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MHC Professor Authors "Blue Ridge Commons"
Blue Ridge Commons: Environmental Activism and Forest History in Western North Carolina, due to be published February 1, is the first book by Dr. Kathryn Newfont, associate professor of history and chair of the Regional Studies Department at Mars Hill College.
Newfont’s book traces the environmental efforts of the late 20th century spearheaded by residents of the Blue Ridge region, and how those efforts grew out of what she called “commons environmentalism.” Central to the book is the life and work of Esther Cunningham, a native of Macon County who was instrumental in the founding and the major movements of the Western North Carolina Alliance.
“Classic environmentalist protection efforts in the U.S. have grown out of a wilderness perspective,” Newfont said. “Esther was not coming from that place. But she was coming from a place that had a lot of power in it, and she was definitely very adamant in her efforts to protect the forests.”
In the 1970s, many Blue Ridge residents fought against wilderness designation efforts for the national forests. But in the 80s, many of those same people joined Cunningham and the WNC Alliance in waging successful campaigns against oil and gas exploration in the forests, and against clear cutting. These movements seem to be at odds, Newfont said, until you examine the history of the region.
Through archival research and oral history interviews, Newfont came to see that Cunningham and other western North Carolina environmentalists viewed the national forests as a common “harvest ground,” a view that grew from centuries of a living a lifestyle which was dependent on the land.
"If you think of the forest as a commons, meaning a harvest ground, you might not want it in wilderness because wilderness threatens to remove it from being a harvest ground,” Newfont said. “But you also don’t want oil and gas drilling, or clear cutting because that’s going to tear it up.”
As examples, Newfont cites the historic uses of the woods in the economy and lifestyle of the Blue Ridge region: hunting for food and recreation; turning hogs loose to fatten on the mast of the forest; gathering blueberries and ginseng to use or to sell; and harvesting tannin from trees to tan leather are just a few of the ways that Blue Ridge residents have used the woods for sustenance.
“I think actually, the commons model goes back certainly to the Cherokee and really to the Mississippian era,” Newfont said. “In the Blue Ridge region, it’s been a farm and forest economy. We’ve recognized the critically important role that agriculture has played, but if you actually get started looking at the forest history of the region and the way people have used the forests, even if you only look at it from an economic point of view, it’s just really striking.”
Newfont said she first met and interviewed Cunningham as a doctoral student, and continued to find her inspiring through the years. She described Cunningham not only as “a lovely person,” but as a very dedicated and successful activist. Newfont said she regrets that Cunningham, who passed away in September of 2011, did not live to see the publication of the book she and others like her inspired.
Newfont plans to use Blue Ridge Commons, together with other textbooks, in her environmental history class at Mars Hill College. She hopes it will be a book not only for academics, but also one that anyone interested in the region might enjoy.
Her hope is also that the book publication will be a “teachable moment” for her students at Mars Hill, as they see the results of her hard work.
“It’s another way of teaching, because you are modeling life-long learning,” Newfont said. “You are showing them that you are really excited and interested in something and enthusiastic about learning more about it, and about sharing what you did learn with the broader public.”