Tending the Commons: Folklife and Landscape in Southern West Virginia is based on the American Folklife Center's Coal River Folklife Project (1992-99). The project documents traditional uses of the mountains in Southern West Virginia's Big Coal River Valley. Functioning as a de facto commons, the mountains have supported a way of life that for many generations has entailed hunting, gathering, and subsistence gardening, as well as coal mining and timbering. This commons, articulated through stories, place names, artifacts, and seasonal practices, powerfully evokes collective memory and anchors community life. The commons is situated in what is known as the mixed mesophytic forest, a temperate-zone hardwood system unrivaled for its biological diversity. Consequently it supports an unusually diverse seasonal round of activities. This online collection includes extensive interviews on native forest species and the seasonal round of traditional harvesting (including spring greens; summer berries and fish; and fall nuts, roots such as ginseng, fruits, and game), as well as documentation of community cultural events such as storytelling, baptisms in the river, cemetery customs, and the spring "ramp" feasts using the region's native wild leek.
The Coal River Folklife Collection (AFC 1999/008) consists of approximately 253 hours of audio recordings (on 203 cassette tapes), 8,431 still photographs (8,320 35-mm color slides and 111 black-and-white prints), 12 hours of moving images (6 Hi-8 video tapes), and 6.25 linear feet of print material including administrative correspondence, photo and recording logs, tape transcriptions, field notes, maps, publications, and ephemera. All this material, together with a complete project inventory, is available to researchers in the American Folklife Center's Folklife Reading Room at the Library of Congress.
The online presentation provides access to digital audio files for 718 interview excerpts, 1,256 still photographs, 10 manuscripts, and seven interpretive essays.