Pruden Cemetery stands in the middle of a coalfield, although at one time coal camp houses surrounded it. Upkeep of the cemetery is difficult, since there are so few families nearby. Our group picked up where Berry College and Berea College students left off last week. The progress is amazing, and the work provides a nice opportunity to get some sun, burn some energy, and learn to navigate thorns. Gayle Huddleston told us that there is huge seam of coal under the surface, but families resisted offers from the coal companies to move the cemetery. One section of the cemetery is known to be African American, but, sadly, only stones without writing mark the graves.
Gayle organized a hot dog roast for lunch to go along with the macaroni salad and desserts she prepared for our group. For a few students, this was the first time to roast a weenie on a stick over an open fire. The group worked hard, students and volunteers alike, and the progress shows. Families who haven’t been able to locate headstones now have a chance to find them. Cemeteries are a public space in this community, and the tradition of bringing flowers to graves on Memorial Day is still alive and well. Marie Cirillo, founding director of CCI and community developer here since 1967, reminded us of that fact over dinner.
In the evening, we rode over to Henderson Settlement to watch our young, friend Ariana play her last basketball game of the season. The red team played a good game, and Ariana’s personal cheering section displayed the same amount of enthusiasm and energy from the stands as the teams had on the floor.
Sundays in the mountains are good for rest and exploration, especially with the beautiful weather we enjoyed. We visited Clairfield Missionary Baptist Church for their morning service and received more hugs and handshakes in an hour than most people receive in a month. In the afternoon, we drove through two different coal mining operations. Guards look after equipment on the weekends, but thankfully one large dumptruck (probably inoperable) was far enough away for us to explore firsthand. Inside the mining operation is Pruden Cemetery, and we’ll be doing some work there on Monday.
The rest of the afternoon was spent visiting Randall’s goats, hiking on the hills near CCI, getting things together for fishing (we’ll need more than the 6 worms found), and playing with puppies. The Notre Dame group arrived, and we are enjoying getting to know those six students. CCI staff prepared an excellent dinner for us, and a local gentleman came by later to play some great songs he has written. Enough rest and relaxation. Monday morning, we work.
After enjoying some delicious homemade biscuits from Marie Webster, we headed over the mountain to Middlesboro, KY and met with Pat Biggerstaff, a local organic gardener with 72 years experience and passion for making things grow. She has organized several community gardens, and she is particularly enthusiastic about the next generation learning how to sustain themselves through gardening. “A community garden is hard work,” she said, reflecting on the challenges of people changing their lifestyles to participate in growing vegetables in raised beds, several of which are high above ground and handicap accessible. The key to organizing a community garden, she repeated more than once, is not creating an organization or a hierarchy. “We don’t have a president or vice president or anything like that,” she said. They focus on the work of planting and harvesting, and in county with a high unemployment, the benefits of the garden are obvious and numerous.
Following our tour of the garden, we enjoyed an excellent tour of Gap Cave at Cumberland Gap National Park, led by tour guide Lucas Wilder. The park is located in Virginia, but the location is at the point where Tennessee, Kentucky, and Virginia meet. The cave functioned as a tourist attraction for decades before being purchased by the National Park Service. Lucas provided the natural history of the cave, increased our appreciation for the many bats we discovered, and helped us experience total darkness–the kind that can only be found deep in the ocean or cave. The drive to and from Middlesboro is a winding, mountain road, used often during the week by trucks loaded with coal. We saw evidence of stripping–mountaintop removal–noting the altered landscape, which looks more like the surface of Earth’s moon, rather than the forest that once stood there.
Students are ending the day around a fire, making Smores, sharing stories, and probably counting stars.
Our 2014 living-learning experience in Appalachia began in LaFollette, TN at the Friday night service of the Tabernacle Church of God. Pastor Andrew Hamblin has become quite well known for reviving the tradition of handling serpents in worship, and we experienced the practice firsthand–from the back rows of the church, of course.
Andrew, who is the same age as most of our college students, welcomes visitors to the services, but he explained at the beginning of the service that if serpents are handled, no one unknown to church members can approach the altar. “There’s death in that box,” he said. The three-hour service did include snakes, as well as the sign of fire (in the form of a propane torch). The recent death of Andrew’s mentor Jamie Coots (one of the featured pastors in the Nat Geo series Snake Salvation) was mentioned several times in the service, and at least one family from his church attended the service on Friday night.
The experience (the entire service and not just the reptilian interludes) will allow for some significant reflection throughout the week and beyond. Next up: A tour of the Middlesboro, KY community garden and tour of Gap Cave at Cumberland Gap National Historical Park. Snakes on Friday; bats on Saturday. And with beautiful weather, maybe a few other critters in between.
Ten students–from different places and studying different things–will depart on Friday, March 7 for the Clearfork Valley of Tennessee as part of the 2014 spring Practicum in Liberal Arts course. They are Aly Bolin, Lexi Foutch, Cindy Hammonds, Kristen Hoecherl, Brandon Johnson, Shaye McCauely, Lowery McNeal, Maggie Moore, McKinnon Pearse, and Hannah Shaw.
Students will enjoy a tour of Gap Cave on Saturday at Cumberland Gap National Park, followed by lunch with organic gardener Pat Biggerstaff and tour of community garden she organizes in Middlesboro, Kentucky. We will stay at the Clearfork Community Institute in Eagan, TN, a living-learning facility staffed by volunteers who enjoy hosting college students for an immersive experience in mountain community and culture. Projects will include a cemetery clean-up (and discovering the generations and diversity of inhabitants in the former coal camps of Pruden and Fonde), live-staking a stream bank (to mitigate the negative ecological consequences of the Y-Hollow Bridge), visiting with elders and helping out on the Woodland Community Land Trust, and discovering firsthand the flora and fauna that exists in the area, despite the unfortunate circumstances of mountaintop removal for mining coal. If the internet connection holds out, we’ll post throughout the week.
Students in LBAR 3910: Practicum in Liberal Arts spend some time “live-staking” a section of Parkerson Mill Creek on the campus of Auburn University with Dr. Eve Brantley and colleague Kaye Christian. Live stakes are dormant woody vegetation placed into a streambank to reduce further erosion and promote stream stability. The process is natural and inexpensive, completely cost-free if you harvest your own stakes from existing native species.
When these students travel to Eagan and Clairfield, Tennessee over spring break, they will work with local residents to live stake sections of the Clearfork River, especially the sections below and above the unfortunate Y Hollow Bridge. Our friends from the Clearfork Community Institute–Marie Cirillo, Marie Webster, Sam Marlow, and Jesse Scott–visited a stream restoration project in Auburn this past November, where Eve and partners with the City of Auburn have worked to find natural solutions to repair stream banks that exist in our city. Our friends from the mountains know all too well the importance of finding natural ways to repair human impact on streams and rivers.
In a few short weeks, the live stakes will bud out, establish deep roots, and be a part of the firm foundation that keeps water flowing through Parkerson Mill Creek and further into the watershed that connects us all.