Don Byrne enters the garden through one of four gates.
Don Byrne enters the garden through one of four gates.

Off the Grid

A family chooses a simpler life for a richer existence
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July 18, 2014

ON A MORNING in early 2006, Don Byrne walked through an overgrown field of grass. Alongside trudged his father, who, despite the early hour, carried a bottle of Jameson Irish whiskey. At the highest point on the land, the two men paused. It was here that they wanted to drill the well. In a makeshift christening, they sprinkled the land with liquor.

In his younger years, rural living was not part of Don’s plan. After graduating from Duke in 1991 as a classics major, he played in a rock band, worked as a computer technician, and taught Latin, Greek, and ESL. But as media reports projected the depletion of oil and ozone, Don felt troubled by his own impact on the Earth. He wanted to try something new, and moving to the country seemed like the first step.

In 2005, Don finished his stint as a technician for Duke’s technology department. Around the same time, his father, Donald Byrne Jr. Ph.D. ’71, retired after teaching religion for three decades at Lebanon Valley College in Annville, Pennsylvania. In early 2006, Donald Jr. purchased a thirty-two acre tract in Bear Creek, about thirteen miles southwest of Pittsboro, North Carolina.

With handfuls of belongings and headfuls of ideas, the men contracted a local builder and began marking out places to dig water wells and garden plots. Don spent some of his first nights in a tent under a sycamore tree while his father slept in a nearby garden shed. Long attracted to the simplicity of monastic living, the two men established a contemplative routine of prayer, meals, and work. They named the property Our Lady of Melleray Farmstead in honor of Benedictine monasteries in Iowa, Ireland, and France. “We saw ourselves as two old monks,” Don says. Over the next several years, they would live by the rules of eco-consciousness, self-sustenance, and manual labor. But on that morning of the whiskey blessing, father and son were tipsy with respect for the past and optimism for the new frontier. “We were setting out but we knew not where we were going,” recalls Don.

EIGHT YEARS LATER, Don Byrne wakes in the April predawn. He climbs down from his bed in the loft of a cabin not much bigger than a two-story garage, dresses quietly, and steps onto the front porch. Surveying the farmstead, he can see the greenhouse, rainwater cisterns, firewood sheds, and beyond them, a wooden pergola crowning the garden. By the pasture, animals cluck and bleat, keen on breakfast. Don heads over to feed them, eager to check on the farm’s newest resident: a young black cow, shy and small-horned.

Back in the cabin, his wife, Nicole, sleeps beside their children, Niko and Laxmi. The dwelling is one of three, each for a particular purpose: sleeping, cooking, and working. In North Carolina, a structure measuring no more than 12 feet in any direction is considered a farm outbuilding. Technically, Don and his family are living in sheds.

The little cabins are offspring of the small-house movement, in which people miniaturize living quarters to reduce their carbon footprint. The trend emerged in the U.S. around the 1970s, but it has gained ground after the recent economic downturn, according to Harvey Harman ’81, a green developer in Chatham County, North Carolina. Not only do smaller houses require fewer materials to build, they are also less costly to acquire and maintain.

Little houses challenge the bigger-is-better notion. “The thinking has been that we want more and more space, and that’s progress,” says Harman, who was the general contractor for the Melleray cabins. He observes that now people are asking, “Is this really improving our quality of life? Now people are starting to think that what they really want is a lifestyle not so driven by what they own but rather motivated by their values and actions."

As the Byrne family has evolved, so, too, have their homes. In their first years on the farmstead, Don and Donald Jr. each slept in his own cabin and used the third for meals and prayer. Soon each man was joined by a female counterpart—Donald Jr. by his companion, Pam, and Don by Nicole. A few years later, the younger couple gave birth to a son. The three generations lived communally until recently, when Donald Jr. was diagnosed with a spinal nerve disorder that affected his mobility. Last year, he moved to an apartment in Durham, and Don repurposed the cabin for a workshop where he makes pine coffins.

Harman also notes that small-house people tend to spend more time outdoors and in the community. In the spirit of hospitality, the Byrnes have invited Latino youth to use their garden to grow crops such as tomatoes, peppers, garlic, and jicama, which the kids then sell between Sunday church services. Don also runs Melleray Latin Academy, a free summer program in which high-school students learn classical languages and heritage farm skills, such as scything hay and harvesting potatoes.

AROUND 8:30 A.M., the family gathers in the cooking cabin, which brims with the smells of breakfast. The kitchen is compact and homey, accented with framed family photos, a grocery list on the propane-powered fridge, and toys spilling out of a nearby shelf.

“The best way of warming the kitchen is cooking!” croons Nicole as she hovers around the stove, also fueled by propane. Her bracelets jangle over the metal spatula as she sautés asparagus, the firm purplegreen stalks freshly picked from the garden. As they wait for breakfast, Niko and Laxmi snack on salted pieces of roasted sheep liver, also harvested from the farm.

Little by little, the Byrnes are becoming self-reliant in terms of food. The family gets adequate protein from chicken and duck eggs (the latter being the “Double Stuf Oreo” of eggs, says Don). They also slaughter their own sheep, rabbits, and the occasional deer found in the adjoining woods. Once the new cow becomes pregnant, they will add fresh milk to their menu.

The cabins have no indoor plumbing, but there is an outhouse a short walk away. Drinking water is drawn from a modern solar-powered, gravity-fed system, as well as an oldfangled hand-pump. They bathe in a five-gallon basin, and in the hottest months, shower under a spout rigged over a wooden platform in the woods.

While neighboring farmsteads are connected to gas and electricity, the Byrnes’ cabins stay cozy and bright with woodstove fires, solar-powered camping lights, and the occasional glow of trusty old candles. In the summer, deciduous trees splay shade, and concrete floors help moderate the temperature—energy-efficient features designed by Harman. This spring morning, sunlight beams through the tall windows, dappling the tabletop where Nicole sets plates of omelets, sliced avocados, and honeyed toast.

Don says he and Nicole learned how to harness natural resources through an informal education of “networking, asking questions, and reading books.” Each day presents a flock of unavoidable chores: charging solar batteries, refilling water cisterns, emptying sawdust toilets, tending to farm animals, and chopping firewood. It’s especially hectic these days, with two young children. Still, Don says he appreciates the labor of daily tasks. “All of those are opportunities to put the community before yourself.”

AFTER BREAKFAST, Nicole buckles two-year-old Laxmi into the car to visit Siler City, a fifteen-minute drive away. She recently received a certificate in natural hair care at the community college and is launching her own natural hair-care business. Instead of using artificial treatments, she plans to use plant-oil extracts and herbal rinses.

Niko, however, stays behind at Melleray with Don. The inquisitive three-year-old trails behind his father as the latter checks the planter boxes brimming with parsley, oregano, and novelties like stevia, from which Don and Nicole make naturally sweetened “soda” for the kids. The herb garden, along with the larger produce garden, thrives on the “black gold” mined from the worm composter, kept in a stack of old car tires. Don also mixes the worm castings with water in a large trashcan to brew extra nutritious “worm tea” for the plants, which Niko helps stir with a stick.

Father and son then wander over to the animal pasture, where sheep frisk around despite their heavy woolen coats and swollen bellies. Shearing is on the agenda for next week, and Nicole wants to use the wool to braid hairpieces for her business.

When the sheep give birth, Don will slaughter the males, and maybe someof the ewes. “It’s not something to pass over lightly,” says Don solemnly, as Niko throws grain to the squawking fowl. “The people who knew how to do it back then much respected the animals. It was art, science, and necessity, all those things bound up in one. But they knew how to do it efficiently, cleanly.” Later, he reflects further: “I definitely had to activate latent parts of my personality in order to bring myself in front of my animals with a knife or an axe. Those lambs really want to live, and they struggle as they die. It has opened my heart to a depth and intensity of life that I don’t think you get easily in other ways. For me, certainly not at the supermarket.”

Along with the cow, sheep, ducks, chickens, and dogs, they have raised guinea fowl, rabbits, and bees. The tortoiseshell cat, Honey, patrols the grass for unsuspecting snakes and mice. She is the namesake of Melleray, which derives its name from miel, the French word for honey.

THE BYRNES ARE NEO-PIONEERS, both rustic and radical, using outhouses and listening to NPR. Although they live off the grid as much as they can, they don’t shy away from the questions posed by the larger world. Is driving to the laundromat in the nearby town more energy-efficient than owning their own washing machine? Should Don keep his retro flip phone and solar-powered laptop or give in and connect to a wireless hotspot? “After having set up all of this, the consumerism is still in your heart,” says Don. “You have to keep hacking away at the heads of the dragon.” Or in the words of his father, Donald Jr., “keeping simple is hard work.”

Although they appear removed from an ever-connected society, their life is steeped in another kind of closeness. They have let go to connect—to the plants, the animals, and, in close quarters and abundant fields, to each other. Don likes that Niko and Laxmi can run wild in the outdoors and learn skills like husbandry and herbalism. Just as he will inherit the Earth when his father dies, he hopes to one day pass it on to his children.

  • Elizabeth is the Clay Felker Fellow/staff writer at Duke Magazine. She formerly interned at INDY Week, where she wrote about homelessness, fracking, domestic violence, and other news. In her spare time, she teaches writing in local prisons.