How Blue Bird Gulch Came to Be
Joy and woe are woven fine,
A clothing for the soul divine:
under every grip and pine runs a joy with silken twine.
It is right it should be so;
We are made for joy and woe;
And when this we rightly know, through the world we safely go.
During the holidays in December 2009, my partner BD, our house guest Sara, and I took a spontaneous one-tank road trip. Following the directions listed online for fifty acres of land for sale, we drove three and a half hours from our sea-level Virginia Beach home to the Piedmont. Gently rolling hills opened out onto Appomattox Court House National Historical Park, where we could feel the solemn quality of the landscape while catching an occasional glimpse of the Blue Ridge Mountains.
Twenty minutes later, we turned onto a hard-pack red clay timbering road and reached our destination. We were off the beaten path. Snow cover softened the visual impact. We cautiously made our way, stepping over high mounds of thick mud and carefully taking giant steps over deep ruts filled with oil-slicked water. I considered the Japanese proverb that instructs, "When walking, pay attention to your feet." Do not twist an ankle in the branch litter. Be careful not to slip in the red mud. Leap over the deep trenches left by machinery.
We took our first look at what would soon become BBG, Blue Bird Gulch, our tree farm retreat. A 650-acre loblolly pine plantation offered a boundary to the east, 250 acres of mixed hardwoods to the north. Several creeks meandered through the center of the land. Large stately mixed hardwoods lined the creek, a reprieve for the eyes.
I said a silent thank you to the Environmental Protection Agency for having regulations in place that spared these old trees along the sliver of creek waters.
Up until this day, I was unaware that the Piedmont of Central Virginia is a rugged geology suitable to be farmed. Cattle and trees form a way of living as much as wheat and soybeans. Drive any road in this part of the state and witness the large flatbed logging trucks passing by stacked high with harvested trees.
The practice of timbering leaves behind deep ruts banked by large, twisted piles of waste wood, interspersed with shallow puddles and stumps that are either flush or up to waist-high, depending upon how suitable the wood was.
In time, the earth receives sunshine and rain to soak the dormant grass seeds. Very quickly, the land begins to restore itself in earnest. For the next decade, BD and I have watched nature fill the void, invasive species rushing in and honeysuckle vine, wild grape, rose, blackberry, and poison ivy taking stage. The cut trees coppice in earnest, and everywhere, a tangled and impenetrable mass of unobstructed growth reaches for the sky.
Our Back Story
I first heard my partner BD lament the destruction of open space and forest land in the name of “development” when we took a walk along an Emerald Necklace Park trail in 1982. I, too, had a dream of living with a deeper connection to the land. As a young girl, I found my place in the world while exploring John Muir woods, a slice of creek and suburban forest behind my elementary school named after the pioneering naturalist. As an aspiring artist, I dedicated myself to the art of homesteading as much as I did the language of art and the understanding of color theory. I began the practice, continued to this day, of composting my kitchen and yard waste. I baked bread, made yogurt, raised Rhode Island Reds, and cared for a large organic garden. I purchased two 6-acre parcels of land in Maine using the proceeds of the first large sale of my paintings. One piece of land, a deep-water coastal, rock-strewn wooded lot on Frenchman’s Bay was just twenty minutes by skiff from Acadia National Park.
It felt natural for me to be inspired by BD’s dream to one day, “buy that empty corner lot or purchase that bulldozed construction site and allow the land a return to its natural state.” I championed her forward-looking vision of repurposing empty big-box stores as prime locations for community hydroponic gardens. As my parents soon pointed out, “You two are made for each other.”
That December road trip in 2009 was activated by BD mourning the sale of her family farm. The beautifully renovated brick 1800’s farmhouse in the Michigan ‘thumb’ near Lake Huron was filled with antiques and collectibles. Following the death of both parents, the contents had been auctioned off, along with the house, old large beamed barn, the woodlot thinned by Amish horse and skids, and the land that had held dairy cows before being transitioned to soybean fields.
Recognizing her sadness, BD’s sister suggested that she could seek out a farm of her own, rather than lament the loss. This spark of inspiration led to our day trip to central Virginia.
This 50 acres was deeply scarred. We knew nothing about what lay ahead. We could see, though, as we trudged the deep ruts and slush-filled depressions, that the bones of the land were good. There was water. We could plant more trees. We could follow the dream.
BD made a bid for the purchase of the ravaged land. Two months later, negotiations were complete. On February 19, 2010, BD signed the papers and registered the land as a tree farm with the U.S. Farm Bureau. In the first month, a work crew planted 7000 boot-high loblolly pines seedlings on a corner of the land.
Our 50-acre tree farm retreat teaches us more than we could have imagined. We have become familiar with the cycles and rhythms of insects and animals: the carpenter bees abound in April and May; the deer flies descend in June along with the firefly magic; the bear visits the barren bird-feeding station in August, bringing her cubs through in hopes of finding sunflower seeds for a snack.
In our first year, BD constructed 12 blue birdhouses, which we positioned around the property, welcoming the many bluebird pairs that moved in to raise their young. Within a year or two, the black snakes had also learned to visit the nests, eating the babies like we eat snack food. We wrapped the posts with the barbed wire that had formerly crisscrossed the land.
About five years into the experiment, the land was well on its way to becoming a coppiced young forest. Our wildlife camera, activated by motion, revealed deer establishing paths, that I in turn widened for hiking, as well as bobcats, foxes, bears, and wild turkeys. Upland game birds flushed as we walked the land.
The Unfolding Story
2021 marks the eleventh anniversary of our tree farm/retreat adventure. Like the young forest growing up around us, we have grown in our dedication to protect and respect this 50-acre "room without a roof." Less than a year after we purchased the land, BD had a quarter mile road put in and a 20-foot-long shipping container delivered to move our camping gear to a protected, rodent-proof secure location. In 2012, after fully connecting with the land through our frequent over-night and long-weekend tent camping stays, BD contracted with a local carpenter and our 16 by 24 foot cabin replaced the tent.
BD built an additional porch, giving us an east- and a west-facing covered outdoor area for cloud watching from the hammock. BD then constructed a free-standing eight by eight foot outhouse for the Nature’s Head composting toilet and the indoor/outdoor sun shower.
We remain off-grid, nestled back in a wild and secluded zone where our laboratory continues to burgeon and grow. We have a propane refrigerator and fireplace, we use solar lights, and recharge our cell phones and my laptop with a deep cell marine battery. In 2014, I had a small-works studio built. This workspace and guest house is where I sit and write our story today.
In 2010, every view shocked us with the destructive aftermath of a forest gone. Yet over the course of eleven years, we have formed an intimate relationship of care-taking and stewardship with this now burgeoning landscape. In this personal outdoor laboratory, we have experienced firsthand the relentless urge of the earth to repair and regenerate.
Cloud-watching by day and star-gazing by night, we celebrate the return of a young forest and bluebirds, turtles, toads, titmice, fence post lizards, black snakes, fox, coyote, deer, bobcats and bears. Progress without pressure, is what this Blue Bird Gulch has taught us.
Wonderful story, even when I know the overview. Thanks for sharing.