Foxfire

I am conflicted about the great American mishmash of traditions around this time of year now colloquially termed "The Holidays." On the one hand, I love a good feast, hanging with family, and some time off as much as anyone. On the other, I am depressed by the raw consumerist havoc represented by Black Friday and the gift-wrapped garbage aftermath of Christmas Day. To deal, I sometimes veer off into ranting. More constructively, I like to retreat into the comforting arms of anti-consumptive media.

My family, on both sides, has some roots in Appalachia. My paternal grandfather grew up hard in Memphis and went to college in North Carolina; my maternal grandfather grew up hard on a small farm in eastern Tennessee. I grew up pretty easy in the suburbs of Baltimore, but my mother's cooking, taste in music, and at times, her accent, retained a strong affinity for the South. We had a book on the shelf growing up, Foxfire, with an all-text cover promising coverage of topics including "hog dressing, log cabin building, moonshining . . . and other affairs of plain living." It was one of the first editions, with big type and grainy black-and-white photos. I probably read it a dozen times. 

 The Foxfire books via  Florida Hillbilly. 

The Foxfire books via Florida Hillbilly. 

The Foxfire project was started in 1966 at the Rabun Gap-Nacoochee School in Rabun County, Gerogia. This rural county is tight up against North Carolina, with an economy based on cotton textile mills (now dying out) and farming. Then, as now, it had a small, aging population and a hard-luck economy. Eliot Wigginton, a young Ivy-educated English teacher from West Virginia, found his students "hostile, bored, and rambunctious," and was looking for a way to get them writing. He sent them out to interview their elders about Appalachian folklore and traditions. The results were collected, edited, and put up in a bi-annual magazine they christened Foxfire, after a type of bio-luminescent lichen common in the mountains. 

At the time, elderly folks' memories reached back into the late 19th century, and middle-aged folks had spent their formative years mired in depression and war. The South had been an economic backwater since Reconstruction, and while the New Deal brought widespread electrification, much of the rural South was left out of the fifties consumer renaissance. My own grandfather plowed with a horse in his teens in the 1930s and didn't have indoor plumbing for most of his childhood. Young people left the mountains in search of better lives, and the keepers of the old ways had no one to transmit their traditions to. The Rabun County students stepped eagerly into the breach, and found a ready audience far beyond their hometown. 

In 1972, the articles were first anthologized into a book, simply entitled Foxfire. All work was student-produced, with editing and an introduction by Wigginton. In 1977, Wigginton moved the program into the local public high school. The project produced a book about every other year through 1986, then slowed, producing three more over the next 18 years. The writing in each one is a mixture of transcribed interviews, with attempts to accurately render speech patterns, knit together with essayistic segments. Throughout, black-and-white photographs illustrate the interview subjects and some of the processes at work. Topics in the first book (the only one I have read) included the aforementioned cabin building and moonshining as well as smoking meat, making mattresses, building chairs, preserving vegetables, and faith healing. 

 "Buck Carver Makes a Still", originally from Foxfire Foundation, via  Porter Briggs . 

"Buck Carver Makes a Still", originally from Foxfire Foundation, via Porter Briggs

Other media followed, including a series of field recordings begun in 1977 and a play produced in 1982. In 1974, students elected to use royalty funds to buy land outside of Mountain City, Georgia, to establish a folklife museum. They moved and reconstructed more than 20 log cabins and a working grist mill. All of this evolved under Wigginton's guidance as a model of constructivist pedagogy, which holds that students must create meaning through their own experiences rather than memorizing material from a teacher. These practices were compressed into eleven Core Principles, which were used to train teachers in 38 states to help their students learn through cultural journalism. All in all, it sounds an awful lot like my experience at the Rural Studio -- removed the classroom and pushed, at times uncomfortably, into an unfamiliar cultural environment dominated by deep tradition, embedded religiosity, and economic hardship. 

In 1989, to cap off a fast 20-year run, Wigginton received a MacArthur "genius" award for his work. In 1992, it all came crashing down around him, as he was convicted of child molestation stemming from an incident with a ten year-old boy on a retreat at the folklore museum. Apparently, as many as 20 other students came forward with accusations, but he was jailed on only the one charge. He spent one year in jail, resigned from the Foxfire Fund, and retreated to Florida, where he was eventually able to teach at the college level. Publishing of the books fell off, revenues dropped, investments soured, lawsuits settled out of court, and the Foxfire Foundation was forced to retrench. They cut staff, sold off some of their land, and turned archives over to Piedmont College and the University of Georgia. The program is still around today, albeit smaller. A 45th anniversary compilation volume was published in 2011.

The Foxfire books both pushed back and reinforced some of the stereotypes about Appalachian folks specifically and poor rural whites in general. Deliverance, after all, was largely filmed in Rabun County, and the faithful rendering of "hick" accents in the text tended to caricature interviewees. Surprisingly, race doesn't come up much, probably because poverty and isolation tended to keep populations segregated. But the knowledge is golden. Foxfire is a hard-earned, low-tech, time-tested, vernacular encyclopedia for sustainable living. In another way, it is a design document, like some sort of moonshine-filtered version of a Sol LeWitt piece. Slaughter hog; build fire; play out these rules and see what happens.

In our current wave of homesteading nostalgia, former survival work like raising chickens or smoking meat or pickling has been fetishized into a Pinterest-worthy marker of conspicuous consumption. Foxfire has been celebrated by many hobby farmers, and backlashed just as hard over tales of sobbing bloggers who never thought they'd have to slaughter a chicken. I don't think its creators ever intended it to be a literal instruction manual, though that's how an awful lot of survivalists have taken it.

Instead, it is a piece of once and still-living history. It tells us where we came from, so we might see where we're going. Hopefully, that's past the consumptive, fluorescent-choked present and back to a future where everyone knows how to make damn near anything.