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Collection Tending the Commons: Folklife and Landscape in Southern West Virginia

About this Collection

This collection presents 718 excerpts of sound recordings, 1,256 photographs, and 10 manuscripts from the American Folklife Center's Coal River Folklife Project Collection. The project documented traditional uses of the mountains in the Big Coal River Valley of southern West Virginia, and explored the cultural dimensions of ecological crisis from 1992 to 1999. There are extensive interviews with local residents on the seasonal harvesting of natural resources--ginseng, ramps (wild leeks), berries, nuts, fish, and game--on occupations, including coal mining and lumbering; and on the impact of large scale industries such as logging and mountaintop removal mining on local communities. Cultural and religious community events were a focus of the project, including storytelling, community dinners and foodways, baptisms, and cemetery customs.

Functioning as a de facto commons, the mountains have supported a way of life that for many generations has entailed hunting, gathering, and subsistence gardening, as well as coal mining and lumbering. This commons, articulated through stories, place names, artifacts, and seasonal practices, powerfully evokes collective memory and anchors community life. The commons is situated in what is known as the mixed mesophytic forest, a temperate-zone hardwood system unrivaled for its biological diversity. Consequently it supports an unusually diverse seasonal round of activities.

The Coal River Folklife Collection (AFC 1999/008) consists of approximately 290 audio cassettes, 13,647 still photographs, five Hi-8 videocassettes, and 26 linear feet of print material including administrative correspondence, photo and recording logs, tape transcriptions, field notes, maps, publications, and ephemera. All this material, together with a complete project inventory, is available to researchers in the American Folklife Center's Folklife Reading Room at the Library of Congress.

Mary Hufford, the field project director and curator for the online collection, collaborated with the late science writer John Flynn, of Rock Creek, West Virginia, and with photographers Lyntha Scott Eiler and Terry Eiler, to create the sound recordings and photographic images comprising the core of the collection. The Coal River Folklife Project was conducted in cooperation with the Lucy Braun Association for the Mixed Mesophytic Forest and Trees for the Planet, with funding from the Lila Wallace Reader's Digest Fund for Folk Culture, and with the support of the Coal River Mountain Watch, based in Whitesville, West Virginia. Support from the National Park Service is gratefully acknowledged for documentation undertaken on the Coal River in 1993 as a part of the American Folklife Center's New River Gorge Folklife Project.