The muddy trail to Salamander Springs is full of twists and turns.
A young deer darts across the road and bounces off into a stand of pines. Around the bend, a hand-painted sign tacked to a tree warns hunters: No Hunting -- Amazonian Womens Poet Society.
Theres nothing better to keep hunters away than a womens poet society, Debbie Waugh explained with a chuckle.
The rugged road winds on past piles of rocks stacked neatly in front of a pair of rough-hewn but colorful cabins. It ends as the woods open to Waughs farm, where college-age volunteers weed the patches of green growing in the raised beds of earth and compost that dot the hillsides red clay.
Hand-dug holding ponds catch the rain and runoff. Water is a precious resource, and not just here, where holding tanks and gravity provide the only running water.
Waughs 50-acre homestead in Jones County near the Baldwin County line is off the grid. Solar panels provide what little power exist on the farm. A solar inverter on a wall in Waughs home feeds two rows of car batteries.
We have an occasional movie night, said Nate Kermiet, a 20-year-old from Lansing, Mich.
Kermiet is a WWOOFer, a volunteer with the organization World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms, which hooks up young people like Kermiet with a network of natural farmers. Waughs farm is a permaculture classroom, teaching students how to cultivate their own naturally grown foods while promoting sustainability through practices that protect the planet.
They live -- and learn -- off the land.
Youre creating a permanent culture, design systems that are sustainable, long-lasting, Waugh said.
Waugh, a teacher at Central Georgia Technical College, estimates that about 200 volunteers have worked on the farm since it started six years ago.
This is the first time in history that young people could decide to be doctors and lawyers and theyre becoming farmers, she said. Its really popular, especially with the economy being really bad. Salamander Springs is part of what Waugh calls a burgeoning natural farm community in central Georgia. Its one of about a half-dozen farms in the area that eschew pesticides and chemical fertilizers for more organic methods, though few are as hard-core as Waughs.
Daniel Schmidt of Sacramento has lived there off and on for two years, traveling to Alaska for seasonal work and then to California to visit his family before heading back to Georgia.
Its just seems like a meaningful way of life, Schmidt said while breaking down a truckload of cardboard boxes for use as mulch around fruit and nut trees. The work that I do puts food in my belly and not money in somebody elses pocket.
Place of peace and beauty
Over the hilltop, a wood-stoked fire roars in the kiln-like oven shaped by hand from a sturdy clay-and-straw mix called cob.
Once the blaze dies down and the ovens walls are hot, bread is baked for the next days market in Macon. Soon, the volunteers will start gathering crops, herbs and other potted plants to sell.
The work ends up not feeling like work, its like everyday living, said Kermiet. It gets to where I dont differentiate between work and play. You feel like what youre doing is for a cause.
Kermiet arrived at the farm in October and worked there until mid-March, when he set out on a bike ride from Oregon to San Francisco.
Its never dull, he said. I thought I might get tired and bored pretty quick, but it hasnt happened yet.
Kermiet proved to be quite the carpenter, skills he picked up from his father. He built a solar-powered shower and, in keeping with the farms philosophy, constructed an impressive cabin almost completely from discarded materials. The $200 spent on the structure mostly was for screws and nails.
Ive never built anything from the ground up. Ive never built anything from trash, he said.
Kermiet installed old doors, sideways, as windows. He laid tile floors inside and outside the cabin. He built a bay area and mosaic-tiled bench, also from cob. And he installed an old window as a skylight and encased rows of glass bottles in a section of wall, again, also built from cob.
Kermiet, like many of the volunteers who come to Salamander Springs, is a musician and artist, and the cabin has offered a peaceful place for writing songs and making art.
I see it as more of a sculpture piece, he said, a functioning piece of art.
Waugh hopes that Kermiet can get noticed and gain entry to a green building school in Asheville, N.C.
Hes very talented, she said.
The farm does a lot of what Waugh described as scavenging and repurposing, as it is now called.
Most everything out here is built from something somebody threw away.
Kermiet also landscaped, digging a mote and transplanting moss that he hopes will spread around the area. With permaculture, structures should blend in and become part of nature, Waugh explained.
A plaque on the grounds declares, Nature is the art of God.
My vision, Waugh said, is also to create a place of peace and beauty.
A typical day at Salamander Springs, which gets its name from the four natural springs on the property, begins about 8 a.m. with breakfast cooked over an open fire outside the tent-like kitchen that Waugh named, Kitchen on the Edge of the Universe.
Some days wind down with a gathering around a campfire, a short walk across a bridge that spans the creek cutting through the property. From there, trails wind through 49-acres of forest, offering a serene walk for WWOOFers wanting to get even closer to nature.
Some have coined a description for their stays at the farm: insanely committed camping.
We only go inside to sleep, dont we? Waugh jokingly asked one student.
The farm does offer a bicycle-powered smoothie machine. Students laughed that their only entertainment is the chicken channel and dog channel. But theyre not completely cut off from the outside; during breaks, several were chatting on cell phones.
Salamander Springs relies heavily on help from neighboring farms. All of our farm friends have donated materials, Waugh explained. Theres also some old-fashioned bartering, which can help bring in venison and pork for WWOOFers who arent vegetarians.
A large holding pond on the hillside garden, between an orchard of fruit and nut trees and the garden, sat empty, but not for long. The farm planned to borrow pigs from one farmer who hopes to fatten them up for his daughters wedding. The farm, in turn, plans to use the pigs proclivity for wallowing in the mud as a natural means of sealing the pond so that it will hold water.
My biggest challenge, being off the grid, is keeping everything watered, said Waugh. I try to hold moisture in the soil rather that take it from the aquifer.
Waugh started the farm as a place for her grandchildren. Between the hundreds of students shes hosted over the years and the areas natural farming community, she has a huge extended family.
Amy Bean, owner of The Little Farm in Jones County, describes Waugh as the sweetest person I know.
She loves to share her knowledge, loves to encourage people, Bean said.
Waugh is teaching an introduction to permaculture class this month at Central Georgia Technical College in Milledgeville. She also often hosts workshops at the farm and at markets in Macon and Milledgeville.
One hands-on experience for the public that also supports the farm is its tree-sponsoring program.
For $25 you get to plant a tree, get a plaque and you get to eat fruit from it, said Waugh.
For more information on this and other programs at the farm, call (478) 952-3544.
For Waugh, a former school teacher, the WWOOFer program has been rewarding, both professionally and personally.
Its great for the farms. You get the help, she said. You stay inspired because they want to learn. Its not like teaching high school, where you have to ram it down their throats. I learn from them, too, because theyve been to other farms.
Kermiet, the would-be green architect, said the growing interest in all things permaculture reflects a new attitude in his generation.
There are a lot of young people thinking differently about what they want their lives to be, he said. Do they want to determine what lives will be, or do they want a corporation to determine their lives for them?
To contact writer Rodney Manley, call 744-4623.