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A life in the Big Woods

Fri, Nov 29th, 2002
Posted in Features

Author Nancy Overcott on a bench in the Big Woods, a restful vantage point from where Overcott observes the bird and animal life she writes about in her book At Home in the Big Woods.

I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. Walden, Henry David Thoreau, 1854.

In one of the opening essays in her new book, At Home in the Big Woods, Nancy Overcott writes about meeting her grown daughter in 1985 for the first time. She had given her up for adoption many years earlier. Her daughters name was Martha and she was an aspiring writer. "We were strangers who were not strangers," Nancy writes. She was given the opportunity to read Marthas journals and essays. Nancy took note of her daughters "sparse, clear writing style," and her "quirky sense of humor" that was not afraid to "confront the dark side of life." As the two women grew closer, learning of the unique similarities they shared, Nancy decided that if her daughter could write, maybe she could too.

"Most children take after their parents," Nancy told me the other day, "but in this case, I took after my daughter."

I had driven out to the Big Woods in the rolling forested terrain of eastern Fillmore County to visit Nancy, who lives in the house that she built with her husband, Art, back in the late 1970s. It is a secluded spot and without a set of good directions I would have missed seeing the nearly hidden driveway that leads up to the hilltop clearing where the Overcotts have settled.

"Thats a brave thing to write about," I said to Nancy. "It must be difficult to reveal so much about yourself."

Nancy thought for a moment and then said, "Well, I decided that I couldnt really tell the story of the Big Woods unless I told my story as well."

The Big Woods struck a chord with Nancy and Art the first time they visited the area on a cold January day in 1972. Theyd been searching for a getaway from the Twin Cities, a place to call their own. They had the hippie-like notion which was prevalent of that era that they could live simply and support themselves "off-the land".

They had even toyed with the idea of joining a commune and visited one such settlement at Saum in extreme Northern Minnesota, where Nancy remembers that everybody was running around naked and that all the women looked to be pregnant. The group was living in tarpaper shacks and trying to grow food on their marginal land.

"We decided that we were too private for that sort of thing, we should have known better," Nancy laughed. "Im sure all those people are happily middle-class these days, though."

The Overcotts were inspired in their search for the simpler life by the classic book of rural homesteading Living the Good Life: How to live sanely and simply in a troubled world by Helen and Scott Nearing.

Scott Nearing was a professor who was fired from his college in 1918 for writing an anti-war pamphlet called the Great Madness, in which he pointed out the commercial and business reasons that the US was going to war. Nearing eventually moved with his wife to the backwoods of Maine and Vermont and spent the rest of his life (he lived to be 100) living simply and self-sufficiently.

"Everybody who wanted to escape to the rural countryside back then was reading Living the Good Life," Nancy recalled. "It served as our inspiration though we learned real fast that one of us would have to get a job."

The Overcotts purchased sixty-two acres of woodland for $7,500 and in May of 1972 they drove from Minneapolis to the Big Woods in their VW Beetle that was packed full of windows, blueprints, and tools. To make ends meet, Nancy, who had formerly been a high school German language teacher, took a job as a nursing assistant at the Preston Care Center. As they continued to work on building their house in the woods, Nancy found that she enjoyed nursing and decided to pursue a RN degree, which she completed in Rochester several years later.

Art suddenly walked into the room and handed me another book. "Here it is," he said. "This is the book that helped us the most."

The book was an instruction manual put out by the USDA entitled Low Cost Wood Homes for Rural America. "Its very practical," Art said chuckling. "Everybody in Fillmore County should read it."

"That whole living off the land thing came out of the leftist, political movements, and out of the peace movement," Art continued, "but for us and our character, it was much more personal. It was more of a day-in and day-out sort of thing. We werent related to any particular movement."

"Thats true," Nancy said. "But we still wanted to make a statement. We envisioned living without electricity and we werent going to dig a well. We were going to somehow use the spring water on our land."

The Big Woods that the Overcotts moved into had a colorful past and had long been the territory of a rough-hewn population of squatters, eccentrics and other hard-scrabble characters. It had a backwoods "Ozarks-like reputation", Nancy writes. "In the thirty years since we bought our land the Big Woods has changed and in some ways has remained the same. Most of the old people we knew when we came here are gone. More people like us have moved here to escape the rat race of the city."

"How do your notions of living off the land look to you now?" I wondered.

"Our idealism and hippie dreams of thirty years ago look unrealistic to me now," Nancy replied. "But I don't regret having them. We've succeeded in at least part of what we wanted to do. And they gave us the Big Woods for which I will always be grateful."

Nancy Overcott has traveled a great deal in the Big Woods. She has hacked trails through the thick underbrush and Art has built wooden benches along the way where she can sit and observe the abundance of nature around her. In her book, she writes about her observations and musings in the spirit of the great 19th century individualist and naturalist, Henry David Thoreau. She writes about her neighbors with affection and candor. Along her walks she meets hunters and fishermen; fellow bird watchers and Amish teenage beer drinkers.

Nancy is exquisitely in tune with the Big Woods. Its in her bones. Through her essays, she evokes a quiet sensibility and spirituality that is grounded in her strong sense of place. The book is both memoir and meditation. It is a celebration of wildlife and of home life.

Years from now, when our descendants look back and wonder how we lived in Fillmore County in the latter quarter of the 20th century and the early years of the 21st, they will find no more valuable of a resource than At Home in the Big Woods.

Currently in its second printing, At Home in the Big Woods, is published by Taxon Media of Lanesboro; and illustrated by Lanesboro native and world renowned nature artist, Dana Gardner.

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