Five students traveled to the Clearfork Valley of Tennessee to live and learn at the Clearfork Community Institute as part the course LBAR 3910: Practicum in Liberal Arts. Zoe Davis, Gabrielle Lamplugh, Lindsay Steelman, Donna Tosh, and Taryn Wilson share a desire for adventure and an openness for experiencing rural life in former coal-mining communities that stretch along the border of East Tennessee and Kentucky.
By Dr. Mark Wilson, Director of Civic Learning Initiatives and van driver
More work in the dirt for our students this morning, getting flower gardens prepared at Candace’s house on the Woodland Community Land Trust. A land trust is a corporation based on the principle that land should be held in common, since the earth is owned by all of us. Land trust residents sign 99-year renewable leases, although structures built on individual parcels of land are privately owned. There is a land problem in rural, resource-rich mountain communities and the reason is pretty simple: the overwhelming majority of land is owned by absentee landowners or corporations who care more about what’s under the mountain than what’s on top or around it.
VIP Tiffany and I worked to create a WordPress site for the Eagan Mountain Cemetery, which sits in the middle of a coalfield. We have adopted another small project for the week, focusing on the bridge that crosses over the Clearfork River to CCI. Several decades ago county authorities built a type of bridge that haunts the ecosystem of probably every coal county in the region. The bridge is really a dam with permanent holes in it, and while it is sturdy, the type of erosion it creates on either side of it causes permanent damage to all of the land around it. And when it floods–not an uncommon occurrence—no human or car can cross it.
So one of our goals this week is to create a WordPress blog to document this bridge and hopefully provide local citizens a digital opportunity to voice their request for a new, modern bridge, one that doesn’t wreck the ecosystem, allows endangered minnows to swim upstream, and allows water to flow freely as nature intended. Student Gabbie and I knocked on a few doors with community developer Marie Cirillo. One resident, Clarence, says the situation has become considerably worse over the last year or so. “We used to have a garden,” he said. “Now we have a swimming pool.”
Zoe and Taryn baked 5 dozen cookies for the cookout at Vicky Terry’s house. On the way to the house we stopped at the gravesite of the wife of Dennis “Cotton” Pittman. In 2010, when I first began this adventure with Auburn University students, the group worked some long, fun days with Cotton on the land trust. One day Cotton took student Rachel Naftel to the grave site, and after he complained that four wheelers keep getting closer and closer to the grave, she began planning and ultimately executed a return trip with supplies, a plan, and three friends who worked with Cotton and others to build a wooden fence around the site. I can’t wait to email her a picture of our 2013 group in front of the site.
After the gravesite stop, we headed to Randal Hatfield’s place to meet his goats and see all of the treasures he makes from local wood. Randall is quite talented, and he was kind enough to invite us in to see all of the furniture he has made by hand. Randal is a voracious reader, we discovered, and since his copy of Jim Harrion’s The Road Home was nearby, he wanted students to know about this unique and important work. “He likes to turn things around,” he said, and he asked Donna to read the first sentence of the book. “It is easy to forget that in the main we die only seven times more slowly than our dogs,” Harrison begins the book, and Randal smiled when he heard the words read aloud. “I haven’t read all of this book yet,” he told us. “I read a little, go to another book, and then come back to it like a visit with an old friend.” Our visit with Randal exploded every stereotype anyone could have regarding citizens in the mountains, a lesson I believe my students learned as well in Randall’s living room. In 1998, the reviewer for the New York Times ended his review of The Road Home with a powerful statement: “To read this book is to feel the luminosity of nature in one’s own being.” Visiting with Randal and our other friends in this important community has an effect just the same.