Adjusting to homestead life at the Big Laurel Learning Center

This story appears in the Notes from the Field feature series. View the full series.

by Lydia Noyes

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Notes from the Field are reports from young women volunteering in ministries of Catholic sisters. The project began in the summer of 2015 when, working with the Catholic Volunteer Network, we enlisted four young women working in Honduras, Thailand, Ethiopia and the United States to blog about their experiences. The fall series presents two more women, both volunteering with sisters' ministries in the United States.


My previous posts have touched on the work my husband, Ian, and I have been doing for the Big Laurel Learning Center and as aides in the local schools. An equally exciting topic is the work we have been doing during our personal time on the property of Big Laurel as we learn what it means to live in rural isolation and practice some homesteading techniques.

For years, Ian and I dreamed of coming to live and work here at Big Laurel. Throughout college, Ian visited through annual spring break visits and volunteered for a few weeks in the summer, and I joined him one spring break. We both fell in love with the place and began to imagine ways we could make a difference by living there.

Big Laurel took on a life of its own in our heads, the great pipe dream and "what if" question of our simple-living talents. We saw the place as the perfect destination to mesh our homesteading skills and passion for helping people, a place where our work would be beneficial both to us and the people around us. And by joining AmeriCorps, we could have jobs in the local schools and make a living.

So, two weeks after our wedding, we drove down to West Virginia and moved into the living organism of a derelict mansion that we are grateful to call our new home. This house depends on massive barrels of rainwater for its water system, and a giant wood stove provides heat for roughly half the house. Forget cell service; that's only accessible at the bottom of the mountain. 

Living this removed from the rest of the world as newlyweds has been an adjustment. Days have gone by where we haven't seen anyone except for each other. We joke that it has sped up our marriage by years by forcing us to work through our issues because of the inability to avoid each other on the property. Some parts have been hard. We've often been overwhelmed by our isolation from friends and family and the early darkness brought on by the changing seasons. And coming home to a cold, dark home every evening can wear us down.

But one thing we have both really appreciated is the amount of time this new lifestyle has given us. Since we only graduated from college in the spring, this is our first time not being students. At first, we barely knew how to structure an evening without piles of homework to fill the hours. But living without high-speed Internet, TV or working cellphones has caused us to be creative with our evenings, especially in regards to cooking.

The long travel distance to grocery stores means we need to plan our meals well in advance, and the pleasant weather this autumn provided us with plenty of ripe fruit from the trees in our garden to experiment with. In the past few months, I have practiced canning and dehydrating fruits and even baking bread using an outdoor oven. In my past, busier life, I wouldn't have taken the time to make food this slowly and deliberately, but I'm finding it deeply soul-satisfying here. It's an added benefit that keeping the oven going regularly helps to heat our big, drafty house.

Outdoor projects have been even more rewarding. I have been looking forward to raising my own chickens for years now, so our biggest task this fall was renovating an old chicken coop on the property. When we arrived in late August, the chicken coop was so choked with a weed forest that the door couldn't even be opened. It took hours to weed-whack the yard enough to access the area around the coop. After that, it was several months more to design and build an outdoor chicken run.

We worked diligently together, learning as we went, and utilized the help of several work groups, including our families. It was a great day when the final piece of poultry wire was nailed in place and the only thing the coop lacked was chickens. One of our neighbors agreed to sell us a portion of his expansive flock, so the two of us packed the dog's crate into the back of the sisters' pickup and drove the half-mile past Big Laurel to his property.

A true mountain man, this neighbor has quite the setup. His ridgeline property boasts several gardens and at least three chicken runs jammed full of birds. Several hunting dogs roamed the property, and two young sows snorted and grunted in their newly built pen. My ears perked up when I heard they were going to be bred; if all goes well, by this spring, our neighborly livestock purchases may involve a piglet!

We gathered the hens without too much difficulty and brought them back to our newly restored coop. It took those birds all of two minutes to feel right at home in their new chicken palace. 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. The size of the coop dwarfed our six tiny hens, and the underutilized space was all the encouragement we needed to peruse Craigslist until we found more fowl to add to the mix. We added two silkie chickens and four guinea fowl. Beyond the occasional screech and peck, the ladies coexist peacefully in their new home. Our excitement of watching them wander their yard and chortle to each other was surpassed only by the discovery of our very first egg a few weeks ago.

Having the chance to live simply on such a beautiful property has been an amazing experience for us. It's humbling to realize how little we know but exhilarating to have the chance to play around and pursue the things that interest us. We feel so blessed to have been granted this opportunity. When the day comes for us to move on and seek other opportunities, I hope we will be able to say that our work for Big Laurel and the surrounding property has allowed us to leave it better than we found it.

[Lydia Noyes and her husband, Ian, are volunteers with the Notre Dame Mission Volunteers AmeriCorps program. She is a 2015 graduate of Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan, with degrees in environmental studies and international development.]