I am interspersing the photographs with excerpts about an Appalachian grandmother from the novel River of Earth (1940) by Kentucky's poet laureate James Still (1906-2001), who lived most of his life in a log house on a creek in coal-producing Knott County, Kentucky. This is a beautiful novel that chronicles how coal mining lured men away from homesteading and into the mines. The story, as told by the son of a farmer turned miner, is remarkable for its detailing of all kinds of plants, planting, and seasons.
Mrs. Frank Henderson, taken by Doris Ulmann.
One morning Grandma said we could wait no longer for Uncle Luce. She took her grapevine walking stick and we went into the cornfield. We worked two days pulling corn from the small hoe-tended stalks. When all the runty ears were gathered, she measured them into pokes, pulling her bonnet down over her face to hide the rheumatic pain. There were sixteen bushels. 'We won't be needing the barn this time,' she said. 'We'll just sack the puny nubbins and put them in the shedroom.'
With the corn in, we waited a few days until Grandma's rheumatism had been doctored with herbs and bitter cherry-bark tea. Then there were the heavy-leaved cabbages, the cashews and sweet potatoes to be gathered. The potatoes had grown large that year. They were fat and big as squashes. Grandma crawled along the rows on her knees, digging in the baked earth with her hands. It was good to see such fine potatoes. 'When Jolly comes home he'll shore eat a bellyful,' she said.
Mountain woman with grandchild, taken by Jeffrey Potter.
'Eighteen-sixty-eight it was,' Grandmas said, and her words were small against the spring winds bellowing in the chimney top. She spread her hands close to the oak-knot fire. They were blue-veined like a giant spider's web. 'That was the year the pigeons come to Upper Flat Creek, mighty nigh taking the country.... Them pigeon-birds were worse than a plague writ in the Book,' Grandmother said. "Hit was my first married year, and Boone and me had grubbed out a homeseat on Upper Flat, hoe-planting four acres o' corn. We'd got a garden patch put in, and four bee gums working before I turned puny, setting in wait for our first-born. I'd take a peck measure outside and set me down on it where I could see the garden crap growing, and the bees fotching sweetening. There was a powerful bloom that year, as I remember, and a sight of seasoning in the ground.'
Ella Dunn, midwife and herbalist, who lived in the Ozarks and lived to be 104 years old.
Emma Dupree, an herb doctor who received the North Carolina Folk Heritage Award in 1992 and lived to be 98 years old.
Grandma wove her hands together on her knees. 'I been walking on these legs seventy-eight years,' she said. 'I'm figuring to walk a few more miles. I hain't going to set around and let rheumatiz tie 'em in a pinch knot. Hain't wear that breaks a door hinge, hit's rust.'
Two women on a porch, taken by Howard Greenberg.
'If I was stone-blind, I'd know a new season was coming,' Grandma said. ''This time o' year the rheumatiz strikes my hips. The pain sets deep and grinds. Five of my chaps was born in the spring and that might be the causing.' She took to bed for a spell, and Uncle Jolly cooked for us morning and evening.... It plagued her to lie abed, helpless. 'When spring opens,' Grandma said, 'I'll be up and doing. Three days' sun, and I'll be well enough to beat this feather tick and hang it to sweeten.'
One morning I saw a redbird sitting in a plum bush, its body as dark as a wound. 'Spring's a winding,' I told Grandma. 'Coming now for shore.'
'Even come spring,' Grandma said, 'we've got a passel of chills to endure: dogwood winter, redbud, service, foxgrape, blackberry.... There must be seven winters, by count. A chilly snap for every time of bloom.'
You may also want to see:
Maude Callen (1898-1990)
The Trees by Conrad Richter
Lamb in His Bosom by Caroline Miller
Housekeeping in The Fields