Kathy Jacobson stretches as she walks out onto her balcony, followed closely by her two dogs, then takes a deep breath of the crisp morning air and says,
“Good morning, happy autumn equinox!”
However, it’s not a person she’s talking to. She’s talking to all of creation that can be found on her 65-acre slice of heaven that she calls home. Between the crickets chirping loudly at night, the birds that flutter by and occasionally stop, and the vast expanse of forest that covers most of the land, there isn’t much that can’t be found on Jacobson’s farm, right in the middle of the boundaries of the Wayne National Forest.
“This is my kind of paradise,” Jacobson said.
Life on her property might seem appealing to most people at first glance, but having a place dedicated to sustainability comes with its trade-offs. Some amenities, such as television and Wi-Fi are included, granted that the solar-powered battery bank has enough juice to last after the sun goes down. The water comes from the rain. And sustainability means that your waste also doesn’t go to waste. The toilets are up-cycled 5-gallon buckets that collect “humanure” to be sanitized through a biological sanitation system on Kathy’s farm.
Kathy’s primary focus on the land is to promote health and diversity of the forest while specifically tending to habitats for at-risk plants and animals. She’s a part of more forest plans and partnerships than she can count. They include the Southeast Ohio Woodland Interest Group, the United Plant Savers Botanical Sanctuary Network, the Ohio Bird Conservation Initiative and the Worm Farming Alliance. Jacobson’s farm is a Monarch Butterfly Waystation, a Certified Wildlife Habitat and a Certified Sustainable Forest. She has partnered with numerous public and private organizations to develop long-term stewardship plans while hosting educational tours and workshops. But Kathy recognizes that she is not the boss and is not in control of this situation. She’s very careful to consult with the real stakeholders before making any big decisions.
She calls the land “Broadwell Hill,” a homage to what the locals have always called her land.
According to Jacobson, humans have long been a part of the ecosystem on Broadwell Hill. The land was visited by the indigenous people, early white settlers, Civil War soldiers, Underground Railroad travelers, moonshiners, and workers with the extractive oil, gas, coal and timber industries. Later, high school students gathered on the Hill for parties, sometimes leaving their marks on the Beech trees. The land was also used as a trash dumping ground, including the skeletons of stolen cars that were cut apart for scrap metal.
History is important, Jacobson said. So, for her, it only seemed natural to continue to refer to the land as Broadwell Hill in her efforts to strengthen her “sense of place.”
“Where do you live, what is the history, what’s going on?” Jacobson wondered when she first moved out there. “So if the local folks called this Broadwell Hill, I wanted to carry on that tradition.”
When Jacobson first moved out to Broadwell Hill in 2000, there was no house or solar panels. She lived in a cave on the property where she said three babies had been conceived, presumably by the aforementioned high school students.
Kathy came into this world on the Dakota plains with a strong connection to the land. She was raised to be prepared for harsh environments and participated in activities, such as girl scouts, that sparked her interested in the outdoors and preparedness living. Kathy started questioning everything as images of the 1960s were broadcast into her home.
She went on a grand hitchhiking adventure to California after graduating from high school. She was introduced to many new lifestyles, met the future father of her children on a freight train and later gave birth to two sons at home with a supportive doctor and midwives by her side.
She felt called to serve others and became a Direct-Entry Midwife, pursuing that as a career path in Tucson, Arizona. After her husband accepted a tenure-track position at Ohio University, the family picked up and moved to Ohio. Kathy participated in local activism in Athens, advocating for legislation and support for midwifery groups. She became an Emergency Medical Technician and volunteered with the American Red Cross, as well as other local groups. Jacobson furthered her education at Ohio University and later pursued a nursing degree at Hocking College, earning her nursing degree and license as a Registered Nurse.
“I thought I might use the RN license to travel the world while being of service to third world countries. But I realized that we live in third world conditions right here in Appalachia,” Jacobson said. “I decided to stay in this area, find land and manifest a simple lifestyle that might contribute to the solutions instead of perpetuating the problems.”
Things in Kathy’s home life began to shift. Her husband left and her sons were growing up, and she knew it was time to find her place. She didn’t feel comfortable continuing to live a privileged life while so many people and life forms on this planet suffered. And she had a gut feeling that it was time to get prepared for worse case scenarios. After all, it had always been Kathy’s desire to care for land and to build an energy efficient, solar-powered cabin off the grid.
It didn’t matter that she did not have a lot of money, or that she didn’t have robust construction skills. She just knew she needed to do it.
So in 2000, Broadwell Hill put out the call via word of mouth. She answered it and began to sink her roots deep into the forest soil. Just as Rome wasn’t built in a day, neither was Jacobson’s personal paradise. She lived in the cave for the better part of a year in an effort to get to know the land from a personal and scientific standpoint.
She later moved to a tarp lean-to, then a semi-trailer, a tipi and an old school bus while she excavated the pond. None of those options were luxurious, but they suited Kathy plenty well.
Eventually, after scavenging for building materials and lumber milled from trees on the property, Jacobson began building a more permanent shelter with sustainability, resilience and preparedness in mind.
Nobody seemed prepared when the events of 9/11 happened. For someone like Kathy, those events lit a spark and a drive to double down on preparedness and resilience efforts. While many lives were lost in the tragic events, many opportunities in emergency preparedness followed. That’s when Kathy took a job in the emergency management field with the city of Athens, through the Public Health Department. She was ready to work and make an impact as she always has in her career and personal life, but learned over time that her position wasn’t meant to actually make a difference. It was just another cog in the wheel of bureaucracy. So she went back to implementing preparedness in her own life and working on the farm while continuing her career as an RN. Kathy also re-committed herself to do what she could to promote neighborhood resilience through preparedness outreach and networking.
After her landing at Broadwell Hill, Kathy was out in uptown Athens and happened to meet Constantine Faller, owner of Athens’ Own. His vision for sustainability manifests through his business practices and principles, which includes treating workers fairly and working with the surrounding community to promote a local economy and best business practices. In some ways, it only seemed natural the two would meet.
They met on the dance floor of either The Union or Jackie O’s, though neither is entirely sure which. Kathy’s son pointed Constantine out with a wink of approval and something drew Constantine to Kathy, a certain quality.
“Passion,” Faller said. “She’s a passionate person, and not everybody is passionate.”
They joined forces soon after they met. He now lives at Broadwell Hill, renting space to run his business. He provides communal meals using homegrown and other locally sourced products.
Paul Reed, an Athens’ Own intern, also lived and worked on Jacobson’s farm from May through October of 2017.
“It’s been quite an experience,” Reed said. “It’s clear that Kathy has found her calling, I would say. She works toward her goals with pretty well everything she does.”
For Kathy, it seems impossible not to follow her goals at every opportunity. After all, there’s a lot at stake.
“We are addicted to oil. We are facing a good possibility that the lifestyle we have come to enjoy is coming to an end,” Jacobson said. “People really don’t tend to want to change or do anything different unless somebody makes them or they hit a crisis. And once they hit the crisis, then they start changing.”
Kathy said that the most meaningful thing for her to do now is to practice a preparedness lifestyle while networking with her neighbors and surrounding community, helping to build sustainable local systems for the future.
Kathy and Constantine usually sit down for dinner around 7 p.m., right as the sun is setting. Sometimes guests join them, depending on who is visiting or interning at Broadwell Hill on a given evening. Power is usually abundant at the end of the day, yet the lights are off, as they prefer to enjoy the twilight of the evening. But usually, the evening news is on – NBC or PBS, generally. Reports of hurricanes, earthquakes and wildfires pop up often now.
“The question is - for me who’s been watching this all these years - how bad does it have to get?” Jacobson wondered. “So I turn on the TV and it’s like watching a science fiction show – this is now, people.”
In the twilight of the evening, she walks out onto the balcony and pets her ailing 16-year-old cat, who is sick with bronchitis and perhaps on his last leg.
“I sure wish I could just fix it. You always do, you always wish you could make somebody better,” Jacobson reflects, adding, “There’s so many overwhelming problems in the world.”
At least she can accept that there are some things that are truly out of one’s control. She aims to connect with and serve the natural world in her own personal way.
“I can’t change people, I can’t change society but I feel like I can be effective in a very small, microscopic kind of way,” Jacobson said. “I give thanks every day for the reality I enjoy within the Broadwell Hill neighborhood. I can change myself and choose the way I am living on this planet. I can take care of people and love the forest.”
The projects are never done on Broadwell Hill. The house is built and fully functional, but there is always work to be done, especially in regards to the forest. Kathy’s list of potential projects goes on and on. She is limited by time, hands and resources. But in the end, all of her decisions are made with specific regard for both sustainability and resilience.
“There was the triple-legged stool analogy. If you have a stool, it’s going to fall over if you don’t address the social, economic and environmental [impacts],” Jacobson said. “Resilience is not bouncing back to where you were, but it’s increasing your ability to adapt to anything that might come.”
All of her decisions go through a holistic management framework, and although her decisions go through rigorous testing, weighing all of the perceived benefits and consequences.
“I can sink into my sense of connection and listen to [the forest] and observe and then I can make decisions in informed ways that will help move me toward my goals,” Kathy said. “All the time listening and looking and assuming I am probably wrong,”
Here are some aspects of sustainable living that sets Kathy’s lifestyle apart:
A. Solar Powered
12 solar panels charge a bank of 8 deep-cycle batteries, enough to power the house’s TV, computers, washing machine, lights and other electronics.
“I have more electrical gadgets now than any time in my life, television, kitchen appliances, office equipment and power tools,” Jacobson said. “But my way of life involves more than just turning on a power switch. My resources are limited and living this way requires that I learn how to manage them.”
B. Passive Solar Heating
The Broadwell Hill Motherhouse was built in such a way to harness the power of the sun in multiple ways. The house is also heated by the sun. In the daytime, the curtains are open to capture the sun’s warmth and energy. As the sun goes down, the curtains are closed in order to preserve the precious heat inside.
C. Wood Stove Heating System
In the cloudy, cold winter months, the wood stove is used to augment the passive solar heating system. Kathy has a firewood management plan and does not cut trees strictly for firewood. Firewood is harvested throughout the summer and stored for warmth in the winter. The cold isn’t necessary the problem, but cloud cover can be. Even still, Kathy said the wood stove is more about comfort than necessity. She is very intentional about harvesting wood from the forest, gathering wood from trees that are already dead or need to be cut back to promote forest growth and diversity.
D. T.V. Antenna, High-Speed Internet and Wi-Fi
Living off-grid doesn’t mean being cut off from the world. Kathy and Constantine strive to be informed about current events, turning to NBC or PBS nightly to find out what’s happening in the world. She stays connected with friends and neighbors on Facebook and contributes to online resources such as the Community Collaborative Rain, Hail & Snow Network.
One person’s trash is another’s treasure. Kathy often takes in things that others are getting rid of, including a washing machine. Constantine fixed it up and it is now a functional, useful appliance again. Clothes are hung to dry, inside or outside.
Water and Waste
Water comes from the rain. Debris is initially filtered through the water before it is stored in a 1,800-gallon concrete cistern buried in the yard. The water is heated by a solar thermal hot water system and goes through multiple rounds of filtration before coming into the house.
While washing dishes or hands in the kitchen sink, special consideration goes toward conserving water. Gray water flows into a 5-gallon bucket to be used outside for watering purposes. When the water doesn’t automatically drain away, it forces one to pay attention to how much they are using. 5-gallon buckets are used in many places in a variety of ways on Kathy’s farm. In addition, 250 gallons of water is stored in a holding tank in the yard.
The toilets are 5-gallon buckets, collecting human waste that goes back into the ecosystem rather than being flushed away. Droppings are covered in wood chips, then dumped into the biological sanitation system to be washed and sanitized.
Kathy collects many things, such as the washing machine, that others would throw away.
Worms help to take care of some of the organic matter leftover from meals and other things. Plus, they can be used to feed some of the fish in the pond.
Planning and Active Management
Kathy uses the Holistic Management Decision Making Framework, which is a system that of principles and practices. Always proceeding with caution and taking all costs (including hidden costs) into mind, she uses her plans and guides as a framework for responsible decision-making.
Some owners of forest property choose to take a hands-off approach, letting the forest ecology play out on its own. For Kathy, the best way to manage the forest is by managing invasive species, trees and other forest life to promote the greatest health and diversity of the land. Below, Kathy cuts back in places where an invasive species, Japanese stiltgrass, is growing.
Community Networking and Education
For Kathy, a major factor in being resilient is networking with the surrounding community. Broadwell Hill is not very close to the surrounding towns and its inhabitants live in relative isolation. There are a few questions always on Kathy’s mind.
Kathy always strives to connect with her neighbors to determine available resources and plan. Sometimes, this means using Facebook as a method for communicating from a distance, rather than using fossil fuels to travel and meet someone.
Other times, it means working out an agreement with a neighbor for hunting on her property.
Ultimately, Kathy hopes that through living sustainably, practicing resilience and preparedness, and connecting with neighbors, she can help serve younger generations and contribute to a “global paradigm shift,” she said. In the meantime, she keeps enjoying the land and finding her sense of place in this world.