Narrow Ridge Earth Literacy Center by Courtney Shea

The dream of Narrow Ridge started in the late 1960s and began to approach a reality in 1972 when founder Bill Nickle purchased 40 acres of steep mountain land in the Hogskin Valley area of Grainger County, Tennessee.  With roots in the philosophy of Martin Buber and others, Bill’s initial vision was based on his intuition that the natural world provided opportunities for healing and restoration for which there was significant need in the wake of the Vietnam War.

After nearly a decade of working to establish Narrow Ridge, finances and life put this dream on hold; but Bill returned to the dream and to Hogskin Valley in 1990 after a chance meeting with McGregor (Mac) Smith (founder of the Earth Ethics Institute in Florida) at a workshop in Lake Junaluska, North Carolina. Mac introduced Bill to a new way of thinking called “Earth literacy” which drew from the work of Thomas Berry and emphasized the human’s kinship with all of existence and the importance of immersion in the natural world for gaining a deep understanding of our place within it. Bill chartered Narrow Ridge for the second time in 1991 with an expanded mission of providing experiential learning in Earth literacy based on the cornerstones of community, sustainability, and spirituality.

With the financial support of McGregor Smith, philanthropist Michael Wilburn, and countless others, Narrow Ridge now holds 550 acres in conservation including four community land trusts, 150+ acres of wilderness, an organic garden and orchard, eco-rental and learning facilities, and a Natural Burial Preserve.

At the core of the Narrow Ridge mission are its Earth Literacy programs which combine immersion in nature with sustainable living experiences.  Narrow Ridge has worked with numerous universities to provide experiential learning for students in ecology, sustainability and Earth literacy.  Program participants take up temporary residence in Narrow Ridge’s solar powered, Strawbale Lodge; share meals and household chores; take part in day and night hikes; tour eco-homes and buildings; engage in organic gardening, natural building and/or other service learning activities; and delve into environmental issues of mountaintop removal, conscious consumerism, bioregionalism, and sustainable agriculture and diet.

A college professor who brought a group of university students to Narrow Ridge for a week-long program described the enhancement of students’ connections with each other and nature:

I watched these students find healing in the woods of Hogskin Valley . . . [t]hey cared less and less about their iPhones and spent more and more time sharing stories with one another . . . 

Another program, the Vision Fast, offers a guided experience for persons seeking clarity and peace about life directions.  Participants prepare for two and a half days, spend three days and nights fasting alone in a mountain wilderness setting, completing the experience with two and a half days of processing, including a sweat lodge ceremony.  You can hear Bill talk about “Walking the Narrow Ridge” (a beautiful, exceptional video):


For more information about Narrow Ridge and its programs, events, eco-lodging, homesites, and Natural Burial Preserve, visit the website at or call 865-497-2753.


**Featured image courtesy of Narrow Ridge Earth Literacy Center

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