A couple years ago, Noah Hussin didn't eat roadkill. Now it makes his mouth water. In November 2010, Hussin and his brother Tim set out, on bicycles, to document communities of radical homesteaders in the American South. White, well-educated and privileged—Noah, 30, was a Fulbright Scholar in Germany, and Tim, 27, has photographed for National Geographic in Bolivia—the Florida natives spent almost two years living with communities and filming their experiences for America Recycled, an in-progress, feature-length documentary. WW spoke with Noah about Southern pride, living hyperlocally and how to choose your roadkill.
WW: What was your goal setting out?
Noah Hussin: My brother and I had always played with the idea of going on some kind of storytelling partnership. We didn't know how long it was going to take, where we were going to go, or really even what we were looking for, but we had these vague romantic notions of alternative America, whatever that meant in the 21st century. We were looking for people living hyperlocally.
How do you define "radical homesteading"?
When I imagine homesteading, at least in the American context, I think back to the settling days when people were coming over the continent and going toward what, for their culture, was unexplored land. Of course, there were already people living there, which was a big problem, but in their worldview they're going out and they don't know what it is, and they're finding land and they're making a home on it. And it doesn't already have existing infrastructure that's connected to the cities, so it was out of necessity for them. That would mean they were growing food, they were learning how to forage food, they were hunting, they were keeping livestock, they were writing their own music around campfires. When you take it into a modern context, where the entire country is filled in, more or less, it's a very intentional thing. It's not out of necessity, but they're trying to do it in the same ways.
Tell me about the house in North Carolina where you started.
We learned mostly about scavenging, dumpster diving and roadkill and using scavenged materials to build structures. They're very resourceful people. But the other hand is that the yard is just full of stuff; you never know when it's going to get used. People will find anything and think, "Oh, that can be used for something," and so they'll pull it on their property and maybe a year later they actually use it, but in the meantime… They would skin a lot of animals, and sometimes somebody would forget about a project.
And then you'd find a half-skinned rodent in the kitchen?
No, not in the kitchen. They would do that outside. But sometimes they wouldn't fully salt something and there would be flies everywhere. There was a lot of "project ADD" there, is what people called it, where people would get really excited, really passionate about doing this thing and they'd get into it and then the next day they'd be into this other thing and there would just be a pile of what they were working on and it would stay there forever and ever.
Some of these homesteaders looked like Burners transplanted to Beasts of the Southern Wild.
You've hit on a certain truth there, that there is a certain exotic element because it's Southern. These are people that are individualistic, and that's reflected in their style. People like to dress up in weird, funny ways and be flamboyant about it sometimes. But even though they're radical and progressive, they're still Southern and they're proud of that. There's something really appealing about the South for me, and I think I'm speaking for a lot of our subjects here. Despite the problems it has in terms of prejudices like racism and sexism, which are still prevalent and are changing very slowly compared to the rest of the country, there is a very real sense of Southern hospitality. You can also do what you want on your land, and that's a huge one for people who are trying to homestead. Land tends to be cheaper in a lot of the South, and there are less restrictive building codes in many cases. And I think the subculture in the South feels fiercer than it does out here, where it's so woven into mainstream culture and it's not that weird to have a garden.
Homesteading has become trendy in places like Portland.
Yeah, like in Portlandia. I have a lot to say about that. In the case of our subjects, they're so committed to this lifestyle that it's not a trend, it's not a game. They're not just being like, "Oh, this month I'm going to make kimchi." They've completely transplanted themselves and dedicated themselves to an entire lifestyle. They get annoyed by some of the trends as well, and maybe that's one reason why some people talk a lot of shit about the West Coast down there. It has a lot to do with the way it's portrayed in Portlandia and all of these superficial trends. Nobody likes to see something that's authentic to you turned into a fickle fashion. That's not to say that everything is like that here. There are people who are authentic about it here, but with some people, five years ago they were driving a Hummer, and now they have a Prius and a kale garden.
What sorts of relationships did you see playing out among homesteading communities and their neighbors?
The rural Southern Americans we talked to, they're coming from a homesteading heritage and they're often lamenting the loss of that. The older people in particular, they remember when they had a small town and a family farm and a general store and that whole clichéd America that Republicans keep telling us they're going to bring that back. Nobody's going to bring that back, but it shows how much it pulls at our heartstrings. It's gone. If they want to get some food, they have to go down to Wal-Mart, and they're kind of defeated about the whole thing. The diner has gone out of business, and McDonald's has moved in. They're trying to still hold on to what they have left. And then these more modern radical homesteading people are trying to re-create some of this thing but in a modern context, so in that way I feel like there is a connection between the ideals of the two.
What was it like riding bikes through the South?
Being two white American brothers on bicycles, we felt completely immune to police or anybody. That was the most endearing thing to everybody. We could have been trafficking cocaine and nobody would have caught us. Especially in the South, there are all these good ol' boys, cops, and they'd be like, "What y'all doing?" It's like, "Oh, we're riding across the country." "Riding across the country? Wow, wow, I love adventure, I always wanted to do something like that. How long yâall been on the road?â
Does any particular experience from the road stand out?
We were riding along the Mexican border in New Mexico. We didn't pay to camp a single time. We would always just pull up off the side of the road and camp, and we never had a problem. And we were on the side of the road, sleeping in the desert on the Mexican border, and we wake up with these huge flashlights blaring in our eyes. It's like, "United States Border Patrol!" And we're like, "Uh, we're American citizens. We're just riding our bikes across the country." And he's like, "Oh, really?" It's 3 am, we're getting woken up with a flashlight, and this guy is trying to have a conversation with us. And then they're just chuckling and going back to their vehicle, laughing and talking to each other about it, "Oh, that's the fucking craziest thing." So there was a certain sense of empowerment. I never felt so comfortable with cops before this bike trip.
What kind of roadkill did you eat?
Squirrel, rabbit, bear, deer. Ate a little bird once for some reason. Beaver. One of the most defining roadkill experiences we had was in Terlingua [in Texas]. It was Christmas Eve, I want to say, and we went to the farmers market and it was closed, but along the way there was a coyote on the road, and it was beautiful. It had just been hit. It had frozen the night before, so it was completely fresh. We bagged it up and we skinned it and we processed it and we made a big stew out of it for the town, for a potluck the next day. We made an effort to tell people it was coyote, but I guess the word didn't completely get around, so some people ate it without knowing what it was, and they're like, "This is amazing." Coyote is so good, I had no idea. It was amazing. It was so tender. Just thinking about it now, my mouth is watering. And then people were pretty impressed, and we became known as the Coyote Brothers.
How does other roadkill compare?
Our favorite regular one was probably rabbit. I like squirrel, depending on the squirrel. Obviously deer. Bear is really pungent and kind of sweet. It is good meat, if you know what you're looking at. You're not going to eat something that's smooshed. A lot of people hear we eat roadkill, and they imagine getting a shovel and scraping it off the road. No, we had standards.
SEE IT: Hussin will screen five clips from America Recycled at Velo Cult, 1969 NE 42nd Ave., on Thursday, April 4. 8 pm. Free.