This post was written by Trey Smith, the Library of Congress 2015-16 Science Teacher in Residence.
Individually and collectively humans exert both positive and negative influences on Earth’s systems. Teachers and students studying the interactions among Earth’s atmosphere, hydrosphere, geosphere, and biosphere and related human activity can explore images, manuscripts, and recorded oral history interviews from the Coal River community in West Virginia. The Coal River Folklife Collection includes 718 sound clips, 1,256 photographs, and 10 manuscripts collected and curated by the Library’s American Folklife Center between 1992 and 1999. The collection provides a nuanced and necessary look at how agriculture, industry, and everyday human activity impact Earth’s systems.
Begin a series of lessons or a unit on human interactions with Earth’s systems by facilitating a student-driven analysis of a photo showing a stretch of the Coal River watershed. Students might notice the shape of the land and visible presence of human activity. Students might wonder:
- Where and when was this photo taken?
- What geologic processes gave the land its shape?
- Why are the human-created structures located where they are?
Students may notice and wonder about the atmospheric haze in the photo. Provide them with the bibliographic record to spur conversation and elicit further questions.
Using a gallery walk or jigsaw method, share additional primary sources with students.
- Photos show residents fishing in the Coal River and building fires alongside the bank.
- Aerial photos reveal mountaintop removal and reclamation landscapes.
- A resident describes the decline of species in the area.
- An interview with an environmental official explains regulating acid mine drainage.
- A photo shows a contractor logging yellow poplar.
As students analyze each item, ask them to consider both the positive and negative aspects of human interactions with the environment.
- What cause and effect relationships are present?
- Are the interactions sustainable? Transformative?
Facilitate conversation amongst students that explores multiple perspectives. Essays written by the collection creators emphasize that the issues related to human interactions with the Coal River watershed are complex. For instance, the collection illuminates the practices and history of ginseng harvesting in the region.
The collection also highlights community efforts to respond to changes in the environment due to human activity.
- Participants in the Appalachia Forest Action Project study the distribution of older growth trees, plot the trees on maps, and compile a report on forest health.
- Community members clean up a creak.
- Residents brainstorm goals for Coal River Mountain Watch.
- Environmental officials plan for reclamation and post-mining land use.
Human and environmental health are common themes throughout the items in the collection. Community action and citizen science efforts documented in the collection provide models for students interested in documenting and addressing issues in their own communities. Students, for instance, might consider collecting oral history interviews as part of an exploration of how humans interact with the local environment. Student analysis of primary sources from the Coal River community and artifacts from their own communities can reveal the varied ways in which humans impact Earth’s systems.
As you explore the collection, what other stories about humans and the environment do you see?