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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Coming Home to Appalachia

Air Date: Week of

West Virginia poet laureate Irene McKinney and Mountain Stage's host Larry Groce give a taste of next week’s Holiday Storytelling Special about coming home to Appalachia.


CURWOOD: It’s the time of the winter solstice, and that means it’s also time for Living on Earth’s annual Holiday Storytelling special – which we’ll present on next week’s program.

This year we’ll be taking you to Appalachia, where the music and the literature often speak of the longing to get back home. The steep mountains and deep valleys of Appalachia tend to keep people from travelling much, especially in the days before the automobile came along. So, when Appalachian folk did go away for education or to find jobs, the kin back home had ambivalent feelings about that. Some scornfully called it “gettin’ above your raising…” Others simply felt the loss of close families and friends.

So, the pull to be home is especially fierce for Appalachians, and we’ll be hearing all about it next week on our holiday storytelling special. And here’s a bit of a preview. One of our guests will be Irene McKinney, West Virginia Poet Laureate and author of the new book of poems, “Vivid Companion.” Here’s one of her poems and a little bit about how she came to write it.

MCKINNEY: I’m thinking about the sort of non-eventfulness of a lot of country life here, which I find extremely agreeable and extremely conducive to human peace. And this is based on a memory of a farm next to ours.


Potts Farm, Summer 1955

Faint smells of violet, bleach, cheese.The starched doilies sagon the arms of the horsehair sofa.Aunt Floss is baking bread and laughing,clacking her false teeth.

The house breathes smoke of bitter locust,And Uncle Branch sits grinning, on and on,spitting into the fire.Night clots in the cornerwith the smoke, with the yellow pages

of books, the green and eggshell cretonne,and grandmother floats in her rockerand moves back and forth all afternoon.All afternoon, and the rinsed hazelifts from the cut grass and peonies

fleshing in clumps along the wire fence.It’s time now for the mailmanleaving in his tattered jeep.It’s time for us to call the cowswho are waiting below

in the printed mud by the pond,time for the imperceptible chaff to fall,and the hay to shift in the barn.

CURWOOD: Also joining us will be Larry Groce, host of Mountain Stage from West Virginia Public Radio. Larry’s favorite Appalachian poet is Louise McNeil Pease. And here’s Larry reading a section from her autobiography “The Milkweed Ladies.”

GROCE: Louise was the Poet Laureate for many years before Irene. And Irene certainly has taken up the torch in a great way; she knew Louise very well, also. I first heard her when I came to West Virginia. The first year I came I read one of her poems and really kind of fell in love with her whole spirit. And this is one of the few prose things she wrote. She was basically a poet, but this is about her life as a young girl in Pocahontas County, which is right in the heart of West Virginia, one of the most remote counties, and it has the highest average elevation of any place east of the Mississippi River. And this is the very last chapter of this book called “Milkweed Ladies,” which was, as I say, her memoir, kind of her girlhood, and then later.


“After I left the farm, I often felt as I had when I used to plumb the depth of water as a child. In summer, after every big rainstorm, a flood would come, and our tiny cow-spring trickle would become a roaring stream that flowed foamy and green over the leaning grasses. I would go out barefoot in the early morning with a long straight pole; and with my dress tied up above my knees I would wade along the shallows to measure the deep holes. I felt my way out into the current and walked slowly upstream, my feet and legs stinging with the cold. As I walked on and on up through the wild morning, I would become John Ridd of “Lorna Doone” with his trident, walking up the spate of Doone Valley. Then the mountains would come dark and close around me. I walked until I could feel the black danger and death in it. As I am walking still. For you walk to death, don’t you? Because you cannot ride.

Aunt Malindy told me that old women in the night can see; and now that I am old and often cannot sleep at night, I see pictures in the dark. I close my eyes and long-ago pictures float before me, all in color and shadow, framed in the soft fog of the years. Most often, I seem to be standing in our yard at home and looking in through the ‘big room’ window, and we’re all there together in the firelight. G.D., my brother Ward, Uncle Dock, and Cousin Rush are by the fireplace spitting and smoking and talking about Over the Mountain; and I am there myself, listening. Farther back from the fire, Mama is peeling apples; Granny Fanny is winding her hanks of wool, and her old gargoyle clock is ticking. Elizabeth is holding Little Jim on her lap, and Aunt Malindy sits in the rocker in her fat black sateen dress, her hands folded in perfect content. Up above us, the picture of Captain Jim hangs on the wall.

I can see all this before me in the night, and then it fades away and I see my brother Young Jim, now 69 years old, still farming our land, sowing lime by helicopter over Bridger’s Gap. Or I see Blix, Jim’s and Annabelle’s son; and then Blix’s only son, Little Jamie, nine years old, who sometimes helps his grandfather turn out the coral rocks or wrestle big bales of hay up into the barn that was once our faded cottage. Sometimes I see my hepatica rock, with the walking fern and maidenhair; or my white calf named Lily. Sometimes I can see Clarence Smith, our funeral director, looking down at G.D.’s grave and saying, ‘Many a lame dog did this man help over the stile’.”




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