Dreams Can Come True!
The Ongoing Story of the Creation of Hyrdro-Electricity and Other Things in Hickory Nut Forest Eco-Community
By: Jane Lawson
I discovered the magic of these mountains when I first moved to Western North Carolina in 1976. Then I was a young “Back to the Land-er,” and along with many others of my generation I was able to find a deep contentment on the land unknown to me before that time. After several years I migrated into Asheville and eventually moved up North for a few years to pursue a graduate degree.
It seems as if many lifetimes have passed since those blissful days in the ‘70’s. I have experienced the joys and challenges of relationships, career, motherhood, and changes of residence that are part of a full life. And yet in spite of it all I felt a palpable void, and I dreamed of re-finding my home in the mountain wilderness of Western North Carolina.
Fast forward to 2003. My husband John was driving back home to Asheville from California and stopped in to visit a friend in Denver. He mentioned that his family was thinking about selling some property they had owned for generations in Gerton, NC. When John returned to Asheville, we wasted no time and bushwhacked our way through the overgrown forest that appeared to have had no permanent human inhabitants for quite some time.
We discovered a jewel, cut through by the boulder-strewn creek. Perched on a stone throne, I looked across the raging water to sandy beaches with mossy rock benches and rhododendron and hemlock groves. I imagined the massive rocks being tossed downstream from the Continental Divide by ancient gods in the beginning of time, when the mountains were so high that they touched the sky. I sensed that my dream might come true: I had found my long lost home!
John and I both felt an overwhelming desire to protect the property from the rampant development that was threatening these ancient mountains. We spent the next year and a half putting together financing to purchase this magnificent place in Hickory Nut Gorge.
As we began to steward the land, our dreams for it began to grow. In addition to preserving the vast majority of it in its natural state, we also wanted to create a safe haven where folks could live intentionally in a small community. We named it Hickory Nut Forest and envisioned green homes with renewable energy. Later we bought an old apple orchard adjacent to the property, adding the capability for growing our own food. Since we believe it is important to share the land with the greater community, we created 5 miles of hiking trails, and a few years later we built the community center and retreat site, Laughing Waters, for educational and inspirational events.
Down by the creek we discovered the stone ruins of an old gristmill that had washed away in the Flood of 1916. After seeing this for the first time, romantic notions of rebuilding the gristmill as well as using the power of the creek to create electricity arose. Our neighbor Hazel helped to fill in some of the history about the place. She and her family were the last to live in the farmhouse whose ruins are adjacent to the gristmill site, and her uncle worked in the mill, grinding grain.
We began looking for a way to recreate the gristmill. With a crew of friends we went to the farm country north of Greensboro in 2008 and took down two old log cabins built in the 1840’s, marked all the pieces, and transported them back to Hickory Nut Forest . One of them now sits next to the stone foundation of the old gristmill site. More recently, we added a new water wheel, and eventually plan to add a grinding stone so we can press apple cider from our orchard downstream.
We spent several years thinking about the most effective way to harness the power of Hickory Nut Creek while honoring and preserving its natural beauty. There were lots of details to figure out: how much water to divert for energy generation, what size pipe to lay, which turbine to use, and how to design everything within the ecosystem of Hickory Nut Gorge to cause minimal disturbance. This past winter and spring we installed the system. While digging the pond, we decided to clear out a meadow adjacent to it as a site for weddings and other outdoor celebrations. This summer we finally turned everything on, and the resulting power should fulfill the energy needs of Laughing Waters. We hope to use excess power for other things, perhaps for an electric car for use around the property and for trips back and forth to Asheville! Anything left over, we can sell to Duke Power Company. We have learned that there are many advantages to using hydro power. Besides being a renewable resource, water power involves no burning of fossil fuel to produce. There are no toxic byproducts or waste of any kind (all the water used returns to the creek). It is cheaper than solar or wind power, and once the system is built, all energy is free. We are close to realizing our goal of “net-zero” energy status, meaning we create more from renewable sources than we use as a community.
The dreams keep manifesting and we continually feel grateful and humbled by it. Our intentions are to trust this incredible process that is unfolding and see where it leads next!
Jane Lawson and John Myers are the founders of Hickory Nut Forest Eco-Community in Gerton, NC. It encompasses over 240 acres in Hickory Nut Gorge, 17 miles southeast of Asheville. It combines land conservation, green-built homes, organic orchard/gardens, miles of trails, and renewable energy from the sun, water, and wind. In the heart of Hickory Nut Forest sits the community center and retreat site, Laughing Waters. Jane@HickoryNutForest.com.