After a rainy Friday, Sharon Ross, a Texan by birth and Oregonian by heart, steps out into her garden where cantaloupes, beans, and carrots snooze in the dirt beneath her. A self-described “Afrovivalist” who has appeared on BuzzFeed’s Follow This and in The New York Times, Ross is a lot all at once — a homesteader, disaster prepper, survivalist educator, grandmother, and city employee in Portland, Ore. At the intersection of sustainability and skepticism, Ross, 55, describes herself as a “huntress” — an identity she developed from living and growing up in the country and that highlights her ability to go out, hunt, fish, and preserve her own food.
She spends her time between a 55-by-50 city lot in Portland and 100 acres of property three hours away in eastern Washington. Ross has dedicated 20 out of that 100 acres for her homestead where she is raising several goats, rabbits, horses, and a new cow with her neighbor. As for the other 80 acres, they lay in wait for Ross to decide their fate — either a solar farm or an off-grid community. Back in Portland, she is growing lettuce and chives for the rabbits that live with her. She’s also growing potatoes, which are kind of small, but she doesn’t anticipate having time for them anyway. Meanwhile, the herbs she’s growing for her tea look good.
Her childhood informed her interest in self-sufficiency and the outdoors. Ross grew up the older of two daughters on a 1970s homestead in southern Oregon. On their 26 acres, 14 miles from the closest town, Ross, along with her retired-Marine stepfather, sister, and mom, shared a one-room shack. Ross described her childhood self as a tomboy, spending countless afternoons learning practical lessons from a U.S. Marine. The two practiced survival skills from hunting to firemaking and changing the oil in a car. She continues to add skills to her survival repertoire: Six years ago, she picked up archery as a way to relax and practices regularly on the range set up on her property. She’s a long-time gun owner but favors the bow and arrow because she finds it easier to become one with a bow and arrow. Guns, however, evoke a tension that, at least for her, prevents that kind of meld.
Archery (along with food preservation) serves as the skill she enjoys teaching others the most, and this fall, Ross plans to host the inaugural weekend of her new survival training and disaster preparedness program called deCamp Outdoors. Providing a tiered experience from bunkhouses to canvas tents, deCamp Outdoors teaches urban dwellers and city folk how to survive in a post-disaster city environment, how to set-up a primitive survival camp, and basic hunting skills for food when the supermarkets are cleaned out.
Former students of Ross’s like Angella Davis say she is a force to be reckoned with. The two met a few years ago during a film shoot where Davis’ house was being used on a set and became fast friends. Last year, Davis went on a turkey hunt and camping trip with the Afrovivalist to learn how to handle a bow and arrow. They survived on alpaca meat.
“She’s patient, she knows her stuff, and it comes across,” Davis says, describing her friend and mentor as a natural leader and adept instructor who can adapt her pace for any level of student.
“Nobody would walk away from an experience with Sharon and say, ‘Oh, why did I do that?’” Davis adds.
For now, Ross focuses on the soil below her. “Oh my god, these worms are awesome,” Ross says into the phone, bending closer to the dirt to till the ground with one hand, speaking into a phone with the other. Between worm grabs, she agreed to speak to Rooted about her morning rituals, her advice for new homesteaders, and her favorite sound.
Rooted: What’s a misconception people have about homesteaders and preppers? What’s something you think the rest of society should know about what you do?
Ross: We’re not all conspiracy theorists. We do this because it’s a passion and it’s in our hearts. We have this sixth sense of something that may happen. It may not, but we’re a group of people who want to be prepared. We’re not all conspiracy theorists or cuckoos. We do stand on firm ground.
Rooted: What are the most unexpected items someone would find in your emergency backpack or bug out bag?
Ross: Char cloth is a fabric that you disintegrate in a can — you put a white cloth, like from a white T-shirt, in a can, and all you need is a spark to set it on fire. Pepto Bismol. You know, when you’re eating things and especially when you’re going to have to be creative and eat things that your body’s not used to, you’re going to want some Pepto Bismol. I was so happy that they come in tablets. I can take them with me! I can take a whole bunch with me. Let’s see … unusual … crayons.
Rooted: Why crayons?
Ross: Well, I like to draw and I like to color. It gives me a little bit of relief when I’m stressed out. They’d also act as a fire starter because you can set the crayons on fire and they’ll give a flame. They give flame and light, and I’d have 48 different possible colored lights!
Rooted: What was the last thing you purchased?
Ross: I bought these solar colored hanging lanterns and scattered them throughout my house for a splash of color in each room. It’s also an off-grid item by being solar and easily transportable. It’s another survival item that I can use in the future. That’s the way I think when I go out and buy stuff: How can I use this and how many ways can I use it?
Rooted: What’s one piece of advice you’d give to a potential homesteader?
Ross: Research, research, research. If they find a property that they want to homestead on, research it first. Do all the due diligence to find out if they have the water rights, if the easements are correct. Don’t believe what’s in writing, double-check it, and research it further. There’s a lot of people who just up and buy property and don’t research it and come to find out they can’t dig a hole or they can’t dig a well.
Rooted: Who is your favorite hero?
Ross: I’d say my stepdad. He’s my hero because he raised me to be a strong person and raised me to take on and learn the skills that maybe the average woman may not have picked up back in the day.
Rooted: What’s on your nightstand?
Ross: Oh my gosh. Actually, I don’t have a nightstand. I use the rim of my bed to put my water on because it’s like a 3-inch lip, so I put it there. I don’t have a nightstand. Or a TV. At all. It’s just too depressing watching TV news and all the crazy people doing stupid shit. I just found myself going into deep depression after watching TV.
Rooted: What’s the first thing you do when you get up?
Ross: I wake up by alarm at 5:30 in the morning. The first thing I do is go feed my rabbits.
Rooted: Coffee or tea?
Ross: Tea. I grow my own herbs, and I dehydrate my lemons and any other fruit I want to be placed in there. I grow mint, turmeric root, and ginger, my favorite thing to grow. I eat it every day along with garlic.
Rooted: What’s one luxury item you wish you had?
Ross: A cabin. A nice two-bedroom cabin that I’d build on my property.
Rooted: What’s your favorite sound?
Ross: The screech of an eagle. I love that sound … and man are they beautiful. Their wingspan can be up to six feet long. If I could come back as an animal, I think I would be that bald eagle because it flies freely, it sees everything. It’s an immaculate hunter. It’s the predator. It doesn’t have anything preying on it, going after it, trying to kill it, other than humans.