A Liberal Arts Look at Appalachia

By Hannah Epperson '11 MLAS '18

UNC Asheville has called the mountains of Western North Carolina home for 90 years, evolving and developing with the region around us. During the decades, our connection with the landscape and the community has taken root, from the study of the earth beneath our feet to the exploration of Appalachia’s complicated history, to in-depth research of our equally complex present. Appalachia’s story is still unfolding, and UNC Asheville students and faculty are using a liberal arts perspective to understand and help share that story—and maybe even fill in some missing chapters.

How does a mountain grow?

A quick glance from the car window as you drive by the road cut between east Asheville and downtown shows a deep slice into the mountain side, revealing layers of minerals and rocks formed over millions of years. It’s essentially looking back in time—but how far?

“This is an undocumented shear zone,” explained Shannon Switch, a senior environmental studies major. “I’m going out there and gathering information, and we’re going to try and figure out what orogeny, which is a mountain building event, formed this particular section of the shear zone.”

“There were three mountain building events that created the Appalachians,” said Felix Stith, also a senior environmental studies major. Stith is mapping a geologic fault in Haywood County, as a potential extension of the Burnsville fault. “The first was the Taconic, the second was the Acadian, and the Burnsville fault is a structure of the Acadian, and the Alleghenian is the third orogeny.”

Through immense continental collisions, and the crushing and folding and pushing of rocks, all happening over millions and millions of years, our mountains were born. Through their geology research, Switch and Stith are trying to piece together the land’s ancient history through the clues left in the rocks today.

“There aren’t that many Acadian structures seen or documented in the southeast,” Stith said. “And the Burnsville fault, which is the fault I’m mapping, is one of the only Acadian structures present in Western North Carolina.”

Stith is hoping to improve on older geologic maps that were incorrect and plans to expand the map further than ever before. Stith and Switch both look for “shear sense indicators” in their fieldwork, looking at how minerals have been rotated, stretched, or otherwise manipulated. To the trained eye, these indicators are all intriguing clues.

“Some of the rocks I’m working with are a billion years old, that have been folded and been a part of two super continents, and stretched out, and pushed back together,” Stith said. “So it’s basically creating a story to tell for the rocks, writing the history of the rocks.”

Bringing back the Cherokee language

For Dakota Brown, a senior history major and member of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, the story of the Appalachian mountains is also the story of her family. She’s uncovering that story through a special oral history project, and through the study of the Cherokee language.

Brown is helping to collect and preserve oral histories of the Snowbird Day School, which educated an estimated 550 Cherokee children in Western North Carolina throughout its history, before closing in 1963. Trey Adcock, UNC Asheville assistant professor of interdisciplinary studies who also directs the university’s American Indian & Indigenous Studies Program, recently won a $50,000 Whiting Public Engagement Fellowship to lead this research project.

Brown’s work involves collecting stories from among the 80 students who are still living, including members of her family.

The Snowbird Day School allowed students to be educated in their own community, Brown said, enabling them to keep their connection to their language and culture—a connection that was lost to many Cherokee children, who were forced by the federal government to attend boarding schools that forbade use of the Cherokee language.

“The children were allowed to speak Cherokee, and a lot of the children that attended that school, Cherokee was their first language,” Brown said.

“Not punishing the students for speaking Cherokee and allowing them to speak Cherokee in between classwork, it seems to have a positive effect, because that community holds one third of the fluent speakers for the Eastern Band, but it’s one of the smallest communities.”

Brown’s exploration of that history, and the Cherokee culture, has been deepened by her own study of the Cherokee language. “I’ve always wanted to learn the Cherokee language,” Brown said. “It’s very hard to learn... I really didn’t want to take another language without knowing my own.”

For a visual history of the school, follow @SnowbirdDaySchool on Instagram.

She’s learning it at UNC Asheville, and now is in her forth semester of study under Barbara Duncan, adjunct instructor of Cherokee, and co-creator of “Your Grandmother’s Cherokee,” a unique Cherokee language learning course, and with Gilliam Jackson, an adjunct instructor and native Cherokee speaker.

“English is so easy to blurt things out. Cherokee really forces you to think about what you’re saying, why you’re saying it, who you’re saying it to, when you’re saying it, what you’re talking about,” Brown said. “It’s such a thoughtful language.”

It’s that thoughtfulness that Brown carries with her as she continues her efforts to help preserve the stories and language of the Cherokee people.

Hiking through history

IRENE ROSSELL, chair and professor of environmental studies, also helps students explore history, this time using hiking field trips. Her “Hiking Through History” course involves plant identification, historical research, crafting, creative writing—and, of course, hiking.

The first hikes are in UNC Asheville’s backyard: a hike from downtown back to campus along the old Buncombe Turnpike route, which was used for driving livestock. Students then visit the Botanical Gardens on campus, which was the site of a Civil War battle. A walk through the urban forest behind Pisgah House reveals the different plants and trees that indicate the area used to be open; it was a dairy farm before UNC Asheville’s campus relocated here.

The class also goes further afield, visiting the ruins of Rattlesnake Lodge on the Blue Ridge Parkway and the ruins of the Runion logging community in Madison County, the Ray Mine in Yancey County, and Paint Rock near Hot Springs, the site of 5,000-year-old Cherokee petroglyphs. They also visited Cataloochee Valley in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, where elk roam in the wild and “bugle” during mating season.

While learning the history of the region, Rossell also taught students how to identify the native plants that Native Americans and early settlers would have used—sassafras, spicebush, and goldenrod for tea, for example. They also completed creative writing assignments, such as writing a letter as a person who lived during the Civil War era in WNC.

“The connection is landscape,” Rossell said. “The lay of the land, the topography, the types of trees that grow, the rivers and the valleys, all have had a profound impact on human history. And humans have a profound impact on the landscape, so they are very entwined. My goal is really to get students outside to see this for themselves.”

For their final project, students completed a hands-on project incorporating all that they’d learned. Miranda Rapoza, an engineering major who transferred to UNC Asheville from NC State, used tulip poplar inner bark to create cordage, which she wove together to make a small Cherokee-style fishing net. The process took hours, from felling the tree to stripping the bark, to rolling the inner bark fibers into string.

Rapoza said the project overlapped with what she’s learning in her major about materials engineering, but it also gave her a deeper appreciation for her home. “You really have to work with the land,” she said. “The land has affected where we live and how we live, and what we survive off of, and we’ve also shaped the land.”

Appalachia Today

Understanding UNC Asheville's home means understanding the land, culture and history of Appalachia, but it also means exploring contemporary Western North Carolina. Dwight Mullen, professor of political science, and his students over the last decade have been diving into the research on “The State of Black Asheville,” seeking the data and crunching the numbers to understand what it means to be black and live in Asheville.

This semester, students are examining the racial disparities in education, criminal justice, and health care, going more in depth into the details of each area than ever before. It’s a project that has led many of their predecessors on to graduate school, and to their careers.

“The thing about the State of Black Asheville that matches so well with the liberal arts is that it gives students a vocation,” Mullen said. “It gives them a meaning to what they do. And a lot of our students know something’s wrong, they just don’t know what to do about it. And they don’t know where to focus. And I think the State of Black Asheville projects have filled in those blanks.”

Last year, members of the Buncombe County Commission used the research collected by the State of Black Asheville project to inform their ultimately unanimous vote in favor of $500,000 in funding for the new Isaac Coleman Community Investment Program to support and expand community efforts to improve health, education, and employment. Mullen said the effect of this funding is already apparent in the community.

“You can feel the difference in the community, because folks are resourced for the first time,” Mullen said.

Still, the students’ research has consistently found that, over the years, racial disparities in Asheville have only grown. And that’s challenging, Mullen said. But the research—and the students’ ongoing commitment to it—is a good start.

“Going into the community and hearing the good things your students are doing, you can’t help but like that. And I think it’s making it better,” Mullen said. “It’s at least not letting it fester. It’s at least drawing attention to making it better.”

It’s all part of the continuing story of Appalachia—a story that includes the land, the people, the history, and the unwritten future. And it’s a story that the community at UNC Asheville continues to learn from, explore, and contribute to.