"Years ago, I read that true self-sufficiency is impossible," says Ted Carns. "I took that as a challenge."
Carns, who lives on a mountain overlooking Laughlintown, must be as close to self-sufficient as anyone in Western Pennsylvania. Climb the long, winding gravel drive to his Stone Camp, and you'll find a much-amended 1920s hunting cabin of stone and wood. It's cozy, every inch hung or stacked with copper pans, ceramic mugs, woven baskets and images of his spiritual guidepost, the Virgin Mary. And intentionally minimizing its ecological footprint, it's completely off the grid: heated with firewood, its lights and amenities (automatic washer, small TV, computer) powered by solar panels and a 76-foot-tall homemade wind turbine outside the front door.
Stone Camp occupies 5 acres amidst 60 acres owned by his family (one of the area's oldest). Carns, 58, is a white-haired, barrel-chested fellow with a vise-like handshake. He and his wife, Kathy Carns, harvest rain and use nearby springs for their water, and grow most of their vegetarian diet in two organic gardens: In early November, baskets of peppers, butternut squash and pears sat in the house's entryway. They make their own cider and wine. There's a compost heap -- at Stone Camp, there's no such thing as "garbage" -- a wood-fired sauna and numerous small outbuildings, including three guesthouses.
"I often describe this place as ‘Be Prepared on steroids,'" quips Carns, a former Eagle Scout. A refrigerator runs on propane, but Carns plans to power it with his home-made methane digester, which will make electricity from septic sludge. And while a tractor and other heavy equipment burn gasoline or diesel, Carns says his rediscovery of the old technology called "wood gasification" would allow them to run on the unignited fumes from smoldering wood.
A Ligonier High School graduate and former logger, Carns moved to Stone Camp 37 years ago because he wanted to live like the religious hermits he'd read about. "I moved up here to be alone -- and since then there's been 4,000 people up here!" he says, laughing. "So it's backfired!"
The visitors, ranging from friends of friends to field-tripping college students, usually come away impressed. And now Carns has written a book: Off on Our Own: Living Off-Grid in Comfortable Independence, on Pittsburgh-based St. Lynn's Press. Reflecting its garrulous author, it's a rambling tour through Carns' environmental philosophy, practical wisdom and spiritual outlook. (He's a Christian drawn to Eastern teachings.) It's got everything from a corn-pancake recipe and instructions for fashioning building materials from household plastics, to riffs on Star Trek and a story about lighting himself and his dad on fire during a welding project.
Though the couple reaps cash income (and health-care benefits) from Kathy's job as a social worker, Ted Carns hasn't had an outside job in decades. Thus readers will learn how much sustainable lifestyle is possible with handyman skills, some imagination and an eye for flea-market treasures. Carns spent just $300 building the greenhouse-like "sunroom," whose ivy, jasmine, avocado tree and resident fish and frogs almost obscure the combination shower and hot tub.
Carns is uncompromising about his environmentalism, which was nurtured by Powdermill Nature Reserve educator Ruth Scott, a close friend of Rachel Carson's whom Carns knew as a teen-ager. Carns says society needs to get off fossil fuels, and regards shale-gas drilling as "one of the biggest nightmares ever." (His family has refused leasing offers, though many neighbors have signed on.) In Carns' ideal world, forests wouldn't be exploited for anything but their dead wood.
While he's prone to gloom over environmental degradation, Carns says there's a burgeoning environmental consciousness. "People are waking up really fast," he says.
Stone Camp is doing its bit. Some of those 4,000 visitors have included teen-age students in the Westmoreland County Junior Conservation School, 25 of whom visit every summer.
"He really opens the students' eyes about how we're hurting the environment and here's what you can do about it," says John Kozubal, a longtime counselor for the school. "They come away with a whole new outlook on things."
Carns himself doesn't think he's doing anything remarkable. "I am trying to live a life that would please God," he says. "I'm living my life as if He's watching me."