A few weeks ago I was in Knoxville and some friends took me for the first time to a huge second hand bookstore when “Salvation on Sand Mountain: Snake Handling and Redemption in Southern Appalachia” caught my eye. The book has on my reading list after a friend said my family’s hometown of New Hope was mentioned a lot. I am not much of a reader, but over the past few quiet days in the valley I have really enjoyed sitting on my porch and digging into the book while listening to sounds of the holler. I think the book struck me because of the connections to my family roots but also the new places and people in Central Appalachia I am growing to know that were mentioned, several the hometowns of new friends I've met. Wildly enough, the book wasn’t the only place where venomous snakes have entered my reality recently. On the way back from spending an evening with a good friend in Duff, TN wading in the creek by their home, driving on Campbell County backroads, and sharing a meal together over watching Shameless with his mama, I spotted a big ole timber rattler in the middle of the road.
I swerved to miss it, and slammed on my breaks kicking up the white dust that completely and constantly covers my car. I whipped around to check it out and after snapping some shots I threw a rock near it causing it to turn around and slither off back into the safety of the grass. The encounter with this snake brought up thoughts for me about peoples relationship with land and creatures and how stereotypes around caring about nature or land are oftentimes harmful. As someone who has been involved with conservation and environmental education I think a lot about how this relationship is so much more complicated than is often discussed in these “granola” spaces. I think about how a dear friend of mine went to a highly praised environmental education camp in elementary school, and they told me that their first reaction was “what are these white people going to do to me in the woods?”. I reflect on a conversation I had recently with another fellow about how often only certain ways of enjoying nature are praised but that there are so many ways people appreciate and enjoy the “outdoors”. I think about how the community I am in enjoys nature. People go four-wheeling, fishing, and hunting. We sit on our porches, we barbecue, we swim. Vicki Terry, a Woodland Community Land Trust member that was very special in the Clearfork Valley, was working to build an outdoor kitchen and campground before she passed, so that she, her family, and others could enjoy the treasures and tranquility of Rose Ridge Retreat.
The other day I enjoyed touring a local woodworker’s garden and work shed and having conversation over a tasty water melon that he grew along with squash, green tomatoes, and cucumbers that he graciously shared with me. I feel like enjoying the outdoors if often framed or praised in a very exclusionary way that centers wealthy, white, able-bodied people. I also see a lot of paternalistic patterns of discrediting the local knowledge and intimate relationships with land that communities have. An elder in my community talks about how exchanges between “professionals” that work with land and local people needs to be a two-way street where the expertise of community members are honored and centered, rather than discredited. I think about what happens when this doesn’t happen. In Uniontown, Alabama waste water spray fields were installed on two separate occasions, costing millions of dollars, while community members with generations and ancestors of farmers and sharecroppers in the community knew that the soil would not hold the water. Because their expertise was not honored, they continue to live with fields sprayed with human waste that sits on top of the soil. I also think about how my comrades in Birmingham, at the foothills of Appalachia, are organizing a Community Land Trust but their work struggles to be seen as environmental while they are literally using regenerative urban agriculture to grow food for their community and restore polluted and deserted land while resisting gentrification. Who is framing what is and isn’t “environmental” work? Framing what is and isn’t “real” ways to enjoy nature? I’m not sure how rattlesnakes brought me here, but I think we need to recognize the complex histories and relationships with people to the “outdoor” environment and honor local knowledge, and the ways in which different groups of people use, enjoy, restore, and reclaim land.