Glancing at A Thousand Mornings

My family decided to take a walk on Winter Solstice through the woods at our local library. Afterwards we went into the library to check out a couple of movies and new books. A small gray book caught my eye. It was titled "A Thousand Mornings" by Mary Oliver. 

As we approach the thousand day mark for almost one thousand families living on bottled water in North Carolina due to coal ash contamination, I could not help but wonder what words of wisdom where awaiting inside. I opened the book to this:

The Moth, The Mountains, The Rivers by Mary Oliver

Who can guess the luna's sadness who lives so briefly? Who can guess the impatience of stone longing to be ground down, to be part again of something livelier? Who can imagine in what heaviness the rivers remember their original clarity? 

Strange questions, yet I have spent worthwhile time with them. And I suggest them to you also, that your spirit grow in curiosity, that your life be richer than it is, that you bow to the earth as you feel how it is actually is, that we–so clever, and ambitious, and selfish, and unrestrained–are only one design of the moving, the vivacious many. 

These questions startled me. In my journey of coal ash advocacy, someone mentioned that we have buried the West Virginia mountains in our midst. This notion haunted me for some time and continues to today.

I grew up living just beyond my very own mountain - the Sauratown Mountains, a mountain chain frequently referred to as "Sorrow Town" Mountains that begins and ends in Stokes County. The Dan River winds throughout the "Three Sisters" and continues beyond their hem downstream into Rockingham County and gently lacing together the borders of Virginia and North Carolina before eventually greeting the ocean. The Dan is known world wide for the Dan River Spill, which happened thirty miles downstream from the Belews Creek Power Station located near our home community and in close proximity to the four corners of Stokes, Forsyth, Rockingham and Guildford Counties in the northern piedmont of North Carolina. 

My mountain was almost always in my vantage point, or just beyond a curve, where I would see the familiar face watching over me. Every drive home from school, I pointed her beauty out to my passengers. Today I do the same with my children. One of the most moving moments for me as a mother was to witness my daughter stop in her tracks to take in the mountainous landscape. 

Not long ago, I drove into Stokes County from a new direction and, for the first time, saw a different angle, the hanging rock, for which the State Park was named. The mountain's face sharply defied gravity in a way I had never seen before. I gasped in the break of the curve. Our mountain range is a state treasure, which is visited far and wide from people all over the country. While living in Chapel Hill, I would meet people from Florida, who were on there way to visit Hanging Rock.

Yet other states have flattened their mountains. They were ground up to be something more livelier. This includes North Carolina's energy, as I type along in the arctic cold with my heat blaring. Their mountains became my binge Netflix series, a dinner for my family of four, a night at the local baseball stadium, and many more lively events. Yet the remains of their mountains were left unnoticed for decades sitting dangerously close to our rivers, buried in our water tables, lurking into well water and seeping into our bodies.

But we know better now, as Amy Brown, a mother living on bottled water repeats to all who will listen. Let's do better now.

What does doing better mean? How can we start? When will life return to normal for so many families drowning in fatigue? 

I feel the collective sorrow from all of the years of loss we have witnessed and experienced. Yet...

I could not imagine the sorrow of losing my mountain.
I could not imagine the sorrow of not being able to use water from my faucet.
I could not imagine the sorrow of not having clean water for my livestock. 
I could not imagine the sorrow of living in a home full of bottled water that acts as furniture.
I could not imagine the sorrow of wrestling with thousands of empty water bottles as a way of life. 
I could not imagine the sorrow of not knowing when clean water will ever return. 
I could not imagine the sorrow of wanting to wake up from the nightmare of water insecurity. 
I could not imagine the sorrow of feeling like I have absolutely no control over my life. 

Sorrow and strange questions like Mary Oliver's guided me here today. Still there are so many questions that remain unanswered. I trust that just by asking them, wisdom will guide us forward.

May we resurrect the mountains in our midst. 

Show Your Support for NC Citizens Living on Bottled Water for #1000days

Hear more from Mary Oliver in an NPR interview about A Thousand Mornings



Double Headline News!

Yesterday was an exciting day to wake up to not one, but two front page stories in my now local and childhood local newspapers, respectively!

A couple of weeks ago, Greensboro News & Record's Taft Wireback joined Dr. Shivakumar, Wade and I for an interview in Shivakumar's office.


As we shared the history of our collaboration, it began to feel like one of our actual meetings. Beginning in early 2016, I have met with Shivakumar and Wade to share ideas and updates about our work every six to eight weeks. We generally meet for roughly an hour and fifteen minutes to talk. The last fifteen minutes always feel like the most productive. By the end of our interview, I shared my next steps and the first molds that I plan to create and discussed how they will build on one another. 

I found this time frame to be true for all collaboration through my coal ash work. You have to be willing to talk to others on the phone for quite a while. Something always seems to arise in the end. 

I was particularly moved by our meeting, because it was Taft's original article about Shivakumar's EcoCore in August 2014 that moved me to contact him in February 2016. I remember reading the article on my phone as part of my daily headline updates. We were well into our organizing at that point. I kept thinking over the next eighteen months that surely something was happening with their research. Finally I sent an email to find out after being prompted by a meditation in my Call Class at Holy Trinity's Servant Leadership program, as described in Lisa Sorg's post

And the rest is front page news! Above the fold, my dad exclaimed!


We spent the day in Winston getting haircuts and running errands. The article's placement was perfect timing! We ran into old friends so excited to see the news and share it with others. This picture was taken at the local Mt. Tabor Barber Shop


"A North Carolina artist wants to create lilies in a field of coal ash", by Taft WirebackGreensboro News & Record, December 26th, 2017.

Also Reprinted in: 
Winston-Salem Journal 
The Roanoke Times
Omaha World-Herald

N.C. A&T RESEARCHERS FIND USE FOR COAL ASH, by Taft WirebackGreensboro News & Record, JUNE 14, 2014



When Life Hands You Coal Ash

Thank you to Lisa Sorg for this great blog post "When life gives you coal ash, make coal ash art," on NC Policy Watch.

I had spoken with Lisa earlier in the fall about Duke Energy's recent release of the local inundation maps. Prior to Southern Environmental Law Center's lawsuit, local communities had to sign confidentiality agreements to receive the inundation maps. This was illegal. So once the maps were released, I was pretty horrified. No wonder Duke wanted to keep them a secret. 

The ash would reach the first home in 31 minutes from a break and spread all the way to Stoneville, thirty miles downstream. Unlike the Dan River Spill, which was completely contained in the Dan River, this spill would flood outside of the same river's banks, demolishing an estimated eighty-eight structures. The inundation maps are so large, because of the length of the expected spill. So it is hard to see exactly what will happen with the coal ash moving upstream to upper Old Town Road. Since lower Old Town Road will be inundated. How long will community members be trapped? And will the spill demolish the prized wetland sewer system and the electrical grid at the based of 2nd Street near Walnut Cove?

Brian Booe, Fire Marshall of Stokes County, went on to share that local community members need to keep three days worth of supplies on hand before expecting emergency relief to reach them. 

I was left with a lot of additional questions. 

So it was nice to have a more light-hearted conversation about meditation, art and hope in a particularly overwhelming situation. Thank you, Lisa. 

When we very first organized around coal ash as part of The Friends of St. Phillip's in late 2012, we were mainly concerned with what would happen during a flood. We would love to see evacuation signs posted and plans disseminated to #coalashneighbors. It is a dark, curvy, rural community. How would one see what they were driving into.

We pray that this will never come to pass. 

"When life gives you coal ash, make coal ash art," by Lisa SorgThe Progressive PulseNC Policy Watch, December 11, 2017.

"To get Duke Energy flood maps near coal ash basins, local governments had to sign confidentiality agreements," by Lisa SorgThe Progressive PulseNC Policy Watch, September 20, 2017.


Talking with Keri Brown at WFDD

Thank you to Keri Brown for taking time to meet with me on Tuesday morning. It is always great to meet with Keri and to share her passion about environmental causes. She has won two Edward R. Murrow Award related to her stories on coal ash - one for the Dan River Spill and a second profiling Belews Creek

Turning Coal Ash Into Public Art

Caroline Armijo looks at composite building material made out of coal ash. She is partnering with North Carolina A&T State University and other organizations to create public art with coal ash in Stokes County. Keri Brown/WFDD

A local artist is using her talents to create a new public art display in Stokes County.

Caroline Armijo recently won a $350 thousand grant from ArtPlace America’s National Creative Placemaking Fund to install her designs in Walnut Cove, near Duke Energy’s Belews Creek coal ash pond. Armijo has partnered with scientists at North Carolina A&T State University to recycle the waste and now she’s making art out of it. It’s called The Lilies Project.

“The sculpture itself will be the centerpiece,” says Armijo. “It could be a gateway with the lilies above or it may be a freestanding sculpture, so the actual design has not been determined, but I’m hoping it can be a warm and inviting place where people can share stories and come with their kids.”

Armijo says the project also includes collecting oral histories of residents who have been affected by coal ash. The information will be used to create a walking tour and original performance.

The artwork will have to be installed by the end of June 2020, according to the grant. Several community workshops will be held in the coming months to discuss where in Walnut Cove the artwork will be located.

Armijo says the project will also be a tribute to the arts heritage in Stokes County.

“The name of the project was inspired from the movie Lilies of the Field,” says Armijo. Jester Hairston, born in Belews Creek, wrote the music "Amen" for that film, which is the first movie for which an African-American won an Academy Award. "Hairston is a world-known composer and actor, and I wanted to somehow honor him.”

There are around 20 million tons of coal ash at the Belews Creek Steam Station. Armijo says she isn’t sure how much of the ash will be used in her art project, but she hopes it will draw more attention to other recycling possibilities and cleaning up the site.

*Follow WFDD’s Keri Brown on Twitter @kerib_news

Listen here

Caroline Rutledge Armijo receives funding from ArtPlace America’s 2017 National Creative Placemaking Fund

$8.7 million in funding invested in 23 projects

(December 5, 2017) Today, ArtPlace America announced that Caroline Rutledge Armijo has been chosen from nearly a thousand applications to receive funding through its 2017 National Creative Placemaking Fund. 

ArtPlace received 987 applications in 2017, from which 70 finalists were selected and The Lilies Project is one of only 23 projects that will receive funding this year.  ArtPlace has a deep commitment to investing in rural America, with almost 52% of this year’s funded projects working in rural communities.

ArtPlace’s National Creative Placemaking Fund is a highly competitive national program, which invests money in community development projects where artists, arts organizations, and arts and culture activity work to strengthen communities across 10 sectors of community planning and development.

Armijo’s The Lilies Project proposed using public art and public programming to address coal ash impacting her home community. Walnut Cove, NC is adjacent to Duke Energy’s Belews Creek Power Station, which houses 20 million tons of coal ash. Armijo, mixed-media artist will partner with scientists from North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University to create a series of sculptures that repurpose this hazardous waste material safely and that will become the centerpiece of a new public park. This project will also serve as a local pilot for environmental policy that can provide safer alternative for how coal ash is managed in the region. 

“This year’s investments highlight critical dimensions of creative placemaking strategy that can provide great inspiration to communities across the country.” said F. Javier Torres, Director of National Grantmaking at ArtPlace. “We are deeply excited to announce these 23 new investments as our seventh cohort of funded projects through the National Creative Placemaking Fund.”

 “Creative Placemaking seeks the full and robust integration of art and culture into the decisions that define the ebb and flow of community life. These projects embody what this looks like at its most effective,” said Rip Rapson, president and CEO of The Kresge Foundation and Chair of the ArtPlace President’s Council. “We were overwhelmed by the extraordinary commitment demonstrated in these projects - contributing to the growing understanding of creative placemaking efforts throughout the nation.”

Meet all of the 2017 funded projects here.

Learn more from ArtPlace : Caroline Armijo | ArtPlace

About Caroline Rutledge Armijo

Caroline Rutledge Armijo is a Stokes County mixed-media artist, environmental advocate and mother who lives in Greensboro, North Carolina. Her work expresses her concern for environmental justice issues threatening her home community, including coal ash and fracking. She works with Residents for Coal Ash Cleanup based at Belews Creek, NC and Alliance of Carolinians Together (ACT) against Coal Ash. Caroline is the ninth generation of her family to live in Stokes County, NC. She primarily works in book arts, collage and paper sculpture.

About ArtPlace America

ArtPlace America (ArtPlace) is a ten-year collaboration among 16 partner foundations, along with 8 federal agencies and 6 financial institutions, that works to position arts and culture as a core sector of comprehensive community planning and development in order to help strengthen the social, physical, and economic fabric of communities. 

ArtPlace focuses its work on creative placemaking, projects in which art plays an intentional and integrated role in place-based community planning and development. This brings artists, arts organizations, and artistic activity into the suite of placemaking strategies pioneered by Jane Jacobs and her colleagues, who believed that community development must be locally informed, human-centric, and holistic.

Media contact:  
Caroline Armijo                                   


Pocket Parks' Potential

I was excited to walk into this FOX8 interview last week talking about the potential for pocket parks in Downtown Greensboro, highlighting the Historic Hamburger Square. After our interview, I shared that I actually know a lot about art in parks! Many people believe that I am involved with this project. I am not currently, but would love to be. Perhaps a great site for some art made out of coal ash!

On The State of Things

Host Frank Stasio also talks with Greensboro-based artist Caroline Armijo. She is developing a public art project called “Lilies of the Field” in Walnut Cove, North Carolina that will repurpose coal ash to create large lily flower petals. She is a finalist for the ArtsPlace America’s National Creative Placemaking Fund.

Listen to Caroline's interview at 6:25.