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Living the Dream: A Simple, Sustainable Life in Small-Town Tennessee

"We really don't need much to be happy and live a beautiful life."

By Winona Dimeo-Ediger on January 11, 2018

Hilltown, TN
Sarah Gilliam

Welcome to Living the Dream, a new Livability.com series about people who made their big dreams a reality — and the places and communities that made it possible. Do you know someone who’s carved out a unique lifestyle or business in a small town or small to mid-sized city? We’re always looking for great stories. Email our editor for a chance to be featured!

Today, we’re featuring Sarah Gilliam, a photographer and florist whose family has prioritized simplicity, sustainability and connection in a tight-knit community in Tennessee. Her lifestyle inspired us, and we hope it inspires you, too! 

Name: Sarah B. Gilliam

Age: 37

Location: Santa Fe, TN

Occupation: Freelance photographer

Tell us about where you live and what you do.

My husband, Patrick and our two kids, Jack and Ivy, and I live in the small community of Hilltown within the small community of Santa Fe, which is about 40 miles south of Nashville. My husband works for the local power and water utility, and I am a freelance photographer.

But our home and farm life is our family focus and happy place. It is where we slow down and keep things simple. In the spring, we planted about two acres of native wildflowers. We decided to do this for a couple of reasons: to cut down on our weekend mowing and to support our bee-raising efforts. That idea led to another: I started a small flower stand on the square of our hometown, Columbia. Once a week, I spent about three blissful hours picking flowers and another three the next day wrapping them up for folks.

This fall, Patrick oversaw Axe Camp, an idea he conjured while spending countless hours in his wood lot, splitting and stacking wood to heat our home. Axe Camp is an experience-based workshop that teaches people how to safely and properly chop down a tree, then split and stack it all by axe.

Then, this winter, he is leading a Tree ID class on our property where folks will learn to identify more than 40 trees by profile and bark only. 

Was this kind of lifestyle always a dream of yours? How did you go about making this dream a reality?

Yes. We always knew we would have — we both grew up on farms — and we knew we wanted to create a simpler way of living.

We started looking for land soon after we got married (probably about 10 years ago), but life and timing don’t always sync up. Finally, in the fall of October 2014, we found a piece of property that had a lot of the characteristics we wanted — privacy, woods, flat land for growing crops — and it needed some love. Like, a lot of love.

We tore down buildings and made countless trips to the dump, all the while drawing and redrawing the house we’ve always dreamed of. After living in Nashville in a home that was much more than we needed, we knew that we wanted something a lot simpler.

We sketched out a home with about 1,000 square feet and a basement and handed it to a builder. We created spaces meant for gatherings: a large, covered porch overlooking our woods, a cozy basement centered around the wood stove and an open kitchen. The bedrooms and closets are small and we didn’t make space for storage because aside from our camping gear and some tools, we use or display what we own.

How does your location affect your day-to-day life?

Our location is pretty far for a lot of my freelance work, which is mostly in Nashville. However, it is a really lovely commute. I can choose between the scenic Natchez Trace Parkway, which has a speed limit of 50 mph and takes you through some of the most beautiful land in Tennessee, or I take backroads, which follow creeks and wind around old farms.

What’s your favorite thing about Santa Fe, TN?

My favorite thing about Santa Fe is the community of friends we have found here. Every Thursday evening, we are one of a dozen or more families that gather for what have affectionately called, “neighbor night.” It is rare that we miss a week. There are folks of all ages and backgrounds, and we all bring a dish to share for supper and visit around a fire or on blankets spread out on the ground.

How do you feel supported by your local community?

I have never felt more a part of a community than I do now. We moved out to this rural area thinking we might be a bit stranded, but it has been the opposite experience. Our local group of friends are the ones we call for help with fencing, or they bring us soup when we are sick, have us to their creek to cool off in the heat of the summer, help clear trails…I could go on.

We are also close to the county seat, Columbia, where we also have a very strong and supportive community. We both grew up there, and have life-long friendships as well as new ones as our hometown continues to grow.

Tell us what a typical day looks like for you.

Our two kids Jack, 10, and Ivy, four, are early risers, and get our day going. Jack is responsible for feeding the chickens and our barn cat, and Ivy feeds the inside animals (our two dogs). In the winter, there is a wood stove to keep going and ice to break for the animals — chickens, cat and dogs. We keep our wood stores up close to the house and out of the weather. And Patrick constantly brings home wood to split and stack, starting to get it seasoned for next year. The kids help gather kindling from around the yard and woods.

In the warmer months, there is lots to do. The kids do their chores around the house and farm — feeding animals, weeding the garden, stacking wood, picking flowers (it isn’t all arduous tasks).

We are always working on a project, inside and out, so we dedicate some of our time on the weekends and weekdays to those. Patrick built a barn this past summer and we are planning on another building this year that the entire family will help construct.

Why is living sustainably and simply important to you and your family?

Living simply gives us a lot of freedom. Someone once told me: the less want, the more you have. That really sums up a lot of it. But also, our minimalist life is one of less stress because there is less clutter and extras. Small things like not having a microwave or hanging our clothes out instead of using the dryer have shown us that we don’t really need them, and it is also one less noise. We crave the quiet and the process of things. This is why our second bathroom is a darkroom — I knew I wanted to slow down the pace of my digital work and spend time at home going through the process of developing photographs by hand.

This simplicity spills over into our parenting. Our kids do not participate in a lot of extracurricular activities or have their own iPads or video games or very many toys. We enjoy movies, taking them camping, to see music, eat different foods, fun trips with friends and beach vacations. But mostly, you’ll find them outside — playing with sticks in the dirt or throwing a ball, swinging or doing whatever project we have that day.

How do you hope your way of life inspire others?

I hope everyone carves out a little more time for something that takes time — maybe read a book, write a letter, or plant something you can put on your table. (I suggest flowers.)

What advice would you give to someone else who’s trying to simplify their life or be more sustainable?

For those wanting to simplify (I would totally do this as a job, because I love this part): Simplifying can be as easy as going through that junk drawer (I have one, too!) and tossing the things you don’t need, giving away (or selling) the things you don’t use and keeping the things you believe are useful or beautiful. 

Folks looking for more ways to be sustainable: So many ways. Grow your own food. It is actually a lot easier than you think. You don’t even need a yard! Hang your clothes out to dry, even just your sheets: your bedtime self will thank you. Open your windows this spring and put on a sweater in the winter or snuggle up a little closer. Be kind to our earth— even just recycling a little frees up space in your county landfill and keeps more land open for us and wildlife to enjoy.

Less is more. We really don’t need much to be happy and live a beautiful life.

All photos by Sarah B. Gilliam. You can follow Sarah and her family on Instagram @HilltownTn and at their website, Hilltowntn.com

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