Appalachia: The region has a history and a reputationmuch
of it shaped by outsiders. Rethinking, restoring and respecting
both history and resources are the three R’s of the life work of
Father Al Fritsch, Ph.D. From a simple green house in Kentucky,
the Jesuit priest directs Appalachia-Science in the Public Interest
Father Al puts on no more airs than his central headquarters does.
From this modest house with a big purpose, the 69-year-old scientist
in a plaid shirt and jeans joins a staff of 12 (most part-time)
in making daily connections between his regional neighbors, his
knowledge and his faith. Connecting any two of those counts as success.
Father Al can count 25 years of successes.
Last fall, St. Anthony Messenger turned off one of the nation’s
busiest highways to consider a road less traveled. Mt. Vernon, Kentucky,
isn’t far from the freeway, really, though the traffic does taper
off quite a bit. While Interstate 75 whisks lots of travelers past
some of the nation’s richest environmental treasures, Appalachia-Science
in the Public Interest has settled into assist in environmental
and economic preservation, recovery and renewal.
From the Mt. Vernon headquarters, at the Livingston, Kentucky,
demonstration siteand on farms, in forests, gardens and homesgood
and simple progress in solving Appalachia’s environmental challenges
has been made.
“What we bring is compassion to everyone,” says Father Fritsch.
“We also bring an awareness that the world is bigger than this place.
That’s what catholic means.” This worldview has taken ASPI
staff to Haiti, Peru and the Dominican Republic, where harnessing
the sun’s energy has enriched lives. The Central Appalachian region,
the bioregion where ASPI is based, includes eastern Kentucky, eastern
Tennessee, West Virginia, western Virginia and western North Carolina.
To Al Fritsch, demonstration doesn’t imply civil protest but rather
living in healthy ways that can be imitated by the average citizenAppalachian
or international. Appalachia-Science in the Public Interest demonstrates
every day the value of solar energy, the fruitfulness of the land
and the possibilities of connecting technology and science in ways
that serve Appalachia’s residents. When they harness the power and
knowledge ASPI makes available, the whole earth is well served.
Father Al has written on the theology of the earth and the healing
of the earth. He finds his own personal authority to witness in
“having witnessed wounded creatures in a wounded environment.” He
says tillers of the earth are “few in words, mighty in deeds, patient
in waiting.” He has tilled for 25 years and more, and couches his
conversation in measurable changes and ongoing advocacy.
Evolution of a Strategy
Cisterns, composting toilets and solar energy are hardly the stuff
of poetryor literary prose. But their everyday usefulness
makes them integral to ASPI’s mission. Good management of water,
waste and energy at ASPI sitesand the know-how to “do it yourself”is
what Father Al’s brainchild provides in plenty.
The Fritsch family has its roots in Maysville, Kentucky. Al was
born on a farm and earned his doctorate in chemistry. Then he studied
theologyduring the troubling times of Vietnam, which also
saw the birth of the environmental movement. He belongs to the Chicago
province of the Society of Jesus, which encompasses a wide swath
As a Jesuit, he became an environmental consultant at Ralph Nader’s
Center for the Study of Responsive Law in Washington, D.C., and
felt inspired to begin a parallel center for the study of responsive
Father Al helped to found the Center for Science in the Public
Interest in Washington, D.C., in 1971. While CSPI now focuses on
food and nutrition issues, it addressed a wider range of environmental
causes at its inception.
Father Al concerned himself with energy issues, especially nonrenewable
energy sources such as coal. He soon saw the irony of conducting
his studies in, as he observes, “one of the richest areas in the
United States.” He was far from any strip mines and equally distant
from the daily challenges of energy production and consumption.
Why not, he thought, tackle practical, renewable-energy
projects in a place where people have to work hard to keep
their houses warm in winter? Rockcastle County, Kentucky,
became home to ASPI on April 17, 1977.
It is one of the most accessible places in Appalachia, and within
one day’s drive of half the United States’ population. This makes
it a good hub for demonstrating sustainability, which is defined
as self-sufficient, simple living with minimal reliance on outside
fossil fuels and food.
Sustainability is Father Al’s scientific credo. He already “knew
the treasure” of Appalachia, and now he was hometo stay, to
empower, to confront, to facilitate, to demonstrate.
Hitch Your Future to the Sun
Solar energyfrom 1980 onwardis a principal project
at ASPI. I had hardly gotten in one door when I was ushered out
another to meet youthful Joshua Bills and his solar-powered car.
If automakers’ messages about exterior beauty and interior comfort
have been believed, Bills’s car may not impress. It’s a recycled
1988 Mitsubishi/ Dodge Colt.
Here’s what excites: This car makes no noise. It uses no oil, no
coolant, no spark plugs. Unless it’s moving, this car uses no energy.
Under the hood are eight batteries. Twelve more are stashed in the
trunk, whose exterior sports a 20-watt solar panel to power the
car’s electrical accessories, after the manner of an alternator.
Electrical power is gathered from solar collectors on a carport
attached to ASPI headquarters. The car conversion cost $6,000. The
cost of using it is less than $2 a month!
Of course, this solar-powered car can’t go far. Eighty miles uses
about all the energy its many batteries can storeand it takes
nine hours to recharge fully.
This doesn’t put Joshua off: “It’s a commuter car.” His excitementand
Father Al’sis hard to resist. There’s plenty more renewable
energy where the Colt’s comes fromand Joshua Bills and Al
Fritsch have designs on it. The months-old Kentucky Million Solar
Roofs Initiative is federally funded, headed by Bills and housed
at ASPI. It’s in the right place, since the recycled parish hall
now boasts a solar greenhouse on its south side, and a 1,500-watt
solar electric system.
On March 15, after five months of negotiations with Kentucky Public
Service Commission, ASPI was finally allowed to connect its solar-powered
system to Kentucky Utility Company’s electric grid. That day, Father
Al reports, the meter stopped and then began to run backwards, adding
to the electric grid rather than depleting it.
Bills reports that ASPI’s electric bill is down by 50 percent and
the meter runs backwards on sunny daysdoubling the center’s
delight in sunshine. This Kentucky first is an inspiration to the
55 Solar Initiative supporters already signed on. Bills and his
Jesuit colleague expect many more to sign on now.
Asked about his collaboration with Father Al, Bills says, “He’s
amazing! His personal energy is inexhaustible.” The much younger
Bills suspects that Father Al may be often frustrated by the inability
of others to keep up his pace.
ASPI staff members demonstrate other solar applications as well:
food dryers, water heaters, solar photovoltaic electrical applications
and solar greenhouses. The green house has a greenhouse, which harnesses
the sun to raise out-of-season carrots, garlic, Swiss chard and
herbs. Since 1997, their raised-bed gardens, installed where pavement
once covered the soil, have yielded over seven thousand pounds of
vegetables. Al Fritsch is the gardener.
Fine Flora and Fauna
But Mt. Vernon is in town, so to speak. To experience the Central
Appalachian ecosystem in all its splendor, a trip to the ASPI Solar
Demonstration House, built in 1979 for $20,000, and the Mary E.
Fritsch Nature Center, is in order. (Mary Fritsch, Al’s mother,
was a major supporter of the building’s construction.)
Some people think Central Appalachia was either resource-poor from
the start or has been ravished of all its former beauty. The Nature
Center, built in 1991, disproves that: Two dozen varieties of native
trees can be seen right from the porch, while nearly 100 woody forest
species grow within walking distance. Biologically speaking, this
forest is mixed mesophytic, with more plant varieties than any other
temperate forest in the world. If you’re from the city, a lush,
thick, cool green umbrella of shade sums up the experience. Wildflowers
abound in the spring, as do birds, especially during spring migration.
Across the road from the forest, on the Rockcastle River bank,
ASPI will officially celebrate its 25th anniversary this June 1.
River Day, held annually since 1984, typically includes trail walks,
canoeing, camping and local musicians playing traditional instruments.
Rockcastle River was the first to have a “River Day,” but Father
Al says, “Kentucky has more rivers than any other state” except
Alaska, and now six of Kentucky’s 16 other rivers are also celebrated
in June. In fact, June is now Kentucky River Month, and conservation
campaigns to monitor and preserve this river richness are tied to
what began on the banks of the Rockcastle.
The celebration will also mark a change for Father Al. He will
be turning ASPI’s leadership over to Ben Perry. Al will be writing
and, surely, demonstrating elsewhere in Appalachia, where his roots
Encouraging Ginseng Production
If there’s ginseng growing on ASPI’s 180 acres in Livingston,
it’s unmarked except by June’s hard, green berriesand
it won’t be on the River Day tour. But a thick forest canopy is
one basic requirementand ASPI’s good stewardship has ensured
Ginseng grows all over Appalachiaexcept where the prerequisite
shade has been obliterated by overharvesting of hardwood timber.
In 1999, ASPI began the Appalachian Ginseng Foundation (AGF) with
help from several funding agencies. A publication of the foundation
calls ginseng “the silver bullet and the key to liberation of the
Appalachians from the shackles of the extractive coal, timber, oil
and wood-fiber industries.”
How so? International buyers will pay $400 a pound for mature,
wild ginseng root! Ginseng, a medicinal herb highly regarded in
Asia, is appreciated more and more in the United States for its
therapeutic uses. It’s a “lucrative source of income that does not
destroy the forest canopy,” says ASPI’s Web site (www.a-spi.org).
Wild ginseng could prove a powerful incentive not to sell those
trees or mining rights.
But poachers and overzealous harvesters must be discouraged from
decimating an already endangered species. AGF, while it neither
defends nor debates ginseng’s health benefits, is working hard to
protect, produce and market virtually wild ginseng for its contributions
to environmental and economic health in Appalachia. (ASPI is
assisting university studies on ginseng’s effectiveness in treating
Right now, AGF is focusing a lot of energy on a ginseng-marketing
system, with a possible model in the tobacco-allotment system, which
Al Fritsch calls a “good system superimposed on an unhealthy product.”
The system would not be to limit production (as with tobacco) but
to certify and protect growers. At this point, ginseng growers are
extremely secretive, because in one afternoon a single poacher could
wipe out a crop five or more years in the makingand fail to
harvest in a way that ensures future crops.
Science and History Converge
Al Fritsch’s twin dedications to his scientific and his Jesuit
roots come together in the ginseng project. It was Jesuits in China,
he points out, who noted the high respect accorded ginseng in that
nationand speculated that Canada might also be a hospitable
environment for the coveted herb.
Jesuits did indeed locate ginseng in Quebec and harvested roots
“were sold for their weight in gold” in China, Father Al reported
in National Jesuit News two years ago. In the 19th century,
China traded tea and silk for ginseng. Today, demand holds steady
since China’s ginseng-sheltering forests are fast disappearing.
ASPI lies in the heart of “the oldest and most varied temperate
hardwood forest in the world,” as Al describes it. And a Jesuit
is heavily involved in securing ginseng’s precarious place in that
forestand in the world. “My vision,” he says, “is that ginseng
will replace tobacco” as a cash crop.
Educating in Print and Video
Jesuits seem destined to be teacherswhatever their assignment.
Al Fritsch has been educating in print for decades now. Early books
from a variety of publishers range from A Theology of the Earth
to The Contrasumers: A Citizen’s Guide to Resource Conservation.
Today eight other volumes (with three or four in the works)
contribute in the realms of science, religion and government, a
range that reveals how thoroughly the Jesuit has integrated faith,
science, activism and communications.
Since 1986, ASPI has produced The Appalachian Simple Lifestyle
Calendar, with evocative black-and-white photographs of Appalachia
by Warren Brunner. The calendar provides “one-a-day” ways to practice
ASPI’s credo. The organization publishes reading materials of all
lengths and degrees of difficulty, meeting people wherever they
are on the environmental continuum. ASPI has a quarterly newsletter,
research reports, technical papers (66 since 1990), books and videos.
The videos are hosted by Father Al, interviewing and demonstrating
aspects of Earth Healing, the name of his series, which airs
first on WOBZ-TV in London, Kentucky. The videos, produced with
the help of a grant by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency,
have no glitzy production values, but they’re packed with information,
presented simply and succinctly. Recently, ASPI added a feature-length
film to its offerings, Virtually Wild Ginseng, featuring
Syl Yunker of the Appalachian Ginseng Foundation.
Some print studies are posted free at the Web site and public service
announcements air on local radio, so every medium but Hollywood
has been enlisted to communicate a message of health and integrity
for the land and people of Central Appalachia.
Partnerships for Health and Harmony
Father Al Fritsch knows how to both multiply and conserve his
own energies as well. Most of his projects have been in collaboration
with other people and other agencies. He exemplifies partnering
and sharing. He energizes and empowers others.
Asked to name his most significant contribution, he is quick to
name the Resource Assessment Service (RAS), begun by Al but now
headed by Paul Gallimore, who’s been working with RAS for years.
The service is an appraisal of all aspects of an institution’s resource
use in the light of environmental harmony and spiritual commitment.
Gallimore, who began Long Branch Environmental Education Center
in Leicester, North Carolina, 28 years ago, feels “blessed to have
worked with Al these many years.” In 1978, the two met in Atlanta
at a conference on appropriate technologies. Since they share a
passion forand a presence inAppalachia, their paths
In the past 20 years, ASPI has completed nearly 200 assessments
in 34 states. Gallimore says institutions that have completed assessments
will often follow up with technical questions or to ask how some
new development will contribute to environmental safety and health.
While the service raises money for ASPI’s other projects, Al and
Paul are proud that it also “raises respect for our region,” as
users of the service associate the name Appalachia with sensitive
and sustainable living.
No one leaves ASPI without something that endures: seeds from the
demonstration gardens, fruit gathered from the treeswhatever’s
in season is shared. Some people think it’s poor where Al Fritsch
has cast his lot. To him, the events of last September bring out
its true wealth.
In reflections written after 9/11, he observes: “The highly subsidized,
nonrenewable energy economy is simply unsustainable and cannot be
secured by any amount of military power....Tell [your children]
the world cannot continue to exist divided between the haves and
the have-nots, especially since the have-nots are realizing their
power....We need to do as much soul-searching as flag-waving.”
Father Albert J. Fritsch, S.J., has searched his own soul and demonstrates
daily what he’s learned: We can all partner to renew the earth and
we need to be about that now.
ASPI’s address is 50 Lair St., Mt. Vernon, KY 40456-9806. Phone:
606-256-0077. E-mail: email@example.com.
Web site: www.kih.net/aspi/