Home Sweet ‘Wam

There are some stories that change your life. Not immediately, or at least in ways that are immediately apparent, but over time you realize you learned some things and your mind was opened in ways that cause your life to follow a slightly different path. And I think this was one of them.

May I introduce you to David Hofmann.

In a nutshell, David has been living in wigwams that he built in the woods for the past seven years. He collects and teaches methods of primitive living and certainly puts them to test.

I feel like I should start by mentioning (and thanking) Liz Bailey, who pestered me to take on David’s story. I still don’t know why she decided to tell me about her friend who lives in the woods but on three separate occasions but she mentioned that I should try to take some photos of his lifestyle. She also facilitated our first meeting, when David came to Lynchburg to borrow her pick-up truck to start moving his posessions to the site where he was preparing to start building a new wigwam. I agreed to go with him, committing to four days and three nights in the woods with a man I had never met. Truth be told, we did meet once before, by chance, at a small festival when I realized that the bearded man playing trombone named David must be the same David with whom I was planning to meet at Liz’s house the following day. I introduced myself as Liz’s photographer friend; he told me that the oxeye daisies at my feet were good on salads. I knew we would get along when, after asking David what I should pack for the visit, he suggested stopping by Wal-Mart and buying a bundle of firewood. He also suggested that I Google how to start a fire so we could cook a hot meal. If you know me, you know I am well-versed in dry humor and sarcasm. Anyway, we left in Liz’s truck about 10 p.m. and arrived at a small clearing near Afton Mountain an hour later. David led me along a narrow footpath about 100 yards through the woods, over a creek and up a hill, in the faintest moonlight. I felt my way into his wigwam and he lit a couple candles so I could see where to lay my sleeping bag. He offered me a beer, lit a cigarette and we talked for over an hour. This was one of the 16 frames I made in the firelight.

The next morning I was able to finally see my surroundings: the raised stone platform, topped with foam and blankets, on which I had slept, the inside of the leaf- and branch-insulated wigwam and the meandering path we had walked the night before. Due to circumstances out of his control, David was facing a move and a generous acquaintance had recently offered to let David relocate to his land several miles away, where he owned a largely untouched area of hilly forest. On the agenda for that first day was to visit the new land so David could scope out a potential building site and see what the natural resources were like. I did my best to keep up, undoubtedly annoying him with my naive questions, as he traced a creek back to its spring and noted the relative youth of the forest.

By the third morning I was feeling greasy and smelly but also quite comfortable with the daily routine of sorts that David had developed. Over the next five months I returned seven times and camped out a total of six nights. I feel incredible gratitude toward him for not only opening his home and his life to me but also trusting me with showing photos of his unique lifestyle to people he has never, and will never, meet. The following selection of over 3,000 photographs shows some scenes from the move, visits with friends, trips to town, construction of the new ‘wam and other aspects of living a life in the woods that I found interesting or important.

Writer Katrina Koetring really took to this story and adopted it as her own, bringing to light many aspects that photos just cannot convey. I’ve attached her article after the photos.

KATRINA KOERTING | The Nelson County Times 
Published: October 13, 2012

David Hofmann hoisted a slab of soapstone onto his shoulders and set off on a path he made through the Afton woods toward the developing wigwam he calls home.

Hofmann, 32, has lived in the woods for more than 10 years, preferring to use primitive skills over today’s comforts.

“People ask me if I miss the modern conveniences,” he said, looking at the windows from his makeshift couch, a tarp filled with hay. “I tell them I’m rediscovering the ancient conveniences. Sometimes they take longer and are on a different time schedule, but it’s not an inconvenient way to live.

“It’s just a different way.”

His fridge is a plastic box with a soapstone lid kept in the cool stream. His dishwasher is a series of buckets with warm, soapy water. A sweet birch twig has served as his toothbrush and in place of a faucet, he walks to a nearby spring he dug out for his water.

He hasn’t forsaken all modern comforts, though. 

He frequently calls and texts from his cell phone. He also borrows friends’ cars for moving and trips to the stores.

The wigwam itself mixes modern materials with ancient building techniques. Interlocked beer bottles surrounded by a straw-mud mixture, called “wattle and daub,” create bricks lining the bottom half of the southern side of the wigwam. Saplings woven together secure thewall of windows in place. The windows are an eclectic assortment from cars and framed-windows you would sooner find in a quaint farmhouse than in the woods.

A soapstone fire pit occupies the middle of the wigwam. The heated soapstone also can serve as a heated couch in the colder weather, something he’s done at other wigwams. Books, crossword puzzles and his homemade crafts are scattered throughout the living space.

Like the several other primitive dwellings he’s built over the past several years, Hofmann is making this one by hand.

More than two dozen saplings dug about 18 inches into the ground create the foundation of the peanut-shaped wigwam, which is about 30 feet long and 15 feet wide at the widest parts. Tarps provide the temporary roof and blankets serve as the walls for the bedroom and living room area while Hofmann decides what materials to use.

Each decision of the wigwam is carefully thought out before being executed; however, the overall design scheme is arrived at in phases. Eventually he said he hopes to have a peaked, metal roof.

The woods are more than a home to Hofmann. They also serve as his medicine cabinet and a grocery store. Countless plants provide remedies for things like bee stings, infections and even a plant that will draw out splinters — all resources that contribute to his “thrival” lifestyle, a term he picked up from a former mentor.

“We’re not trying to survive in the woods, we’re trying to thrive in the woods,” he said. “I took that to heart.”

***

Hofmann grew up in a typical house in Pennsylvania.

But even as a child, his father recalled, he spent lots of time building forts and practicing survival skills he picked up from books in the safety of his backyard.

Steve Hofmann said his son comes from a nature-oriented family. He’s also the latest in a long line of relatives who work with their hands. His grandfather chopped wood until he was in his 90s, and his great-grandfather dealt in landscaping, working on sites like the governor’s estate in Maryland.

“To see him with his knowledge of plants in the woods, it seems like he’s continuing (his ancestor’s work), which makes it pretty cool,” Steve Hofmann said.

David Hofmann is the first in his family, though, to turn his love for nature into a home in the woods.

His father understands that some would find that lifestyle worrisome. He’s thought about the possibility of a tree falling on his son, for example, and then there are the bears and snakes.  But worrying about his son won’t make him any safer, he reasoned, so he tries not to.

He visited the newest wigwam in August. He likes to bring treats from home with him, like bacon, as well as craft books he thinks his son would enjoy.

“I think each time he builds one he learns a little more, so it gets more interesting,” Steve Hofmann said.

Over the years, Hofmann’s made at least six primitive dwellings and several survival-style huts, constructed from debris, like leaves and sticks, stacked up. His last Afton wigwam resembled a snail shell, spiraling out from the bedroom.
The transition to the woods happened over several years.

He completed two years at Temple University, where he studied horticulture and made the dean’s list every semester, but dropped out when he realized it wasn’t right for him.

He spent a summer in little more than a shack in Delaware with a cousin and two friends.  His summer stay turned into a year and that’s when he realized he didn’t want a career, deciding instead to move to the woods where he found freedom from rent and bills. The woods also gave him a place to pursue his art and music.

“It was a summer adventure that became my life,” Hofmann said.

He’s spent the past decade in Virginia, four years in a shack and then six in wigwams on Afton Mountain.

When he moved to Virginia, Hofmann began researching types of primitive houses. He learned teepees, like his friend’s, were better suited for the plains, while wigwams and long houses were more appropriate dwellings for this part of the country.

“It’s just a different life,” he said. “I appreciate society and culture, but if I don’t get time in the woods, I start to crave it.”

***

Hofmann may live by himself in the woods, but it is not altogether a solitary lifestyle.

Tails, Hofmann’s brown and black dog, is a constant companion, going everywhere with him. Hofmann came across Tails as a puppy in the woods more than a year ago. He was unsure if he should keep the dog and left the decision to the fate of a coin toss, giving the dog his name.

For human interaction, Hoffman goes to stores, restaurants and other places in the area, as well as music festivals.

Hofmann also attends and leads workshops at Firefly Gathering in North Carolina, one of the largest primitive skills events in the country. About 800 people attended the four-day gathering in late June, up from the approximate 250 at the first one five years ago, according to the Firefly organization.

He likes to visit with the family that owns the land where he lives. In exchange for using the site, Hofmann helps out around the house and yard. They have a genial relationship, spending time together at their house and in the woods. Family members, who did not want to be identified to protect the privacy of Hofmann’s location, also let him use their basement for his workshop and a place to charge his cell phone.

Throughout the area, Hofmann does small jobs, like helping farms with the harvest and doing tile work. Selling his crafts at the farmer’s market in Nellysford is a key source of income. His handiwork includes primitive pottery, beeswax candles and beautifully crafted lampshades decorated with photographs, leaves, flowers or other natural materials.

He also makes his own mead from honey, which he trades, along with his art, with local people for goods.

Friends from the area and out of state periodically stop by for visits.

On a cool afternoon in late September, Hofmann and two friends — Anne Knoflicek, 32, of Ashville, N.C., and Bjourn Goodwin, 26, of Afton — gathered around a fire. They had a few beers and joked with each other while lounging on hammocks and a metal bucket chair Hofmann found, made from crisscrossed thin meal rods.

A few feet away, two roosters, killed and processed that afternoon by Hofmann and Knoflicek, cooked in a pot on a soapstone fire in the middle of the wigwam. Bigger pieces of soapstone and other smooth rocks surrounded the fire, creating the kitchen floor, separating the bedroom and the sitting area. Clothes hung from saplings, drying above the fire.

Music helped bring the friends together. Knoflicek met him about a year ago at a music festival and Goodwin met him about seven years ago at music night at Shannon Farm, a cooperative community in Afton. Hofmann still frequents music night. He keeps a trumpet, trombone and guitar in his wigwam.

“We all just get together and hang out,” Goodwin said. “We don’t care if it sounds good or not. We’re just having a good time.”
Knoflicek and Goodwin had visited Hofmann’s other Afton wigwam, but this was their first visit to his current dwelling. Both admire his work, and his resolve to live closer to nature. 

“I love the idea, and seeing him do it so comfortably is very inspiring,” Goodwin said. “I like being in nature and this is a way to do it all the time.”

***

Like the final details of the wigwam, Hofmann’s future in the woods is not completely planned.

He has contemplated living in a wigwam into his old age, although older people who lived in similar housing have told him that it is incredibly hard. He has also thought about possibly starting a life with someone in the woods if she enjoyed the traditional lifestyle. Another option is living in a house or apartment and having wigwams as retreats if she didn’t prefer the constant wigwam lifestyle. He’s even considered child-raising in a wigwam, with smaller “kid-wams” around the main structure.

“It could happen with the right set of people,” he said.

For the moment, Hofmann’s willing to take his future as it comes.

“I’m still in a wigwam, just me and a dog,” he said. “That’s how I roll.”

7 Comments

  1. Maddie Michels-Boyce October 14, 2012 at 11:06 am

    What an awesome story! I remember you talking about doing this but I had no idea what to picture before. Sounds like a fascinating guy.

  2. David is my younger brother, and I love and miss him dearly. Thank you for painting such a beautiful picture of his lifestyle!

  3. George Westerlund October 29, 2012 at 10:20 am

    Thanks for the great pictures and report. I am related to David through my wife Lois. I am eighty but have loved the outdoors. Years ago I was very active in canoeing and paddled heavy Class 4+ whitewater including the whitewater in the movie Deliverance. It was also special to join up with friends for wilderness canoe trips in the US and in Canada. Now, locally at Lake Monticello in Virginia, I post pictures on our community TV channel (LMOA: Scenes at the Lake).

  4. THe photos are beautiful! Great work, Parker.

  5. […] was done in 2012 on David Hoffman, who has been constructing and living in wigwams for a while: http://blog.pmbphotography.com/?p=3423.  Glean what you can and blow away the […]

  6. Fantastic, Parker.

    I revisited this one today; since you posted it I’ve seen it a few times and it never gets old (never forgotten, either).

    Job well done.

    –Drake

  7. I think I’m in love! I could so live this lifestyle with David and Tails.

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