An author and her family eat, work and live with nature on their homestead in the forested Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina.
Ashley tends lettuce in a raised planter.
On their idyllic mountain homestead in North Carolina’s rolling Blue Ridge Mountains, Ashley and Glenn English raise a huge variety of vegetables and herbs; tend honeybees and chickens; throw laid-back but extravagant parties and get-togethers; and, most important, bring up their son Huxley amid the beauty and complexity of the natural world.
When Ashley and Glenn, a freelance art and color consultant, met on New Year’s Day 2007, Glenn already lived on the 11 acres that’s currently the couple’s homestead. The spot was a former organic herb and edible flower farm, and Glenn wasn’t exactly sure what the future held for him on the property—just that he loved it and wanted to grow a home and life there. Enter Ashley, a nutrition consultant and medical assistant at an integrative medicine practice at the time. “I loved it, but I knew I was never going to become a nurse or doctor,” Ashley says. “After I met Glenn and we had this farm and greenhouses, I thought ‘Maybe this is what I should do. I’ll bring the farm back.’”
She put in a month’s notice at her job and, as fortune would have it, an editor friend at Lark Crafts contacted her shortly after. The editor had an idea for a series of books on homesteading, and she knew Ashley and Glenn were planning to embark on a similarly themed adventure. She wondered if they might want to chronicle their experiences in a series of books helping others do the same. Thus the Homemade Living series was born.
The first work of Ashley’s relatively young but prolific writing career, the Homemade Living series includes Home Dairy, Keeping Chickens, Keeping Bees and Canning & Preserving, each offering basic, hands-on advice for people wishing to start any of these self-reliant activities. The series was a hit and encouraged Ashley to keep up her writing. Fast forward to today, and she’s building a homesteading literature empire of sorts. Her book A Year of Pies: A Seasonal Tour of Home Baked Pies came out in 2012, followed by Handmade Gatherings: Recipes & Crafts for Seasonal Celebrations and Potluck Parties. Her book about homemade beverages, Quench, comes out this October. And she’s currently working on an as-yet-untitled book about nature picnics, due out in 2016. She is also a contributing writer to a number of blogs and online magazines including Taproot (taprootmag.com), Design*Sponge (designsponge.com) and Verve Magazine (vervemag.com), as well as keeping up her own blog, Small Measure.
Ashley is enthusiastic about helping people live in closer contact with the natural world. “The more you start to develop a relationship with the outside world, the more inclined you are to become a steward of it,” she says. “When you’re outside and you see the azaleas and the trees, you like it. You enjoy it. It produces a serotonin response. We’re supposed to be out in nature.”
She especially enjoys teaching her son about all the ways the earth provides for us, from helping him learn to wild-forage food in the forests around their home to enrolling him in a nature-centered school program. “A lot of our activities involve nature—we’ll go to the botanical gardens, the arboretum or the apple orchard. A lot of what we do involves outdoors and food, which is the fabric of our lives.”
That metaphorical fabric is made tangible in her upcoming picnics book, in which she outlines ways to dine with nature as both dining table and backdrop. Ashley shares menus, locales, and suggestions for crafts and activities to create all-inclusive nature experiences readers can replicate step by step.
Connecting with the outdoors and food is what Ashley does best, and her books represent her penchant for gathering over a communal table. She created Handmade Gatherings to encourage people to come together and create fun and lively experiences, without the stress that can accompany a party where one person does it all. “I had my first potluck when I was in junior high school,” Ashley says. “It was a New Kids on the Block-themed potluck, and everyone came dressed as their favorite New Kid and brought what was supposed to be his favorite food. For my senior prom, I threw a potluck and each couple was responsible for a different course. I want people to feel like entertaining is very accessible no matter where you are in terms of age and economics. If you’re a college student and you don’t own four plates, ask everyone to bring their one plate and one fork.”
She believes gatherings where friends and loved ones come together to share their favorite dishes, conversation and laughter is a remedy to the fast pace at which most of us live our lives. “When you come together around a table, you nourish your body, but you also really nourish your soul,” she says. “That’s when you’re in communion with other people in a way that the conversation really flows. That’s why family meals are so important. You learn so much about your children.”
The “slow food” movement encourages people to learn more about where their food comes from, and potentially grow or produce some of it themselves. “Slow dining” may be the perfect complement. “We’re so bombarded with immediacy and technology,” Ashley says. “Not that I’m any sort of Luddite—I love technology. It lets me live the life I live. But I also like to slow down and sit around and pick up on body language. I want to encourage that.”
What’s a quick go-to meal in autumn? Grilled cheese with fresh herbs and fruit. Sage, Gruy`ere and pear; or rosemary, cheddar and apple are favorites. All that typically gets washed down with a hard cider. It’s so, so good!
Which picnic setting for your upcoming book was your favorite? Hmmm…..that’s a hard one, as we’re only 8 into the 20 picnics the book will ultimately contain. We’ve got 12 more to go! So far, I’ve really loved the “Into the Woods” forest-themed picnic we held in lush forest on a stream bed beside a creek. There were 4 children present and they built fairy houses and we all enjoyed foods that referenced the forest. It was pretty magical!
What’s on heavy rotation on your iPod? I’m a big fan of pretty much anything by The xx. I also love the Zoe Keating Pandora station. She’s a celloist and the other modern chamber music showcased there is lovely.
What’s your favorite indulgence? I like to enjoy a little cocktail/beer/glass of wine each day around 5-ish. Glenn and I both work from home, and Huxley is only at preschool one day a week—and only for four hours at that. My little “aperitif hour” is a nice transition from the home-based work day to the social, family sphere. And ice cream sandwiches kind of make me weak in the knees any time of year!
What do you do to get away from it all? Typically one of three things: take a long, hot bath after Huxley is down for the night, sit on my porch or patio with a glass of wine and just silently enjoy the experience, or head to the Blue Ridge Parkway for an invigorating hike. I’m pretty low-key and easily invigorated when it comes time to renew, relax, and restore!
What’s Huxley’s favorite outdoor activity? He has a sandbox Glenn built in our garden that he’s particularly fond of. It’s helpful for me, too, to have him entertain himself while I’m trying to garden. Otherwise, he loves to ride his balance bike all over the property and go on hikes in the woods surrounding our home. As he gets bigger, we plan to build him a tree house. I’m not sure if I’m more excited about that or if he is!
Who is your hero?
My friend Amanda Soule is pretty amazing. She’s mother to five children, homesteads on 40 acres in Maine, runs the incredibly successful blog SouleMama (soulemama.com), is the author of three praised books on natural and artful parenting, and is the editor and founder of Taproot magazine. I’m amazed at her productivity and output (did I mention she also knits, sews and quilts?!) and how she seems to pull it off with such grace and ease.
What’s your favorite time of year in the garden?
I adore autumn. Always have, always will. I kind of wilt and get crabby when it’s hot out. Cooler days and the crops available at that time of year are my absolute favorite. The fact that our son was born in late October, my most beloved time of year, is a gift beyond compare!
What homesteading chore do you dread? Changing out the bedding in the chicken coop is no one’s idea of a good time, really. Glenn and I do it together, though, so it makes the whole process considerably faster and easier.
It’s 7:00 Friday evening. What are you doing? Probably cooking dinner at home with my guys. We’re serious homebodies who really love each other’s company. We’re likely just relaxing around the dining room table or, weather permitting, around the picnic table and fire ring on our patio.
Mother Earth Living editor-in-chief Jessica Kellner loves to host casual get-togethers—where food is the star and eating the main activity—at her home outside Lawrence, Kansas.
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