Reflections on #kyrux2017: Harlan
By Nicole Musgrave
When I learned that I’d be joining the Kentucky Rural-Urban Exchange’s 2017 cohort, one of the things I was most excited about was having the opportunity to visit Harlan, KY. Since moving to Kentucky a little over a year ago, I had been eager to go east, in large part because I was longing for the culture and the landscape of Southeastern Ohio that I had been missing living in Bowling Green, KY. During the business of my days in grad school, it was a relief to see the last weekend of September marked out on my calendar and to know that I would get chance to spend some time surrounded by the hills at Pine Mountain Settlement School.
As a Folk Studies student at Western Kentucky University, I had recently learned about the settlement school movement – about both the positive outcomes and about some of the more controversial aspects. I was eager to get out to Pine Mountain Settlement School and to learn about the current programs and projects the folks at the school are working on, and I was also curious about how people living in the area today relate to the school.
During the weekend, I had the opportunity to explore some of these themes during a hike led by RUX member Megan Falce. Megan grew up in Harlan and she talked with us about her memories of regularly visiting PMSS with her family as a child. When Megan became engaged to her now husband, she talked about how they both knew that they would have their wedding at PMSS, surrounded by the beauty of the trees and the mountains. And now Megan works at PMSS as their Environmental Educator.
As we traipsed through the woods, enjoying the newly changing leaves and the warming sun, Megan shared some of the school’s history with us. We learned about Mary Rockwell Hook who designed many of the buildings for PMSS, and who was one of the first female architects in the country. Megan also took time to talk about the some of the plants the we came upon on our hike. She had us taste sassafras and the needle-like leaves of an Eastern Hemlock, explaining that these leaves are a rich source of Vitamin C and are sometimes used an herbal remedy.
At another point during the weekend, RUX co-founder Savannah Barrett had folks stand on an imaginary map of Kentucky. People began by standing (roughly) where they grew up. Then, Savannah directed folks to move to the place on the “map” where they live now. Overwhelmingly, folks migrated to the spots on the map that represented Lexington and Louisville.
But not Emily Owen. Emily, who is “proudly from Western Kentucky,” recently moved east to Harlan to take on a job as an AmeriCorps VISTA. Emily shared how she found her way to PMSS:
“I first found out about PMSS when RUX had a weekend there in July of 2016. I immediately fell in love with the entire area and knew that I had to get here somehow.”
As the sustainability/agriculture VISTA, Emily hopes to make the most of her one service term at PMSS:
“One of the things that I hope to accomplish is [increasing] my knowledge of rural agriculture and the impact that the school’s farm has on the community. In one year we can create 300,000 pounds of food which goes to both the school and the community. A vision of mine is to see more Harlan County families eating cleaner with food either grown from their own locations or from PMSS."
My time in Harlan and at Pine Mountain Settlement School went by too quickly, but I did my best to relish in thoughtful conversations, to soak in the beauty, and to learn about how folks throughout Kentucky relate to Harlan and to PMSS. It was great to hear how people -- both from Harlan and from across the state -- see value in the work of PMSS and have vision for its future potential to do good work in the region.