge tiny bit by bit out of their tight coil in the buds on the branches. Then everything became a rich tapestry of many shades of green as all the leaves filled the branches, and moss and ferns covered the soft ground. In May and June, the lilacs and roses began to bloom and scent the air. Soon the black flies and mosquitoes arrived in thick numbers as the days became long and warm with endless twilight. I would sometimes hear the clanging hoof beats of the local moose, themselves out for a stroll at dusk.
In the summer flowers burst into extravagant bloom, including those planted decades ago. Wildflowers sprung up everywhere there was a patch of sunlight. Tiny humming birds appeared out of nowhere and hovered around the lilies sounding like huge bees. August brought an abundance of juicy wild blackberries, the favorite food of the black bears that lived nearby. The colors of the leaves changed and the winds created showers of red, orange and gold. Then back to winter in the cycle of seasons.
The road to the schoolhouse was not plowed in the winter and blocked with snow from late November to May. Often the snow could be over the height of my knees. No vehicles could get through this. The only people that passed by were a few cross-country skiers. My friend, Laurie, would ski by now and then and have tea. If I needed to go to town to the library, the supermarket, to church, or to visit friends, I walked in and out a mile to the paved part of the road where it was plowed and where I parked my car in winter. It usually took me about a half hour to do this and I followed tracks left by skiers.
I had thought that having to walk in and out in the snow would be a hardship, but I began to enjoy it as an ever deepening experience of the winter stillness of the forest. I came to know the road well and even in the darkness of night, my feet would confidently follow its length to the comfort of my schoolhouse. The snow and the moon glowed so much I never really needed to use my flashlight.
In the deep winter, the schoolhouse was a cocoon. In the hot summer, it was a cool cave. I liked the slowness of life here. I did not have to rush anywhere in the morning. As I enjoyed deeply the beauty of nature and the seasons, I could notice all the subtle changes that happen so slowly, like the new growth on the top of a baby evergreen tree and the new sound of running water as spring warms the earth. All these details were clear evidence of the power of the master artist creator.
I spent a lot of time in the vast forest just walking about, following old roads and stone walls and getting mildly lost now and then. I was happy snug in my schoolhouse, drawing and painting the endless beauty I experienced here. I touched the many textures of the tree barks. I drunk in the moonlight shadows of the trees at night on the snow in the winter stillness, the delicate rustle of the beech leaves, the white incandescence of bare birch branches gleaming in the midday sun and the ridge to the west that dissolved to a purple shimmer at dusk. These things were priceless and I felt so rich and blessed to be able to experience them here and truly blessed by wonder.
Maria Termini is an artist and singer-songwriter. Her artworks have been widely exhibited and are in the collections of many non-profit organizations, as well as the Boston Public Library and the Fogg Museum. This article is excerpted from Maria Termini’s forthcoming book, Solitude and Splendor: Living in the Schoolhouse (Publish America). She can be reached at email@example.com.