By Robert Blood
[Editor’s note: The following interview was culled from conversations between the reporter and Happy Oasis, owner of Heaven on Earth, a nature sanctuary in the Granite Dells. Visit HappyOasis.Com to find out more.]
Tell us about Heaven on Earth.
It’s Prescott’s newest wildlife sanctuary. It’s not only a private sanctuary for wildlife, but also for the wild life inside us. The idea is to bring out and enhance our communication with nature and eco-conscious living.
There are gardens with edible plants mixed in with wild flowers — all of which are friendly to bees, butterflies, and hummingbirds — as well as dozens of fruit trees. Heaven on Earth is surrounded by thousands of acres of what should have been a national park. My beloved John and I feel as if we’re the caretakers — not just of our home here, but of these gorgeous Granite Dells, as well.
Heaven on Earth is surrounded by a network of trails that traverse some of the most spectacular scenery in Arizona. Part of that is city of Prescott designated Open Space. The trail system behind our home is called the Granite Gardens Trails. I envisioned these trails before I suggested to the developer that he sell and donate the trail land to the city. The trails were brilliantly designed by Chris Hoskins and built by his Over the Hill Gang.
The sanctuary is situated in the middle of an extensive labyrinth of canyons. Decks, patios, lawns, a hammock, and several dozen fruit and nut trees compliment the cliffs. There’s a playful mix of edible and native plants, vegetables, domesticated flowers, wild flowers, and towering native trees as well as eco-amenities including an 8-kilowatt solar system that covers the entire south side of the house and provides nearly 100 percent of the sanctuary’s electrical needs, plus 3,000 gallons of water storage, a passive solar flagstone sun room with a raised bed greenhouse garden, local flagstone exterior, electric heating beneath the wooden floors, an EPA-rated low-emissions wood stove, low-flow shower heads, faucets, and toilets, plus yellow walls and skylights to reduce the need for electric lighting, and LED lights throughout. The sanctuary uses solar hot water and has a 8,000 kilowatt solar array, which was installed in October. We also built whimsical flagstone walkways leading to secret meditation nooks, pool lounges, secret pond-side spots, yoga decks, and clifftop boulder perches with national park-like views.
What kind of activities do you host there?
An eclectic array of inspirational, educational programs focused on health, nature, music, and art, all with an interactive flavor. This year, we’ve hosted an outdoor vibrant vegan Easter egg hunt and celebration, a goddess gathering, a raw vegan potluck celebration, and a local talent show. We also hosted Sedona’s Illuminate Film Festival preview party, Green Living magazine’s Prescott launch party, a quiet music-making playshop with Prescott’s fun-loving Jonathan Best, “Let’s Get Wild!” which was an edible foraging feast led by me, as well as a gentle concert with the talented muse Celia Ferran of Prescott Valley. We ended September with a lively lecture by Durango, Colorado’s most innovative eco-professor, gardener, forager, wild foods chef, musician, and award-winning author Katrina Blair.
We also enjoy hosting occasional, private, healthful dinner gatherings with music circles and poetic and philosophical soirees with friends where the conversation flows in myriad interesting directions.
How did Heaven on Earth come into being?
While we were wintering in our little RV in Baja California, our renters subleased to someone who accidentally burned down our home in March of 2014. Being nonsmokers who rented to nonsmokers we would’ve never guessed that one careless toss of a cigarette would dramatically change the course of our lives.
Upon hearing the news, we were shocked and confused as to how to proceed. After a few days of ponderous prayer and meditation steeped in nature, I heard a call from the universe to rebuild with a new vision to protect the land and wildlife habitat more than ever. “It’s about the land, not the house.” That’s what I heard from deep within. “Rebuild the house to protect the land — and enjoy it.”
Rebuilding was quite an adventure. We approached it with some initial resistance but we had a a lot of gusto once we got started. It was a serious challenge — in this case, ceaseless envisioning plus intense physical and mental labor. It took a total of three months to demolish the old house by hand, plus remove 39 tons of debris one bucket of ashes at a time. Then we designed it, submitted the design to the county, got the green flag, then rebuilt it over the next 15 months.
We did the majority of the work ourselves, as well as the flagstone patios, winding stone walkways, landscaping, and decks. We subcontracted areas that needed a specific or larger workforce. We had to get a crane to lift the trusses while we helped a crew set the trusses onto the roof. Negotiating with the insurance companies and the county building permit staff was also educative and surprisingly pleasant.
With all that wild space, you must’ve had some interesting encounters with wildlife there.
Definitely. For years, an enormous porcupine dwelled in the hollow of one of our peach trees at the bottom of a cliff. We would hear it drag its long, heavy quills through the garden and across the sand and rocks to drink from the pond each night.
One evening, I was sleeping al fresco on a rock perch part way up a cliff with a housemate’s pet rabbit by name of Thistle. In the bluish light of the moon I saw a pointed boulder with its tip a little taller than I had previously remembered it.
Seconds later, as if in a dream, the boulder seemed to split in two, when I realized that the top half of the split was in fact a mountain lion flying in an arc right in front of me. I heard a high-pitched screech and knew it must be Thistle the rabbit. In an instant, I scrambled down the cliff toward the mountain lion. It looked at me, dropped the rabbit and trotted away. At dawn, I awoke the owner of the rabbit and told her about its sad demise. We buried Thistle in the garden. The funeral for that rabbit had more than 30 people. Can you believe that — 30 people? I’d be amazed if there were 30 rabbits at my funeral.
We’ve also seen bobcats. Big cats are territorial and it’s a rare treat to see one. They’re afraid of people and will run given the opportunity.
Sometimes we hear a Great Horned Owl hoo hoo-ing at night. Arizona Tree Frogs sometimes convene to sing in both the pond and swimming pool. Occasionally, coyotes wail out as they pass through. Javelinas frequent our tasty compost pile announcing themselves with their signature huffs. And we often find javelina footprints on the steps of our pool. We use a very low chlorine pool rather than salt water since the wildlife drink from it. Crickets often chime away the night. Cicadas prefer singing high up in the Cottonwoods during the day. They can be deafening.
We also live with foxes, raccoons, Ring-tailed cats, Roadrunners, and a friendly resident skunk who doesn’t spray. Bird-wise, there are Great Blue Herons, Green Herons, House Finches, Mallards, Wood Ducks, Canyon Wrens, Red-tailed Hawks, Nuthatches, Common Ravens, Scrub Jays, and King Fishers.
It was amazing when a Scrub Jay once landed on my shoulder and stayed there for several minutes. I thought — “It’s a blue bird on my shoulder. It’s the truth, it’s actual. Every bit was satisfactual” — you know, how that famous song goes.
The obvious trade off of living in nature is modern amenities and ease of living.
Some people visit and say we’re in the middle of nowhere. That is certainly true for those who are into shopping malls, city life and street traffic. For me, Heaven on Earth is the middle of everywhere. There’s hiking, bicycle trails, streams, rock climbing, multiple mountain peaks, lakes, caves, and even secret swimming pools. Plus, nature’s supermarket lives all around us — and it’s delicious at that. Yet, Heaven on Earth is just 10 minutes from Prescott.
I guess it depends on values, on what’s important to each individual. We love to explore off trail and run amok. We love to discover scrumptious supplements to add to our breakfasts be they prickly pears, buck berries, Manzanita berries, lemonade berries, wild canyon grapes or acorns.
And, we enjoy foraging, then adding to our salad lunches such delectable as wild mustard, feral arugula, elm leaves, prickly lettuce, wild spinach, field mint and tasty cat tail roots that I call “swamp cucumbers” because they taste and crunch just like a cucumber. I call mullein “wild celery” because its stalk is so salty-delicious.
We also rock climb, wind surf, sail, kayak, and even love to just get lost — which is not hard to do in the Dells. Fortunately, it’s also really easy to climb to the top of the highest mountain in a few minutes to discover where you are when you do get lost.
I believe that it’s essential to have one foot in the wilderness and the other foot in proximity of civilization — such as Prescott — to live an optimally balanced life. Many of our finest neighbors happen to be rocks, boulders, shrubbery, trees, and wildflowers — and we like it that way.
We cherish our few human neighbors too. Because there are only about 30 homes in our neighborhood and because our little cluster of humble homes is surrounded by thousands of acres of rugged wilderness, there is a sense of community unique to the Granite Dells. Most everyone here shares a love of wilderness and wildlife, each in our own way.
There’s a certain irony that modern technology, eco-friendly and not-so eco-friendly, helped make Heaven on Earth possible.
John and I stood up to the challenge. While removing the 39 tons of debris — the ashen remains of our erstwhile home that often had us coated black in ashes — we’d take frequent breaks to immerse ourselves in researching the most sound eco-construction materials and compare different eco-friendly techniques and technologies.
Though there were a lot of initially-enticing architectural wonder products on the market with clever marketing that promised much, we were more drawn to ancient, classic materials such as swirled pastel marble tiles, hard wood floors, and natural stone instead of, for example, vinyl or concrete exterior siding.
We conscientiously decided to put aesthetic architectural beauty and natural eco-sustainable materials equal with affordability to co-create the highest quality of life imaginable while being as frugal as possible, confident that if we were to fall short of paying for the house — which we did — we are resourceful and diligent enough to manage to pay the remainder.
After looking at vinyl, concrete, adobe, plywood, and wood siding options, we chose real flagstone from a nearby quarry because it’s not only local — it’s the longest lasting choice of all, thus the most eco-sustainable. There are stone homes still standing today in Europe that were built by Romans nearly 2,000 years ago. Another benefit to stone is that it doesn’t burn.
For the roof, we initially imagined stucco terracotta tiles. However, when we decided we definitely wished to go solar, we learned that terracotta tile roofs don’t easily house solar systems. Also, they’d be mostly covered by the solar panels, anyway. So, we decided to go with an affordable two-tone asphalt shingle roof. It’s a combination of beige and rust mid-tones that don’t heat up very much in the summer or cool down very much in the winter. Being beige, it blends in with the Granite Dells. A part of choosing eco for us is blending our home in with the surroundings, so that it appears to be a natural extension of these magnificent canyon lands.
Find out more about Heaven on Earth and Happy Oasis at HappyOasis.Com.
Robert Blood is a Mayer-ish-based freelance writer and ne’er-do-well who’s working on his last book, which, incidentally, will be his first. Contact him at BloodyBobby5@Gmail.Com.