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Pisgah National Forest, North Carolina, 2019


Meeting Camille was the highlight of my residency at Azule. In her thick Parisian accent, she told me she defines herself as a “French Appalachian radical hillbilly.” She and her late husband started building the house in the ‘70s, she told me, adding on rooms to the original log cabin when they secured the windows and the recycled lumber for them, though sometimes that took years. This is not the kind of person who goes to Home Depot and buys the building materials she needs. This is a person who waits patiently for the right supplies to come to her under the right circumstances. Everything in the house was thoughtful, from the system for sorting waste to the carefully organized piles of lumber, glass, and tiles in the back. It rained heavily most days, but the extra-long eaves made every porch a viable reading spot at all times; there was no air conditioning, but a pleasant cross-breeze in every room.


The landline went down two days into my two-week stay. When Camille told me this, she seemed almost scared. She didn't have a cell phone, and although I was there, and someone from Azule's board began coming by to check on her every day, the truth was, she was pretty much alone in the middle of a forest.


Not to mention, Camille's right arm ended just beneath her elbow. I learned that this was because she was two years old, her sister brought home a toy she’d found in the street. Camille was the first to play with it, and it exploded in her hand.


All over Paris, toys had been booby-trapped by Nazis and left behind for children to play with. So had bars of chocolate and soap and helmets and weapons. The Red Cross took her away from her parents after that, she told me, and until she was about 7, they were training her to live without a right hand. It was then that she chose a life of art, and began quilting and making mosaics.


Camille struck me as being a completely fearless person. Hours before the landline cut out, this very same septuagenarian had stood on the deck outside of my room in her colorful mismatched socks and expressionlessly sprayed a wasp’s nest with Raid. Besides, this seemed like the kind of place where landlines went down all the time.

Wrong. She told me this was a fairly recent development; the landline went out every now and then, but lately it was taking longer and longer for the phone company to fix. “I have a conspiracy theory that they’re trying to squeeze us out,” she explained. “Repairing hundreds of yards of cable stretched through the forest for a handful of people is probably not worth it.”


We discussed the possibility of her moving over to a cell phone, but she seemed so sad about it. I understood. Already, after spending 48 hours away from my own cell phone, I felt more purposeful, less distracted, more present. So I dropped the topic.


This part of the country is a place sparsely populated by homesteaders. Most of them came here in the 70’s to get “back to the land.” The sort of self-sufficiency they practiced out here is reactive to our country’s thirst for surplus and the havoc it wreaks on our environment. Counterculture communes abound in this area, though people here seem to frown on the word “commune" (as I expect happens in most of the world’s communes).

The things about this place that horrified me when I encountered them seem pretty benign now. Ever smelled the inside of a hot 200-gallon compost tank? Stepped out onto the porch and discovered a spider bigger than your hand? Shared an indoor living space with wasps?


Turns out all that is actually pretty manageable. When I first arrived, I thought of home lustily, desperate to take a long hot shower, eat my Trader Joe’s snacks, get back to the air conditioning. But I started to appreciate the absence of plastic bags flapping raglike in branches. I reveled in the lack of any real noise. And I certainly didn't miss the ways that advertisements repeatedly try to convince me to hate my beautifully functional body. You know, all that normal day-to-day stuff.


Camille was forced to use email as her primary mode of communication with the outside world until the phone was repaired, so at first, she was just checking her inbox more frequently. But at some point it became clear to me that Camille was spending more and more time on the internet each day. One morning, she told me she'd stayed up until 2 AM learning about Eartha Kitt. Camille had never heard of her before, so we talked about the singer and her tragic life. She said she'd discovered performances and mini-documentaries and interviews, video after video.

Camille blurted suddenly, “How does it know what to show me?”


I blinked at her.


“The internet,” she clarified.

I asked if she'd found these videos on Youtube, but she wasn't sure. I tried my hand at explaining predictive algorithms, that some websites try to guess what you’d like from what you’ve already watched, that they auto-play that new material to keep you on their website.


“People call it ‘the rabbit-hole,’” I offered finally. And when the analogy clicked into place for her, across generations and a language barrier, she burst into gorgeous, joyous laughter. 

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