Cabin in the trees, Natalie Bogwalker standing out front
Credit: Mallory Lance

Design Changemakers 2023: Natalie Bogwalker Aims to Empower Women to Build and Grow

published Feb 14, 2023
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Credit: Photography: Mason McDonald

Apartment Therapy’s 2023 Design Changemakers are all about evolving their industries, from architecture to carpentry, curation to interior design. They’re doers. They’re disruptors. They’re total risk-takers. And you’ll want to get to know them stat.

Who: Natalie Bogwalker, founder, director, and instructor at Wild Abundance
Where to follow her: Instagram at @wildabundance and the Wild Abundance blog

Whether you fear buzzing power tools, you want to custom-build something but have no idea where to start, or you’re fascinated by the idea of living off the grid, you should meet instructor Natalie Bogwalker — she welcomes all skill levels.

In 2009, Bogwalker founded Wild Abundance, a school near Asheville, North Carolina, that’s dedicated to permaculture, a lifestyle that works with natural ecosystems rather than against them, including through design and landscaping. Wild Abundance has since grown into a mountainside construction and homesteading campus of sorts, where Bogwalker heads a core staff of six and more than 20 instructors who teach classes, both in-person and online, on permaculture design, wildcrafting and medicine, nature survival, basic carpentry, tiny house building, timber framing, and more. Some classes are just for women, and the majority of Wild Abundance students are women, but others are for all people.

“By the time they leave, they are confidently cutting with the chop saw and the skill saw, and they are using their impact driver to fasten everything together, and they know how to design things,” says Bogwalker of her women’s carpentry students’ learnings in just four days.

Credit: Wild Abundance

Bogwalker grew up in the woods in Washington state and recalls the satisfaction of building birdhouses with her dad and her fascination with a friend’s mother who was a homesteader and raised her own vegetables. “The idea of being able to do things for oneself and for one’s community was really influential and big for me when I was young,” Bogwalker says.

She studied permaculture at Evergreen State College. Then, in her 20s, she hiked around Central America and Spain before returning to the States and living at a primitive living forest commune in the Southern Appalachians. She tanned hides, drank from a stream, foraged, and cooked on open fire.

When Bogwalker felt an itch to share her natural living knowledge with others, she left the commune and co-founded Firefly Gathering, an annual primitive skill sharing festival, now with year-round programming. Bogwalker has since left Firefly, but it was there that she discovered her passion for teaching — and so began Wild Abundance.

Now, Bogwalker lives in a tiny log cabin near the Wild Abundance campus that she designed and built, and she continues to grows her own food — but she does own a laptop and check email, the things it takes to run a business these days. She still very much values the independence and empowerment that come with having a hand in one’s own surroundings. Today, she’s in the business of helping others, especially women, do the same.

“Natalie talks the talk and walks the walk,” says Melanie Gnau, a fellow small-house dweller and a 2021 Design Changemaker. “Some people in the small-space and sustainability world don’t dedicate their lives to the mission, but Natalie does,” adds Gnau, who recommended Bogwalker for 2023 Design Changemaker consideration. “She truly thinks about the materials used and their impact on the earth. She also teaches these essential building and life skills to others and makes a dedicated effort to offer scholarships for those who can’t afford her classes.”

Read more below about Bogwalker and how she views nature’s role in creativity and design.

Credit: Mallory Lance

Apartment Therapy: What three words would you use to describe your work or style?

Natalie Bogwalker: Earth-based, inspired, and community-driven.

AT: What inspires you?

NB: One of my friends and a person who teaches for our school, Tim Callahan, is really someone who I look up to. He has done a lot of natural building, and it’s just inspiring for me.

I’m pretty into vernacular architecture, which is houses that people build themselves out of materials that are from the specific place where the buildings are. I find vernacular builders all over the world to be incredibly inspirational — the creativity that comes from looking at the resources around you and being able to use them to create buildings.

And I’m going to add a third: I’m really inspired by our women’s carpentry students at the school. It’s just amazing; these women come, and they’re super brave, and many of them have never picked up a tool, or they’ve use tools in ways that are dangerous, and they get help from there. But just putting themselves out there and coming here and the transformation that they undergo, and just how empowered and inspired they are, I just find it really inspiring.

AT: What would you say sets you apart from your peers? What do you see as being your special thing?

NB: I would say our patience and our skill. We’re very personable, patient, and approachable, and also really care about making the student experience fun, and I think that really sets us apart.

And the fact that our classrooms are outdoor classrooms. It’s gorgeous here. Our campuses are so full of natural beauty and wonder. So, to be learning these skills that are super empowering, being surrounded by other women who care about similar things — and, inevitably, deep friendships are forged — and instead of being inside of an oppressive, ugly shop with fluorescent lights, you’re in a beautiful outdoor classroom, that’s something that’s incredibly unique about our school.

AT: Is there a specific project of yours or part of your business that you think is indicative of who you are or your mission?

NB: Something that I feel really good about is our tiny house classes. We have a tiny house class in October, in which we’re going to be working with this woman [Abril Giles, based in Georgia] who uses the Instagram handle @thegirlyblackfarmer. The plan is that we’re going to be holding a tiny house class down there and building a tiny house for her and her land. We’ve built a lot of tiny houses for various people in the community over the years, and that feels really good.

Also the Tiny House Academy, which is an online program. We have in-person programs here — the Women’s Basic and Women’s Advanced Carpentry classes, and our Tiny House in-person class, which is an all-genders class — and then we have our Tiny House Academy, which is an online course. In the Tiny House Academy, I think [our mission] just is really exemplified by all of our teachers. We’ve been able to train teachers who are really approachable, and experts, and hilarious — like super engaging. It makes it so that being in class or watching a class is a pleasure, instead of going to a lecture or something.

Credit: Dulce Ruiz

AT: Are there any other big projects that you’re really excited about in the upcoming year?

NB: We’re developing our new campus. We just recently purchased 9 acres here in Barnardsville, North Carolina. We’re building a 1,000-square-foot, timber-framed pavilion that’s going to be absolutely gorgeous, and we’re building barns to build tiny houses under, to just kind of increase the ease and the togetherness and comfort for the students for our tiny house classes.

AT: How do you define success in your field, and what makes you feel successful?

NB: I feel successful when I impact my students’ lives —and not just our students, but also our following on social media and our newsletter— and when I have the sense that what we’re doing at Wild Abundance is making a positive difference in people’s lives and helping them to feel more confident and capable and seen.

I’m also really into designing tiny houses. I work with various architects and designers and then have built dozens of tiny houses at this point, or have been part of those builds. I really like elegant design solutions. We’re designing these new tiny houses that we’re going to be building during our classes, and they’re going to be extremely energy-efficient and are going to work really well, I think, in the flow of people’s lives, and they’re going to be very inexpensive, and we’re also including this design online in the Tiny House Academy. It feels really good to be able to create something like a design for the houses themselves, which I think are positive influences on people’s lives and on the world.

AT: What do you think you’re doing to impact the field you’re in, and what changes do you hope to create in your field?

NB: Bringing women into the building field is a huge one. At Wild Abundance, we’re mostly reaching women, and as we keep doing it, all of the students that we’re sending out into the world and then the influence that they have on other people… I’m hoping for some sort of sea change, that there’s going to be a real difference in the way that women are treated by builders and by contractors and by men in general.

Interview has been edited and condensed.