In 2016, Johnna Holmgren (@foxmeetsbear) and her husband, Max (@bearfoxchalk), made the decision to move their brood (today, a trio of girls) into the Minnesota wilderness. She documents their adventures on her popular Fox Meets Bear blog and her serene social feeds. We talked to Johnna about the choice to take to the woods, what it’s meant for their family and how the rest of us might find some simplicity in our own lives.
You and your family live in the middle of the Minnesota woods. What prompted you to make that decision?
We have always dreamed of living in the woods with a little bit of land. We have lived in an apartment in a small town, an apartment closer to the Twin Cities and a home in a small town on the corner of the street, and we craved a little more privacy, the experience of less noise surrounding us, and the ability to walk out the backdoor to the woods and animals.
Was it difficult making the move from city living?
I wouldn’t say it was difficult, but like any big transition, there were adjustments for sure. We did a lot of work on our A-frame, so we spent time in a sort of renovation state — with kids! We are still actually pretty close to the city, but in general, it was a new experience to live surrounded by woods: new noises, new animals and who would’ve thought that the woods would look so dark at night? Ha! But we adjusted, and now it feels comfortable.
What has being submerged in nature taught you?
A lot. From a homemaker perspective, it’s taught me how to plan for the month better in terms of groceries and errands. We’ve gone for weeks without leaving the house, and since moving here, I’ve shifted my driving-out-into-the-world-for-nothing patterns. I’ve tried to stay put more and rest and exist instead of buzzing out to here or there. Focusing on getting to know our home in new and comfortable ways has felt really good.
Getting outside and walking the woods and finding our favorite trails and trees and spots has taught me a lot about simplifying my life and mind and weekly rhythm. It’s taught me that I don’t need to go, go, go to feel satisfied. This is something that took me almost a year to truly “get,” and I feel like I am still learning it in deeper ways.
Do you ever miss city living?
Most of the time, we don’t miss living in a city at all. This is exactly where we want to be right now. But sometimes we miss walking our old neighborhood in downtown Stillwater, looking at all the cute homes, and walking to parks and down to the co-op. There’s a different type of energy living in a town versus in the woods. There are benefits to each, and we do love reflecting and being nostalgic for places where we’ve lived in the past.
What is it like to experience the North’s four seasons from your unique vantage point?
Seeing the shifts in seasons is my absolute favorite part about living in the woods! Spring is so amazing, when the weather begins to fluctuate toward warmer temperatures, the taps are put into the maple trees for maple syrup, the snow starts to melt a little more every day and then tiny bursts of green start popping through the floor of the woods.
Then summer is here, and we can forage for mushrooms and clovers, and get into the garden. We experience even more privacy because all the trees are in full bloom, and the girls run around outside naked with the ducks.
Then fall comes, and the color change is so drastic. There’s a giant maple tree in the front yard that turns bright yellow; we check on the color change almost every day and gather leaves to press and preserve.
And then, oh my goodness, the first snowfall is so exciting. The woods change so much in the winter; the trees get covered in pure white, and you can see out farther than before. Winter hikes have become our favorite, for sure.
Have you witnessed your kids blossom in ways they might not have living in the city?
Absolutely. I mean I think kids will always blossom as they grow older, but they seem really happy here. Luella, our oldest, will go out and explore by herself and has seemed to come into a new form of independence. They notice things in the woods that I never would, and they teach me so much about being present and free-flowing and grateful.
As I mentioned earlier, we are learning a different form of simplicity. We finally have a flow. They have to care for the animals every day, whether that’s feeding them or gathering eggs or helping me change the baby mallard bedding. Then there’s play time, when, more often than not, the two big girls are off imagining together or outside by themselves. Then there are naps and homeschool and a lot of cooking and baking in between.
Can you tell us about your upcoming cookbook, Tales from a Forager’s Kitchen?
It comes out in early May and is a book of stories (tales) from life growing up and life out here in the woods. It has more than 80 recipes, foraging tips and recommendations, and a few magical fiction stories as well. The essence of it is anchored in foraging and engaging with unique, earth-grown goods, but many of the ingredients can be purchased at farmers’ markets, co-ops and even at some conventional grocery stores.
The goal is to bring the woods to you, to bring a newfound wonder for the food that is on our plates and to try something new in the simplest of forms. The illustrations are done by my husband, Max, who runs our chalk illustration company, Bear Fox Chalk. I am completely in love with the simple, child-like designs. They feel playful and inviting and magical, and I really hope to turn some of them into prints as well.
I worked with Matt Lien for the photography, and together we were able to shoot a “seasonal encapsulation” out here at the A-frame. Besides the actual food in the book, this was one of my favorite parts: bottling up the seasons here and hopefully encouraging others to get outdoors and engage with the beauty of this earth.
What tips do you have for someone looking to lead a simpler life?
I am still learning how to lead a simpler life and have a lot of ways to grow, but I’d say just start anywhere. Carve out time to get to a state park or an area of woods. Under-schedule and learn the art of rest. Drive less if possible. Have one or two days a week when all the errands are grouped and keep the rest of the week consciously calmer. Make a mindful walk, meditation or reflection an “essential” to living. Have it be as important as work.
Do you see yourself ever taking up urban living again?
Sometimes we imagine living here until old age, and other times we dream up a lot of different options: moving to a small town or a new country. It’s fun to imagine different scenarios, but for now this feels like home.