Preserving a Woodland Way of Life

Eagan, TN
Bright red bows spruce up some homes for Christmas, while another displays a holiday version of an Elvis flag, and the stars and stripes fly over the post office.  Rural community pride is strong, although just down the road an assortment of garbage litters the edge of the woods.  Cars share the narrow pavement with industrial trucks that wind along the mountain highway.  A brick school building has been converted to a modern community center that fosters hope for locals and visiting college students.  The unincorporated town of Eagan, just below the Tennessee/Kentucky border, is standing firm in the hope of a future for rural Appalachia.

Clearfork Community Institute in
Reclaimed School Building
Marie Cirillo directs the Clearfork Community Institute, where students from Notre Dame and other colleges visit to learn and volunteer.  Many hands have helped landscape the exterior and finish the interior with walnut wood trim from a tree on the property. “Our commitment here to intergenerational education for developing rural life is very important.”  82-year-old Cirillo has decades of experience helping residents reclaim a connection to the land that nourished earlier generations.  Cirillo, along with grandmother Carol Judy and others involved in the Woodland Community Land Trust, has helped people of the mountains start living and working sustainably in the shadow of coal mining.  Their work means more land is being used by residents instead of absentee owners.  The trust now manages 450 acres in various parcels, including two acres where the  community center sits.

It's hard to imagine that the Clearfork Valley, encompassing two states and four counties, once was home to 30,000 people.  The industrialization promised jobs that went away as labor-intensive coal mining extracted what it could and eventually gave way to mechanized mountaintop removal.  Vickie Terry and her husband make their home amid mountain beauty and an undeniable ugliness.  "When I first discovered it, I was just going up on the hill above my house," Terry recounts, "and I thought I was nuts! I thought 'how come that mountain looks a little different?' It looked like a piece of it was missing and it was a beautiful range. We had a bench up there and a hammock up there, look out and it was beautiful, ocean of mountains.  I discovered it three years ago this February.  And now they’re on the last hump.  I can look over there from my yard now and it’s almost completely flat. The last hump’s going away."
Vickie Terry Shows Kathy Hutson Permaculture Plans
When a visitor tours the CCI, Terry shares with her the permaculture plans she's working on.  She wants to expand her gardening, support crafting projects and maybe even have a private campground.  Terry worries about water, air and food -- whether it will be clean and abundant for her children's and grandchildren's futures.  She and most neighbors don't even try drinking well water anymore.  Volunteers have been helping testing local water for years, and their documentation keeps adding up.  "I am not an environmentalist, oh I guess I am an activist, I hate the labels though, I just care about the future.  Our earth sustains us and we're destroying the earth.  This mountaintop removal destroying our water is part of destroying the earth."
CCI Director Marie Cirillo, Visitors Mary Jo Leygraaf and
Catherine Rumschlag, Demonstration by Carol Judy
Judy is also wary of labels, "It's not about environmentalism for the sake of environmentalism.  It's environmentalism for the sake of humanity."  She points out that scientists know most potable, drinkable water comes from the hydrology systems naturally occurring through the mountains.  She laments, "There's no recognition that this is a whole ecology that's being destroyed."  Judy appreciates that the mountains offer more than woods and water, but a large variety of plants that can be harvested without disturbing woodland habitat.

Sharing fair trade items with the world is one effort to make positive change.  The land trust and community center have fostered development education that enables individuals like Judy and Terry to grow sustainable businesses.  This has included Fair Trade Appalachia products being sold miles away in downtown Knoxville.  Cirillo says, “I’m delighted with this connection with Knoxville.  This marketing is a wonderful start, the change being that Knoxville was built around coal that was from here.” 

For more about Fair Trade Appalachia, you can reach Judy at

For more about The Clearfork Community Institute or Woodland Land Trust, you can reach Cirillo at

Tomorrow:  the newest, most mysterious threat to an Appalachian way of life...

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