The Clearfork Community Institute in Eagan, Tenn., is housed in a renovated coal camp school, one of the last ones still standing in the Clearfork Valley.
When one group of Auburn University students leaves for spring break, they won't be going on vacation, but instead will be headed to the Clearfork Valley of Tennessee for an immersive experience in mountain community and culture.
The 10 students will travel to Eagan and Clairfield, Tenn., where they will participate in a cemetery clean-up project, assist with stream restoration efforts and work with local residents on general home repairs and yard work. The group will join students from the University of Notre Dame and stay at the Clearfork Community Institute, a community development learning center in the heart of Clearfork Valley which serves a network of small coal-mining towns in Tennessee.
While the project gives students an opportunity to serve the rural community, those involved are quick to point out that the area is not a "charity case." Many of the residents and their families have lived and worked there for generations and are invested in working together to do what is best for their community.
One project will include a cemetery clean-up and research of the generations and diversity of inhabitants in the former coal camps of Pruden and Fonde.
"My students generally come from metropolitan areas where they haven't seen the place where they live as a sort of community of place," said Mark Wilson, director of Civic Learning Initiatives at Auburn University. "I think what my students gain in return is this sense of, ‘there's a whole way of living life that doesn't require a cellphone,' because cellphones don't work up there, which is the best thing in the world! … My hope is that they gain a sense of respect for rural communities – or more respect than they had going into the situation."
This year, one of the many projects students will take part in is stream restoration around the Y Hollow Road Bridge in Eagan. The bridge crosses the Clearfork River, but was built at a time when the least expensive option was to build a bridge made of pipes surrounded by cement to allow water to pass. The bridge is strong and sturdy, but causes a number of erosion issues which damage the land and crops around it. It also is prone to flooding, which means residents of the area are unable to cross the bridge to go about their everyday business.
Students take part in a live staking workshop on the campus' own Parkerson Mill Creek. The students will apply the process in their work on sections of the Clearfork River as part of their spring break trip in Tennessee.
Here in Auburn, the students have prepared for the project by taking part in a live staking workshop led by Eve Brantley and Kaye Christian of the Alabama Cooperative Extension System Water Program on the campus' own Parkerson Mill Creek. Live staking is a natural process in which dormant woody vegetation is placed into a stream bank to reduce further erosion and promote stream stability. The students will apply this process in their work on sections of the Clearfork River, particularly near the Y Hollow Road Bridge.
Students also will work with homeowners on the Woodland Community Land Trust, which is based on the principle that land should be held in common, since the earth is owned by everyone. 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 have more interest in what's under the mountain than what's on top or around it," Wilson said. "What I hope my students will learn from this is that there are different ways of building community and understanding community, and that sometimes we have to be creative if we have values that aren't really honored by the place we live; we have to be creative in the ways that we organize ourselves. One value in this community is having land that can be farmed on, lived on and cared for and the land trust allows for that."
This is the fifth time Wilson has taken a group to the area, and the project is part of the College of Liberal Arts' Practicum in Liberal Arts course. The group will share their experiences on the blog.
— By Carol Nelson, Office of Communications & Marketing
Last Updated: Mar. 6, 2014