The Mountain Laurel
The Journal of Mountain Life

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from the
Heart of the Blue Ridge

River Of Earth, An excerpt from

By James Still © 1985

Issue: July, 1985

About The Author

James Still was born into a family of eleven children in Lafayette, Alabama, but when he came to Kentucky in 1932 to attend a summer recreational program, he knew he had found his home.

Today he still resides at Wolf Pen Creek in Knott County, Kentucky and is an active lecturer, based at the Hindman Settlement School where he serves as librarian. He was the writer in residence for 14 years at Morehead State University in Kentucky teaching English, literature and writing courses. He has two Master's degrees - one from Vanderbilt University and one from the University of Illinois.

James Still's book "RIVER OF EARTH" was first published in 1940, and yet its words are ageless. It speaks just as clearly to a reader's heart today as though the words just flowed from James Still's pen - just flowed from the mountains and mountain people. It is a book with feeling, full of emotions and people who face life square on every single day in a fight for both physical and emotional survival.

The first excerpt from "RIVER OF EARTH" we have printed is describing the title of the book and is taken from the sermon of a circuit preacher. Next follows one story from the book that we thought you would enjoy.

We are very grateful to James Still for granting us permission to share this part of his book with you. For those of you who would like to obtain a copy of "RIVER OF EARTH" or one of Mr. Still's other books, we have listed ordering information below.

RIVER OF EARTH, University Press of Kentucky, paperback - $7.75. RUN FOR THE ELBERTAS, University Press of Kentucky, paperback - $6.75; hardcover - $14.75 PATTERN OF A MAN, Gnomen Press, paperback - $6.75.

Autographed copies are available from: Hindman Settlement School Hindman, KY 41822

River Of Earth

"I was borned in a ridge-pocket," he said. "I never seed the sun-ball withouten heisting my chin. My eyes were sot upon the hills from the beginning. Til I come on the Word in this good Book, I used to think a mountain was the standingest object in the sight o' God. Hit says here they go skipping and hopping like sheep, a-rising and a-falling. These hills are jist dirt waves, washing through eternity. My brethern, they hain't a valley so low but what hit'll rise agin. They hain't a hill standing so proud but hit'll sink to the low ground o' sorrow. Oh, my proud children, where air we going on this mighty river of earth, aborning, begetting, and a-dying the living and the dead riding the waters? Where air it sweeping us?..."

PAGES 115-119

"Eighteen sixty-eight it was," Grandma said, and her words were small against the spring winds bellowing in the chimneytop. She spread her hands close to the oak-knot fire. They were blueveined like a giant spider's web. "That was the year the pigeons come to Upper Flat Creek, mighty nigh taking the country."

I squatted on the limerock hearth before an ashhill where the bread pone baked, holding a broomstraw to know when it was done. Uncle Jolly had gone to Hardin Town to buy salt and victuals, and we had not eaten since morning. Hunger heaped inside me, higher than the ashhill where the bread was buried.

"Them pigeon-birds were worse than a plague writ in the Book," Grandma 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 firstborn. 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."

Bread smells thickened in the fireplace, and I stuck the straw into the ashhill. It came out with a sticky lump on the end. My hunger could hardly wait the slow cooking. I turned my head so Grandma couldn't see me eat the dough from the straw.

"Hit was early of a May morning when the pigeons came," Grandma went on. "A roar sot up across the ridge, and Boone came down out of the field, looking north where the sound was. We waited, dreading the wind tying knots in the young corn, but nary a cloud we saw. The sound got bigger, and nearer. 'Hi, now, you git inside,' Boone said, and I did, fearing my child would bear a mark. I allus followed my man's word when I was puny. I looked through the wall-crack and saw the first pigeons come down the swag. Light brighted their wings; wings rock-moss gray, and green underside. Then they came in a passel. The sun-ball was clapped out, and it got nigh dusky dark. Boone, he took a kindling-wood stick, knocking at them that flew low, drapping four. After a spell they were gone, and we had breasts of pigeon for supper, fried in their own grease. They were that fat. Boone allus was a fool for wild meat. 'Hi, now,' he said, a-craking bones betwixt his teeth, 'I'd give a pretty for a pot-pie cooked out o' these birds.'

"Kite Thomas come up Flat Creek before dark, saying he'd heard the pigeons had done a sight of damage to the craps over at the Forks. He had a poke of sulphur and was going to the doublings three miles yon side the ridge where the roost was. 'A sulphur smudge will bring 'em down,' he said. 'I'm a notion salting a barrelful. My woman feeds nothing but garden stuffs of a summer. I allus like a piece o' meat alongside.' Boone wanted to go, but knowing it was near my time, he never spoke of it. 'A pigeon pie would make good eating,' he said. 'I figure on eating me one before them birds traipse off.'

"Kite and Boone went outside, and I heard Kite laughing. He went off a-cackling like a guinahen. I got sort of dizzy, and tuck to bed. Pigeon-birds kept a-flying round in my head, thundering their wings. I tuck the big eye and never slept a wink that night."

Wind drummed the chimney. A gust caught the oak-knot smoke, blowing it into our eyes. A sift of ashes stirred on the hearth. I tried the bread again, the straw coming out slowly, though clean. I raked a bed of coals closer to the ashhill with a poker.

Grandma balled hands on her knees, waiting until the smoke thinned and the ashes settled. "Hit was the next day the birds came a-thrashing through the hills," she said. "I was setting in my garden, guarding it agin the crows, when I heard a mighty roaring, like a tide on Troublesome. Boone was in the corn patch so I never went inside, wanting to get a square look at the birds I never gave a thought to me being so puny. In a spell they come o'er the ridge, flying low down, a-settling. A passel sot down in my garden and began to eat and scratch. I run up and down hollering, throwing clods and crying. Hit was like trying to scare a hailstorm. The birds worked like ants, now. I run and hollered till I couldn't, then set me on the ground, feeling sick to die.

"Next thing I know I was in the house, and thar was a granny woman setting beside the bed, holding something wropped in a kiver. Now I knowed what was in that kiver, but I was scared to look. Boone came in laughing, and said it was a boy-child. Hit was Toll, our first-born. He brought the little tick to the bed, and I couldn't wait to look, asking: 'Has it got a mark?' No mark particular,' Boone told me. 'His left hand hain't natural though.' The kiver was opened and thar the chap was, hits little face red and wrinkled. Boone pulled the left hand out, and on the side was an extra finger-piece, no bigger than a pea, having nary a nail nor jint. I cried, looking at it.

"Hit won't be thar for long,' Boone vowed. He got his razor and 'gin to strop hard, putting a hair edge on the blade. When I knew what he was going to do, I let in hollering and screaming worse than I did when the birds tuck my garden. The granny woman held me in bed, and Boone tuck the baby into the kitchen. I listened, catching for a sound of the baby. He never made one. I reckon it never hurt much. Boone brought him back and that was a drap of water in its eyes.

"The granny woman cooked a pigeon pie for supper. But I couldn't touch a bite. I've never et a bird since."

The bread was done. I raked it out on the hearth, blowing ashes from the crust. When it was broken the goodness of it filled my eyes and throat. "A pair o' pigeon wings would go good with this bread," I said.

Grandma looked hard at the bread, then broke a piece for me, taking none for herself. She took the poker and shook the oak-knot fiercely. "I hain't a grain hungry," she said.