I an isolated “holler” in northern Tennessee, Marie Cirillo, an ex-nun, has lived and worked with local people for twenty years. The rivers of the area are polluted by runoff from coal mines, and the people seem irrevocably poor. This part of Appalachia is a kind of colony, because British coal companies own much of the land. Marie Cirillo’s holler seems lost in time and chronic deprivation.
But for the past seven years, she and her neighbors have been developing a land trust, which amounts to an alternative form of local government in an area where incorporated towns are rare. The land trust marks an important change in the social organization of the region. Local people are building new structures of property holding, management, and governance. Marie Cirillo is over fifty now, and she expects to spend the rest of her working life coping with the ramifications of this venture. “It’s very complex,” she says.