Michigan Citizen, Feb. 13-19, 2011
Bob Cornett. a Kentucky elder, tells the story of how bringing the American Chestnut back to the Appalachian forest educated schoolkids and also built community, conviviality and democracy in a tiny mountain town. GLB
A dozen years ago, I saw an active and happy group of Detroit youngsters working in community gardens — and an active and happy group of adults working with them.
I didn’t go straight home to Kentucky and help start gardens. But I encouraged some of my educator friends to get their students actively involved as partners with adults in doing “public work” in their communities.
One of these friends called my attention to an article about an initiative to bring back the American Chestnut tree to the Appalachian forests, and I realized this could be an opportunity to connect young people and elders with highly significant public work.
The American Chestnut had been the most important tree in the Appalachian forests. It provided not only wood for houses, barns, and fences, but food for families, farm animals, and wildlife. Then a blight started (in New York City) about a century ago and the Chestnut was essentially gone from Kentucky by the 1940s.
I became acquainted with the remarkable principal of a small elementary school — fewer than 100 students K-5 — called the Kingdom Come School – at the tiny community of Linefork in Letcher County, deep in the heart of the Kentucky mountains.
The school and the local volunteer fire department agreed to make common cause in helping bring back the Chestnut to the neighborhood. An early project involved some of the firemen taking students, a few at a time, to interview elderly residents who remembered the Chestnut. Videotapes from those interviews are part of the community’s treasured archives.
Another project was a “Chestnut Festival”, which was held on the school grounds. The Festival celebrated the return of the Chestnut, but it also celebrated the area’s heritage generally, including its music. Bluegrass music was an especially big part of the Festival.
Now the school is closed and the building and grounds are under the control of a recently-formed non-profit community group. Lots of things go on in the community center. There is a music room with excellent acoustics, where bluegrass music concerts and jam sessions are regularly held.
There’s a quilting room, which was designed by an 85-year-old lady who lives in the neighborhood.
There’s a wellness program that provides information (and conversation) about nutrition and exercise and other aspects of healthy living.
And there’s more, including a scheduled planting of several hundred blight-resistant Chestnut seedlings on a small mountain adjacent to the school. Those seedlings, which will eventually provide seed stock to repopulate the forests in the area, are to be cared for by the community partnership of young people and adults.
The American Chestnut Foundation, which has the support of large numbers of volunteers, has been of invaluable help in the Linefork initiative.
Looking ahead, I confidently predict that the tiny community of Linefork will inspire many other communities throughout Appalachia to join in the public work to restore the Chestnut and, in the process, develop the sense of community that is at the heart of Linefork’s success.
I have two memories that often show up on my memory screen. One of those memories is of the gardening partners in Detroit; and the other one is of a 12-year-old boy and an 89-year-old man who were sharing the joy of helping bring the wonderful Chestnut trees back to Linefork.
Those memories are reminders to me, as I have learned from a long lifetime of being in and around government agencies at all levels, that governments can do some things well but do other things poorly. Governments cannot do what I saw those Detroit gardeners doing or what I saw the boy and the elderly man doing at Linefork. Humanity — and the love that goes with humanity — simply cannot be supplied as well by governments as by humans in communities.
Our society is at a fork in the road: our governments are not working well, and they will not work well until we stop expecting governments to do things that are best done by people. It’s not just schools that are at stake, although the present attempts to “reform” public education through standardized tests and other top-down mandates are doing serious harm to children’s learning.
Our democracy cannot survive in a satisfactory form unless and until we quit allowing governments to run over our humanity. David Mathews is correct: reclaiming public education and reclaiming our democracy go together.
My own bets are on “We the People.”
Wayne State University Press is hosting a book party for The James Boggs Reader and other books in the African American Life Series at the WSU McGregor Conference Center, Tuesday, Feb. 15, 6 pm,