In northeast Oklahoma County, in a grove of post and blackjack oaks, mulberries and poke bushes, Rob Elliott and Cynthia Wilson are homesteading five acres in the tradition of the Sooner forbears.
“I’ve developed a lot of state pride,” Elliott said. “I think there’s a lot of pioneering spirit here in this state and I think that what we’re doing speaks to that spirit.”
What they are doing goes by a few names, including homesteading or living off the grid. Wilson calls it “living outside.”
“It’s got a double meaning,” Elliott said. “It’s living outside the box, but it’s also … minimalist. We want to live outside in nature to the greatest extent possible, while still protecting ourselves from things like wild animals and insects, scorpions, cold, hot, rain, hail, all those things. So that’s our design philosophy – given all those bases are covered, what’s the smallest and simplest structure we can be in?”
Living outside A year ago,
Elliott and Wilson moved to this plot between Oklahoma City and Spencer.
They brought all their possessions and a large tent.
“We had our bed in the middle and all our stuff in piles around it and there was really no other space in there,” Elliott said.
Wilson said she’d always loved nature. As a child, she felt most comfortable at camp or reading outside.
also knew that we wanted to do something for the community,” she said.
“We wanted to have a space where people could go and feel compassion and
love and understanding and maybe grow things, undertake some large art
project — just be a place of refuge.”
lived in Peru for two years in a very rural community, very off the
grid,” Elliott said. “I realized we could live more simply, but I wanted
to use age-old wisdom and knowledge and also the latest greatest
technology of today — mix those together in a creative way to live well,
but simply and very low-impact.”
From that first large tent, Elliott and Wilson moved into a six-sided yurt built of insulated foam board. Later they built a 400-square-foot pole barn – a slanted steel roof on poles, enclosed on three sides – that sheltered a smaller tent.
recently, they completed a 200-square-foot living area, dug three feet
into the ground and situated under the back end of the pole barn. The
walls are sprayed with polyurethane foam, giving the interior the look
of an igloo.
“We call it the ice cave,” Wilson said. “It’s actually pretty calming. You can just come here and chill out.”
into the earth, the single room can maintain a relatively constant
temperature in all seasons. A fan and vent, yet to be installed, will
“This is designed for temperature extremes,” Elliott said. “If it’s too hot or too cold to be outside, we can be in here.”
ice cave contains a bed, along with piles of books and other
possessions. The front portion of the pole barn, outside the cave,
serves as closet, living room and kitchen. The structure is open to the south to collect passive solar heat during the winter.
environment is a big thing,” Elliott said, “but I think it’s not the
only reason to do what we’re doing. I think it’s a more wholesome way of
being. I’ve never thought so hard in my life, and everything is
problem-solving — real-world problem-solving.
friend of mine said, ‘The idea of living simply is just a myth because
living out here is anything but simple.’ But it is wholesome and
authentic and fun.”
Back to the garden
Beyond the pole barn is an experiment in hugelkultur, a German gardening method using raised beds.
brush cleared around the living area was piled together and covered
with top soil from the dugout ice cave. As the wood decomposes, it will
release nutrients into the garden for years.
far, the hugelkultur bed contains mostly uncultivated poke and stray
gaillardia. The couple looked sheepishly at each other when asked what
“That’s our dirty little secret,” Elliott said.
“We eat out a lot,” Wilson said.
“That’s the one thing: Neither one of us like to cook …. sometimes we do raw, but that’s not always completely satisfying.”
want to be able to grow our own food,” Wilson said. “Will we be able to
do that completely? Not incredibly likely. Even if we were doing 50
percent, I’d be pretty satisfied with that.”
They planted some greens and lettuces this year, but not a large garden.
year, we’ll do better,” Elliott said. “This year, we were just so
focused on our basic shelter and just now got it under control.”
they do cook, they use a small, twig-burning rocket stove. They draw
water from a neighbor’s well, but plan on harvesting rainwater from the
roof of the pole barn, perhaps as much as 5,000 gallons a year.
Secondhand solar panels, once installed, might run a modest refrigerator
and hot plate, and charge laptop and cell phone batteries.
then, Wilson charges her phone while at her full-time job at Camp Fire
USA; Elliott uses the Internet and electrical outlets at the local
than being reclusive or isolationist, the couple is quick to talk about
the social aspect of their experiment. They praise neighbors who offer
their water wells and advice on gardening, construction and wild pigs.
a reminder of how we used to survive as a society and a civilization,”
Wilson said. “It’s a collaborative effort; it’s never just you and your
partner. It reminds me of pioneer days; you’re dependent on one another,
not just for basic necessities, but emotionally and psychologically.”
they hope to invite guests to stay on their homestead to experience
life as it is lived by many people around the world.
can come out here and learn that this is how someone in rural Latin
America or Africa lives day to day,” Elliott said. “I think that would
be a really great educational experience and build up a lot of empathy
couple describes the homesteading experience — living close to nature,
building a simple shelter and reducing possessions — as nothing short of
hold onto stuff, to things, to ideas and patterns we have in our lives,
but it’s like a snake. You shed that skin and become something new,”
Wilson said. “I look at the world differently than I did a year ago when
we moved here. It’s a new world for sure.”