By Fred Brown
Deep in the rural heart of Grainger County, where ridges and valleys define the boundaries of country roads dotted with old farms of gray board barns and homes with wrap-around porches, two UT Knoxville graduates are working to help the Earth sustain itself.
For Mitzi Wood-Von Mizener and her husband, Jason Von Mizener, this commitment to the planet is not just a walk in the woods. It is a calling connecting them to a spiritual journey that bonds them to the natural world as well.
Mitzi (Knoxville ’91) is director of the Narrow Ridge Literacy Center, and Jason (Knoxville ’91) is chief gardener and orchard keeper, a job he relishes since he also is an amateur chef. How they arrived in the hills and valleys in East Tennessee might be described as a passage, giving up the complexities of a life in Nashville for what the couple describe as a leap of faith into a much, much simpler life.
Mitzi first visited Narrow Ridge in 2005 on a vision fast, which includes fasting for three days in the mountains and then participating in a sweat-lodge ceremony “to find clarity about life.”
“I came here, and I was enamored,” Mitzi says.
Jason was a middle school history and geography teacher before moving with his wife to Narrow Ridge in 2007. Jason and Mitzi, plus those who come here for retreats, detach from the connected world of power-hungry gadgets and consumption fueled by endless consumer-driven advertising.
The nonprofit Narrow Ridge Literacy Center grew from the imagination of Bill Nickle, a United Methodist minister, to “study, teach and demonstrate sustainability” to students and others interested in reducing the size of their consumer-oriented footprint upon society.
Mitzi says that mission is still very much the same today, which is squarely balanced in learning about Earth literacy based on the three central concepts of community, sustainability and spirituality.
The center’s vision is not just words on paper. The five “eco-constructed” lodges and cabins— including a large meetinghouse, a resource center and library—and all other structures are completely off the electrical grid, with solar panels supplying power to the structures and their water systems. All of the buildings feature passive solar design with south-facing windows that allow for natural heating from the sun in winter. Other sustainable features include alternative insulation such as bales of straw and cellulose such as recycled phone books and newspapers, on-demand water heaters, hot-air collectors, rainwater collection systems and waterless composting toilets.
The Narrow Ridge 2015 calendar of events is jam-packed with gatherings, music and programs that include social ecology courses, sustainable living and alternative spring break opportunities.
“We are not sacrificing,” says Mitzi. “We can claim freedom.”