The Common Good
September-October 1995

The Earth is the Classroom

by Aaron McCarroll Gallegos | September-October 1995

Learning to get along with all creation.

Nestled amidst Log Mountain and Hinds Ridge, in the heart of Hogskin Valley, lies a Tennessee recipe for renewal, the Narrow Ridge Earth Literacy Center. One of 12 Earth Literacy Centers in the world, Narrow Ridge was established in 1991 by Bill Nickle, a Methodist pastor.

"Narrow Ridge" is a reference in Martin Buber's theology to "the place where I and Thou meet." The name signifies a philosophy adopted by a small community of people who are striving to live responsibly in their relationship with the Earth and the larger community of plants and animals that make their home here. The place invokes the spiritual, as staff member Harry Rothwell has witnessed.

"On the one hand, there is the effort of people intending to care about and heal the land," he said, "and on the other, these hills are healing people too. I have seen many cases of people who come here and have been healed by the land. The setting is one that tends to be therapeutic."

I was fortunate enough to spend a summer with the Narrow Ridge community partaking in their heart-sharing potlucks, star-gazing, organic gardening, and the ever-anticipated splash in the lake. One of the hermitages is graced with a wall-hanging that professes a definition of Earth literacy held by Mac Smith, a longtime friend and contributor to the presence of the Narrow Ridge center. It reads:

There is Hope that we can expand our model of education-we must redefine the meaning of literacy before civilization self-destructs:...To be literate, you would have to master more than the power of language and math, more than the power to split atoms, fly to the stars, compose poetry and write laws. To be literate, you would have to know your place in the scheme of atoms, the poetry of nature and know how to live by its laws. You would have to master the art of getting along-getting along with each other life form with whom you share Earth's tiny space.

Although living simply is a key focus of the Earth Literacy Center's philosophy, the way that the Narrow Ridge community aspires to live in a nurturing relationship with the Earth is full of complexity. It involves rethinking values and listening to what the Earth is trying to tell humankind in making even the most basic life decisions. From this listening process, non-polluting solar-powered dwellings and organic gardens have been given birth at Narrow Ridge. In addition, a land trust has been formed ensuring that a substantial amount of land will be preserved. The lively and peacemaking voices of the unique characters that comprise the Narrow Ridge community sing a hopeful song.

When he speaks, Nickle exudes a gentleness much like the hills themselves. He emphasizes the importance of going beyond the academic and technological approach to solving environmental crises and looking at our relationships with each other and with the Earth in an entirely different way. Nickle talks about Earth Literacy as "a way of listening and looking, of being almost in awe of the miraculous way that the Earth functions."

"The key," he said, "is to provide a model whereby individuals can experience what 'enoughness' is and experience living in balance with the Earth."

THE SPIRITUAL IS very much a part of experiencing Narrow Ridge. People are touched in different ways depending on what they need at the time. John Dimick, a student and former staff member at Narrow Ridge, shared that when he was fearful of getting involved with organized religion, his experience at Narrow Ridge helped fill an emptiness and helped him believe that he has a place in a spiritual realm of some kind.

One of the key aspects of Earth literacy involves the concept of sustainability, both in a practical and spiritual sense. Nickle talks about the importance of the inward life, both of the individual and of the community, in working toward that goal. "We come to the point of becoming sustainable in the spiritual sense when we realize we are a part of the sacredness of the whole picture-that we are not as human beings in control-God didn't put us here to have dominion over creation. When we realize the real truth of that statement we will be sustainable," he said.

Nancy Griffin, another caregiver at the Earth Literacy Center, has a special interest in working with food because of her concern with diet in America. She expresses the importance of becoming more aware of connections. In other words, the way people live out their lives in the city has a tremendous impact on the lives of people trying to live on the land. "Those dollars that you put down in the marketplace may be just as important as your vote in the polling booth," Griffin said, "because in today's world they are tremendously influencing what happens on the Earth and to yourself.

"I see that more being here than I ever have," she said. "I would like us to make that understanding more available so when people go back to their lives in the city they think about how they are spending their money. It has a tremendous rippling effect on the Earth and on the people who do produce food in healthy ways," Griffin explained.

Although many projects at Narrow Ridge are still in their beginning stages, knowledge and wonder abound here in the interaction between people and nature. For more information on study programs, seminars, and retreats, please contact: Bill Nickle, Narrow Ridge Earth Literacy Center, Rural Route 2, Box 125, Washburn, TN 37888.


Urban youth create plans to counter violence.
by Aaron Gallegos

Today, it is more common to blame young people for the problems of urban America than it is to consult them for solutions. Yet many of these young people, with firsthand experience of the violence that plagues many of our cities, are perhaps best qualified to address America's urban crisis.

On July 8-15, the Urban Youth Summit brought 40 high school students from several inner-city neighborhoods to Washington, D.C., to generate new ways to respond to the violence in their communities. "These students need to know that they have a role to play in the development of their country and their communities," said Kyle Farmbry, an organizer with Washington's Urban Development Initiative, which put together the event. "When your eyes are opened to the possibilities out there, something good happens to your self-confidence."

The young people-from Philadelphia, Louisville, Milwaukee, Bridgeport, Connecticut, and Washington, D.C.-were encouraged to work together on strategies for conflict resolution, community organizing, and diversity awareness.

"At first it was scary," said Jill Petschl, another organizer of the event, "but people from different communities accepted the challenges of coming together."

Each group of students worked to prepare a strategic plan for ways that violence could be stopped in their cities. The young people then visited Capitol Hill to present their proposals to their congressional representatives. Though the focus was on ending violence, the students recognized that the problem is multifaceted. Many addressed issues at the root of the crisis such as poverty, teen pregnancy, and drug and alcohol abuse.

The Washington, D.C. chapter of Barrios Unidos, a group that works to build positive alternatives to gang-related violence, was a representative of the young people of Washington, D.C. Their proposal stated that the violence they see around them is a reaction to the problems in their community. "There is no type of positive violence," they said. "We have to first work on the reaction, then start to work on the actual problems. If we look carefully, we will be able to find answers within the problems."

The Urban Youth Summit ended with a session for youth to speak out on violence and to present plans of action to prevent it. The organizers already have a list of young people from other cities that hope to be involved in next year's event.

For more information, contact Urban Development Initiative, 2020 Pennsylvania Ave. NW, Suite 328, Washington, DC 20006; (202) 293-0297.

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