On Wabi-Sabi Wednesdays, I feature excerpts from my upcoming book, Simply Imperfect: Revisiting the Wabi-Sabi House, which was released this week. This post is a tribute to Kate NaDeau, who introduced me to wabi-sabi many years ago.
I met Kate NaDeau more than a decade ago, when I went to check out Stone Soup Farm, her 26-acre farm on a south-facing hillside in Monroe, Maine. I was immediately drawn to Kate’s hand-built stone cottage, comfortable and worn décor, and seasonal lifestyle. When I asked her about a rusty grate hanging on the wall, Kate said, “Oh, that. That’s just wabi-sabi.” Kate launched me on a journey to learn more about this Japanese concept, which finds beauty in things that are imperfect, impermanent and aged. Her home is wabi-sabi at its finest.
Inspired by back-to-the-land pioneers Scott and Helen Nearing, Kate and her former husband, Phil, spent five years building a stone house using a slip-form method of construction with elements of Japanese architecture. The 1,500-square-foot home is bermed into the hillside to the north and open to the south to take in passive solar gain. “Passive solar is so wonderful—working with the climate instead of trying to fight it—bringing in some kind of harmony, working with the elements,” Kate says.
Kate and Phil hand-dug 4-foot-deep trenches for the home’s foundation and gathered flat stones from the woods and fields nearby. (Some visitors to the farm, hearing they needed flat stones, hauled in loads of them.) Kate and Phil mixed cement in wheelbarrows and built wooden forms that held the cement while it set around the stones. Inside, they attached insulation, plastic vapor barriers and pine walls to two-by-fours inserted into the 6-foot-high stone walls; trimmed out a second-story bedroom using fir two-by-fours and topped the structure with a double metal roof. “The construction was spread over five years because we were paying as we went,” Kate says. “But the advantage is that you really get to know the land—where you spend time, where the sun comes up at different times of the year. There’s something to be said for going slow—which is very different from the way people in this country do things.”
From the large overhead beams for drying herbs and flowers to the greenhouse attached to the west side, the home was designed to accommodate agrarian ways. “I live a strongly seasonal lifestyle,” says Kate, who now lives alone. “The weather is ever changing, and farm-related activities are so different. So my home’s areas of use are very seasonal.”
In winter, the low sun streams into Kate’s denlike dining room and living area, providing heat that she supplements with a fire in the early evening. “Burning wood is a winter activity that I love, a gentle way of keeping things going—getting a couple of armloads of wood each day, keeping ahead of the storms,” she says. In spring and summer, Kate basks in the sun on the 15-by-20- foot wooden deck on the home’s south side and serves tea or picnics on the covered terrace attached to her workshop. She loves to catch the sunrise on the eastern porch. “Because summer’s such an expansive time, I really use that outdoor space much more,” she says.
Before she moved to Maine from California, Kate had grown a few tomato and basil plants but had no real experience with a large-scale garden. Yet she doesn’t consider the terraced masterpiece she’s created on the steep, sunny hillside such a big deal. “This isn’t rocket science,” she says. “I read the Nearings and other books, but it’s mainly a matter of just doing it, learning from your mistakes, trying and trying and trying. It always seems to be a good year for something or a bad year for something. Some pest is eating this and this, but you get the bounty in something else. When you look at the big picture, it all seems to work out okay.”
Shortly after the family moved to the site, which they dubbed Stone Soup Farm after the inspirational folktale, Kate began selling vegetables, flowers, and herb vinegars at a farmers market in nearby Belfast. She now gives workshops on using herbs and runs a small shop on the property that sells plants, herbal crafts and other garden-related products. One of her personal highlights was selling a perennial to the late Helen Nearing. “Here was someone I’ve so respected, who so influenced me and the way I’ve done things,” Kate says. “It just felt like a complete circle.”
If you’re in the area this summer, stop by and say hello to Kate at Stone Soup Farm, 156 Red Barn Road in Monroe, Maine. For information, call (207) 525-4463.
Kate loves to eat breakfast and watch the sun rise from the porch on the home’s east side. She often spends summer afternoons bundling herbs on the porch swing. Photo by Carolyn Bates
Kate’s collection of vintage tools, appliances and other decor create a wabi-sabi atmosphere. Kate uses the woodstove for baking, but in summer it doubles as counter space for her many garden-related projects. Photo by Carolyn Bates
A yard sale find, this chair is another example of an item that Kate loves for its “patina.” She spends winter afternoons reading seed catalogs and gardening-related books. Photo by Carolyn Bates
A window from an old California bungalow made its way to Kate’s kitchen door in Maine to remind her of her roots. Kate chose open shelving in her kitchen as a nod to old farmhouses. “I love to get access and see things—jars, dishes,” she says. “That harkens back to the farm mentality and peasant living; you have what you have, and it’s there.” Photo by Carolyn Bates
A brick floor in the dining area absorbs passive solar gain. Kate’s greenhouse is through the wood door. Photo by Carolyn Bates
Kate bought the Amity woodstove (the company’s now out of business) in the early 1980s, when high oil prices were forcing many people to seek out heating alternatives. “I love the aesthetics of it, the pattern on the front,” she says. The chimneys from the woodstove and the kitchen cookstove are encased in a massive interior stone wall; the radiant heat from the wall warms the upstairs room. In winter, the sun reaches almost to the back northern wall; Kate uses only four cords of wood each year to keep the home toasty. Photo by Carolyn Bates
Kate designed organically shaped beds that undulate through the terraced hillside, planted with evergreens, shrubs and perennials. She built up the thin soil by growing cover crops such as buckwheat and winter rye then tilling them into the soil as green manure. Photo by Carolyn Bates
An echinacea fan, Kate leaves the heads on the coneflowers bordering her expansive southern deck so that they attract birds all winter long. The birds also help strew seeds that pop up come spring. During the summer Kate leaves flavored vinegars—here, opal basil gives the jars a deep red glow—on the big southern-facing deck to steep in the sun for a few weeks. Photo by Carolyn Bates
The stone walls extend 6 feet high, and the second story was constructed from fir two-by-fours. Kate made the signs declaring the property’s name, Stone Soup Farm. “Because we didn’t have a big construction and building budget, we made a lot of choices that had to do with what we had at the time,” Kate explains. “It was a lot like that great old folk story: a little bit of this and a little bit of that, but making it all out of stone.” Photo by Carolyn Bates
Kate gathers statice and winged everlasting for making dried bouquets and wreaths, a fall and winter activity. Photo by Carolyn Bates