Independent Study Overview

Narratives of the Land: A Social and Environmental History of Durham 

By Mira Pickus

Academic Content Advisors: Dr. Policelli and Ms. Caruso 


         I am known around DA as the recycling girl. Every week, I coordinate and oversee advisory recycling. In addition to this environmental responsibility, I attend sustainability meetings and compost at home. I care deeply about the state of the environment and am always inspired to work around peers who feel the same. Indeed, the environmental movement is largely a youth movement, a mass of young adults fighting for their futures. American youth are tied to the land because our futures are directly connected to the environment’s health. But we are not the only ones closely tied to the land. Many farmers and Indigenous peoples have for generations fostered tight relationships with the land they live on. What can their experiences with the land teach us as we strive to save the earth? What do they think about the modern environmental movement? Can they learn from us? What can they teach us?  In this independent study, I want to discover what the history of Durham’s land — and its inhabitants — can teach us. This project will have three parts. The first will focus on  research of the land. Who owned the land when? What did they grow? Next, I will conduct interviews of individuals whose families have lived on the land for generations. And lastly, I will combine the research and interviews into a written, narrative, journalistic piece.  

Driving Questions: 

  • How do our attitudes towards the land shape how we view the modern sustainability movement? 
  • How might the history of Durham land shape a Durhamite’s view on the modern sustainability movement? 
  • How can I contextualize modern concerns about sustainability in the light of diverse perspectives about relationships to the land? 
  • Who owned the land when? How did they use the land?



Land: I have chosen two locations on which to focus my research: the Duke Farm land and Eno River land.* I have volunteered on the Duke Farm and know from speaking with them, that they are interested in uncovering the history of their land. They know that it used to be owned by the Couch family. I have found a dissertation written on the agricultural history of the Couch land, and can use this paper as well as my contacts on the Duke Farm as a launching point in this research. And although most of the Eno River is not in Durham today, I would like to research the history of the Eno River land. Specifically, I would like to better understand the legacy of the Indigenous tribes who first inhabited the land. The Eno River is a lovely place to go hiking or spend the afternoon, and people of the triangle throw around the name, the “Eno” river a lot. But who were/are the Eno? Why is the river named after them? 

To conduct this research, I have a contact at Durham Parks and Recreation who knows a lot about the history of the land she works on. Between her, and the Eno River cultural history site — I think I also have a launching point for this research. Additionally, for both pieces of land, the Forest History Society provides a plethora of resources that can be used online. They have several databases with both primary and secondary sources that chronicle the history of forests around the country — including right here in Durham and Chapel Hill. Lastly, I plan to use resources from both Duke and UNC libraries that are accessible online. 

*Note: I intend to narrow my research to one specific part of the Eno River land. I think I will start by researching the Occaneechi mountain area where the Occaneechi lived during the 1600s. 

Beginning Research Resources: 

Context: Once I have conducted my initial research on the Eno River and Duke Farm land, I will need to situate the individual histories of the lands in a broader local and national historical context. To gain local context I will use readings from the Durham history elective as well as researching on sites such as Digital Durham to find maps and photographs which add to my understanding of the time period I am looking at. Maps will prove particularly useful, as I will be able to analyze Durham’s urbanization and how that overlaps with the protection of the Eno River and Duke Farm. I will seek national context in old APUSH textbooks and academic articles from sites such as JSTOR. 

Beginning Resources: 

Interviews: After developing a full understanding of the history of the Eno River and Duke Farm land — individually and placed in broader historical context, I plan to conduct interviews with people who have lived on this land for a long time — perhaps generations. In the last 20 years, Durham has urbanized and gentrified itself, building a more expensive downtown, and welcoming a slew of New Yorkers seeking good quality of life and reasonable rent. But, what about the people who have watched this occur? What can they add to the history of the land? And what do they think about the modern sustainability movement? 

Over the summer, I have been working on a journalistic piece, collecting audio, recording interviews, and writing. I also took a non-fiction writing intensive course with Duke Center for Documentary Studies, where I learned skills such as “iterative interviewing,” and how to cultivate “cultural competency,” in interviewing. I plan to use these skills as I engage in interviews to gain a human perspective on the history of our local land. 

Writing/Vision For Final Product: 

For the final product of this independent study, I would like to produce a journalistic piece that uses the individual stories of the people I’ve interviewed to make a broader point about how the history of the land informs modern perceptions of the environment. This will be a written piece, possibly with some audio clips from the interviews interspersed within the piece to break up the text.