Central to honor Bill Nickle, founder of environmental community

Sandra ClarkFountain City

Four worthy Bobcats will be honored at the 16th annual Central High School Wall of Fame Banquet at 6 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 9, in the commons at Gresham Middle School, 500 Gresham Road. The event will feature a video of the honorees: Conrad L. Majors Jr., the late Hazel Ogg Costa, Dr. Bob Collier (CHS 1957) and the Rev. Bill Nickle (CHS 1957). Tickets are $25 and are available at the CHS office and from CHS Alumni and Foundation representatives. Info: R. Larry Smith, 865-922-5433, or Courtney Shea at courtshea@aol.com.


In late September, Narrow Ridge Earth Literacy Center hosts “Hogskin History Day” in Grainger County just off of Hogskin Valley Road. It is a celebration of local music, storytelling, crafts, cake walks, and homemade ice cream. Leading the tours of the hundreds of acres, the Natural Burial Preserve and the straw bale constructed homes, is Bill Nickle, the gentle visionary who founded this community and environmental education center. This 1957 Central High graduate will be honored for his work in environmental education, and innovative community development at a “Wall of Fame” banquet on Thursday Nov. 9.

Born on a farm in Knox County’s Pleasant Ridge community, William Edwin Nickle was the youngest child of Louis and Lillian Hough Nickle. His father was a partner in the Herbert & Nickle Furniture Company which operated in Knoxville for 71 years. After attending Pleasant Ridge Grammar School, he started at Central High School. He cites the leadership and discipline of Central band leader O’dell Willis as an important influence in his years at Central. He played the cornet in the Central Band all four years.

English teacher Julia Stewart introduced Nickle to the classic book “Walden” by Henry David Thoreau. Thoreau’s philosophy of a life lived deliberately in community with nature appealed strongly to the thoughtful young student.

Bill Nickle

After graduation, Nickle attended the University of Tennessee, then transferred to Emory and Henry in Virginia. He received his bachelor’s degree in 1961, and attended seminary at Duke University, receiving his master’s of divinity in 1964. He returned to the Knoxville area in 1972 and, for a time, the family lived at 1530 Highland Avenue, next door to the Jubilee Center. One of Jack Neely’s Metro Pulse columns tells the story of his discovery, there, of an old stone, later identified as a dedicatory marble for a Knoxville orphanage, the Ellen Beck Home.

Nickle’s calling to youth ministry and environmental education led to his purchase of 40 acres in Grainger County. After residing in Grainger County for several years, another opportunity arose to work with youth in the outdoors. From 1980-89, he was the director of Wesley Woods camp in Townsend, Tennessee, expanding the summer programs and facilities to include year-round educational programs for youth of all backgrounds and abilities.

His vision of a spiritual community in tune with nature continued to call to him. Early in the 1990s Nickle made the acquaintance of McGregor Smith. Mac Smith had founded an Earth Ethics Institute at Miami Dade College, and the two collaborated on a vision of related institutions seeking to teach and practice “Earth Literacy.”

Nickle founded the Narrow Ridge Earth Literacy Center “to study, teach and demonstrate a theological way of sustainable living.” His farm served as the original site of “Narrow Ridge,” a term borrowed from the Jewish theologian Martin Buber to refer to the sacred relationship between the “I” and the “Thou.” Nickle describes this journey as uncertain. “To walk the Narrow Ridge is a tenuous path, we cannot stay on it easily. It requires great care and humility: too much effort, we can fall off, too little humility, we can also fall off. It is a lifelong practice.”

Slowly the community grew: in 1996, a strawbale lodge was constructed with spectacular views of Hogskin Valley and Clinch Mountain, featuring composting toilets and solar power. Groups could now be accommodated in the lodge and the educational programs offered by Narrow Ridge expanded. An important benefactor was Mike Wilburn, a park ranger who used an unexpected bequest to gift Narrow Ridge resources to acquire an additional 120 acres. In 1996, Nickle led his first “Vision Fast,” a multi-day guided spiritual quest. From 2000-03, Nickle took off from work at Narrow Ridge to spearhead The Earth Lab at the Gray Center in Mississippi.

In the last 10 years, the educational component and the footprint of Narrow Ridge has greatly expanded. Narrow Ridge now encompasses more than 500 acres with restricted development designed to preserve the natural attributes of the land. Participation has grown to more than 40 leaseholds and a strong community of supporters.

Under the current leadership of its executive director, Mitzi Wood-Von Mizener, Narrow Ridge works with colleges to develop credit and non-credit programs.

Workshops are typically experiential and may include residence in and tours of sustainable dwellings, day and night hikes, organic gardening, environmental films, field trips to a mountain-top removal site, and vegetarian cooking instruction.

Wood-Von Mizener writes that, “at Narrow Ridge we seek to offer opportunities to reconnect with nature. It is amazing how a few days of slowing down, breathing fresh air, listening to birdsong or gazing at the stars (in other words, paying attention) can refresh the soul and help us to better understand our relationship with the rest of the natural world.”

Because of Nickle’s connection with Miami Dade College through Mac Smith, students from flat, urban South Florida regularly immerse themselves in a rural Appalachian experience.

My experience at Narrow Ridge helped me to realize that I have been missing out on nature my whole life,” one student wrote. Another stated that “My time at Narrow Ridge was not only a lot of fun but was also a lesson in realizing the deep and important interconnectedness between people, other beings and Earth.”

Other universities, high school students, corporations, non-profits and individuals come to Narrow Ridge as a retreat, as a hands-on experience in what it means to live “green,” and just for the fun of music gatherings and seasonal celebrations. Nickle still actively teaches programs, co-leads the “Vision Fast,” and can often be found leading tours of the innovative structures of Narrow Ridge, the land trusts and the Natural Burial Preserve, describing the history and philosophy of this unique community. He received an award from the federal Southern Appalachian Man and Biosphere Program for his work at Narrow Ridge including its publications of three books on the environment.

Bill Nickle is still in close touch with his Central High classmate Dr. Bob Collier and will write the forward to Collier’s upcoming collection of writings about the natural world of Appalachia. Nickle has two children, Johnnie and Noel, and two grandchildren, Emily and Luke. Grandson Luke Haaksma is an accomplished pianist who has performed several times in the Knoxville area.

(Note: This article was written by Courtney Shea.)

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