It’s been a busy two weeks. In that time we have hosted three college groups on the mountain for varying amounts of time. Ian and I are the program directors, so the task of entertaining these groups largely falls on us. One activity is hiking. Because Big Laurel is located on a 400 acre land trust, we are surrounded by hardwood Appalachian forests. Ian and I like nothing better than scrambling through the underbrush, neurotic dog in tow, exploring the uneven terrain until the scrapes on our knees can no longer be ignored. It’s a pleasure to be able to simply walk out of our home and wander in the woods for hours, often without encountering a single home or well-defined trail. We’ve spent weekends walking the boundary lines, and now, six months in, feel that we have a good sense of where the land trust begins and ends.
Our homestead, the Knob house, is part of a roughly 500 acre land trust. Called the John A. Sheppard Memorial Ecological Reservation, (JASMER), this land trust was pieced together in the sixties and seventies by Edwina Pepper and her children to create a preserve of Appalachian hardwood forests and to prevent the land from being developed for coal mining (read more about Edwina Pepper here.) Because the land was bought when it was available, the parcels are strangely shaped and not always connected to each other. In recent years each parcel has been surveyed and mapped, but to our knowledge no map was created to show the total acreage together. One of Ian’s passions in college was geographic information systems (GIS), which is a computer program used for manipulating, analyzing and displaying geospatial data. While still a student he collected data about the parcels from the surveyed maps and georeferenced their borders to make the map below.
But seeing the borders on a map and knowing where they extended in real life are two very different things. When we first moved here, Ian and I had a rough idea of the land trust’s boundaries, but looking down the hillside from our garden left us questioning how far the borders extended below us. We were thrilled when a member of the JASMER board of trustees expressed her desire to walk the borders of the land trust and we jumped at the opportunity to join her. The plan was to walk most of it on a beautiful Saturday morning, relax for a few hours, and use the late afternoon to finish what we hadn’t gotten to. In actuality we only managed to walk a tiny portion, maybe 70-100 acres, in the entire day. We had underestimated the steep hillsides, the thick brambly understory, the almost buried boundary markers and the ornery, wayward animals that insisted on following along with us.
Our attempt to walk the entire border of JASMER was largely a failure, but the day was not. Through the parcel that we managed to trek we got a sense of how big 500 acres in forested mountains really is. Our heaving sides, sopping feet, and stained pant legs from slipping down the steep slopes gave us a sense of how crazy and convoluted this mountain land can be. It was proof that we could walk out of our house and wander in the forest for hours without running into another person or property. How many people today can relate to that?
After a lunch break back at the house, Pepper and Peak, our mediocorely successful mousers, decided that enough snoozing had already happened that day and that they would rather wander along with us through the woods. It seems they regretted their decision soon after we met our first stream, but by that time they had committed in their ventures and followed along with loud yowls to announce their displeasure. Our pace was slowed considerably as we waited for them to daintily scamper through the leaf litter and scurry over fallen logs, but those kitties are troupers and made it through the wilderness with only minimal help. A pretty big accomplishment for such teeny legs!
And finally, Sister Kathy’s love of dogs and all other critters surpasses just about everyone else that I know. She often takes her dogs over to our home so that Wendell can have some doggie play dates. Though he’s very timid around people, Wendell has yet to meet a dog he hasn’t immediately liked.
If a Catholic Sister playing with dogs doesn’t warm your heart, then I’m not sure I can relate to you.
What could compel two young college grads to move to an old homestead on a ridgetop in rural West Virginia?
A grittier lifestyle of outdoor living, a chance to redefine what success meant to us, the passion to live an authentic life, and an opportunity to answer the “what if” of saying yes to anything life can throw at you.
For years, long before even our marriage was a certainty, my boyfriend and I dreamed of the Big Laurel Learning Center. Ian’s connection began his first year of college during an intentional spring break service trip; two years later he took me along with him.
Our passion for the place grew with the intensity of our relationship. We fell in love with the ramshackle buildings, the sprawling, forested mountaintops, and the quirky community of liberal Catholic Nuns that had called this place home for forty years.
Big Laurel took on a life of its own in our heads, the great pipe dream and “what if” question of our abilities. Having lived in cities for our whole lives, both of us yearned to move to the country, stretch out and pursue hobbies that existed only as dreams in our heads. We wanted livestock: a flock of chickens and a summer pig. I envisioned the overgrown garden lush with edible greenery. The woods inconspicuously growing ginseng and mushroom logs. We saw the place as the perfect destination to mesh our skills and passion, a place that we could both be of benefit to and benefit from. And by working through AmeriCorps, we could get paid to live there.
Things moved quickly, as the important things in life always seem to do. Within nine months of meeting for the first time our relationship turned serious: promises were shared and a wedding was planned.
Making the Move
Everything seemed so perfect — in concept. But actually packing every belonging into our midsize SUV and driving the nine hours to make this dream a reality catapulted our idealist optimism from the comfort of theoretic to the stark uncertainty of reality.
Still, the leap into the unknown was made. Newlyweds of two weeks, we crossed state borders, and moved into a living organism of a derelict mansion on top of a mountain with far more rooms than we could ever heat in the winter. This house depends on massive barrels of rainwater, and a passable wifi connection is only available for a few weeks of each month. Forget cell service; that’s only accessible at the bottom of the mountain.
And our closest neighbors and coworkers? They are two Catholic Sisters that are more frequently seen on quads than afoot.
Key Facts About Big Laurel and the JASMER Land Trust
– JASMER is an Appalachian land trust started by the visionary Edwina Pepper in the late 60’s in an attempt to stop the segmenting of land in the region and to help preserve its natural beauty. It now holds close to 500 acres.
– Edwina Pepper lived on the mountain ridge in a rambling, forever growing stone house with her grand nieces and nephews. They created a sustainable homestead and specialized in crafts like wood working, pottery, essays on mountain living, organic gardening and the promotion of Appalachian culture. A big contribution they made was publishing the Mountain Call, a journal that was published right in the home and distributed throughout the community. (Ian and I now reside in Edwina’s old home, the Knob House.)
– In the early 70’s, Edwina Pepper advertised in the Mountain Call for a few teachers to come and form a school on the mountain ridge in order to educate the local children that couldn’t make the hike everyday to the school below. This call was answered by two nuns, Sister Kathy O’Hagan and Sister Gretchen Shaffer. They formed the Big Laurel School, a one room school that was operational from 1976-1988.
– Now, the Sisters still live on the mountain and run Big Laurel, though the school has been converted into a retreat center that hosts groups year round for educational service opportunities that teach about Appalachian culture, environmental sustainability, and the effects of coal mining on the region.
– Ian and I have taken AmeriCorps positions at Big Laurel, which means for the next 11 months we will be living in and maintaining Edwina Pepper’s old home, working in the local schools as teacher aids or after school programmers, and doing whatever we can on the premises of Big Laurel to help farther its mission as an Appalachian, ecological learning center.
Our Roles as Caretakers of the Knob House
In essence, we have been granted access to the sandbox of our dreams. Scattered throughout the property are abandoned buildings crammed with goods left behind years ago. High quality garden tools may show up in one shed, while another reveals sewing machines, drill presses, and chicken feed dispensers. Fruit trees are being choked out by the encroaching forest, and the old chicken coop can just be seen through the heavy brush that has grown up around it. This place positively groans with the weight of its own history, and it’s in desperate need of some caretakers. And that is the job that Ian and I have enthusiastically taken on.
This blog is going to be a record of these adventures. As two city dwellers, can we actual adapt to such a rural lifestyle? Will Ian and be able to keep chickens alive in the winter? Will the garden’s heavy clay soil impede the growth of anything we plant? Will the loneliness and isolation caused by our useless cell phones make us go crazy? Will our idealistic dreams be proven naive and leave us disheartened and bitter by next summer? Right now there is no way of knowing, so the only way to go is forward, with as much passion and enthusiasm as we can muster. And I can hardly wait to get started.
Six Month Update:
So many good things have come out of our time at Big Laurel. Ian and I have spent countless hours working in our new community. We’ve made big improvements to our homestead, expanded our livestock collection to include laying hens, silkie chickens, guinea fowl and meat rabbits. A pig is in the works as Ian continues to build a pen out of pallets we collect on the side of the road. We’ve also been blessed to be a host for numerous college groups that have used Big Laurel as a service site, including Wheeling Jesuit University and Calvin College. Best of all, after much thought and prayer Ian has accepted the position of Director of Big Laurel for the next two years.
All this to say, our Appalachian homesteading adventure is only just beginning! Thank you for reading and please consider following along by subscribing to my newsletter!