To cross the bridge over the narrow, swift waters of the Iowa River is to enter a new and unexpected realm. Here, in the Driftless region of Wisconsin, so-called because glaciers were unable to push piles of gravelly drift through the hills, the terrain is sloping, craggy, forested, alien to the monolithic Iowan corn fields that I have left behind. With the afternoon slipping into thick mist, I reach a cluster of houses and a scruffy clearing in the embrace of silent woods. Two pigs root about in an area fenced off by live wire; chickens squawk from a nearby enclosure. When I exit the rental car, a lean black dog lunges at me, nipping my hands and feet, testing my nerves. For the past year, I have circumnavigated the world, researching the history of the human diet on a shoestring budget, often crashing at the homes of friends and strangers. Such visits sometimes yield unexpected insights into the history of food and health. More to the point, though, I am hungry and broke, so I fend off the vicious mutt and ask for directions at the nearest dwelling.
With the canine hassling me like the neighborhood thug, I hurriedly make my way along an overgrown trail. At the end of the path, I call out greetings through a screen door. "Ah, you finally made it!" replies Tom, an easygoing chap with matted locks whom I had met over the Internet. Next to him on the couch are a brunette wrapped in a towel and a dreadlocked African American in tattered overalls. All three are giggling over an astrology text. They ask for my sign and then laugh some more. Two naked boys with copious blonde locks, the very image of frolicking cupids, bounce amidst an avalanche of toy blocks and debris strewn over the carpet. Food leftovers occupy the table. Since it's been several hours since I ate lunch in Decorah, I shamefully steal glances at the leftover food, the homey odors of slightly decaying cooked vegetables lancing my empty stomach.
|“Megan and Tom's house has a fairy-tale quality to it, like an enchanted slum at the edge of the woods, inhabited by giggling dumpster-diving elves with enviable complexions.”
A slim woman outfitted in a becoming bohemian dress, with golden tresses spilling down to her waist, wanders over, introducing herself as Megan — frankly, under the circumstances, if she had climbed out of a seashell and introduced herself as Aphrodite, I wouldn't have batted an eyelash. Megan leads me around the community farm while her cherubs, Grouse and Oaken, gambol in the stream and garden. Eleven adults on the farm tend daikon, lettuce, beans, basil, beans, okra, tomatoes, onions, garlic, winter squash. Megan and Tom also tap maple sugar. An aspiring herbalist, Megan explains how she ended up living here: "Tom and I were driving around the country looking at farm. We stopped here expecting to camp. They said, 'There's a house that's free and we're looking for someone to move in.' " When we return to the house, Oaken pisses in the bushes and explains to me, in a tone of regret, "In the city, I can't pee anywhere. Not like here."
Megan and Tom's house has a fairy-tale quality to it, like an enchanted slum at the edge of the woods, inhabited by giggling dumpster-diving elves with enviable complexions. Tom points out that the furniture in the house was largely collected for free: "I try not to buy anything. I think about what I want: 'Ask the dumpster fairy!' And it manifests. I seem to find things as soon as I have a mental image of it. Uncanny." Tom also gleefully recounts the time that he chanced upon a deer that had just been hit in an accident, just as he was returning to the farm with an empty truck. He waited for the cops and lady to finish their paperwork with the smashed-up car, then offered to haul away the deer carcass — quite satisfactory meat, apparently. Another time, a friend bicycled out to hang out with Tom and showed up at the house with road-kill squirrel. "Dinner!" chimed the friend.
The next morning, Lauren, the African American girl, takes me for a walk up to an apple orchard on the ridge. I wear my rubber thong sandals, which grip my feet uncomfortably in the long wet grass, but Lauren strides barefoot and easily. The wiry mutt, no longer testing me, lopes alongside us, bounding gracefully through the shrubs and forest. Though everything around me seems an indistinguishable blanket of weeds, Lauren names plant species like a schoolteacher describing her charges: "Impatiens pallida
; Jewel weed is the common name. If you get a nettle sting, it's got all this water. You can rub it on poison ivy. Leonardus cardiatha
, motherwort; she's very bitter, helps with digestion, for the nervous system. Very calming, for the mother."
"You could spend years learning all this," I marvel.
"If I don't know a plant, it looks at me and says, 'Pay attention to me!' Two different kinds of nettle — Urtica dioica
is the better tasting one, in my opinion. This plant with the two leaves — Zanthoxylum americanum
. It's got spice on them. They have edible berries. Rofelus xolata
— wood mint. Smells awesome. This one's pretty wild — Campanula americana
. It's got an elephant trunk on it. It's an invasive... May apple, Podophyllum peltatum
... Over the past two years, I've been trying to find what my niche is, how I can be indispensable to the community. I think it's plants. They stick with me. Once I learn them, I know them always."
During high school, Lauren got mixed up with a bad crowd, and in college she was trapped in an abusive relationship. Now, though, Lauren feels secure at the community farm. She even finds time to work on agricultural outreach programs for disadvantaged city folks, delivering tomatoes and cabbage.
The next morning, I join Tom and his five-year-old son, eating breakfast at the table.
"Those hot peppers are very hot!" Oaken exclaims.
"They're medium hot," Tom replies.
"Medium is kind of spicy. But you would think of them as very spicy."
"I think when I'm 20, I'll be bigger than you. I'll like those hot peppers more than you. Or maybe when I'm 100. I'm going to live to 100 years old."
Tom and I laugh. In reality, though, this boy with the mop of brilliant golden hair has a better chance of making it to 100 than most Americans. Running around barefoot in mountain-fresh air all day long, away from cars and factories; eating plentiful organic vegetables, pork raised without antibiotics, the occasional fresh road-kill; drinking water drawn from a clear bubbling spring; doted on by an herbalist mother, parents who have ample time to play and chat with their children, surrounded by a community where everyone knows and supports one another — Oaken's life is bizarre yet familiar, about the closest anyone can get in America these days to a healthy ancestral lifestyle.
÷ ÷ ÷
is the author of 100 Million Years of Food: What Our Ancestors Ate and Why It Matters Today
. He earned his doctorate in biological anthropology from the University of California, Los Angeles, where he held a prestigious Chancellor's Fellowship. He also holds a master's degree in international relations from Johns Hopkins University and an undergraduate degree in mathematics from the University of Ottawa. He has held grants from the National Science Foundation and the Japan Society for the promotion of science, and his research has appeared in the Journal of Theoretical Biology
and Cross-Cultural Research