Welcome to Anathoth
a community of homesteaders and activists
By Countryside Staff
Composting toilets. Solar power. Almost two acres of organic gardens, and a four-season greenhouse. Wood heat and woodburning water heaters. Greywater systems and owner-built homes. Working only two or three days a week at outside jobs for pay. Spending much of the rest of your time on volunteer work, and routinely doing time in jails.
Sound like the ideal homestead life? (Well, except for the jails, but we’ll come to that later.)
In northwestern Wisconsin it’s not unusual to see a string of fire number signs or mail boxes clustered at what otherwise would seem to be ordinary driveways, leading to unseen cottages beyond forested hills. This region of lakes and forests is vacationland.
But one driveway off Round Lake Road, near Luck in Polk County, doesn’t lead to a lake, or to summer cottages. Instead, it ends at a 100-year-old log home, modified with an attached greenhouse and solar panels. Nearby is a more modern building, but also built in a homestead style. Only later do you learn that there are other homes nearby, along a path skirting a forest of mixed hardwoods. In the nearly two-acre garden are two more greenhouses, along with raised beds and huge compost bins. To one side is an outdoor solar shower.
Near that, on a balmy day in late March, a group of people are pouring maple sap into a 100-gallon black pan, or stoking the roaring fire beneath it. As you approach and introduce yourself, one of them hands you a cup of maple coffee coffee made with maple sap instead of water.
Welcome to Anathoth Community Farm.
Anathoth” is a biblical reference to a place of refuge, which this intentional community certainly is. Not only for its inhabitants, but for its constant stream of visitors. Earlier in the week, it hosted nine students from the University of Illinois on an “alternative spring break,” an annual event where college students study such topics as non-violent resistance. Before that, it was the site of a field trip, when 50 local second graders learned about making maple syrup, simple and sustainable living, and more. An exchange student from Brazil currently calls Anathoth home, and many others come and go.
There is much to see and learn about here. Our guide is Mike Miles, a sinewy 46-year-old we first met as an expert on restoring pioneer log buildings. He is, it turns out, much more.
The two-acre organic garden, only about half of which is currently used, portrays the purpose and scope of the entire community. It’s a group project. It is the source of much of their food. It provides a small income, from sales at farmers’ markets, and it is being expanded to include more people through a CSA (community supported agriculture) program.
But in addition, much of the produce feeds others in need, particularly those displaced by wars in their homelands.
While just one aspect of Anathoth, this clearly illustrates its main thrust. Mike Miles, who founded the community, says their fundamental purpose is “to make as little impact as possible on the planet.” He might have added, “and to make as big an impact as possible on people,” with the main emphasis on eliminating violence.
It’s unusual to see remay covering raised beds in March in growing zone 3. But peeling back one corner of the gauzy material, Mike reveals sprightly dark green leaves of spinach that not only survived -30º temperatures: they produced food well into winter, and have come back long before it’s possible to even work in “normal” gardens. The remay also covers onions and strawberries. Mike finds that remay protects the strawberries better than mulch and it also deters deer from destroying crops.
There is also spinach-and much more-in the greenhouses. A favorite is maché, or corn salad, which is popular in Europe. Americans used to know about such winter-hardy plants, including dandelions, Mike explains, but they became spoiled by greens imported from California and even other countries. The greenhouses produce salads well into winter, and since the ground inside them never freezes, carrots are easily pulled year-around.
Bales of hay placed around the greenhouse perimeters keep the ground from freezing, so there is no ground frost outside to penetrate the soil inside the greenhouse.
But there are hay bales everywhere. The farm has a 15-acre hay field and ses 600-700 bales a year to insulate building foundations in winter and mulch the gardens. Potatoes are grown under a deep mulch of hay. “Other people grow hay to feed animals,” Mike observed. “We grow it to feed soil microorganisms.”
The greenhouses are made of metal tubing covered with Tufflite IV 308 plastic, which has a five-year life expectancy. One interesting feature is the spring-loaded track that secures the ends of the plastic. The plastic is placed in the metal track, and special springs hold it firmly in place. This is not only stronger, faster and easier than stapling or nailing lath over the sheeting, but it makes moving the greenhouses or replacing the plastic, literally, a snap.
One of the greenhouses sports another unusual feature. It’s built on wooden tracks, so it can easily be moved. An ardent Eliot Coleman fan, Mike credits “the four season gardener” with this idea.
In March, this greenhouse still shelters greens that have wintered over, such as maché and spinach. Early spring greens will soon be planted in the spaces where other plants have died out.
The space outside of it-the same size as the greenhouse, but down the track-will be worked up, and a legume cover crop planted.
In mid- to late May, tomatoes, melons, peppers, eggplant and other warm weather crops will be planted in the greenhouse, where they’ll spend the summer enjoying the heat. The ends can be removed, (see photo) so no mechanical ventilation is needed.
In July, the cover crops are turned under and the winter crops, mostly greens and other cool season vegetables, are planted in that space.
In fall, usually October, the inside, warm-weather plants are declared done. This is when the greenhouse is moved its own length down the track, to cover the winter garden that was started in July.
“The following year you do it all again, so the summer/winter positions switch every year,” Mike explains.
“Now, everybody is waiting for the first asparagus,” he notes, passing a huge asparagus bed still covered with the ubiquitous hay.
It shouldn’t be long. The 2,000 garlic cloves planted last fall are already showing green.
After a day of sweating in the garden, a hot shower is close at hand. An outdoor solar shower is only a few steps away.
This consists of a simple wooden enclosure, with two discarded water heater shells that are painted black. A garden hose is connected to the bottom of one tank. The pressure forces warm water in one tank into the other, where it’s further heated, and then out through a shower head. “The only trouble is, sometimes it gets too hot, and you can’t mix it with cold.” If this were a serious problem, it could easily be remedied with a few more pipe fittings.
There is also a shower in the “water house,” which contains the laundry. There, the water is heated by a homemade woodburning water heater, which is fired by scraps from nearby wood product industries.
The Water House
The water house is so-called because it’s the only building on the farm with a septic system, and it contains the shower and laundry facilities, and a flush toilet. But that’s only one of its functions.
It’s also a dormitory for transients and visitors, and the office for the farm’s major volunteer program: Nukewatch. Today, Yvonne Mills is licking and applying stamps to a mailing, while John LaForge is finding typos in Pathfinder, the group’s quarterly newspaper. The bright, airy office is well-supplied with computers and other equipment, most of it donated by Nukewatch supporters.
Again, Mike Miles points out the “doing more with less” focus of the community. “This hardwood floor was the ceiling of a forest service building those windows came from a demolition project in Fond du Lac ” Virtually everything has been recycled, resulting in an average cost per building of around $13,000.
Yvonne interrupts her stamping to check the worm bin beneath the stairs, near the water heater and Fisher stove. Bonnie Urfer, an artist, has left her desk to hang out laundry-and add wood to the sap pan fire.
Like all the buildings on the farm, the office-dormitory-water house has almost a playhouse feel about it. Except for the office, spaces are small, but as efficient as a submarine. With nooks and crannies and openings everywhere, and plenty of natural light, there is no feeling of crowding or confinement. On the contrary, every new angle, every step, reveals new discoveries and interesting surprises.
Almost hidden in the trees on the slope south of the office, a mobile home serves as another visitor abode.
A path from the office door, up the hill, leads to Bonnie Urfer’s new home. Again, it’s totally recycled: it used to be a summer cottage. Rebuilt to include more insulation, it will also feature a donated Clivus Multrum composting toilet, but Bonnie will continue to carry water from the water house.
Further along the path is the cabin occupied by John LaForge and Barb Katt, also warmed by a Fisher stove. A visitor is struck by a beautiful antique pharmacist’s cabinet now lined not with apothecary jars, but large glass containers of rice and beans, flours and grains. It’s also a pleasant surprise to find, in a little 24 x 24-foot cabin at the end of a path in the woods, totally off-grid, with hand-pumped water and an outhouse a piano!
This is the only totally off-grid building on the farm.
Among the innovations here is an LP refrigerator that is half inside and half outside the north wall. When the weather is cold enough, the refrigerator uses little or no propane.
Back at the main enclave, a well-equipped shop is part of a multi-purpose shed. This also serves as the kitchen when the community feeds large groups of people as many as 300, on some occasions. “We’re pretty good at feeding crowds,” Mike says.
Next door is the 100-year-old log home of Mike and Barb Kass and their three children. The original cabin was dismantled by a man who was going to rebuild it, but changed his mind and donated it to Anathoth. The logs had been labeled for reassembly, but the labels had faded so badly they were of little help. However, the craftsmanship was so superb that it went back together without any major problems.
An attached greenhouse extends from the basement, which is dug into the hillside. One section of glass protects not plants however, but a solar water heating panel. This consists of black-painted copper pipes, sweated in a grid, and covered with a sheet of black metal. When there’s enough sunshine to heat the water, there is also enough solar energy for a small PV panel to produce electricity to run a 12 volt dc pump. Since all the water is inside the greenhouse, there is no need for antifreeze and a heat exchange system. And since electricity is needed only when there is enough sun to heat the water, battery storage isn’t required. It’s beautifully simple, and it works.
During the heating season, water is also heated on the Fisher stove on the main floor of the house. A similar grid of copper pipes is laid out on the top of the stove and covered by a metal plate so the stove retains its original appearance. This plate can also be used as a cooking or food warming surface. The stove-heated water is moved to the greenhouse with a small ac pump.
A greywater filter in the basement, adjacent to the greenhouse, is another simple, and simply brilliant, innovation. This consists basially of two plastic garbage containers, one inside the other, and pea gravel.
Water from the kitchen sink enters the smaller, inside container from a pipe fitted with a sock filter, like a lint filter on a washing machine, which removes larger particles. The greywater seeps through 18 inches of pea gravel, then through holes around the lower perimeter of the bucket, into the outer bucket. This has two inches of pea gravel on the bottom. The filtered water exits through a pipe just below the rim (and water level) of the inner bucket.
From there it flows, by gravity, to the greenhouse, a few steps below, where a grid of plastic pipes is buried in about two feet of soil, over a drainage bed. Slits in the bottoms of these pipes (not holes, which plug up, Mike warns) provide water for the crops that can be grown year around in this heated greenhouse. There were still ripe tomatoes on the vines during our visit in March, while this year’s crops were being started in flats that will later be moved to the unheated greenhouse outside.
Not all of the projects and experiments at Anathoth are unqualified successes. An 800-gallon tank, stocked with aquatic plants from the nearby Straight River, was originally used to further treat greywater between the filter and the planter soil box. That didn’t work out as expected. However, the excess water that drains from the planting bed is perfectly clean.
This system is only meant to serve the kitchen sink, but it could be scaled up to handle a much larger volume of greywater.
The cellar also houses a cold storage room, insulated from the rest of the house; two large community freezers; and plenty of shelf space for home-canned produce-along with the composting and cleanout compartments for the toilet, and a separate tank that holds urine.
Separating solid and liquid waste is a feature of the baño secco composting toilet. According to Mike Miles, one of the problems with more common composting toilets is excess moisture. With this Mexican-made unit, a small trough at the front of the toilet bowl directs urine to a separate holding tank, eliminating this problem.
The compost compartment is cleaned once a year, and the 3/4th of a wheelbarrow of compost it provides fertilizes trees. The liquid tank is drained, also once a year, with a hose and gravity, and mixed with water that irrigates the garden. (Yes, urine is sterile.)
Upstairs, the main floor of the log home reflects simple, sustainable living at its best. The Fisher Kodiak stove is in the center of the house, with a short stovepipe entering a beautifully rustic fieldstone chimney only a few inches above the top of the water heating unit on the stove. Mike thinks that since this heats more of the chimney, it results in wringing more heat out of the wood burned due to thermal mass. They use about two cords a year.
The kitchen, dining and living areas are one large, open space, again amply lighted by large windows on the east, west and south. A large, solid, homey, wooden dining table in front of the south window overlooks the gardens. Ed, a desert iguana who was rescued at a garage sale, lounges in a large aquarium. Above that is a massive hand-carved plaque based on a famous piece of Catholic worker art by Rita Corbin contrasting works of mercy and works of war: feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, giving drink to the thirsty, visiting the imprisoned, caring for the sick, burying the dead – as opposed to destroying crops and land, seizing food supplies, destroying homes and scattering families, contaminating water, imprisoning dissenters, inflicting wounds and killing the living.
On the north wall is another piano. (Guitars are also in evidence, here and elsewhere as well as at least one banjo, and an accordion.)
A smaller, separate sitting room is located above the greenhouse, with floor vents between the two. Mike marvels about the “warm, moist oxygen-laden air” that enters the living quarters from the greenhouse via those floor vents. On the north side of the house, a former wood storage area has been made into a spare bedroom.
The sleeping quarters are upstairs, with still more surprising innovations.
“We have three children. Children want their own rooms. We only had one.” And it wasn’t all that big.
But Mike managed to create three of the niftiest, coziest little bedrooms any child-or adult-could wish for.
He used one-inch boards for the walls, so as not to waste even one precious inch with studs. The beds are lofts, high enough to allow for plenty of study space beneath. The lofts are reached by steps that also serve as storage shelves, as the treads go all the way to the walls. One was made of a 4′ x 8′ sheet of plywood, providing 32 square feet of storage in an area of only a couple of square feet. The children enjoy the rooms, and many of their friends, who presumably have more space, are envious.
A web of relationships
Making the utmost use of small rooms-and small homes, and recycled materials-is just a part of Anathoth’s fundamental philosophy of making as little impact on the Earth as possible. But this, and simple living in general, is tied to other considerations in a web of relationships.
The group’s catalyst is non-violent resistance. Mike Miles and Barb Kass spent three years in Baltimore, Maryland, in the non-violence movement in the early 1980s. It was during a demonstration at a land mine factory in Minnesota that they mentioned their interest in finding a country place, and someone suggested the Luck location.
It was a 135-acre farm owned by Jeff Peterson and Nancy Stewart, who were also peace activists. Mike and Barb developed a plan for an intentional community, with the land held in a trust. In September of 1986 they sent a “funding letter” to 100 fellow activists, and in six weeks they collected $20,000. In the summer of 1987 the Plowshares Land Trust was operational and the first house of the fledgling community went up.
Not everyone wants to be an active participant in an intentional community, even if they favor the general idea. Mike’s brother Jim was one of those. He bought a few acres of the farm, near the road, where his family lives. Jeff and Nancy still live in the original farmhouse, on a few acres right on the road.
The second building, “the water house,” was built, mostly from recycled materials, about five years ago, and has been expanded since then. The newest, Bonnie’s cottage, is still unfinished.
The location suits them just fine. The area is definitely rural, but it’s within easy driving distance of some of the places where they concentrate much of their activity: Minneapolis-St. Paul (where they also have family), Duluth and Eau Claire, with large concentrations of Hmong and other displaced people (the Twin Cities metropolitan has a Hmong population of roughly 60,000 – the largest in the world outside Southeast Asia)-and Clam Lake, site of the Navy’s Project Elf. (See sidebar on page 47.)
In this context, the decision to work only a few days a week on paying jobs is not merely a matter of simple living, or even having more time to work on the homestead. (Mike is a substitute teacher.) For these people, it’s not even having more time for their volunteer work. Just as important is the satisfaction of not earning enough money to pay taxes-and thereby not paying for the weapons of mass destruction they oppose. They make sure they earn less than the taxable annual income: $6,800 for a single person.
It’s obvious, however, that living below the “poverty level” is by no means an arduous or demeaning existence in a place like this. Property taxes are about $1,500. Mike figures it only takes about $200 a year per person to live on. “Our biggest expense is the phone bill.”
The small Anathoth enclave organizes, coordinates and supports demonstrations to increase public awareness of nuclear weaponry and other forms of governmental violence. This includes land mines that kill women and children; Project ELF, notorious in the northland not only for its environmentally damaging Extremely Low Frequency (ELF) radio waves, but also its connection with nuclear armed submarines; all the way to helping feed refugees from countries devastated by armed conflict who are now living in such strange foreign places as Duluth, Minnesota and Eau Claire, Wisconsin.
According to the mission state ment of The Pathfinder, the quarterly newsletter of Nukewatch, which is a project of The Progressive Foundation (founded in 1979), “Nukewatch educates and organizes to nonviolently create an environment free of the nuclear industry and free of the weapons of mass destruction.”
This accounts for those college students spending their spring break on a farm in northwestern Wisconsin, while their peers were partying in Florida or Cancun. It explains the steady stream of visitors and temporary helpers. And it explains why, for these homesteaders, spending time in jail is an accepted part of life.
Mike Miles has spent time in Iraq, delivering aid to civilians in the “no-fly zone” and protesting the continuing-and illegal, according to international law-bombings in that zone. John LaForge participated in a three-week walk from the World Court in the Hague, Netherlands, to NATO headquarters in Brussels, Belgium, to protest NATO’s nuclear weapons policy. As the US bombed Yugoslavia, hundreds of people from 30 countries joined the march. John was arrested twice, once for “the impression of the intention to interfere with NATO.” Nukewatch has organized demonstrations to inform National Guard troops who fly bombing missions in the Iraqi no-fly zone that they are violating international law, and can legally refuse such missions. They track the disposal of nuclear waste. And much more.
“The struggle against militarism-what we sometimes call radical nonviolence-compels us to public and sometimes risky work in various ways,” John LaForge notes in the Spring 2000 issue of the newsletter. “It is this principle of the community that has seen the most evolution and growth among individuals.
“Each of us in our own way and to varying degrees engages in public speaking, research and writing, artwork and music, teaching, nonviolent direct action, and in some cases prayer. While we don’t share a common spirituality, we do share an unshakable belief in the efficacy of nonviolence nd its superiority to the proven inability of violent action to bring about real social justice. We hold so strongly to this understanding that community members have collectively spent almost nine years in jail and prison for anti-war and anti-nuclear acts of conscience.”
This too has further implications. John continues:
“When personal conflicts test and even sour relationships among us, I remember that we share this intense and deeply private commitment to nonviolence and nonviolent action. There are sometimes problems among us that have been verbalized in ways that are unkind. But when we remember our teachers, and their insistence on respect for the opponent and nonviolence in thought and word-not just in deed-we rest easier and know that we can aspire to resolve conflicts without hurting each other.”
Not everyone would want to live in an intentional community, not everyone would agree with Anathoth’s main goals and philosophies, and even fewer would be willing to be arrested for their beliefs.
Nevertheless, there is much to learn from these dedicated people and it isn’t all about greywater, gardening and simple living.
What is Project ELF?
Project ELF got its name from its use of Extremely Low Frequency radio waves. These radio signals are produced by pumping millions of watts of electricity into the ground at sites near Clam Lake, Wisconsin, and Republic, in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. ELF waves radiate continuously, through the earth and sea water, around the globe. They can only be heard by Trident submarines, deep in the oceans. Communications are one-way, from the command post to the subs.
Each of the 18 Tridents cost $1.9 billion, and each carries 24 megatons of H-bomb explosive power. (That’s eight times the explosive power used by all parties in World War II, including the Hiroshima and Nagasaki atomic bombs.)
In addition to its connection with H-bombs, Project ELF has raised many concerns about the health effects of the electromagnetic field it creates. Six of Wisconsin’s nine-person congressional delegation have condemned ELF, as have most of the region’s major newspapers. US Senator Russ Feingold (D-Wis), currently being mentioned as a possible vice-presidential candidate, has on four occasions introduced legislation to end ELF funding. The state of Wisconsin sued the Navy in 1984, and won; however, the decision was overturned on appeal. The Lac Courte Oreilles band of Lake Superior Chippewa has formed an expert research team that is studying the effects of ELF’s electromagnetic pollution on their federally protected rights to hunt, fish, and gather in the ceded territories, including the effects on plants and wildlife, water, and residents.