piece by peace

Peace by Piece: The Midyear of Notre Dame AmeriCorps

To be brutally honest AmeriCorps was not something I had strong, if any, feelings about until this past weekend. Though Ian and I have been working for the organization since September, I merely saw it as a way to make living and working at the Big Laurel Learning Center economically feasible for us. The day to day impact of being part of the entity that is AmeriCorps rarely seemed to extend beyond biweekly meetings and lots of paperwork. The four hour drive between us and our team members in Cincinnati prevented us from seeing much of them, making it easy to forget we are part of an organization bigger than southern West Virginia. But this perspective has changed dramatically for me after a four day Notre Dame AmeriCorps midyear conference in Baltimore, Maryland.

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Confronting a Community’s Worth of Trash

It’s a paradox, but isolated mountain life is making us get uncomfortably close to our new community’s trash supply. Here at Big Laurel, we get it from all angles; the drive along Marrowbone Branch road up to our ridgeline home provides a regional tour of rusted auto bodies and old childrens’ toys strewn along the banks of Marrowbone Creek. Walking with Wendell on the ATV trails around our property reveal hidden dumps in the trees where tossed aside garbage bags have burst their contents, strewing them into the foliage. Worn out tires one day; the next a pile of clothing, earthen stains beginning to take over. Most often it’s beer can remnants from the past weekend’s teenage revelries. 

I initially was going to photograph a different pile of trash, but I stumbled upon this more recent pile on the way there.
I initially was going to photograph a different dumping ground, but I stumbled upon this fresh pile pile on the way there.

The garbage situation at our Knob home is similar. The homestead has seen a plethora of residents in its time, and each inhabitant comes with their own possessions. When they eventually moved on, what wasn’t valuable enough to keep was left behind. Consequently, we have been sorting through the remnants of every previous inhabitant. Weighed down with our own truck load of wedding gifts, we have been overwhelmed with the daunting task of sorting through the clutter and getting rid of everything we deem unnecessary. But our home is just one of many buildings on the property, others are being treated as defacto storage sheds; often stuffed with water-damaged junk. We’ve spent weeks going through these buildings and trying our best to methodically sort through it all. But sorting it is the easy part. What’s difficult is knowing what to do with it. Much of the clutter is truly worthless and we can toss it into our garbage bags with only a twinge of guilt. Then it can be stored in our woodshed or to the side of the house until we can take it to the coal company’s community dumpster a half hour down the road. I can only imagine that our neighbors do the same, at least those that don’t burn everything or chuck their trash into the creek. 

The coal road dumpster
The coal road dumpster

Getting our goods anywhere but a landfill is the trickiest part. Though we sort out all our recyclables, we haven’t found anywhere within an hour of us that will take them. One ambitious weekend we cleaned and sorted two hundred pounds of scrap metal, filled the back of the nuns truck with it, and drove three hours round trip to get it recycled. For all that trouble we made $6. More often we simply send every departing guest with a goodie bag of our recyclables for them to dispose of in their own cities.

Facing a multi-year collection of trash can be staggering. We’ve found unopened packages of tools that have rusted in their plastic pouches. Piles of cheap gardening supplies with cracks or sun damage that renders it all completely useless. Cables running through my garden soil to connect into our home for a now extinct model of TV. One entire shed was full of recyclable plastic containers from the summer camps. And Big Laurel is a place where people live simply and a lot more minimally than the rest of America. 

One of many loads of trash we have pulled from the property

No, Big Laurel doesn’t have a trash problem. I’ll bet it creates less waste than most organizations its size. What it has is a trash removal problem. And living up here is making me think a lot more critically about the way the rest of America deals with trash. When someone else collects your garbage regularly from a tidy outdoor bin, you begin to forget just how much it all adds up.

Ian and I aren’t any better than the Knob inhabitants before us. We forget our reusable bags just about every shopping trip and consequently could choke a lot of wildlife with all the disposable bags piling up on our pantry counter. Our collection of beer bottles has gotten too heavy for me to lift (don’t judge, we didn’t drink it all ourselves!). And when I see it taking up valuable room in our home, I can begin to understand the appeal of chucking it all into the woods.

A lot of people move back to the land to gain more control over their lives. They want to fully understand their personal ecological impact and minimize it where they can. Seeing how many dumpsters Ian and I have probably filled in the three months we have lived here, I don’t think we are there yet. But I know that we are getting a more accurate view of the impacts of our consuming lifestyle. And seeing clearly is the first step towards making some changes.

A great piece about trash in Honduras was written by my college friend Kate Parsons. I highly recommend checking it out.



A Celebration of the Unrational

I tried to warn him. I’ve been nagging Ian for weeks to write a guest post on my blog. He kept saying he would get around to it, but it hasn’t happened yet. Call this a revenge post if you will. Though that’s not really accurate because I’m pretty sure Ian would love it. Call it a celebration of the quirkier side of living in almost complete isolation with one other person you thought you knew pretty well but very quickly realized you know next to nothing about. Not that any of this was unexpected. But it’s sure interesting to experience. November 14 is our three month wedding anniversary, and a lot of life has happened since that crazy day in August.

Three months of marriage have caused us to create nicknames for each other. When I get frustrated by Ian’s matter-of-fact answers I call him “Rational Maaaan” (said in a deep thunderous voice like how you would call for a super hero in their opening song). He flips the conversation on me by squealing “Eeeeeeeeeeeeeeeemotive Girl”.  While Ian thinks with his head, I trust my heart to lead me, often putting more stock in my own intuition than the facts around me. For a man that sets the course of his life by fact, this can be unforgivable in arguments. I could easily use an entire blog post to talk about some of the tension and sheer confusion that these different ways of viewing the world create for us. But for now, just to for the pleasure of posting some of my favorite pictures, I will show the world that my new husband’s actions aren’t always as rational as they may seem to him.

So without farther ado, enjoy these exceptionally rare photos of a decidedly UNrational Ian!

Tackling an entire forest of brambles with only a garden rake to aid him.
This guy is crazy. If I tell him to spend the afternoon pulling rotten apples out from under a porch, he actually DOES it.
Brooding. Pensive. A pose that brings up many questions- like what the heck is he looking at on his out-of-service cell phone?
This photo moment makes me think of a lot of significantly more dramatic alternative endings.
Turns out the mule WASN’T wide enough to make it between the garden and the house with its load intact.

The pump works great- but after about five minutes Ian stopped, dripping in sweat, and mumbled that it would probably be easier just to use a five gallon bucket.

These photos are of one of Ian’s summer projects- a bike powered water pump! At home he used it to spray me when I walked by, but now on our homestead it can be exceptionally useful. Since we don’t have any outdoor water spigots, a system to pump water from our rain barrels and through a hose will be very necessary for watering the garden in the spring.

Turns out that tree couldn’t hold his weight after all. Ian learned this lesson the hard way after crashing out of it, and earned a sprained ankle for his troubles.
When YOU have poison ivy breaking out all over your face and are in desperate need of a cortisone shot from the ER, is getting a haircut your first priority? I’m guessing not.
WORMS. A chunk of our wedding gift cards went to buying Ian his very own vermaculture composting system. Now sometimes I see him huddled in a corner, giggling to himself as he feeds his 500 red wrigglers tidbits of food.
Bonus Picture! One of Ian’s students drew this picture of him. Props to them for the spot on portrayal of his protruding ears.
The loss of Spotify was hard for this guy. That’s why you can see pure, unadulterated joy all over his face after a package from my grandparents revealed a portable radio.


And my favorite… one day during a heavy rainstorm, I wandered into our cistern house to check the status of our water tanks and stumbled upon this scene. Ian, happy as a clam, fully immersed in a filthy tank with a big scrub brush. Different strokes for different folks. Personally, I’m a little obsessed with how easily that lid could get screwed back on the tank with someone inside. How the heck would you ever get out?? One big rainstorm and you’d drown. You’ll never catch me alive or dead in that fool tank.

Would YOU go in that? Most sane people wouldn’t. But now we have crystal clear water tanks so I’m pretty stoked.


Look! Proof we actually got married. <3

Happy three months love! 😉

coop 2

Reclaiming an Old Chicken Coop Part 2

Oooooh chickens. To my count, this is my third blog post focused purely on extolling their virtues. The first was in Thailand when I was responsible for slaughtering one for a village meal and somehow managed to let it literally slip through my fingers and dash into the woods. Did I spend the rest of that afternoon chasing it through the forest with a slingshot and a ten foot bamboo pole? Yes. Did I even get remotely close to recapturing it? I’ll let you think that one through. (Hint: lets just say I was teased about my “ba gai” or forest chicken for the rest of the semester.) My second post about chickens is from my time living and working on a farm on the Big Island of Hawaii. There, one of my jobs was to tend to the feathery flock of 30 layers. There wasn’t always a lot to do on that farm so I spent a lot of time plunked down on the ground, watching the ladies. It’s actually one of my better pieces, so I’ll probably repost it someday.

And what’s not to like? Little lumbering dinosaurs that clumsily scratch around their mud pens in an ever preoccupied hunt for tidbits of food. If only all our lives could be that simple. In their ten thousand years of domestication, it’s apparent intelligence was never a sought after trait. Frankly, I think it’s been just about bred out of the little suckers. But their simple dumbness is a large part of their charm for me. My chickens ask for little besides a mud yard to scratch around in, some food scraps, and a couple of roosting perches. In return I plan to get hours of entertainment and in all likelihood over a dozen eggs a week. I get as much enjoyment out of chasing them around the yard as Wendell does, and they give me a great captive audience to practice my crazy voices on. Unlike Wendell, they can’t run away and hide when I get too high pitched. I tell myself they secretly enjoy it.

But back to the basics. After our chicken yard was completed, Ian and I packed the dog crate into the back of the nuns’ pickup and drove the half mile past Big Laurel to our neighbor’s, who had agreed to sell us six chickens at five bucks apiece. Craigslist wasn’t offering me any better deals, so we accepted. A true mountain man, our neighbor has quite the set up. His ridgeline property boasts several gardens and at least three chicken runs jammed full of birds. He also has multiple dogs and is raising two sows with his grandson. My ears perked up when I heard he was going to get them bred; if all goes well our neighborly livestock purchases could soon extend to a piglet!

The chicken catching process was simple. After we were told which birds were off limits (all the pretty ones) I was let into the coop to “gather” the ones I wanted. Thankfully I’ve had some experience catching chickens since that fateful day in Thailand and I quickly snagged five. But, not wanting to have all the fun, I made Ian catch the last one. Though his massive hands and feet didn’t do him any favors, Ian managed to catch just about the ugliest chicken in the coop. But ugliness is no indicator of egg laying ability, so we kept her anyways. After we stuffed all six into the dog crate and drove back up the bumpy mountain road to our place, we released them into their new home.

I’m not sure what I was expecting. More of an adjustment period, I guess. Heck, we’ve had Wendell for two weeks and he still flinches at every noise in the house. But it took those birds all of two minutes to feel right at home in their new chicken palace. And a palace it is. I guess we had forgotten just how small chickens actually are when we were constructing it, because the coop that holds six looks like it can comfortably hold 35. Talk about exciting goals for the future! Within two hours every scrap of greenery in the yard had been pecked away, and I’m sure most of the worms and bugs as well.

So far the birds have been pretty quiet. We aren’t going to let them out of their pen for a few weeks to allow them to get a sense of home. In their pen they keep to themselves and move around in two flocks of equivalent ages. They go crazy when we threw them some moldy bread, but it’s a reserved kind of crazy. Three of them are still fairly young and won’t lay eggs for a few months. The way Wendell has been getting excited around their coop, he will probably try to kill a couple. But that’s an acceptable risk for us. It’s strange to be entering this new relationship of animal ownership, moving from having pets to livestock. I’m going to love having these chickens of course, but I fully intend to eat every one of them if I can. They will be pets only so long as they are useful- after that point they will be dinner. Funny that I think of our new dog as a farm animal as well, but a similar fate for him would be unthinkable. The boundaries we impose on what is acceptable and what is abhorrent can be strange indeed.

The completed coop in all its glory
None of the chickens have done anything distinguishing enough to deserve actual names yet, but I’ve so lovingly nicknamed this one Demon Chicken.
A more flattering angle of the gal
The chickens seem to love scratching through all their cedar chips
The one on the right? That’s Ian’s chicken. I’m calling him Fugly for pretty obvious reasons.
The expansive coop is a chicken palace for sure.
Just a reminder that West Virginia is a pretty beautiful place.

I bet your dog walks can’t compare!! 😉

coop 1

Reclaiming an Old Chicken Coop Part 1

Finally, FINALLY we are real homesteaders. Before we were just playing around, thinking that canning a couple pears and owning some useless cats and a farm dog qualified us. But no longer do we have to pretend. Because… we have livestock. More specifically, CHICKENS. I have been desperate to own poultry for years now, and one of the requirements that I made when we decided to move our here was that I would get my own birds. Half the work was already done for us, because our Knob property had a massive chicken coop in good condition. To make it functional, we needed to build an enclosed yard that would keep the chickens in and chicken killers out. It’s been a long project, but I’m very happy to say that the final results should keep out even the most persistent predator.

Before: the chicken coop was choked with a weed forest and the door couldn’t even be opened. It took my dad and Ian a full morning to weed wack the yard enough to access the area around the coop.
Using the circular saw to cut out a new chicken door and ramp for the coop.
Perfectly functional little chicken door.
We just had to assume the birds wouldn’t be too chicken to go up and down their relatively steep and high ramp. The disadvantage of building on a slope!


Poll: who makes a better chicken, Ian or Lydia? Cast your vote in the comments!


The answer’s obvious, right?


Lucky for us, we had plenty of work groups come over several weeks that were able to help us with different stages of construction. Without them, the two of us would be slogging through the snow trying to get that yard done.

Wheeling Jesuit gentleman helped Ian dig and plant posts for the coop, possibly saving our marriage in the process by ensuring the two of us didn’t have to do it by ourselves.
We conveniently got to put the Noyes family to work by having them bury slab boards around the coop’s perimeter to prevent predators from digging their way in to the coop.
Terry helped to set cement over a nasty root that proved impossible to dig through.
Pepper was our constant building companion…at least until we adopted the dog.
One post was a litttttle too short, so we had to screw on a small block to top it off
Our Americorps coworkers came over for a weekend retreat and helped us with various tasks with the coop, including painting the exterior.
The completed frame
Wendell and Ian, the two men in my life! <3
I spent a lot of my time twisting multiple layers of the poultry wire together to seal the gaps.
I’ll probably have callouses on my fingers for weeks now.

And suddenly…the coop was complete and move-in ready. Check back in a few days to read about our adventures buying chickens from our neighbor, releasing them into the coop, and seeing if we can get their moist little bodies to produce eggs for us after all.