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Wednesday, 01 February 2012 21:56

Poetic writing by a true mountain woman

Written by 

I am the summer …

I am the firefly and the moon …

the rain on the leaves

the swamp orchids

and the blackberries.         

— Emma Bell Miles

 

In chronological order, ten of the most informative and/or entertaining books (excluding fiction, poetry and plays) devoted to southern mountain life (excluding the Cherokees) published prior to 1925 are Henry E. Colton, The Scenery of the Mountains of Western North Carolina and Northwestern South Carolina (1859); Zeigler and Grosscup The Heart of the Alleghanies (1883); Charles Dudley Warner On Horseback: A Tour of Virginia, North Carolina and Tennessee (1889); Emma Bell Miles The Spirit of the Mountains (1905); Margaret Morley The Carolina Mountains (1913); Horace Kephart Our Southern Highlanders (1913); Fess Whitaker, History of Corporal Fess Whitaker (1918); John C. Campbell, The Southern Highlander and His Homeland (1921); James Watt Raine The Land of Saddlebags (1924); and Olive Tilford Dargan, Highland Annals (1925; subsequently reissued as From My Highest Hill: Carolina Mountain Folks in 1941). Aside from Kephart’s book, for which I have editorial obligations, Miles’s The Spirit of the Mountains is the one I return to most often.    

Kay Baker Gaston’s Emma Bell Miles (Signal Mountain, Tennessee: Walden Ridge Historical Association, 1985) is based on Emma’s extensive journals and letters as well as communication with her family and friends.

When Emma was born in 1879, her family resided in Rabbit Hash, Kentucky, on the Ohio River. They moved in 1890 to the Walden Ridge area of Tennessee, where it was supposed that “a milder climate would improve her health.”

Walden Ridge is a prong of the Cumberland Plateau that extends to a point just north and west of Chattanooga. Rising above the valley of the Tennessee River, the eastern rim of the ridge overlooks the town and the river, while its western rim overlooks the bucolic Sequatchie Valley. After the Civil War the scenic ridge become a vacation get-away place similar in many regards to Highlands in North Carolina and Mentone in Alabama.  

Emma explored the woods on her pony. She began to draw and paint with great aptitude, making detailed studies of wildflowers, birds, and the wild landscape. Nature and the few magazines that made their way to the ridge top were her classrooms. Her life was mostly solitary. As an adult, she recalled how utterly lonely she had been at times as a child.

In 1901 Emma married Frank Miles, the son of a local family, as distinguished from the summertime families who used Walden Ridge as a get-away. Gaston notes that while the mountain people “maintained a cordial working relationship on the surface (they) resented the patronizing attitudes of their summer employers, while the summer visitors looked down on the natives as ignorant, primitive folk.”

Their life together was a mixed bag. On the one hand their love for one another and their children was genuine. Emma taught Frank to enjoy literature and they often read to one another. But there was also a dark side to marrying Frank. He was a man with good intentions that never quite seemed to pan out. His aspirations almost never squared with reality. Their lifestyle was not only simple … it was, on too many occasions, simply squalid. Emma’s health, never solid, was in constant decline. She died on the morning of March 19, 1919, from pulmonary tuberculosis in a hastily rented house far below the ridge top that she loved so well.  

Her biographer concluded: “Through all her trials, Emma was sustained by the belief that nothing real is ever lost. To look for her, you must go to the woods, the only place she was ever truly at home. There her voice is echoed in the pure song of the woodthrush. Her spirit lingers among the delicate blossoms of mountain laurel growing thick along Marshall Creek, and in the pink perfection of a moccasin flower beside a woodland path.” She can be found everywhere in nature, in the woods all over the world:    

The Spirit of the Mountain was published by James Pott & Co. of New York in an edition of 500 copies. Few of these sold and the publisher donated the unsold copies to Emma. Copies of the first edition are now, of course, exceedingly rare; however, the book was reissued in 1975 in a facsimile edition by the University of Tennessee Press that is still in print.  

I recommend The Spirit of the Mountains to you. By way of closing here are a few lines from the conclusion to Chapter III (“Cabin Homes”) that I re-read from time to time:

“Dear common things. Memories of hours of spiritual exaltation do not cling to the heart like the mere smells of hot meadows, of rain-wet plowed land, of barn lofts and kitchen corners. No mental awakening of adolescence weaves so close a raiment for the spirit in the after-years as the musk of mother’s hair, the softness of her worn old apron and shawl. No literature can knit itself into our real being like the drowsy afternoons at home when nothing could have happened at all — the ceaseless blinking of the poplar leaves, the croon of chickens in the hot dust under the honeysuckles. For to those who are true home-lovers, home lies mostly in the kitchen and back yard. Oh, the poignant sweetness, the infinite pathos of common things.”

George Ellison wrote the biographical introductions for the reissues of two Appalachian classics: Horace Kephart’s Our Southern Highlanders and James Mooney’s History, Myths, and Sacred Formulas of the Cherokees. In June 2005, a selection of his Back Then columns was published by The History Press in Charleston as Mountain Passages: Natural and Cultural History of Western North Carolina and the Great Smoky Mountains. Readers can contact him at P.O. Box 1262, Bryson City, N.C., 28713, or at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .

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