David and C.C. take a break from putting up wood.
I remember several years ago asking David White where he lived and maybe something about what he did for a living. “I’m a homesteader up in Sandwich,” he replied. It was around a campfire, and I admit to doing a silent double-take when he said “homesteader.”
Having grown up in Alaska, I had met a few homesteaders over the years, and the term didn’t seem to match up to the person I was talking to. A homesteader? In Sandwich, New Hampshire? Furthermore, weren’t homesteaders anti-social? After all, they travel to the end of the road, opting for a tough existence in order to get as far away from other people as possible. But here was David, a participant at the New Hampshire Coverts Project workshop, a program that encourages community outreach and volunteering on behalf of wildlife and forest stewardship. David was also easy to talk to, curious about others, and clean shaven (the latter characteristic busting another homesteader myth – that of the big, bushy beard). And David knew of what he spoke, since in that same conversation I also learned that he has flown small bush planes in the Alaskan wilderness. I was intrigued.
Luckily, I managed to get myself invited to David and his wife C.C.’s homestead after that initial meeting. We were talking about their sugaring operation on the phone, and David asked if my family would like to come up during sapping and see the place. It was only when he sent a postcard with a picture of the sap house and a map of how to get there that I realized what a treat was in store for us. The card said, “Leave your car at the road. Walk in less than a mile from there. Snowshoes are a good idea.”
Since 1998, David and C.C. have been creating a homesteading way of life – from scratch – on 118 acres of forestland in Sandwich, New Hampshire. When they were looking for land to purchase and on which to build, David says, “we wanted a real community where we felt comfortable. We’re both New Englanders, born and bred, and community is very important to us. We liked what we found in Sandwich.”
A stand of sugar maples was also a key criterion in the search for the right piece of land. David grew up sugaring on his family’s land in nearby Wolfeboro, and he had the family evaporator ready to relocate to a new property. When we snowshoed towards the sugarhouse during our March visit, we noticed that the Whites collect their sap in buckets, and it was obvious from the maze of snowshoe paths that they carry it by hand. I considered the mammoth effort required, while my young daughter remarked that there sure were an awful lot of buckets. “Two-hundred and sixty buckets, actually,” David reported with a grin.
Like almost everything else you see on their land, the Whites’ sugaring operation reflects hard work. All of the wood burned in the evaporator is weeded out from the surrounding sugarbush and is cut and split by hand. When they acquired the land, the quality of the standing timber was not great. “We didn’t have many sawlogs of any kind, except for hemlock, so that’s what we’ve used for all the framing and sheathing in our buildings.” The property had been heavily harvested several times and then left to grow as a single-aged stand, with no weeding or thinning done to improve the quality of the growing trees. As a result, David has been slowly working to thin out the overstocked forest. “Many thousands of trees have come out of the woods since we got here, and there are still thousands more to come…sometimes it is hard to know where to begin, but I just keep at it,” says David laconically. The sapling- and pole-sized hardwood that comes out is used for firewood in their home or evaporator. David considered getting into the firewood business, but given the low quality of the trees and the handwork required, he considers the rewards (both financial and otherwise) too poor to make it worthwhile.
C.C. completes a cut on the Ross band mill.
The Whites have a management plan for their land that guides David’s work in the woods. Improving the sugarbush is a priority, along with diversifying the age classes in the forest for wildlife and for the future of the forest. To that end, the Whites recently applied for and received a cost-share grant from the Federal Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP). The funding will help create new patch cuts, improvements to their woods roads, and wildlife plantings in the orchard the Whites planted several years ago. David is doing all the work himself, however, so he has to keep on task to meet the three-year timeframe of the funding. “A forester has suggested a biomass harvest, to make more openings in a hurry, but I would rather not do that. We still have a lot of wildlife activity,” despite the even-aged nature of the woods. The forest openings and thinnings are meant to improve habitat for such species as bobcat, whose tracks range all over the property, along with deer, snowshoe hare, beaver, grouse, hawks, owls, and woodland songbirds. David hopes their habitat management efforts can serve as a model for other local landowners who are interested in wildlife habitat management. “We opened up a clearing when we first arrived and planted fruit trees that are now pretty good-sized,” says David. “And this year, for the first time, I saw a woodcock singing in the orchard.” Woodcock require dense young patches of forest and grassy openings for their annual spring mating displays, so David has added an additional acre of opening in the orchard (part of the EQIP project) to further enhance the wildlife value of the area.
But improvements to the forest have been a secondary project, taking a backseat over the last eight years to the building of the infrastructure of their homestead – the barn, the sugarhouse, the nearly complete house. The woods have provided the hemlock sawlogs, which the Whites have milled into lumber for the buildings with their portable sawmill. The Whites’ land had virtually no white pine for the finish lumber they wanted, but generous neighbors let them cut a few of their trees. The Whites have done all of the building construction themselves (David is a life-long carpenter), starting with fieldstone foundations made of stones found on their own land. Carroll County forester Peter Pohl describes David and C.C.’s incredible persistence in building the barn foundation: “I watched the two of them build that foundation from May until November, every day, working together. They had to find the rocks, carry them to the site, clean them, mortar them in place, and then turn around and look for more…it was exhausting! It would drive most couples crazy to work together like that, but they seem to inspire admiration in each other. They are an incredible team and succeeded where most of us would have quit.”
The homestead buildings are modest and utilitarian, but they also reflect an eye for beauty and skilled craftsmanship. The sugarhouse looks more like an architect’s dream than a sugar shack. It has diagonal floor-to-ceiling glass windows and a door latch shaped into two maple leaves, which was forged by C.C.’s brother, a blacksmith. Everything about the building is wooden, simple, and beautiful, but also highly functional. In the Whites’ cozy living space (in the back half of the barn, for now) there are open shelves, an antique cook stove, a few well-placed hanging pots, and a wooden airplane propeller hung above a window. The new house is small and open in form, but the details of stonework, framing, and a few unmilled trees as posts are striking. Form follows function on the homestead, but not by far.
When I asked them about their way of life, the Whites described their commitment to living self-sufficiently, sustainably, and with minimal impact on the planet. C.C. said to me, “I like to tell people that we haven’t always lived like this. It is a choice we’ve made.” They both had careers and travels and different lives before they moved to Sandwich, but they also shared the same vision of homesteading a piece of land. Now in their middle years, they decided to make a go of it.
David and C.C. walk from their new home
through the sugarbush that they
have been thinning.
The Whites live without electricity, and they grow or hunt for much of their own food. David makes an effort to hunt on his own land, on the principle that 118 acres should be enough to feed the two of them. “But I’ve been hard-pressed to prove that,” he chuckles, describing his lack of advance work over the past few years, which resulted in a less-than-full freezer. This year, he was pleased to report that he got his deer on the first day of the season, after scouting the property more diligently the previous few months. The Whites have been focused on completing the house over the last several years, and this project, done almost entirely by their own hands, has kept them from some of their homesteading tasks. “When we’re done with the house in the next year, I’ll probably start hunting for turkey, grouse, and snowshoe hare,” all of which are found in abundance on the property, says David.
Most years they are fierce gardeners, and they freeze, can, or store in the root cellar whatever they don’t eat fresh. They have kept a small freezer plugged in at a neighbor’s house, because they prefer the taste and healthful benefits of fresh-frozen food to that of canned vegetables and meats. “We weighed the potential environmental impacts of a propane freezer, an electric freezer, or no freezer at all. Using an electric freezer is a compromise we felt okay about,” says David. They have acquired and plan to install solar panels to generate their own electricity with which to power two small, highly-efficient freezers they found in Canada. The solar system will produce enough electricity to run lights as well as their new house, replacing the propane lights they had originally planned to use. “We’re not trying to live some old-fashioned life here,” says David. “Nor are we trying to merely ‘live off the grid,’ planning to make our own electricity so that we can have what most would consider a normal standard of living. We’re trying to make use of appropriate technology from both the past and the present to reduce our impact on the planet.”
David continues, “Our new home is a good example. Constructed on a foundation made of fieldstones found on site, and built with lumber we sawed from trees we logged on our land, it is ‘superinsulated,’ with R-45 walls and R-60 ceilings. Even though we burn no fossil fuels for heat, we want to reduce the amount of wood we need for cooking and heating. We still use ice for refrigeration, and we still pump water by hand.”
During what they refer to laughingly as their “spare time,” the Whites have experimented with different ways to make a living from their land. Given the low value of the wood (the best-quality trees are sugar maples, and they’re off-limits, to be tapped for syrup), the Whites have experimented with other forest crops such as shitake mushrooms, grown on the culls in the sugarbush. “It was during a two-year drought. We couldn’t have tried it at a worse time,” says David. The Whites have a limited ability to manage and handle water. Pumping and hauling their water by hand, they couldn’t adequately control the moisture of the mushroom crop. “We’re still thinking of other permaculture options for the future…maybe Boer goats to help us clear land, or sheep, could help supplement our need for protein.” When they are done with their house and have time to devote to raising crops and products from the land, David thinks they’ll be able to come up with something that will help pay their modest bills.
When they first decided to homestead, the Whites had what David refers to as their “grubstake,” money raised from selling his landscaping business, two houses, and David’s small plane. “That carried us for five years, including buying the land, living on it, and getting the barn and sugarhouse built,” says David. “And then…well, we ran kind of dry.” So since then, both David and C.C. have worked part-time off the homestead to purchase certain materials for the new house (a metal roof, the windows, insulation, hardware). C.C. worked part-time for a few years at a local bookstore, and David has gone back to carpentry, last year spending 10 of the 12 months working off-site. “That was long,” he says, but they are close to the end, and the house is nearly complete.
The more I learned about the Whites’ efforts, the more I recognized the depth of their commitment. It wasn’t obvious at first, since they don’t preach about it. Instead, it is layered over by a good sense of humor and a soft-spoken nature. My favorite discovery was the “icebox” that David built for their kitchen. He’s not sure how they might have solved their requirement for refrigeration had it not been for the serendipitous discovery of the annual ice harvest at Rockywold-Deephaven Camp in nearby Holderness, on Squam Lake. This is one of the last working ice harvests, and it has taken place for more than 100 years. David joined the ice-cutting crew and, for the last four years, he has come away each day of the five-day harvest with a truckload of ice blocks, which he stores in the icehouse he and C.C. built for themselves. A full icehouse (usually about 100 blocks weighting 130-200 pounds each) lasts all year long. The icebox in their kitchen requires, on average, 120 pounds of ice loaded once a week to maintain a temperature of 40-43ºF.
David lifts a block of ice that has been stored in the
Whites’ ice house for one year, covered in sawdust.
In 2006, the ice on Squam Lake did not thicken enough for harvesting until February, and even then the quality was poor, with lots of air in it – “snow ice.” For the first time, both the Whites and Rockywold-Deephaven Camp found it hard to keep their ice through the long, warm summer. They are realizing that warmer annual temperatures mean they have to cut more ice to make it through the year. It may seem like obscure evidence of climate change, but it is a very real and laborious dilemma to the Whites and to Rockywold-Deephaven Camp, who depend upon ice for refrigeration.
I still smile when I think about my own vision of a homesteader. “Hermit” tops the list of adjectives to describe one, but of course the Whites are not loners. Although they are relatively new to Sandwich, they are very involved in the community. When we visited their place on Maple Sugar Weekend, the crowds of friends and neighbors who hiked into the sap house to join in the event (and help haul buckets) were a testament to the Whites’ community connections. They do trail maintenance for the Wonalancet Outdoors Club, are volunteer stewards for a nearby Audubon sanctuary, have provided input throughout the White Mountain National Forest management plan revision process, and are members of Friends of Sandwich Range (which spearheaded a successful effort to add more than 10,000 acres to the Sandwich Range Wilderness). David is also part of a wildlife tracking group, called Bearcamp Trackers, who have been trained by Keeping Track educator Susan Morse.
“We are very interested in conserving and improving habitat for wildlife in our own backyard,” says David. He got help from the nearby, private Community School to map his local watershed. “The school was involved early on in GIS [geographic information system] mapping, and they have a cadre of ‘techie’ students who helped me create some very useful maps. The tax map information was digitized manually, but I think we all leaned a lot about the community in the process.” David has used the maps when talking with neighboring landowners about conservation. He and C.C. plan to place conservation easements on their property. So far, David has found six other landowners who are willing to do the same. Meanwhile, 42 acres of land abutting the Audubon sanctuary in the watershed have been purchased through local fundraising efforts and added to the sanctuary.
The Whites’ commitment to conservation in their town fits into what David describes as the “community ethic of careful land stewardship” in Sandwich. “There are many large private landowners who are committed to long-term care for their land.” And given the early success in talking with landowners in their watershed, the outlook for wildlife in this corner of New Hampshire seems bright. “Much of the process proves to be very slow and time-consuming,” says David, “but I see this as part of a bigger effort to protect the forestland along the Bearcamp River Valley, between the Sandwich and the Ossipee Mountains.” And though all community conservation projects require patience, hard work, and collective effort, it seems that these are just the sort of traits David and C.C. have honed as homesteaders – traits that will serve them well in their efforts. Conserving a watershed may be as hard as building a stone foundation by hand, but something tells me they will persevere.
Malin Ely Clyde coordinates the New Hampshire Coverts Project, a University of New Hampshire Cooperative Extension program that trains volunteers to promote wildlife habitat conservation and forest stewardship. For more information on the program, go to: www.nhcoverts.org.