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.
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.
I bet your dog walks can’t compare!! 😉
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.
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!
Sometimes the most unexpected things in life can prove to be the refreshment you need to keep going. For Ian and me, we found the community we have been missing one weekend in the middle of September through an annual meeting with a group of liberal Catholics.
My education and exposure to the Catholic faith has been pretty lacking until this point. Besides Pope Francis, I didn’t know such a thing as a liberal Catholic existed. Most likely because the media loves to focus on birth control and homosexuality. But exist they do, and they showed up in legions this weekend to attend the Catholic Committee of Appalachia’s annual meeting, held in Charleston WV this year. The mission: to celebrate the 40 year anniversary of the Appalachian Bishops’s pastoral letter, and to study the local and global water crisis.
What was so wonderful was how familiar everything about the conference felt to us. Being an International Development and Environmental Studies graduate, I am very used to being in the company of passionate, social justice-minded people and have been to my fair share of conferences advocating for awareness and activism. Leaving a relatively liberal Christian college and moving to Bible Belt West Virginia has been a culture shock, to say the least. No longer can I assume that the students and teachers I interact with believe in climate change or evolution, and if I dare to claim that coal is bad for the region I risk being ostracized. Leaving that world and spending time at the CCA conference felt like a breath of fresh air, and in many ways, like “home.”
As I mentioned before, I am an International Development Studies graduate so I consider myself to be relatively informed about the humanitarian crises happening throughout the world. However, this conference blew apart my confidence that I could even understand what was happening in my own back yard. The drought in California is well known, and I expect global water wars to define much of my adult life; but until this conference I had never given any thought to water issues in the eastern US. Dr. Ben Stout is a professor of Stream Ecology at Wheeling Jesuit University, and he opened the conference with a presentation about ‘Big Coal’s’ effects on the Appalachian water system. His career had been relatively research-focused until he was called to court in order to testify against the work being done to “reclaim” mountain top removal sites. To his shock, the coal company lawyers vehemently denied that the streams Ben had been researching for decades even existed. Seeing the ways that companies could twist the truth so deliberately caused Dr. Stout to take the results of his research into the real world.
Though Appalachia is a water-wealthy region, this water supply is threatened. Algae blooms from chemical fertilizers are becoming larger and more frequent, and underground wells are continuously contaminated by mining. In 2014, massive chemical spill from a containment tank used to clean coal slurry contaminated the Charleston water supply for days. 4-Methylcyclohexanemethanol is a nonpolar molecule that doesn’t dissolve in water and can’t be removed by flushing out tanks. This causes this hard-to-detect toxin to linger in the water supply virtually forever. Dr. Stout declared that everyone in Charleston was risking their health unless they fully replaced their water heaters; the city government only suggested throwing out plastic dishes.
Professor Laura Diener of Marshall University spoke at the conference about the 2014 chemical spill in terms of poverty and inequality, indicating that income is a driving factor of safety when faced with contaminated water. Her field research and in-person interviews told a shocking story about accessibility. During the spill, most affluent residents were able to simply buy bottled water, leave the region for a few days, or drive to various emergency tanks of safe water throughout the city. However, those without cars had difficulty getting to these tanks, and many were forced to drink from their taps anyways. Some of the tanks in the poorest neighborhoods were illegally filled with the contaminated water, and in some cases inmates weren’t given access to safe water until their families protested for days. And this was toxic water. Showering with it caused many to break out in rashes, and ingesting it caused nausea and lingering sickness. Over 700 were stricken, and 16 were hospitalized. Yet some people were still forced by lack of options to use it in their baby’s formula.
This was no natural disaster, no act of God. This chemical spill was directly caused by inept safety measures by Freedom Industries and the coal industry as a whole. But this isn’t an isolated problem. Spills like this happen a lot, and many regions of Appalachia are permanently cut off from their ground water supply due to chemical contamination. Why was the Charleston spill different? Why did it make national, international news? Because, for once, it affected an urban area. In the words of one of Professor Diener’s interviewees,
“It’s a good things this spill happened to rich white people too- otherwise no one would pay attention.”
Sadly, this lack of attention to the sufferings of the rural poor is a common story in Appalachia. Shannon Bell, PhD, a Sociology at the University of Kentucky, took part in an interactive conversation at the conference about how her research revealed the ways industries were polluting rural communities. In so many ways, the roots of communities and families run incredibly deep in this region. Yet, these roots are being torn up as families become stymied in their attempts to stay and thrive in their home communities due to the poverty caused by the coal companies. She has collected story after story of women suffering from the ecological impacts of the industry. In one instance, a broken containment pond caused massive flooding in a holler and almost carried away a woman’s house with her children in it. Now, her children have nightmares every time it rains and their home has lost all resale value. In another case, coal dust from a processing plant settles so thickly on the homes in the nearby community that some homes have depreciated in value from $144,000 to less than $12,000. That loss is incredible enough, but it is made worse because living in such close proximity to coal factories dramatically raises one’s risk of cancer. When the value of a home can depreciate almost 92%, what chance does a non-affluent family have to sell and move somewhere safer? More importantly, why should they have to? That is a loss of power. Without their consent, without their voices being heard, the people of Central Appalachia are being sacrificed for the energy needs of the rest of the world. And every time I turn on the hot water I am contributing to their suffering.
This isn’t a far away problem. This is happening right here in America. It’s affecting the lives of the students I work with. It’s defined the lives of their parents and has limited the options the next generation has in life. The least we can do is to try to understand.
Shannon Bell has written a book on her research. It’s called Our Roots Run Deep as Ironweed: Appalachian Woman and the Fight for Environmental Justice. I haven’t gotten hold of a copy yet, but it looks fabulous. If you want more information about it, you can find that here. (Our Roots Run Deep as Ironweed). After all, being informed is the first step to lasting change.
|Because getting married obviously turned me into a domestic goddess now I do things like make homemade dinner rolls and pureed carrot and parsnip bisque.|
|Ian’s having a little less luck finding his inner domestic goddess. This is attempt #2 in making a sourdough starter and it still smelled kind of rancid.|
|No kitchen grime was too much for these mothers to handle.|
|We learned the hard way that the mule was too narrow to fit between the house and the garden with its load intact.|
|At my demand, the men spent a lot of time clearing low branches from our pond in order to let some light in.|
|Chainsaw on a stick on a moving vehicle…what could possibly go wrong?|
|We owe Terry and Amy so much for gutting our closest like this. Bringing order into chaos!|
|With our new level stove, Ian has only himself to blame when eggs roll to the edge of the skillet.|
|A little house friend!|
|Peak certainly approves of my newly organized closet.|
|Poor kid fell out of a dead tree and messed up his ankle.|
|Despite all its “character” we are proud of our first home!|
|Chiiiiiickens are excellent homey touches.|
|Couldn’t have done it without them. <3 (And of course, add Terry to this list as well!|