“Instead of living on it, we live with it. The land is an active participant in everything that we do.”
In the words of Charles Kouns and Stella Humphries, Butterfly Farm Sanctuary provides “wildness and nourishment.” Together, they have transformed their 22-acre property into a retreat for people looking to reconnect with themselves in nature. The Sanctuary is nestled within the Great Smoky Mountains and accessed by a truss bridge that welcomes campers to acres of pasture, riverfront, and woodland. Campers can stay in the spacious EarthSeed tent complete with it’s own porch just beside the spring fed creek. A few steps away is the picnic shelter for grilling up vegetarian dinners and relaxing into the evening with a campfire.
From glampsites to indigenous lands, wineries to working farms, Charles and Stella are part of an emerging community of landowners and camp hosts who have generously opened their land to the next generation of campers. Dive in to learn more about Butterfly Farm Sanctuary, their intentions for their land, and a peek at their camp in our interview below.
Hipcamp: Why did you join Hipcamp, and allow campers to stay on your land?
Charles: We feel so moved by the land itself that it’s something that we feel called to share with others. We created a sanctuary for people to come and rest and experience the land in its fullness. As far as joining Hipcamp, a friend of mine sent me a link and I liked what you were doing, so we signed up! He lives in a car with his wife and they’re travel writers who travel all over. I think they use you guys a lot.
HC: What inspired you to buy the EarthSeed tent for your property?
CK: Our intention is that people who come here will want to do transformational work within themselves. That can be in the form of meditating, journaling, being quiet, reflecting, resting, or walking, all on the land. When I saw the tent I felt like it lent itself to the energy of the land and the energy of meditation. What I liked about it is that it has a ton of room inside of it, it felt very lofty and spacious on the inside. It’s a Lotus Bell tent. It is incredibly well made, but I didn’t know that until I got it. The shape calls you in side both physically and emotionally.
Stella: I’ve been a big camper for a lot of my life. When we finally got the tent and put it up, it was so beautiful and spacious. When the light comes through it, it’s hard to explain, it feels like a temple or something. You’re outside with fresh air, but because it’s so beautifully made that you also get that very high vibration experience, and you’re comfortable because it’s so big. There’s a queen-sized bed in there, chairs, and we have a heater, but it stays reasonably warm. It has the best of the indoors and the outdoors. It’s been in high wind at 40–50 mph, it’s been in snow, and I was sure it was going to get all moldy and grey looking. But it’s not, it’s just beautiful. There’s kind of a sacredness around it, that’s what I would say. Just a few paces away we’ve got an outdoor kitchen with a refrigerator.
HC: Have you ever had anyone camp in the EarthSeed while snowing?
CK: We’ve had people stay in it down to 24 degrees. We have a heater in there that took it up to 45 degrees inside and with the blankets they were great. We have a big, thick, all natural duvet. It’s on a platform too, so you’re not right on the ground. It can be quite warm and toasty. Actually, in the 40’s people have had to turn the heat off at night.
HC: In your listing you mention that you came from California to North Carolina because of the beauty there and to get closer to the land. Was there a specific moment that made you decide to make the move to North Carolina?
CK: It had to be something terrific to get us to move out of California, especially out of Mill Valley. We chose two words, we wanted wildness and nourishment. We were looking for a much deeper connection. It was instinctive, driving us. We looked for two years up and down the California coast. We just couldn’t find what we were looking for. My kids lived in Asheville at the time so we decided to look for land there. So what happened is, the realtor and I drove across this amazing 1920’s steel truss bridge, and as we went across the bridge everything inside of me just started vibrating. When I put my foot down on the ground, this huge ‘yes’ just went right through me. I could see the land and I could connect to it really well. So Stella and I spent a year after that visiting and really getting to know it. One day, after swimming in the river, we looked at each other and knew. It’s really the land that brought us. We have 6 acres of pasture which we can use for growing food and having flowers for bees, a creek you can drink out of, and 1,100 feet of riverfront. We also have a really beautiful set up with the orchard and nut trees we have planted. It’s rare in mountain property to have that kind of land, so we’ve got really the best of both world’s in a way.
HC: How did you find the land?
CK: It found us. The way it worked is, I came out from California to visit my kids and I found a realtor online about six months prior to my visit. We basically put together a list of properties we would look at together when I came out. At the end of the day, he said, “So what do you think?” and I said “Oh, they’re really beautiful properties but they’re not what we’re looking for.” So he goes, “Well, there is this one other property.” And that was it. We did a ton of research, this was a big deal to really move our lives. There was nothing on the property except for a picnic shelter. There was no infrastructure for water, there was power and septic, but that was it. So we bought it not evening knowing where the water was going to come from.
HC: I read that your land was home to several generations of families and used as a vacation property. Your listing also mentions that when you found this property it wasn’t in the greatest condition. What have you done to restore the land to greater health?
CK: The first thing we did right out of the chute was we started treating all the dying hemlock trees. There’s a really nasty bug called the Woolly Adelgid that’s destroying the population of hemlock trees up and down the entire East coast. The hemlock trees typically grow along creeks, they keep the water cold and they’re great shade in the forest. When we got here, we had hundreds of dead hemlocks on the property. So we called an arborist and he came out and he basically said we were about to lose a whole bunch more if we didn’t do something. We treated over 100 trees, we took out over 1,000 dead ones, mostly little guys that had been ravaged by the bug. It was very sad but somehow it felt really good to open up the energy. We also cleared the stream bank. The water in our creek is so pure you can drink it. It was every bit as clean as the spring water that we took to have tested. Along the creek we had a 30 yard expanse of trash that had been thrown there by people over 60–80 years. We just took out layers and layers of trash that would at some point just wash down the creek.
SH: It had been buried. You couldn’t really see it under the soil, except an old jug bottle would stick out and then if you started digging you saw that it had been an abandoned, kind of local trash site.
CK: We actually cut down 48 of the hemlock trees that had died and used them in the building of the house. We milled them into the exterior siding and trim, interior ceilings, baseboard and window sills, as well as using some logs in upright positions inside and out so that the old trees got repurposed. We reseeded the pasture for pollinators like butterflies and bees, just bringing it back to more healthy existence. We have several types of butterflies that we get a lot of. The property was originally named Butterfly and what we love about that is the whole story of transformation, from a caterpillar into a butterfly. And we work with people to help them transform their lives, so it made sense.
SH: The other thing is that we really wanted to honor the original stewards, the Cherokee. We wanted somehow to have a ceremony which we would declare our desire to honor their stewardship, and that we would, to the best of our ability, steward the land in their way. To not destroy the land, but to honor it. So we searched for quite a long time to find a elder or medicine person to come help us do this honoring. After about a year of searching, we found a chief who was actually Nakota Sioux, Chief Iron Eagle. He came and spent a week with us on the land and helped us define our intentions and he really put us through our paces. He made us realize that we’re not only helping the land, but the land is actually very powerful and is helping us. So we walked the land and did a blessing ceremony and put our intentions into the land.
CK: When we started to do the healing of hemlocks, and it really struck us that we were in relationship with a living entity, a living being, who has illness just like we might have illness. If Stella got sick for some reason, I would work to help her to get well. Well if the land is sick, we want it to be well and so we really think of it as a partner with us that’s very much alive. Instead of living on it, we live with it. The land is an active participant in everything that we do.
HC: In your listing you say that you offer a place for campers to rest, re-energize, and dream. What kind of activities can campers participate in at Butterfly Farm Sanctuary?
CK: It’s a place for reflection, writing, and reconnecting with yourself as well as with nature. There is meditation, walking, and a tremendous amount of hiking trails. We’re surrounded by 4,000 acres of State and National Forests. There’s a river that goes by that you can swim in, you could get a bike and bike the roads. One of our guests said it best, she said “I do so much for others, I’m here to do something for myself.” It is an amazing time on the planet right now and many, many people are giving their all to create a shift. We want to offer them a beautiful place to rest. And so we have couples that will come and work with us to help them work on their relationship and they’ll stay in the tent. Some people might want to come and do their own work or they might want to work with us. But either way, the point of it is is to leave it behind, whatever you’re in, and come and really reconnect again.
HC: What are the different types of workshops that you host on your property? Can campers sign up to attend?
CK: The idea is that our guests who come might have something to offer the community that lives around them. So if we find a guest that’s coming, like we just did a workshop in March on the Gene Keys taught by one of our guests, then we’ll pre-arrange for a workshop to happen. We don’t have a regular schedule of workshops, they’re more organic. They arise as we know what people’s gifts are. What we find is that we’re looking for people who feel a real natural alignment with the land who are trying to grow spiritually themselves, just in whatever way their path has developed for them. We have lots of projects and we need lots of help so we’re always open to listening to what gifts others might bring.
SH: People are very aware and dedicated to being part of creating a better world, being inclusive to all, and rooted in equality and love. So we’re offering opportunities in a very organic and flowing way to see who wants to come, whatever level of learning or advanced development they are, but they’re aligned with the desire to heal or contribute to a better world.
HC: When is the best time of year to visit Butterfly Farm Sanctuary?
CK: Any day of the year, it’s fantastic. There’s two seasons in particular that are fabulous, spring and fall. Fall being beautifully colorful. The Smoky Mountains are one of the most biodiverse regions in the world, so there’s all these wildflowers that grow naturally in the spring. Summer is beautiful and it’s not as hot here as it is in lots of places in the world. The winter can be just absolutely amazing because everything is in a restful state. It’s almost like a switch flicks every three months and a new season shows up. We are in a temperate rain forest, so we get a lot of rain during the year, but it’s beautiful rain and then the sun comes out in the morning. The butterflies are just starting to come through now and they’ll go through into the fall.
HC: How close are you to Great Smoky Mountains National Park?
CK: We’re about less than an hours drive. The town of Cherokee is about 40 minutes from us. If you drive 10 miles up the river, you get to the top of the mountains which is about 6,000 feet and there’s a road that runs along the top of the mountains from Georgia all the way to Virginia called the Blue Ridge Parkway so you can go along and just get these phenomenal views of the Smokie’s from the top. There’s going to be a full eclipse in North America this year and we’re ten miles from the full eclipse.
HC: Do you have any favorite camping moments or stories from Hipcampers?
CK: You know what my favorite part of it all is, just seeing the delight in their eyes when they come. When they open up the tent and they look inside and they can hear the creek. It’s just such an amazing gift that we are given back from their genuine appreciation of it. Everybody that’s come and stayed here has loved it. People love the picnic shelter because there’s a fireplace in it so you can sit out and have an outdoor fire, cook your food right there. We’ve had many, many people sit there all night and just enjoy it. A 7-year old stayed recently and when we were cleaning up the picnic shelter after their visit, we found a note pinned to the fireplace, saying “You make us happy.” It was awesome.
HC: Do you have anything planned for Butterfly Farm Sanctuary in 2017? Are there any changes or workshops you hope to make happen this year?
CK: We have a 250 sqft treehouse that was built for the TV show Treehouse Masters. It’s stunningly beautiful. We’re about to bring it online to be a part of the Sanctuary. It will go on Hipcamp soon. The big drawback has been getting water to it. I’m just figuring that out now, and as soon as that’s done there will be a shower with hot and cold water. I think we may put it online without that, so people will just walk down to the house for a shower, but there is a bathroom with a composting toilet and we’ll just portage water in for now for people that want to stay there. I had this thing that I wanted it to be all perfect by the time we brought it online. We went from having three trees in the pasture and then ten days later we had a 250 sqft treehouse that had been filmed for a TV show. It was so fast and with doing it that fast we couldn’t bring any power or water to it. We just finished installing the power and we will keep working in it until we have water as well. We’re also expanding our permaculture garden so we have all organic food there that we eat. We’re continuing to grow our orchard with nut and fruit trees. We’re going to put a bathhouse near the EarthSeed Tent. Right now you have to walk to our house, which is really close by, but it’d be nice to be able to just have your own bathroom there. One of the things that’s very, very difficult with living in mountain property, especially these mountains, is that everything underneath the layer of topsoil is rock. So anytime you have to dig, for septic or power lines you end up just pulling a ton of rock out of the ground and that’s incredibly difficult to work with. We’ve just got piles of rock. If you look around at pictures of the house you’ll see all the rock walls we’ve put in. All that’s come right of the property. People spend thousands and thousands of dollars to get rock, and we’ve probably got $50,000 dollars worth of rock that just came out of the ground.
HC: Any questions you’d want to ask fellow hosts? Advice you could give other hosts?
CK: What I would tell people is that you guys are fabulous to work with and you’re growing. I’ve found Alyssa and all of you to be wonderful to work with, so I wouldn’t hesitate to host with you. I think what you’re trying to do is really cool. The more people that become a part of it, it will only get better and better. Questions for hosts? Yeah, if you know anybody who’s vegetarian send them our way. [laughs]
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Lisse Lundin is a photographer based in San Francisco. You can follow along with her adventures via Instragram.