The Poverty of Food Deserts in Central Appalachia

I am not and will never be a ‘food blogger’. It’s hard for me to take the time to look up a recipe, much less pick one out, document my attempt in a series of pictures that showcase it in a myriad of half formed stages and then somehow dream up witty remarks to write about it.

Major props to those who are, but I’d rather just eat my experiments in peace, thank you very much.

But don’t think that means I’m not interested in food. I have a passion for foodstuffs that forms the foundation of many of my deeply held values. I pursue environmental sustainability and self-sufficiency because I care so much about where my food comes from and because I want to get it from as authentic a source as I can, especially if that means raising it myself. (See: Raising Meat Rabbits).

Continue reading “The Poverty of Food Deserts in Central Appalachia”


The Many Layers of a Newly Logged Forest

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.

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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.


noyes family work weekend

Noyes Family Work Weekend

When the family comes to visit, you put them to work! At least, that is what happened to the poor Noyes family this weekend. But secretly, I think they enjoyed it.

Number one priority was to refresh our sad kitchen. The before photo: clean, but dark and dingy looking. The yellow was washed out and very streaked.
Terry attacked the grimy ceiling, coated with bacon grease from years of cooking.
The guys took on the yellow walls while Terry and I focused on whitewashing the ceiling
A little paint turned a dark, oppressive ceiling into a focal point of the room.
It was Terry’s idea to try out some stencils around the room. Super scary at this stage!
But totally worth it.
A weekend service group gave us some much needed help in constructing the rest of our garden fence. Here, Ian gets some help installing the garden gate.
After! Brighter, cleaner, blue accents on the shelves and a lighter ceiling to help define the space.
The dry, unfinished ceiling boards greedily sucked up two coats of paint without even trying.
The next step for the chicken coop has been to make a reinforced yard space. We buried “slab” (waste) boards in the thick clay to prevent predators from digging their way into the coop.
Some tree roots were too thick to dig through, so we poured concrete in the crack instead
ready for the next step- chicken wire!
Assessing the situation.
Exhausted from a long day of painting, I’m sure
Puffy eyed Ian got a little too close to poison ivy while working on the chicken yard  and woke up with a swollen face and red itchy arms. But instead of heading to the hospital right away like a sane person, he opted for a hair cut instead…and THEN went to the hospital. That’s not normal.
There is always time on a lazy Sunday for some good old-fashioned earthing.
Druid Chris took time to enjoy the natural light
A wonderful discovery this weekend was the earthen oven behind our house. None of us knew it was functional, but Sister Gretchen gave us the green light to try it out to see how it worked.
A small fire is built in the opening and allowed to burn for 1-3 hours, depending on how hot you want the initial temperature of the oven to be.
After the oven has reached the desired temperature, the leftover embers and ashes are shoveled out and the opening is gently cleaned with a wash cloth. (Lots of steam will be produced!)
“How do we know the pizza won’t burn up?” “Those cracks in the oven were there already,…right!?”
While the oven was heating up, Terry, Lisa and I were hard at work kneading dough and cutting toppings for homemade pizza
It worked! And it was incredible! The high temperature of the oven seemed to caramelize the dough in a unique way compared to most homemade pizza. It was only our first attempt, but everyone agreed the results were truly delicious.
Terry’s face says it all. Family weekends are the absolute best.

the wheeling jesuits

The Wheeling Jesuits

October is a busy busy time here at Big Laurel. Consequently my school days have been very limited, of which I am not complaining. One two week period where I was expected to go to school eight days turned into about 2.1 after a bomb threat, shortage of hands at Big Laurel, and an absent teacher caused me to either not go, leave early, or sit in a dark classroom by myself for eight hours. It’s definitely frustrating to feel so underutilized and even wasted when I spend so much of my actual school days just sitting in a desk watching kids use their laptops. More and more, my time at Big Laurel is feeling to be my “real job”, and right now that job is just about at peek busyness. Last weekend we had a college group from Wheeling Jesuit University come for their fall break. Wheeling has been coming to Big Laurel for years, and their weekend is an opportunity to chop all the wood needed for heating in the winter. Seeing as Ian and my Knob house is notoriously drafty, I was more than enthusiastic about this. The week before they came was spent with big mountain men and seemingly bigger chainsaws as they felled tree after tree, sectioned them up and hauled them out to the small bunk house at Big Laurel. The pile grew massive in a remarkably short time, and Ian took advantage of his knowledge about the impending bad weather to rig up a giant tarp over the work space. We were ready for the forces.

And come they did. Big, boisterous college kids filled the Big Laurel dining room to its max with both their bodies and booming voices. After weeks of being almost isolated up here, the influx of energy was both overwhelming and intoxicating. As old and mature as Ian and I obviously sound, we only left college in May. The group was heavy with seniors so many people were less than a year younger than us. Peers! Friends from the outside world! People with knowledge on current world events!! (There is a hurricane on the coast of South Carolina?! Trump STILL hasn’t imploded?? Maybe it’s better not to know…) And best of all- as long as we fed them they would chop all our firewood for us.

The workday began in true sufferfest fashion. Driving rain and cold wind encouraged everyone to keep moving, and Ian’s tarp proved to have been a stroke of genius when it provided the only weatherproof place to use the heavy log splitters. With plenty of college studs more than willing to show off their prowess at swinging an ax (often with minimal clothing on) our pile began to shrink down. In fact, it only took a day and a half to cut through the wood, so Ian and I got to bring a crew over to our house for a few hours to help us set up the garden terracing and sink in the posts for the chicken yard.

Loadin up the lumber
the tarp made a great work space
muddy, mucky yard

It’s very strange to be on the receiving end of service projects. How many short term mission trips have I been on? How many “exposurer” projects have I heard about? My education has made me naturally skeptical of them. It always seemed that the work accomplished could be done better with local labor and that it creates a “savior” complex between the workers and the workees. Imagine my surprise when my first experience being served was simple, powerful and honestly delightful. There are a few reasons why I think this was. 1. I, an outsider to the community of central Appalachia, was being helped by other outsiders. Not saying this is great or should be replicated by other organizations, but it did make everyone feel immediately comfortable. 2. The work was the sort that the local community could absolutely have done itself, but the cost in both money and time was unrealistic for Big Laurel. Having twenty some extra people was an almost unmeasurable benefit and will allow Ian and I to do other things with our fall than chop wood. 3. The work was straightforward and allowed everyone to instantly be involved in one or more aspects of the process. If you weren’t comfortable with an ax, you could use the log splitter, stack the wood, or haul it to a neighbors. This created a sense of community and camaraderie, especially as the weather deteriorated farther. In all, Big Laurel absolutely lived up to its mission of being a place of community and a retreat from the chaos of the rest of the world. I was very proud of the team that I work with here, and I’m incredibly grateful for everything that Wheeling Jesuit did for all of us. Thank you!

I am soooo glad I wasn’t the only help Ian had to install those heavy posts.
we have gotten massive amounts of free scrap lumber from the local lumber yard and it is invaluable for various projects, like re-terracing the garden.
Turns out Peak is an excellent chipmunk hunter
One project was to deconstruct this snake-infested wood box
No one ever complains about getting to use a sledgehammer
IMG_4196IMG_4198IMG_4202 Everyone cut a little loose at the Del Barton Dance on Saturday night