Nuns from Cincinnati, devoted to helping working mothers in the inner city, played a vital role in helping conserve nearly 400 acres of land deep in Bat Cave, North Carolina. Taking a step beyond traditional conservation, and following in the Sisters’ vision, their land today is used to teach.
The land that makes up the Hickory Nut Gorge Teaching and Research Reserve was originally purchased as a retreat for the Community of the Transfiguration, an Episcopalian community for women. After working with the Carolina Mountain Land Conservancy (CMLC), the Sisters placed the property into a permanent conservation easement in 2015.
Tom Fanslow, land protection director at CMLC, helped coordinate the deal with the Community of the Transfiguration. He said that the Sisters worked closely with the conservancy to make sure the land would not only be protected, but would also be used for the benefit of others.
“Most of the Sisters had served as teachers in their order,” said Fanslow. “They knew they wanted it to support their mission.”
Given the wishes of the Sisters, CMLC went a step beyond traditional conservation and designated most of the tract of land as a teaching and research reserve. They also set aside a small portion as a memorial to local volunteer firefighters.
“Students love that place in particular,” said Dr. J.J. Apodaca, a professor at Warren Wilson College. “It’s night and day versus a classroom.”
Apodaca is among the teachers who use the reserve to expand their classrooms. With his students, he studies endangered green salamanders in Hickory Nut Gorge.
Along with Warren Wilson, other colleges use the reserve for programs like alternative spring breaks, where students spend their week off from school learning to identify and remove invasive species. According to Fanslow, there are also plans to make the reserve accessible to elementary, middle, and high schools.
Along with the teaching reserve, the Sisters of the Community of the Transfiguration decided to set aside a small portion of their land along the road as a memorial to local volunteer firefighters.
The plot of land they chose had previously been used as an illegal dump. After cleaning it up, the Sisters, along with CMLC, wanted to give the community a reason to care for it. It took some deliberation, but they eventually settled on recognizing the area’s volunteer firefighters.
“It’s like they’re guardians there,” said Fanslow, “silently guarding the site.”