Susanna Shetley: Hickory Nut Forest Eco Community

Hickory Nut Forest Eco Community: Where People Come Home to the Wild

By Susanna Shetley

Lot owners and residents have access to the entire acreage of Little Bearwallow LLC, including an apple orchard, community gardens, Hickory Nut Creek frontage, and access to miles and miles of trails in Hickory Nut Gorge. Photo courtesy of Adrian Etheridge.

Jane Lawson and her late husband, John Myers, pieced together several parcels of land in the Upper Hickory Nut Gorge in 2004, which eventually became Hickory Nut Forest Eco Community.

Within this space, John and Jane created a sustainable living community, Laughing Waters Retreat, and placed 100 acres in a conservation easement with Conserving Carolina. It’s a beautifully preserved natural playground where folks can live and enjoy the surrounding mountains. 

“John was the mastermind in acquiring the contiguous property that ended up being close to 300 acres,” Lawson said. “We wanted to make sure the property remained in its wilderness state as much as possible. As part of this venture, we created a conservation-minded community on one corner of the property to help finance the endeavor. One thing led to another and the Hickory Nut Forest Eco Community with 20 homesites and Laughing Waters Retreat was created.” 

Laughing Waters Retreat was established as a community center for homeowners as well as an event venue for weddings, family reunions and other celebrations. It’s also a meeting and gathering place for nonprofit organizations. The Laughing Waters buildings are powered by Hickory Nut Creek with a hydropower system built by John.

Of the 20 homesites located in the community, seven are complete and one is in the building phase. The community offers a set of design guidelines, which encourages homeowners to design and build homes that are in harmony with the natural environment. The guidelines are intended to assist property owners, architects, landscape architects and building contractors. 

“While each lot owner is free to choose their own builder, we have community covenants that call for sustainable building practices,” Lawson said. “We require that new homes are ENERGY STAR® certified, and we encourage each resident to achieve Green Built Homes certification. Most sites use some form of alternative energy, and all homes have passive solar energy at the least. Rainwater catchment is utilized in some homes as well.”

Lot owners and residents have access to the entire acreage of Little Bearwallow LLC, which is the entity that owns the Laughing Waters property. This property includes an apple orchard, community gardens, Hickory Nut Creek frontage, and access to miles and miles of trails in Hickory Nut Gorge. 

Jane said John always felt at home in the outdoors. He grew up in a rural community in Ohio and spent all of his free time in the woods. As a teenager, he became a passionate rock climber, and in his adult years, he worked to gain access to many climbing areas in the Southeast as well as New York, New Jersey and Kentucky. 

“John’s belief, and now mine as well, is that if one can spend time in the wilderness, a love of nature will surely ensure, and along with it, a desire to protect land for generations to come,” Lawson said. 

This section of Hickory Nut Gorge has been designated as a Significant Natural Area by biologists. The Rich Cove community is home to a very healthy and diverse ecosystem of plants and animals thriving in the undisturbed mountain environment.

“John’s legacy is about keeping the land pristine and sharing it with the greater community,” Lawson said. “Before he died, he was celebrated by Conserving Carolina and the Carolina Climbers Association in a gathering at Laughing Waters for his efforts to protect land, envision the Upper Hickory Nut Gorge trail system (which is now being manifest through the efforts of Conserving Carolina), and his work in gaining access to numerous climbing sites. The Little Bearwallow Falls cliffs have been dedicated to his memory and are utilized by climbers who come from all over.”

Susanna Shetley is a reporter at Smoky Mountain News, with which Green Built Alliance partners to publish its annual Green Building Directory.

You can also view this article as it was originally published on page 50 of the 2022-23 edition of the directory.