In March of 2015, a group of four from Georgia College participated in the Narrow Ridge Earth Literacy Center Alternative Spring Break program. While there, they were joined by students from the University of Tennessee and the University of Connecticut. Due to their positive feedback, Chief Sustainability Officer Lori Strawder, student Ashlie Adamson, and I returned this year to experience sustainable living practices in action firsthand. We left campus on March 19 and returned on March 24, having gained new insights and partnerships in sustainability practices.
Situated on 500 acres in Washburn, Tennessee, the Narrow Ridge Earth Literacy Center is a non-profit organization which was established in 1991 “to study, teach and demonstrate sustainability with solar powered rental facilities and homes” and which is “dedicated to providing experiential learning of Earth Literacy based on the cornerstones of spirituality, sustainability and community.” Although Narrow Ridge has a community of welcoming individuals from various backgrounds, its programs are led by founder and on-site volunteer Bill Nickle (Fig. 1), director Mitzi Wood-Von Mizener, and co-operations managers Jason Von Mizener and Martha Pierce.
Fig. 1. Founder Bill Nickle explaining natural history in the 120-acre wilderness area of Narrow Ridge.
The Alternative Spring Break is one of many programs, such as music gatherings, vision fasts, film nights, and seasonal celebrations, offered by Narrow Ridge. However, during Alternative Spring Break, students are provided a week-long opportunity to “take advantage of the opportunities for retreat, restoration and recreation offered by [the] beautiful natural setting while also delving into environmental issues and engaging in service learning projects such as organic gardening, conservation projects and eco-construction projects.” Students open to bypassing more traditional spring break activities are treated to exquisite vegetarian meals, comfortable lodging (Fig. 2), tours of community members’ homes, and immersion in a serene natural setting. They return home with greater awareness of sustainability and environmental concepts. Narrow Ridge, in turn, benefits from the on-site projects completed by students and by the new friendships formed. Indeed, Mr. Nickle explained to us that he expected to learn from us as much as we learned from him during our week together.
Fig. 2. The Strawbale Lodge, where we stayed during our week at Narrow Ridge.
Being a group of three, and not joined by other college groups, we were unique in being the smallest group Narrow Ridge has hosted for Alternative Spring Break to date. While our small size allowed us greater flexibility in our schedule, our experience was no less valuable, with the staff and residents ensuring that our week was filled with opportunities for tours and learning. During the week, we heard the history of Narrow Ridge and their permaculture practices, witnessed various sustainable design practices in the facilities, visited their natural burial preserve and wildflower memorial garden, walked through their labyrinth, consumed edible plants, learned about the succession and natural history of land set aside as wilderness by Narrow Ridge (Fig.1 & Fig. 3), participated in a community Spring equinox celebration, and built two garden beds (Fig. 4), among so many other wonderful activities.
Fig. 3. During our hike, student Ashlie Adamson enjoying a quick climb up a rock formation, called the sacred stones by Narrow Ridge community members.
By immersing ourselves in the natural and built environment at Narrow Ridge, the ease with which people can adopt sustainable living practices became clear. As student Ashlie Adamson (Fig. 3) explains, “The biggest thing that I took away from it all is that people who are utilizing things like composting toilets, passive solar technology, solar panels, etc. are not extreme or radical people. Everyone we met…simply had a lot of concern for the state of the environment and the world that we live in. Living a sustainable lifestyle is not as hard as some might think.” She also put together a short video showcasing the trip.
Having now completed two wildly successful and trans-formative trips to Narrow Ridge, we in the Office of Sustainability hope to continue to offer this as an Alternative Spring Break option for our students in the future. Lori Strawder has been the primary champion, organizing these trips and ensuring their success. Regarding the appeal of Narrow Ridge, she explains, “The Narrow Ridge Earth Literacy Center offers visitors a sense of what a true community should be. For GC students, I feel it is important to give them this glimpse of how life could be. Living and learning to live off-the-grid and sustainably is only part of the journey. Students get to experience how a community can work together to support each other, networking, sharing ideas as well as ways in which to work with nature and take advantage of the resources it has available. To clarify, that is taking advantage of the natural resources in a responsible way. Students learn that taking care of the environment is just as, if not, more important than, taking care of your neighbor. Additionally, Narrow Ridge is designed to be all inclusive, all races, nationalities, color, gender, religion. As long as members of the community are committed to being sustainability-minded and environmental stewards, all are welcome! This is an exemplary example of community and I am grateful to have had and welcome more opportunities to share this experience with more GC students!” If you are interested, or know someone who may be, please email us at firstname.lastname@example.org. We would love to tell you more about this opportunity and add you to next year’s attendance list.
Fig. 4. During our stay, we built a new garden bed for the Narrow Ridge community garden.