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Back to the old homestead

Sometimes you have to go away to come home again.

Way up Coweeta Gap in south Macon County is a place at the end of Shope Road called Sanders Knob. Paul and Lara Chew live there in a cabin that was built around 1850, and for Lara, the homestead represents an ironic intersection of her ancestral roots and her living present.

“I grew up hearing all the stories she told and I wanted to come back and see the place,” Lara said. “Once I saw it, I wanted to be here.”

Lara’s grandmother was a Jones from Jones Creek who married Monroe Sanders and moved to the gap. Monroe Sanders died, alongside Cicero Shope, after the two men quarreled over a hog around the time the fence laws changed. The old cabin that Paul and Lara live in now was Cicero Shope’s home.

After the killings, Lara’s grandmother moved the family to north Georgia to work in the mills there. They lived the simple life, raising hogs and chickens, tending gardens, and foraging for wild edibles to augment what they brought back in pay.

When Lara was growing up in Georgia, she learned how to live in the country, but like other young people her age, it wasn’t what she wanted for herself. She wanted modern things, a larger world. At least for a while.

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After a career as a schoolteacher and raising children, Lara began to yearn for the old home place she had heard about throughout her life. Lara and her late husband, Jesse Jackson, moved to the Shope cabin in 1989 from Gainevsille, Ga.

The cabin was uninhabited, covered in honeysuckle, its windows blown out and the hearth turned into a copperhead den. Jesse and Lara bought the place and 50 surrounding acres. To stake their claim, they had to kill seven copperheads the first weekend.

“We just sort of camped out here until we could really live in it,” Lara said.

Back then, the cabin was off the grid in the old sense. Lara and Jesse lived there for 12 years without electricity. Lara worked in the Macon County school system and Jesse worked for a long time as a groundskeeper in Highlands. There were nights when the snow would filter though the walls and cover the bedspread.

When the couple was home, they took care of their goats and chickens and Lara taught herself to forage for wild edible and medicinal plants.

Jesse died and Lara stayed on the place, committed to the ground her ancestors had cultivated.

Inspired by Evell Gibbons’ book Stalking the Wild Asparagus Lara found ways to make use of the things that grew on her land.

“I realized there were so many things to eat that no one used anymore,” Lara said.

This year the Chews made a batch of pokahickory from 200 pounds of hickory nuts foraged on their land. After a crushing, a soaking, and a boiling, the nuts produce a rich drink that tastes a bit like hot chocolate.

Lara has also taught herself to make baskets from pine needles and sundry other skills. Using the land is important to the Chews.

They have raised hogs, chickens and goats, made their own butter, cheese and head cheese. They grow their own corn and grind it for meal. They operate their own sawmill for lumber. They bake their own bread in a clay oven they made out of the mud from their creek. They use a composting toilet.

Lara doesn’t like to waste anything, not even chicken feathers, so she’s learned how to tan chicken skins and turn them into hats.

“We’re not isolationists,” Lara said. “I think one of the things I like about the way we live is I can have my cake and eat it too. I can have the adventure my grandparents had, but I can also get in the car and go to town.”

Paul Chew’s path to the Shope’s cabin was also a windy one. Having grown up in Los Angeles in the ‘60s the child of an ecologist and a botanist, Paul moved to Athens, Ga., for high school. He was a hippie and had a yearning to connect to the land. But he eventually got a degree in metal work and settled into a life teaching high school metal shop in Oglethorpe County.

Still interested in the agrarian lifestyle, Chew started an organic farm. He threw himself into the lifestyle, but found he didn’t have time to enjoy what he was doing.

“It was very demanding. I was busy all the time,” Chew said. “I guess Lara kind of rescued me.”

Paul and Lara met at the John C. Campbell Folk School and he later followed her back to the homestead.

“It was pretty amazing,” Paul said. “The cabin and the solitude here.”

Lara and Paul’s careers as teachers haven’t stopped. They now welcome young people affiliated with the World Organization of Organic Farmers to their home throughout the year –– they had nearly 30 WOOFers last year –– to learn how to live with the land.

For Lara, teaching young people how to live off the land is about preserving knowledge.

“To me it’s ‘Don’t let the information die’,” Lara said. “I know there are books out there, but it’s not the same as learning the way it is.”

But Paul, who remembers a formative trip to the Chiricahua Mountains of Arizona as a child, believes living off the land is also about finding internal confidence.

“The motivation for this kind of life is doing what you have to do to survive,” Paul said. “It’s really about the confidence that you’re not just depending on other people around you.”

Having grown up with professors, Paul says his own mission is intimately linked to the environmental movement.

“What we’re about here in part is learning how to live more lightly on the earth. We’re trying to evaluate what our impacts are on the land,” said Paul.

The energy behind the Chews homestead now comes from a sophisticated water-powered turbine system that produces 1,200 kilowatts per hour. Paul has worked alongside the Chews’ neighbor to divert a mountain stream through a filter into an 800-foot pipe that feeds the twin turbines.

The electricity is stored in a battery bank that connects to the hot-water heaters in the two cabins on the property and powers the lights and laptops.

The Chews also drive a converted electric car that boasts a pop-up solar panel on its roof for summer driving. Paul is constantly tinkering to gain a mechanical advantage on nature.

Meanwhile, Lara Chew has authored three children’s books, much of the material based on stories she heard from her grandmother. There is nothing simple about the Chews except the rules they live by.

“Whatever comes out of the land, we try to put back in,” Lara said. “Nothing is wasted.”

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