Lydia Aydlett first moved to the mountains of Western North Carolina during the height of the back-to-the-land movement, and it’s taken her all the time since to understand why living a sustainable life is so important to her.
Aydlett grew up in the eastern part of the state, near Elizabeth City, during the 1950s and ‘60s. She moved to the Piedmont region with her husband, a banker, and when the marriage failed, she decided to make a change.
“I was really interested, even then, in finding alternatives to the intense consumption that had been taking place all around me,” said Aydlett.
Aydlett bought a white farmhouse and 25 acres and moved her two young children to the area between Sylva and Cullowhee in 1978.
“We’d been through the ‘60s so there was a lot of ‘f—- the establishment.’ Feminism was a part of that for me and of moving myself to the mountains by myself with my kids,” Aydlett said.
What Aydlett found in the mountains of Western North Carolina was a sense of community.
“This was the back to the land time. Lots of returning Vietnam vets. There were people from around the country who had come to this area to live the homestead life,” Aydlett said.
Aydlett had friends who lived in teepees and broken down barns and there was still music in the air. She remembers chanting and spinning at Sufi dances held at Caney Fork Community Center, where the good ole boys would come to watch them and drink beer.
“It was a bunch of hippies who were thoughtful people and were trying to sort things out,” Aydlett said. “Some of them are still around.”
But while her experience in the early ‘70s gave Aydlett a taste for rural living, she didn’t necessarily get close to the environmental principles she espouses today. For instance, at that time, the thought of killing a chicken for food disgusted her.
“I was working full-time and raising kids and just kind of scrambling to keep life together,” Aydlett said.
Having gotten a master’s degree at Western Carolina University, Aydlett worked with young children with developmental disabilities and raised her family.
It was when she went back to school again at University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill to pursue a doctoral degree in 1984 that Aydlett rediscovered her fervor to live life differently.
She spent her time in Chapel Hill in a co-housing community that espoused sustainable living in close quarters.
“That community boosted my consciousness and let me know that this could be done,” Aydlett said. “And when I say ‘this’ I mean living a sustainable lifestyle. One that’s more self-contained and has a shorter feedback loop.”
When Aydlett came back to teach at Western Carolina, she sold three acres and the white farmhouse and began work on building a sustainable homestead high on the ridge on Robertson Mountain.
Friends of hers from Chapel Hill helped her build a 16-by-16-foot cabin that ran off of solar power, had a composting toilet, and well-water driven by gravity.
Living in the cabin was an intermediate step, and it taught Aydlett a lesson about what she wanted. She didn’t want to live THAT simply.
Now her house runs off solar electricity and has a solar water heater which Aydlett augments with a propane generator and a propane stove. She has a dishwasher, a television, and a pro-audio system.
It’s not about living an austere life, Aydlett said, but about being connected to what you use.
“If I use too much electricity I know it. If a person in a conventional house does, they just have to pay a little bit bigger bill,” Aydlett said.
Aydlett has begun growing her own vegetables in a large terraced garden above her house, which she feeds with rainwater. After collecting water in rain barrels under her downspouts, she pumps it uphill to a holding tank so she can use gravity to water her beds.
Aydlett also maintains a small goat herd, 20 chickens, and one large Great Pyrenees to keep them safe from coyotes and wandering pit bulls.
Last week she killed a rooster for the first time with help from friends, and she’s getting used to the idea of doing it again. As Aydlett has matured, so has the environmental movement. She marvels at the political infrastructure in place now to advocate for sustainable living.
But she has come to believe that it’s the practical day-to-day connections to the earth that are most valuable to her.
“I’m really glad [the movement] is out there, but it’s not the same as being aware that because we’ve had three cloudy days the battery bank has gotten low,” Aydlett said.
Aydlett still works part-time as a counselor of children. She is by no means a hermit on her mountaintop. Her life has taken her on a journey, and now the ideologies that drove her decisions in her youth are taking root in new ways.
“I don’t hold to the ideologies with the same fervor as I did then but they certainly have fed my growth and helped create my path,” said Aydlett. “It’s more of a feeling thing than a thinking thing now.”