MATFIELD GREEN, Kan. — In late December 1999, as a nervous nation fretted about what might happen if computers went haywire when they switched over to 2000, Carole Brown of Westwood Hills, Kan., loaded her possessions into two station wagons and a pickup and caravanned with her parents and brother to her new home, a 12-by-17-foot cabin with no running water or electricity in a desolate corner of the Flint Hills in Kansas.
Brown, a classically trained bassist two days shy of turning 40, had no car and no cellphone — only a desire to remove herself from a civilization she felt out of sync with and a longing to steep herself in the beauty and comfort of nature.
The rancher who owns the land the cabin sits on figured she’d last six months, tops. Her friends gave her three months.
Twelve years later, she’s still there.
Before daybreak on a Tuesday morning in late May, a familiar CLICK-CLICK-CLICK-CLICK-CLICK awakens Brown. Leopard frogs.
Brown opens her eyes and shifts under the weight of her two slumbering rat terriers, causing the hammock to sway. She watches as the inky blackness overhead melts into a wash of deep violet overlaid with a lacework of hackberry branches.
The first sunrays bring up a dewy sweetness in the air, and the frog chorus is replaced by the calls of Dickcissels, bluebirds and great crested flycatchers.
When Piglet and Pooh, the terriers, wake, Brown swings her legs over the side of the hammock and plants her bare feet on the cool hard dirt. Her pajama top flaps against her waist in the wind.
She walks over behind the compost bin to the commode: a 5-gallon plastic bucket topped with a plastic seat the creek brought her one day.
Brown gathers her bedding and hangs it over a tree-limb fence. She steps across the stone threshold into the cabin and washes her face in a metal pan of water, then changes into jeans and a T-shirt.
The first thing that strikes you when you meet Brown is her un-hermitlike appearance. She has a petite frame, the upright carriage of a dancer and hip-length blond hair tied back in a ponytail.
Her jeans are patched in several spots but clean. The seams of the repairs are neat and straight.
She wears no makeup, but her honey-brown eyes, set off by thick brows, pull you in with their beauty and intensity.
With a match, she lights the stove and places a pan of water on to boil for tea.
The 200-square-foot cabin is small but abundantly stocked. Every wall is covered with open shelving and recessed cupboards that house hundreds of books, dozens of cassette tapes, a battery-powered tape player, clothing and scores of glass Mason jars containing beans, rice, spices and dried fruit.
Hooks on the rafters hold a battery of cast iron skillets and saucepans that would have done Julia Child proud.
A pair of snowshoes, skates and a hockey stick are also suspended aloft.
“I like to play hockey with the dogs when the creek freezes,” Brown explains.
As if on cue, the dogs enter the cabin together and run straight to the “kitchen” corner and begin yapping at the base cabinet.
“So much for peace and tranquility in the morning,” Brown says, laughing.
Brown plants pole beans around volunteer sunflowers, hoping the bean vines will climb up the stalks.
Done with planting, she sets up a new solar cooker, a foil-panel contraption with rocks and plastic bags in which she encases an aluminum pot filled with water and dried lentils. She has never tried this before and hopes it works so she won’t have to cook indoors as much in summer.
Brown returns to the cabin to pull on a pair of rubber boots and then wades into the creek to half-fill three 5-gallon buckets with water. She hauls the buckets back up and places them in the sun to heat the water for washing her hair and doing laundry later.
By midday, the ground, already showing cracks, is heating up, and the south wind is blasting harder than usual. The tall prairie grasses writhe in van Gogh swirls. The roar is disorienting, and dust, possibly from Oklahoma, cakes Brown’s skin.
The past couple of years Brown has been spending about five months a year, usually November through March, at her parents’ home in Westwood Hills, Kan.
It’s because she wants to spend more time with her parents as they get older and play music more — not because the bitter prairie winters are too hard on her 52-year-old bones.
“I like January and February at the cabin very much. I remember reading ‘Macbeth’ during a stretch of bad weather. I would read one act each night by oil lamp with the wind howling outside. I would go outside in the blue light of the moon and come into the orange light of the candles and the oil lamp and cook Indian curries on my wood stove and think, ‘Ahhhhhhhh.
This is great.’”
Her stays in Kansas City are in winter because that is when she can get the most music gigs. She has discovered her simple life costs more than she had thought it would.
Brown pays no rent or utilities and makes most of her clothes or gets them very cheaply second-hand, but constantly repairing and replacing her bicycle wheels and tires is a big expense — a set of spokes and a rim cost $72 and might last only a year. Bass strings are expensive, too.
And perhaps the biggest and most frustrating money pit is food. Brown has not been able to grow as much as she hoped in the face of the same obstacles that vexed the first European settlers who tried to farm this land: thin and rocky soil, frequent droughts and hordes of grasshoppers that feast on young seedlings. So most of her food has to be purchased.
Brown’s desire to live simply, as she puts it, has nothing to do with survivalist fears or religious beliefs. It is a response to what she didn’t enjoy about living in the modern energy- and technology-dependent world.
“People make it sound like I’m so courageous. No. Nothing else was working. This works the best for me,” she said.
Far from being a hippie or a rebel, Brown was a model student at Shawnee Mission North High School, where she graduated in 1977.
After high school, Brown attended Kansas State University for one year and the University of Missouri-Kansas City for two years, Mannes School of Music in New York for two years, took a master class at Hartt School of Music at University of Hartford in Connecticut, attended Queens College in Brooklyn and studied agriculture at Rutgers in New Jersey.
She never earned a degree, but she landed a job at Prentice Hall publishers in 1986.
“Living in New York City made me realize that if anything went wrong, you had to wait for an authority of some kind to make it right. Once I got home from work and flipped on the TV and found out the whole lower half of Manhattan was without power.
“It’s perfectly easy to live without electricity if you are set up for it. But if you aren’t set up for it, and you’re stuck in the elevator, you’re stuck in the elevator,” she said.
The job at Prentice Hall also soured her on the traditional workweek routine.
“I thought, ‘Why am I working so hard at a job I don’t like?’ I was giving almost half the money I made to the government and the rest was enough to pay the rent and buy food, but that was it. I began to wonder if I wouldn’t be better off growing my own food and doing things for myself instead of working and paying people to do things for me,” she said.
In April 1995, things were not going well for Brown. The relationship with the guy in Madison had ended badly, she owed the IRS and creditors money and, while she and her mother were visiting relatives in Winfield, Kan., Brown realized she had no plan for a job. She felt overcome with despair.
“My mom said, ‘Go to Matfield Green and see what Wes Jackson is doing at the Land Institute,’” Brown said.
Jackson, an early proponent of sustainable agricultural practices, had expanded his Salina, Kan.-based institute and bought properties in Matfield Green, southwest of Emporia. Brown’s mother dropped her off, and she stayed in a communal housing unit owned by the institute.
“I bopped around and met a lot of locals, but they never had much for me to do,” Brown said.
The following year Brown met a man at a party and Matfield Green came up. The man asked if Brown knew Jane Koger, a rancher who owned land outside the town.
“He said, ‘I helped a guy build a cabin there,’” Brown said.
And the guy who built “the hermitage,” as it was called by locals, had moved away to get married.
To get to Brown’s cabin, you drive out of Matfield Green, then turn onto a rock road and wind around easy, up-sloping S-curves for several miles until you reach a wide plateau containing nothing but grass, wildflowers, rock outcroppings, cattle and sky.
Then you clang over a couple of cattle crossings and look for an overturned bucket Brown has placed to mark the spot where you drive off the road into the sea of knee-high grass and flowers, but not too fast or — THWACK — large rocks will punish your undercarriage.
Now bump along a quarter of a mile downhill toward the tree line until you see a yellow cattle gate. Open the gate, drive your car through, shut the gate and park.
Walk 20 yards through the trees to the creek, roll up your pant legs and step carefully across six or seven large wet rocks to get to the other side. Turn left and follow the trampled swath through the hissing, dancing grass until you see the corrugated tin roof glinting in the sun.
The cabin looks different now than the day Brown moved in. She laments what she calls the Sisyphean nature of her rebuilding efforts.
In Greek mythology, Sisyphus was a cruel king condemned to roll a heavy stone forever up a hill in Hades only to have it roll down each time he neared the top.
“I thought there would be all this time to take walks and write poetry, and instead you are constantly re-doing things on the cabin itself. You try something and it doesn’t work, and you try something else and it doesn’t work, and pretty soon you’re on Plan J,” she said.
“Experience teaches, but the tuition is high.”
There is a real creature called a pack rat, or Eastern wood rat, and the Kansas prairie is apparently full of them. They steal Brown’s food and underwear and chew up her books.
The first year her terriers, excellent ratters, killed five or six dozen of them. They were getting in through the original floor, which was plywood sheets on 2-by-10s.
Brown tore up the plywood and dragged 676 buckets of gravel up out of the creek to fill the space between the joists. Then she put a straw bale mixture of heavy clay soil, manure, wheat flour paste, water and sand down over the rock. Rats still get in but not as many.
The cows are no better. Brown calls them “hooved rodents.” She has had to rebuild the fence five times after they’ve ransacked it.
In response to the constant incursions, Brown has moved the garden beds, the toilet, the compost bins, everything in closer and closer to the cabin, like a covered wagon circle.
“At first I was bedazzled by all the room, and I spread everything out. Now it’s a process of constant contracting,” she said.
Grasshoppers are a lesser pain, devouring her garden and munching stripes down T-shirts hanging on the clothesline.
Another adversary is the wind. It blows relentlessly, like a fourth-dimensional feature in the landscape. Besides making outdoor work difficult, it turns the return leg of Brown’s weekly bicycle ride to the grocery store in Strong City, 25 miles away, into a grueling ordeal. Loaded down with her purchases she must cycle directly into the blasting south wind.
“There are two long straight-aways that feel like wind tunnels. It’s a nightmare,” Brown said. The trip takes 2 ½ hours going to the store and 4 ½ coming home.
Still, Brown refuses offers of rides with locals. Cycling keeps her fit, and unpacking and loading the bike into a truck, then unloading and repacking it is almost as much of a hassle as grinding it out on the road.
Water is also a source of anxiety. There tends to be not enough of it usually and far too much occasionally.
Last summer the creek was too low and stagnant to bathe in, Brown says, although she found a hole to get water for drinking and laundry. She pasteurizes drinking water by heating it to 160 degrees on her stove.
When storms come up, the creek can quickly rise, and Brown is careful. But one sunny March day following an ice storm, she was caught off guard. Her father had brought her back from Kansas City and dropped her at the road with four armloads of provisions. She was able to get across the creek with the first load wearing her regular shoes.
When she went back for the second load she had put her rubber boots on. It hadn’t occurred to her how fast the creek would come up when the ice melted. By the third trip the water was too high for the rubber boots.
“I took off my pants and waded across hip high in this freezing, melting ice. I knew I couldn’t do it anymore, so I started doing triage for the final trip back across: OK, the cows will probably leave the beans alone but I need to get the cheese,” she said. She waded back across, hurried to the cabin, took off the rest of her clothes and warmed herself by the fire she had built after the first crossing.
To Brown, the ecstasy of her simple life far outweighs the agony. And the things some people would find the hardest to give up, she doesn’t even miss.
“I don’t understand why people consider indoor plumbing such a great invention. I see the most amazing things going to the bathroom outside. I saw a bald eagle 15 feet over my head one time,” she said.
She prefers, not endures, living without electricity. She sleeps more when there’s no artificial light to chase the dark away and feels like she’s living in the natural rhythm of day and night.
Eventually, Brown’s dream is to build a straw bale house from start to finish and then move into it, instead of trying to undertake improvement projects at the cabin while living in it, which requires moving everything out and back in over and over. She’d like to have a little more room, enough to store her treadle sewing machine and her bass.
“It would be nice to have friends be able to stay and have a sense of privacy,” she said. “Maybe several little small huts.”
She imagines that when she is her parents’ age she will still be living the same way.
“People say I can live like this because I’m healthy and strong. It’s more likely I’m healthy and strong because I live like this,” she said.
By mid-afternoon, the wind shows no signs of quieting. Brown decides to wash her hair in the water that is now quite hot in the buckets. She sits on a bench, leans forward at the waist, dips a small pan into the bucket and pours water over her long tresses, catching most of the runoff back in the bucket.
She towel dries her hair, then puts laundry in the shampoo water. Hungry, she checks the lentils in the solar cooker. “It worked! A major triumph,” she laughs.
To dodge the wind, she eats inside, sets a couple of mousetraps then goes down to the creek to bathe.
Toward evening the wind finally calms, and Brown takes a sketchpad down to the creek to draw plants for a while.
Later she walks back to the cabin, washes the dishes, puts dried beans in water to soak and brushes the dogs before taking the hammock outside and hooking it to the hackberry trees.
“In the city, you don’t realize how bright even a three-day-old moon can be. I love the people I work for and with in the city, and I like having a foot in both worlds. But I feel closer to the big story out here. This is as close as you can get to eternity without dying.”
It is still light out, but she feels tired and “bewildered” from the wind, so she’ll retire early tonight. But she hopes she can stay awake long enough to see the moon follow the sun down and watch the night rise.
© 2012 The Kansas City Star