EAST BLUE HILL — Hannah Sol Rhea and Colby Smith eat roadkill and acorns and sleep on a bed made of hay bundles and bathe outdoors year-round. And they want to teach you how to do all of that, and more.
“We’re trying to reclaim everything that should already be a birthright to everyone living,” says Rhea, fingering a necklace of birch bark beads she made herself.
“Technology has replaced community,” Smith adds. “We’re hoping that we have a little more community in this place.”
But the couple, who run Way of The Earth, a primitive skills school in Blue Hill, aren’t evangelists, and know most Mainers aren’t about to start tanning hides and harvesting wild rice by hand.
“We want people to incorporate primitive skills into their day-to-day life,” says Smith.
Raised in southern Maine, Smith and Rhea both became interested in primitive skills (think foraging, shelter-building and fire-building) in high school (they graduated from Waynflete and Freeport High School, respectively).
It was Outward Bound, the global outdoor education school, that first piqued Smith’s interest in the outdoors, but not in the way you might think. He was unsettled by the impact a large group of loud teenagers could have on the wildlife.
“I thought, ‘There’s got to be a different way to do this that’s more in line with nature’,” Smith mused.
Both Rhea and Smith spent time living at the Maine Primitive Skills School in Augusta after high school. He did a bit of commercial fishing and got a degree in adventure therapy from Unity College; she worked on several farms and began selling handmade clothes, such as goat skin vests, on Etsy. But they wanted a place of their own, and looked for more than a year for a spot that met their requirements: a spring on the property for clean water, healthy, non-acidic soil, a stand of suitable trees to build their earth lodge.
“We moved here the same day we bought the land because we were so excited,” says Rhea. “We were very motivated.”
The couple moved to the end of a dead-end road near McHeard Brook, in the summer of 2017, and set to work.
The first order of business was to construct their primary shelter, an earthen lodge-style structure built from young spruce trees covered with a pond liner and held together using the wattle-and-daub technique, in which a lattice of wooden strips is bound with a mixture of soil, clay and sand.
“It’ll be a living roof,” says Rhea, gesturing upward, eventually covered with greenery.
“These shelters would last 100 years.”
The whole structure cost roughly $3,000 in materials and equipment rentals, says Smith (they used heavy machinery to move some rocks), and has held up so far, even through intense winter storms.
“The roundness lets the wind wrap around it.”
To heat the space, they built a rocket stove thermal mass heater; in which wood is gravity-fed into a J-shaped combustion chamber, and underlaid pipes beneath the stone floors. “The giant mass of the floor doesn’t want to change,” explains Smith. The stove itself is heavily insulated, which helps keeps smoke down and combustion efficient.
“Pretty much all you get is a little carbon dioxide and water vapor,” says Rhea. “You get a really complete burn,” Smith adds. A cord of wood keeps the space toasty — between 75 and 85 degrees F — throughout the winter.
Once they had their main dwelling set up, Smith and Rhea turned to other projects: they built a large shed to house Angora rabbits and store odds and ends, a smaller earth lodge for their goats, a small smokehouse (for mackerel and bacon) and a root cellar with a freezer cooled by spring water. They’re working on a larger, three-season kitchen.
“We call the middle of winter ice cream season, because it’s the only time when the freezer is cold enough to keep ice cream,” she laughs.
They aren’t entirely averse to technology or modern convenience — the couple run a website and an Instagram page (@wayoftheearthschool), own several vehicles and have a solar panel strip on their roof. They still buy some foods (such as ice cream) at the grocery store. But they are trying to live in a way that’s more aligned with nature and their own values, which includes preparing the land for future generations to live there in comfort.
“The more setup we are the less it costs,” says Rhea. “We work a lot, so that’s the exchange.”
Way of the Earth School offers classes in skills ranging from felting to animal processing and shelter-building. Longer programs include a five-month residential program, in which participants live and work on the property, learning how to survive off the land; and a Girls Coming of Age Program, in which girls ages 11 and 12 are taught animal tracking, fire skills and to feel proud of their bodies.