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Appalachian Root Digger, Carol Judy: Restoring Community with Old Plant Medicine Ways and Saving Mountain

We are lucky to live at a time when we can more wholly understand the idea of sustainability. With all this realization, though, it is easy to become overwhelmed by what we know, leaving us immobilized. Others, however, find their fate is to press onward, shining light in shadowy places where misdeeds can easily be concealed, and the nature of place has no shouting voice. I had the golden opportunity to meet such a person recently. She is root digger Carol Judy, advocate for the rights of mountains, plants and people in Southeastern Appalachia.

Carol Judy

Carol Judy

It’s the last night of our stay in Appalachia. We all stand watching the full moon rise over a mountain that is in the care of the Woodland Land Trust in Eagan, TN. There are no words big enough to communicate the beauty of the scene, nor has there been time to process the feelings of inspiration mixed with devastation.

My family, friends and I have just spent two days immersed in mountain culture. We stand in the company of our growing awareness, a mountain bought and saved, of mountains slated to be destroyed and ones already taken down. We stand in the company of animals, plants and trees, and local people who have their stories of survival, an understanding of nature, and passion for community life.

This is Appalachia. It’s coal country. And the mining companies spare no time in slicing the mountains just as we slice a loaf of bread, taking the minerals and dumping what remains into ravines. They are systematically destroying this subtropical ecosystem-considered rare in our country-turning the land to dry dust, poisoning the water supply and slowly stealing the rich natural aesthetic of the mountains and the lives of the people who have lived here for generations.

The terms used to describe the processes we were witness to are terms we have all heard before. But it is a different thing when you’re standing in the presence of it all, watching it happen. The slicing of mountains from the side is called Longwall mining. From the top is Mountaintop removal. The dumping action is valley fill or over-burden holding. The end result is a demolished mountain that will take over 100 years to grow green. And, as Carol Judy, our guide an informant puts it, “it will never to be a mountain again, for a mountain has no seed.”

These mountains, like all mountains in America, define a culture and ecology that is not expendable. Yet Appalachia and it’s people are often treated as such. The worth of the land is measured by how much mineral can be extracted instead of what inspiration it embodies and life it supports, while it’s “cash poor” people, as Carol puts it, are exploited by industries that lack “steward” ethic.

Many who have worked the mines die of cancer and lung disease. Many who don’t also do from environmental contamination. The youth, according to Carol, have unsustainable life options that hold no promise for a good future. Their choices: the military, the mines or the logging companies. In the end, many community youth, instead, are consumed by drug and alcohol abuse.

Here, under a full moon, we sit united around the campfire. We visitors have learned that the people of Appalachia are driven to save as much of their environment as they can, regardless of how much money, formal education or human power they have to do it. And they want to re-instill value and respect back into their communities, and to protect their young and old from drugs and disease.

So far, they have accomplished so much, yet there is an infinite amount still to be done. There are many hands on deck, and we are quickly becoming some of them. One of the woman at the helm, and my reason for going south, is Appalachian root digger Carol Judy.

Who is Carol Judy?

Carol Judy is a great steward of the mountains and the plants that grow there. She is an activist, and catalyst for change in the small Appalachian towns that have been prey to mining companies that destroy their health, their resources and their mountains. She is also a traditional root digger.

Carol Judy at CCI

Carol Judy at CCI (photo credit: Knoxville News)

Carol’s perspective is wise, and rooted in a world understood by few. “It is digging in the woods that lets me understand people and society and it’s many contradictions. Diggers live in the hallows, on ridges, and in un-incorporated communities with families reaching back several generations. Family passed on the love of these mountains to us, just as we pass it forward to our young. We are grounded in the seasons and cycles of life, interwoven with the mountain’s life, knowing that humans are part of this world.”

Humans are a big part of this world. And in Carol’s world, how you treat humans is as important as how you treat nature. While she spends many hours a day in nature, she does not always go it alone. She often takes people from the community with her. It is her mission to remember, remind and re-teach the people of the mountains the old medicine ways. She believes, and I agree, that through these ways community and place will find healing.

She told me, “The company of the young men and women in the woods, all digging, moves us into respect of each other, offers support to me, as I am slower to move in my older years, and is a testimony to the wonders and spirits of humanity.”

And this is a woman who backs her words with actions. In an attempt to heal people and place, and give more job options to the communities youth, she and others have started several organizations to achieve these goals. One is Fair Trade Appalachia, and the other is the Clearfork Community Institute.

Fair Trade Appalachia

Fair Trade Appalachia is a small, but growing, online business that sells local medicinal remedies made by local people. Community members are hired to sustainably harvested roots and plants that grow in the mountains, and make products to sell in their virtual store, which can be found at http://fairtradeappalachia.wordpress.com/.

There are plans to grow FTA, adding more products and jobs. And Carol would also like to evolve the business to include her passion for saving endangered plant species. She, and those she works with, know well that there are some amazing mountains slated to be destroyed in the next few years. Mountains that are owned by land companies who have already sold the mineral rights to mining companies. These mountains, she said, cannot be saved.

So, beginning this summer and into fall, Carol plans to assemble and employ a crew of locals with volunteer non-locals to help relocate endangered plant species from areas that will be destroyed. These large stands of black cohosh, blue cohosh, wood betony, blue flag iris, goldenseal and wild ginseng, to name a few, will be replanted on mountain lands that the community was able to purchase, and holds in the care and protection of the Woodland Community Land Trust.

This task, which will take many hours of hard labor, is about more than rescuing plants and employing community members. In Carol’s vision, the work in the woods will help rebuild community, and instill a sense of pride, mutual respect and workmanship amongst the people. A vision that merges beautifully with another organization that Carol is a part of called the Clearfork Community Institute.

Developing Leadership Among Youth

Clearfork Community Institute

Clearfork Community Institute (photo credit: Knoxville News)

The Clearfork Community Institute was established in 2004, and partners with the Woodland Community Land Trust, which I’ll tell you more about further down. It’s executive director is Marie Cirillo who, much like Carol, is another ageless and tireless petit woman with great patience, intelligence, an iron will and a kind nature.

CCI’s building was refurbished with donated funds. It runs on geothermal heat, and has space for visitors to sleep on cots in the large attic space. Downstairs it houses offices, meeting rooms, a library and a dining hall.

It’s hallways are adorned with photographs that depict towns folk and Appalachian mountain life spanning the 60’s-80’s. There are also stories, quotes and drawings of people past and present who have given voice to the rights of both people and mountains of the area-activists, Native American elders, coal miners and those of the older generation are just a few of the hundreds represented in this historical compilation of wisdom and perseverance.

But CCI isn’t just a building for history and visitors, it is a multifaceted bridge, connecting urban dwellers, known as outsiders, with local rural folks to foster understanding and kinship.

Partnering with universities all over the country, CCI hosts groups of college kids for what is known as the alternative working vacation. They put local youth in leadership positions, pairing them with the college students and setting them to task building gardens, helping with community development projects, learning about rural mountain life, and the ecosystem that is slowly being destroyed and needs protection.

The things our countries young and educated have learned and experienced through CCI has inspired many to stand up and speak for the rights of mountains and the people of Appalachia. They show their solidarity through article writing, hosting websites, majoring in environmental work, and by making high quality videos that are put on YouTube. All of the work they do has helped get the word out about the atrocious manner in which the land is being treated, and the great loss people are suffering who live there.

More voices is what Carol and the people of CCI had hoped for. But there is still a long way to go to save what is left-that being the mountains. And there enters the Woodland Community Land Trust.

Buying Mountains

Marie Cirillo

Marie Cirillo (photo by Knoxville News)

Saving people and plants is a great task in itself. But there is also the business of saving mountains. So far, Carol Judy, Marie Cirillo and many others in the community have been able to purchase and protect in the care of the Woodland Community Land Trust near around 400 acres of mountain tops. They are restoring them from havoc, giving them safe harbor, and rescuing them for the people of Appalachia as well as our country.

There are more mountains to be bought and saved. And it is tricky business. Many of the mountain tops of Appalachia are owned by land companies that are in business-for profit-with the mining companies. Others are owned by foreign countries. Finding mountains for sale takes painstaking research, and often money that is not there.

But the people of this community will not give up. They know that the work is not just for the people of Appalachia, it’s truly for all of us. In a talk I once attended on the Rain Forests in South America, a Brazilian man said, “The Rain Forests are the lungs of the planet.” We need to think of our own mountains and special ecosystems the same way, and begin asking the question, “What happens when we destroy the lungs of our country?” It is essential we wake up to what that means, and make the connection to our own bodies, for every breath we take would not be possible without our trees and plants.

More Information

There is tons of information out there on what is happening down south. For an amazing story and article about the formation of the Woodland Community Land Trust written by Maria Cirillo (one person responsible for its creation), go to http://neweconomicsinstitute.org/publications/lectures/cirillo/marie/stories-from-an-appalachian-community. You won’t be disappointed. Also, refer to these sites for information about saving mountains, http://www.mountainjustice.org/ and http://appalachiarising.org/.

And, coming soon, my husband, kids, herbal friends from the south and I will be putting up a website to begin taking donations to purchase mountains that will become a part of the land trust. We will also have videos up that show the beauty of the place, faces of the people, and the devastation that is taking place.

We are all lucky to live at a time where sustainability is considered. We are also amazingly blessed that the people of Appalachia have found their voices, and are speaking up to be heard. They have witnessed environmental devastation for decades and generations. And it is about time they don’t have to bear that responsibility alone.

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  • Derek J. H. Douglas

    I took the photo of Carol peeling potatoes.

    • I miss her, and I’m certain you all do, too. She was a grand human being. This is a great photo, and really brings out her spirit. Warm wishes to you, Kathy