Spirit of the Mountains
I recently finished reading Emma Belle Miles’ Spirit of the Mountains, a book I’d bought from Ibby when she closed the Blue Lady Bookshop more than a year ago. I’m glad I waited to read it until after I attended the Franklin County Historical Society’s presentation on log cabins. Knowing a bit about cabins helped me better understand parts of the book.
For instance, in the first sentence of Chapter 1, Miles describes the meeting house: “On King’s Creek there is a log house of one large pen that is schoolhouse, church, and town hall, all in one, and thus easily the most important building in the district.”
Since I now know what a “pen” is, her sentence makes sense. Large trees were used to make the one-room multipurpose building. The length of the logs that ran continuously from one end to the other determined the length and width of that room.
Miles wrote the book in 1905 when she was 26. The version I read is a facsimile edition printed by the University of Tennessee Press (4th printing,1999). An artist as well as poet and writer, Miles straddled two cultures—Chattanooga (and other cities where her art was popular) and Walden’s Ridge, where she was the wife of mountaineer Frank Miles. Spirit of the Mountains is both a fine sociological treatise on a mountain culture and an entertaining account of daily life was life in the mountains a century ago.
On page 19, she describes where cabins are usually built:
The site of a cabin is usually chosen as near as possible to a fine spring. No other advantages will ever make up for the lack of good water. There is a strong prejudice against pumps; if a well must be dug, it is usually left open to the air, and the water is reached by means of a hooked pole which requires some skillful manipulation to prevent losing the bucket. Cisterns are considered filthy; water that has stood overnight is “dead water,” hardly fit to was one’s face in. The mountaineer takes the same pride in his water supply as the rich man his wine cellar, and is in this respect a connoisseur. None but the purest and coldest of freestone will satisfy him. . . .
The cabins I’ve seen around here—at least what remains of them—are all near a spring,
Miles writes of the hardships of mountain life, such as the lack of opportunity to bathe (pp. 21-22):
When a man has not only the living to provide, but many of his farm implements and much of his furniture—tables, chairs, axe-helves, bread-bowls, cupboards, cradles, even looms and wagons to make with the help of a few neighbors—perhaps his own shoemaking and blacksmithing to do, and certainly fuel to haul and a crop to raise—where is his time for bathing? Where, indeed, is his opportunity, when all winter the only room with a fire in it is crowded night and day?
Some of Miles’ prose reads like poetry, such as this description of morning at a farm where she often stayed overnight (pp. 25-26). Notice her attention to detail:
I hear the day begin with a twitter of birds—wrens that are building in the porch eaves, martins in their high swinging gourds, and the bluebirds whose four sky-colored eggs are hid in a hollow apple tree behind the kitchen. The moon, just peeled down to a thin shaving, has hung just over the sunset, and the night has been dark, but at last a dim light filters through the one small window, showing one by one the homely pieces of furniture and the hanks of “spun-truck” and carpet rags bunched like huge bananas on a peg on the wall. The housemother, seeing the daylight, rises, and presently the shine of a pitch-pine blaze is dancing over the rafters until it shall be “put out by the sun.” The stir of the household wakes the mother-hen that sleeps in the woodshed, and she leads forth her brood with clucking and cheeping; the housecat and her kittens set up a cry; the dogs run in and out as soon as the latch is lifted; a flood of wakening sounds pour in from front yard and tree-top; Bess and Piedy proclaim the smarting fullness of their udders as the boys open the barn door. The farm is awake.
I, who live in a modern Southern Colonial ranch— with electric lights. phone, and heat pump—will never know that kind of life, and I’m the poorer for it. The closest I came to knowing anything about real country life was a half-century ago when I visited my grandparents at their cabin.
Too many of us get false impressions of country life from TV. How did Pa Ingalls stay so clean (and clean-cut) when he did farm work? Didn’t the Walton kids ever get dirty? How did Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman, have so many fancy dresses, and why didn’t they ever get blood-stained? TV has altered our perception of what real country was—and is.
If you want to know the real country—as it existed at the turn of the century in the Appalachian Mountains, Spirit of the Mountains is a must read.