I'm a mother, wife, educator. I'm a writer. Although I try to remain in the present, I find my mind wandering to the depths of my imagination, attempting to tease out the next scene in my novel, a character flaw, joy, despair. I am stretched to capacity to create. Between lesson plans on critical thinking, what to make for dinner, how I'm going to kill off one the characters in my novels, my mind has limited time to stay in the moment.
Even in the car, while driving to and from different campus sites I listen to podcasts, gleaning inspiration on writing, marketing, thinking. Oprahs's Super Soul Conversation reminds me what I should be doing: "Time to be more fully present.....starts right now."
I'm soooo sorry Oprah - I listen to your podcast once a week, gaze at the rural landscape streaking past my window, warm earth interspersed with golden corn stubble from last year's harvest, a flock of white geese taking flight, sparkling like dust motes in the March sun. And oh, what did Amy Purdy just say about resilience? I was framing the moment for a scene in my next novel.
I can't be the only one with a creative mindset trapped in the mundane day-to-day responsibilities that keep the family going, the heater operating as winter clings; I learned from a New York Times article, it's true. Many famous artists and writers maintained separate, working lives. Does it mean they produced better art? I know I feel a pressure to create whenever there is a moment: an hour on a Saturday, winter break, spring break, summer. I develop timelines around my school schedule, can I get to 50k words by May? How many weekends and breaks do I have? How much grading to do? Will one of my daughters be in town for the weekend?
If I had more time, if my life weren't segmented into pieces of me, I'm not sure I'd be any better at my craft. As someone close to me once said, 'you work better under pressure, with deadlines'. I don't meander once I sit down to write, the words come to me, have been building over time, while driving, in my journals, in my dreams. My characters speak to me. And I don't let them down.
The Truth of Who You Are has a major part set during the Battle of the Bulge in World War II. This epic military campaign began in the foreboding Ardennes Forest December 16, 1944 and was not concluded until January 1945. The Germans had amassed a large army hidden in the forests along the ridges and deep ravines of the Ardennes mountains of eastern Belgium and France. The Germans' objective was to take the city of Bastogne and the port of Antwerp. Unsuspecting American soldiers from the 110th Infantry were recuperating from the brutal battle in the Hürtgen Forest in the town of Clervaux. And when the Germans began their offensive, the Army was taken by surprise. Although the Germans would eventually be defeated, it was an epic battle. Infantrymen recount the eerie presence of German soldiers camouflaged in white outer-coats to match the snow, moving like wraiths in and out of the cover of fir trees on the battlefield. By the time it was over, 75,000 American and 80,000 German soldiers perished in the Ardennes.
While looking for primary sources I landed on a book titled: I'll Be Home for Christmas. It's a compilation of soldiers' letters and essays from the U.S. Library of Congress focused on the period of time soldiers' memories of home were most precious. The chapters include passages where they describe the movement of the infantry through the dark fir forests of the Ardennes, trudging through snow up to their thighs, hiding in fox holes, reminiscing about the holiday. More than once, the gravity of the moment was interspersed with small wonders and gestures of humanity. As one of the survivors, who was holed up in a cellar on Christmas Eve recalled: "At the stroke of midnight, without an order or request, dark figures emerged from the cellars. In the frosty gloom voices were raised in the old familiar Christmas carols. The infantry....could hear voices two hundred yards away in the dark, in German,...singing Silent Night."
They decorated random trees with tin ration cans. They made the best of a situation while pining to be home. Some of the men who were separated from their units ended up in cabins of the locals who gave them refuge and food on Christmas Eve. A medic was given a wooden carving from a piece of packing crate with the word Weihnachten 1944 (Christmas in German) from one of the German prisoners of war he treated.
A Belgium schoolteacher, returning to his classroom after the battle found this written on the blackboard by a German officer:
May the world never live through such a Christmas night. Nothing is more horrible than meetings one's fate, far from mother, wife, and children..... Life was bequeathed us in order that we might love and be considerate to one another. From the ruins, out of blood and death shall come forth a brotherly world.
One of the more poignant stories comes from bomber pilot Philip Ardery who knew all too well that fate might never give him another Christmas. He was reminded of this everyday while flying over Europe during the month of December of 1943. Growing up, he never opened any presents before Christmas Day. By late November family members of the pilots were sending packages to the headquarters where he was stationed. Many sat unopened, a 'Return to Sender' stamped on them when a soldier failed to return from a flight. Yet when Ardery was sent out on a mission in the inky dark of a bracing cold dawn, he had to decide: should I open one of my gifts just in case I don't make it back?
His family and friends made sure he had plenty to open. Each night he considered them from the perch of his bunk; the packages, sitting there waiting for him to rip open and discover what was inside.
Making it even more difficult was the fact that the weather was horrendous. Heavy fog and cold, damp air was hindering the pilots' efforts. Because they had not received their pathfinder equipment on time, they were flying without the instruments needed to guide the bombing. As a result, there were many mid-air collisions. In addition, lack of adequate gear meant men returned from their mission with frostbitten hands and many had to be hospitalized.
As the casualties mounted, each day, Ardery asked himself: should I open my presents just in case I don't make it back alive? Indecision plagued him through the month of December.
He didn't. He said the gifts were magical because of who sent them, those he held dearest. Maybe it was the taboo of opening anything before Christmas. Maybe it was hope. Hope that he would make it through his mission to eventually return home to those people he held dear. Hope may have been the greatest gift he received that year, that along with his life. He eventually opened his gifts on Christmas Day. One of the lucky ones to return home to family.
Anyone researching the Appalachian culture at the turn of the 20th century is likely to find the ethnographies of Emma Bell Miles and Horace Kephart. Miles’ The Spirit of the Mountains (1905) and Kephart’s Our Southern Highlanders (1913 and 1922) document the daily lives of the people living in the mountains of the southeast United States in the early 1900s. Their lyrical prose on the familial culture, unique dialect, art and music—influenced by isolation—are entertaining and insightful reads.
Emma was the inspiration for Ben Taylor's mother, in my novel The Truth of Who You Are, set in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. I found her personal story both tragic and inspiring. And the contrast of Emma Bell Miles' fate compared to Horace Kephart, (considered legendary in the region for advancing the National Park) smacks of irony. So I delved into to their personal lives further. And this is what I found.
An examination of these two authors reveals parallels in their writing style and the influence their education had on their perception of the culture. Emma went to college for two years at the St. Louis School of Art. Horace attended college in the mid-west and then went on to graduate school at Cornell University in 1881 to study history and political science. Both authors had educations that were for the most part beyond that of the people they were studying. Rather than condescending, the authors had a penchant for describing their neighbors with grudging respect and awe for their resiliency. Moreover, both authors were amateur naturalists. Kephart wrote numerous articles for magazines such as Field and Stream on camping and the flora and fauna of the region, while Miles wrote and illustrated a book titled Our Southern Birds, in 1919. Both weave vivid narratives of the natural beauty of the region throughout the Spirit of the Mountains and Our Southern Highlanders.
Furthermore, Miles’ and Kephart’s ethnographies were written during a critical juncture in Appalachian history. Within a few decades of their book publications, Appalachian culture was rapidly transforming. The economy was changing from a bartering to a monetary system. New technology allowed railroads to snake their way along the steep ravines and ridges of the southern highlands to access and exploit minerals and timber. Tourists from the cities were flocking to the region to build vacation homes or stay at hotels that were springing up in the towns and villages. This created mounting public and private pressure on native residents to move or lease their land for lumber and mining rights, or government preservation.
However, that is where their similarities end. Kephart and Miles were a paradox. Gender bias placed constraints on Emma Miles’ ability to pursue her artistic passions while providing Horace Kephart an advantage. Gender also appears to have played a role in what each author chose to highlight in their works, perhaps because they had different opinions of the importance or what might ‘sell’ to the average reader (mostly from the northeastern cities).
Although one would expect gender to factor into how and what Emma Miles and Horace Kephart chose to write about, gender also played a significant role in their artistic freedom. Family duties hampered Emma’s ability to conduct artistic work. Horace, on the other hand, abandoned his wife and six children to live in self-imposed solitude. This gave him much greater freedom to pursue a professional life that was denied to Emma Miles. In addition, Horace Kephart was an outsider looking in on the culture he adopted, while Emma Miles was an insider looking out and with conflicting emotions, at what could have been her life had she chosen a different path than to remain in Appalachia. Finally, because her life was cut short at age 40, (unlike Horace Kephart, who died at the age of 69) Emma Miles never published her in-progress manuscripts. Nor did she achieve the accolades given to Horace Kephart, who has a mountain peak named after him.
George Ellison and Janet McCue recently published a thorough biography of Kephart titled Back of Beyond (2019).[i] He was born in Pennsylvania in 1862 and raised in Iowa. After graduating with a Master’s degree from Cornell University and a research stint in Italy, he married Laura Mack at age 25. He took a prestigious post as the Director of the Mercantile Library in St. Louis, Missouri. At the time, the library was a center of social activity and scholarship. A job that put Horace, who was an introvert, into the spotlight. By all accounts, he was a studious and steadfast employee, but he may have found the attention disconcerting and at times overworked himself. He found release by taking time off to camp and hunt, and through alcohol. Time spent away from his job to follow his adventurous spirit, and a struggle with alcoholism put a strain on his marriage. Laura left him and St. Louis to move back to her hometown, Ithaca, New York with their six children.
Due to his extended absences from work, Horace lost his job in 1903 and suffered a nervous breakdown. Because of his stature in St. Louis, his downfall was a public event—making the headlines in the St. Louis newspapers. He found his way to the Appalachian Mountains to heal; eventually ending up in Bryson City, North Carolina on the border of what is now the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. He began experimenting in outdoor writing. In 1906, he started writing his first book, Camping and Woodcraft, which was eventually published in 1917. Very little is known about how his family managed during the time he lived in the mountains. A family letter written by his daughter indicates his wife Laura may have taken in boarders to make ends meet. After he died, most of his personal items were auctioned off and a $64.00 check from the proceeds given to Laura. Later, according to his great-granddaughter, Libby Kephart Hargrave, a house fire at Laura Kephart’s home destroyed most of her husband’s personal letters and his diary. What few letters did survive indicate that his wife stoically accepted her husband’s trials with alcoholism and allowed him the freedom he needed to continue writing. According to his great-granddaughter, his wife Laura never spoke an unkind word about him to her children and did not protest when he took off for the Smoky Mountains.[ii]
Details of his personal life and relationship with his family remain elusive. Horace and Laura may have purposely made sure their private communications were not discoverable. The lack of primary material renders it difficult for biographers to draw conclusions about their unconventional marriage arrangement. What is obvious is that his stature as a husband and father were secondary to his place in history as the man who spearheaded the development of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Alarmed at the rate of clear-cutting and habitat destruction he was witnessing in the mountains, Horace used his status as an author to advocate for a national park. He lobbied politicians and wrote letters and articles for the papers and outdoor magazines extolling the beauty of the area, promoting the need to preserve the mountains as a national treasure.
The personal life of Emma Bell Miles, on the other hand is well scrutinized. She left a diary chronicling her inner turmoil and familial hardships, transcribed and edited by Steven Cox in a book titled Once I Too Had Wings (2014). Emma’s parents were both teachers in Signal Mountain, Tennessee, north of Chattanooga. She pursued an art education in St. Louis, Missouri but only lasted two years before becoming homesick for the mountains. When she returned home, she married a local man named Frank Miles. They had five children. Over-burdened with the responsibility of raising five children on little income, she was constantly at battle with her husband to carve out time to write and draw. Her need to pursue art was utilitarian, driven in part by her family’s desperate financial conditions.
Emma Miles had a following of wealthy patrons who paid for her art in the form of sketches, cards, and watercolors. Her diaries reveal she continuously turned to her wealthy patrons to support her and her family. These patrons were mostly fashionable women from cities like Knoxville, who had vacation homes in the mountains. Many were fond of Emma but she reveals that a few were weary of her constant appeals for money. When Emma’s three-year-old son Merick contracted Scarlet Fever, the family could not afford to pay $10.00 for a doctor. When Merick died Emma never fully recovered emotionally. Reading her diaries is heart wrenching. She had a deep-seated resentment and at times loathing, toward her husband. “He demands his right and I give as far as possible…I am the drudge, the ragged, pinched, worn-out slave….Oh the pity I have missed – half of a life!”[iii]
She loses her job working for the Chattanooga Newspaper when she reveals she is pregnant. Her diaries hint of her desire to be free of the conjugal demands made by Frank because of the inevitable outcome. Stating: “God forgive me for bringing into the world children I cannot take care of…” and later, “I have decided not to put off the murder that must be done…”. Although many pages of her diaries were ripped out, there is speculation she may have resorted to herbal remedies to self-abort.[iv]
When Emma contracts tuberculosis, she begs her husband to allow her the freedom and time to rest and complete some of her artistic projects. “Would it not be better to go where I can have my health and do my work?”[v] Frank would reluctantly allow Emma the opportunity to rest in the town homes of wealthy patrons but rescind within weeks when he felt overwhelmed or burdened with domestic life.
From reading their works, it is apparent the lifestyle Horace Kephart chose suited the cultural norm in rural Appalachia at the time. Not many would make similar allowances for Emma Bell Miles. Abandoning her family to pursue her art was out of the question. In fact, Emma’s husband Frank and his family never understood Emma’s independent nature. Emma describes Frank’s condescending comments about her running around with a different class of people and that the mountain people disliked her for it. By contrast, Horace Kephart’s wife, Laura, both forgave and came to a grudging acceptance of her husband’s wanderlust. In letters she wrote to her children, she proclaimed her love for her husband to the very end and her commitment to remain married.[vi]
Given their domestic situations, it is no wonder then that the authors’ interpretations of household life and the roles of man and wife vary. To his credit, Horace Kephart observes the patriarchy and the lack of chivalry men show towards their wives. He explains how husbands expected to be fed first as the wife waits to be seated. While the men were away hunting or fishing, the women would tend to the daily chores, such as cutting wood for the fires, planting in the fields, taking care of the children. Common courtesies toward women were non-existent. He chalks it up to the culture: “…it is seldom that a highland woman complains of her lot. She knows no other.”[vii] Horace admits that the role of a wife is no more than that of a “…sort of superior domestic animal” although he does not go so far as to explain why this may be abhorrent. Rather he claims, “…the average mountain home is a happy one, despite the low standards of living.”[viii]
Emma Bell Miles has a lot to say about the situation in which wives find themselves. Her interpretation focuses on the one thing women should complain about: subjugation. Although addressing the ways of men in The Spirit of the Mountains, her narrative reflects the advantageous freedom afforded to men such as Horace Kephart. “He is tempted to eagle flights across valleys…His ambitions lead him to make drain after drain on the strength of his silent, wingless mate…” while it is “manners for a woman to drudge and to obey. All respectable wives do that.” One can imagine Emma’s frustration with the situation facing women in her circle because she had lost her ‘wings’, tethered to a home life she found untenable. As she puts it, while men were allowed to roam freely over the mountains in pursuit of game or for the sheer joy of wilderness adventure, women were spending “…long nights of anxious watching by the sick, or waiting in dreary discomfort.”[ix]
One thing the authors do agree on is the impact the hard life had on mountain women. Teenage marriage and pregnancies wreaked havoc on women’s health. This, combined with the hardships of toiling in the fields and home, aged the women more so than men. Horace states women thus: “…frequent child-bearing with shockingly poor attention, and ignorance or defiance of the plainest necessities of hygiene, soon warp and age them.”[x] Emma is more forgiving, especially because she can relate. In her diary, she says, “You will hear plenty of people say that I grew old before my time; Daughter the reason some women look young at forty-five is that they have never lived.”[xi]
Other aspects of Appalachian life where the authors agree is the impact outsiders had on the culture, including the wealthy patrons they depended on, but also industrial influences. Emma poses the uncomfortable truth that many of the people who were her patrons—tourists— were also gawkers. In one emotional scene from The Spirit of the Mountains, she describes how the religious ceremony of Baptists’ foot washing was becoming a tourist attraction. She recalls how the ‘city folk’ who were ‘pressing in’ on the mountains, would show up as spectators to foot-washing events. And, she states, it was especially unbearable for the women who were uncomfortable with these outsiders watching their ceremonies.
Emma explains how the summer tourists were building cottages or staying at the hotels and hiring the locals. “The pure air, the mineral waters, are advertised abroad and the summer people begin to come in….Good roads are built in place of creek beds and rubber-tired carriages whirl past the plodding oxen and mule teams.”[xii] Emma feels the pull of civilization and questions whether it is good or bad. The ‘old mother’, she laments, seeing how much easier it is to buy cloth instead of hand spinning, casts the loom and wheel aside relegating it to the barn loft.
The Emma Bell Miles as an insider looking out and wondering what could be permeates her narrative. Indeed, she both loved and hated her existence. In her diary’s entry dated 1909, before the death of her son Merick and her marital troubles, she exclaims, “Life, life, life: everywhere thrilling to million tinted splendors of growth, of procreation, of abundance and beauty. Oh home! Oh forest loom of life stuff! Oh holy world!”[xiii]
As time passed Emma’s joy for mountain living was not enough to sustain her happiness. Perhaps she was aware that no matter how hard she may try she would never be viewed as being in the same class as her patrons. Maybe she felt her art was the avenue available to elevate her status. One can’t help but think she was speaking of herself when she claims in Spirit of the Mountains, “Is it any wonder that false ambitions creep in?” and “…throughout the highlands…our nature is one, our hopes, our loves, our daily life the same, we are yet a people asleep, a race without a knowledge of its own existence.”[xiv]
For Horace Kephart, the transformation taking place in Appalachia was a loss of manliness and the “…hard-earned patrimony...” As corporations moved in and destroyed the environment to suit their industrial needs, the mountaineer was forced to leave and move to an uninvaded place where “he will not be bothered” by outsiders. “Then it is good-bye to the old independence that made such characters manly.” Interestingly, Horace championed the development of a national park, which meant many of the mountain families he studied would be asked to leave—or forced out—through eminent domain. Yet in Our Southern Highlanders, he disdains the lumber and mining operations and the people who run them, stating the “…invading civilization…is composed of men who care nothing for the welfare of the people they dispossess.”[xv]
Not surprisingly, Emma Miles and Horace Kephart proclaim that education would save the southern highlanders and was the only way to prevent a catastrophe. Both authors believed that education in trades and skills would save the mountain culture from extinction brought about by dislocation. Emma Miles is especially cautious because she knew first-hand the lure of wealth and comfort before her own family life soured. “The value of money, the false importance of riches, is evident to their minds before the need for education.”[xvi] But even here their viewpoints mimic the limits gender place on achievement. In what now appears ironic, Horace quotes Emma in the last chapter of his book. “Must this free folk who are in many ways the truest Americans of America be brought under the yoke of caste division, to the degradation of all their finer qualities, merely for the lack of the right work to do?”[xvii] And while Emma references women toiling over tubs of water whose talents might be better served if they were able to sell woven coverlets, rugs and quilts, Horace Kephart warns that even the most backward of men held “sterling qualities of manliness” that our nation could not afford to waste. The schools, he believes, should be turning out good farmers, mechanics and housewives.[xviii]
Both authors died before achieving everything they set out to accomplish. Emma Bell Miles died of tuberculosis in 1919 while working on her last book, Our Southern Birds, published soon after her death. Her diary indicates she was working on manuscripts never published and now lost to history. As her children aged, they became more independent, and her popularity as an artist and writer grew. If she had lived longer, she may have seen some of her other works progress to fruition. Horace Kephart died in an automobile accident in 1931, before realizing his dream—the founding of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Likewise, he left behind an unpublished manuscript, Smoky Mountain Magic, which was miraculously not lost in the family’s house fire and published eighty years after he wrote it.
One has to wonder what Emma could have accomplished and how different her biography might be had she lived longer and been afforded the same opportunities as Horace. Horace had the luxury of being 1) a man, and 2) an outsider. His contemporaries romanticized him. He was constrained only by familial commitments miles away that never tarnished his reputation as a writer. Emma’s life was the tragic existence of an artist constrained by gender and poverty. Horace Kephart watched as civilization advanced into the mountains and shunned it just as he shut the door on his personal life to appease his adventurous spirit. His desire for a National Park was the epitome of his philosophy that the Appalachian manly culture would wither without preservation of its wild places. Emma Bell Miles also recognized the rapidly changing environment around her, but rather than shut it out, she welcomed opportunities to define her place in it.
[i] George Ellison and Janet McCue. Back of Beyond: A Horace Kephart Biography. Great Smoky Mountains Association. 2019.
[ii] Hargrave, Libby Kephart. "Introduction." In Smoky Mountain Magic, by Horace Kephart. Great Smoky Mountains Association. 2009.
[iii] Miles, Emma Bell. Once I Too Had Wings: The Journals of Emma Bell Miles 1908-1918. Kindle EPub. Ohio University Press. Ohio University Press. 2014.
[iv] Miles, Once I Too Had Wings, Loc 345
[v] Miles, Once I Too Had Wings, Loc 1600
[vi] Hargrave, Introduction.
[vii] Kephart, Horace. Our Southern Highlanders. The Internet Archive. MacMillan Company . New York: The MacMillan Company. 1922. 332
[viii] Kephart, 332.
[ix] Miles, Emma Bell. The Spirit of the Mountains. The Internet Archive. James Pott & Company . New York: James Pott & Company. 1905. 168
[x] Kephart, Horace. Our Southern Highlanders. The Internet Archive. MacMillan Company . New York: The MacMillan Company. 1922. 288
[xi] Miles, Once I Too Had Wings, Loc 1210
[xii] Miles, The Spirit of the Mountains, 190.
[xiii] Miles, Once I Too Had Wings, Loc 902
[xiv] Miles, The Spirit of the Mountains, 201.
[xv] Kephart, Our Southern Highlanders, 456.
[xvi] Miles, The Spirit of the Mountains, 198.
[xvii] Miles, The Spirit of the Mountains, 198.
[xviii] Kephart, Our Southern Highlanders, 456.
I'm revisiting blog posts from the past and this one struck me because I just finished launching my fifth novel and this same feeling of loss can be overwhelming. If I let it be.
This morning I was listening to Ann Lamott's book Small Victories: Spotting Improbably Moments of Grace, and her first lines just jolted me: "The worst possible thing you can do when you’re down in the dumps, tweaking, vaporous with victimized self-righteousness, or bored, is to take a walk with dying friends. They will ruin everything for you."
I have not, I must admit, recently walked with a friend who is close to death, but I could relate to what Lamott was saying. Lately I have been wallowing a bit too much in self-pity, for no reason whatsoever except perhaps because I have completed my novel and although I'm working on the next, I definitely feel a sense of loss. And, I must admit, although I never started on this journey for the accolades, (and most obviously not for the money) there are moments when I wish that everyone I meet at the coffee shop, or passing by on the street would just say to me: "Hey, I heard you wrote another book. Congratulations," even if they have never read any of my work.
I was at a picnic a few weeks ago and something like this happened and I was amazed at how much it lifted my spirits. A man came up to me, someone I know through my children, and he told me he had read one of my novels: Ephemeral Summer, and he loved it. I was a bit shocked. It is a coming of age story and the target audience would be his college-age daughters. "Everyone in the family has read it," he told me, "We loved it."
I'd like to believe I'm not vain. But maybe I am. Or maybe these feelings I'm experiencing are meant to teach me something. How often I have neglected to tell someone that what they did or are doing is worthy: my friend who spent a year volunteering on a political campaign for a candidate I didn't plan to vote for; or another, who spent 6 months learning to become a yoga instructor. And then there is my friend who opened her own shop; and another friend who drove almost every weekend this past spring, over 11 hours in the car, one way, to watch her daughter play college ball. Finally, there are more than a few, who have had to sit by the side of their loved ones while they undergo treatments, trying to keep the faith. What dedication.
My own family members have started new jobs, struck out on their own, or started up support groups. Congratulating them, or even making some commentary on their hard work is something I think, I should remember to do, if for no other reason than because they are trying. They are living life the way it was meant to be lived: with purpose.
I've used this tag line in my biographies several times and although it's metaphorical, it's also true. In my professional capacity over the years as an outdoor educator and professor teaching ecology and environmental science, I've worked alongside volunteers and students planting trees. Together we've planted hundreds of seedlings and bare root mature trees in places such as the Montezuma National Wildlife Refuge, the City of Syracuse parks, and the nature trail behind the college campus where I teach.
So you can imagine my chagrin when we were approached by the utility company with a request to take down the ash trees that line the front of our house. The Emerald Ash borer is wreaking havoc on ash trees in the Northeastern U.S. and our ash trees are directly under the utility wires. The emerald ash borer beetle lays eggs in the tree's bark and the larvae eat away at the phloem, the inner part of the bark that transports water and nutrients, eventually killing the tree. The borer is not native to the United States and was brought to the states accidentally in 2002 from Asia. Within the decade our trees would be dead so we agreed to let the utility take them down.
We then had to decide whether to take down the magnificent ash tree in our side yard.
This tree was planted long before we arrived, I'm guessing its age at fifty plus years. Its largess allowed it to throw shade on the back deck. Great! Except when you live in Upstate, NY and summers are so short. Half the tree hung over the driveway and in the fall it shed dead limbs and leaves like crazy. We spent hours cleaning up the mess it left on the pavement after a wind storm. So although I loved the tree we decided to take that one down as well. As upsetting as it was to see the hole in the sky when the tree was felled, this summer we've witnessed spectacular sherbet colored sunsets now that the limbs aren't obstructing the view.
It wasn't long however before the gaping hole in the landscape gnawed at me and we went in search of a new tree. I chose a redbud because I love the way their lavender flowers bloom so delicately in the spring. And they don't get that big - maybe twenty-five feet in height.
Even as we were debating whether to take the ash tree down I knew I'd end up planting another in its place; I've spent the past few decades educating and advocating for the natural world. And I'm always rewarded by the look of wonder and accomplishment that passes over people's faces after grubbing around in the dirt, digging holes, putting in a tree, heeling the rich earth back into place.
I remember one day in particular while planting thirty trees with my students in the nature trail behind campus. I was crouched over a dug-out hole, wide enough to handle the bare roots of a red maple. I was working with a student, using a shovel to back-fill the hole with dirt, when the student told me, "I've never planted a tree." He sat back on his haunches sweating and wiping at his brow with the back of his hand. "Well," I told him, "this is something you won't forget." I eyeballed the sky. "And if you do, come back one day to see how much it has grown."
Drive through any rural area of the U.S. and you will inevitably find apple orchards; some may be new, others may be reminders of a family homestead long abandoned. But the trees remain.
It's believed that the Pilgrims brought apple seeds with them to the American colonies when they arrived in the early 1600s and grafted the European variety with the native American species of crab apple. Over the years farmers created many new varieties of apples. But not for eating. Apple trees and orchards had other economic uses.
One of the first things a settler would do is plant an apple orchard as a way to stake claim to a parcel of land. When investors formed the Ohio Company to lure colonists from the eastern states further West, they insisted the settlers plant at least fifty apple trees to establish their claim.
Apples provided an important part of the American diet: cider. Most colonists used their apples to make cider, which was safer to drink than water. Indeed, one of out of every ten farms in New England operated a cider mill. Estimates are that an average New England family consumed about 35 gallons per person per year. (The author, Tracy Chevalier, wrote a historical novel centered around a family in Ohio that grows cider apples titled At the Edge of the Orchard. Although dark, it includes a fascinating botanical history.)
By the mid 1700s, orchards were an integral part of the American landscape. And although it may be assumed that the European settlers were the only ones to plant orchards, there was ample evidence that Native Americans also incorporated orchards into their lifestyle. In 1779, a scout for the Revolutionary Army drew a map of the Cayuga and Seneca native American settlements in the Finger Lakes region of New York. As the map shows, there were numerous orchards dotting the landscape. General Sullivan, ordered his soldiers to go into the villages and wipe out the crops in retribution for an Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) incursion against the army. One soldier wrote in his diary about an attack on a village in what is now Geneva NY: we found about 80 houses something large some of them built with hew and timber and part with round timber and part with bark. Large quantities of corn and beans with all sorts of sauce, at this place a fine Young Orchard, which was soon all girdled.
The story of the American Chestnut (Castanea dentata) is tragic but hopeful. At one time the Chestnut tree was prolific in the northeastern US. At the turn of the 19th century, the Chestnut covered over twenty-five percent of the Appalachian mountain range which runs from Maine to Georgia. However, an imported fungus first discovered in 1904 destroyed much of the Chestnut forests.
The Chestnut tree was an integral part of the landscape and had many uses. Indigenous people had multiple names for the tree's nuts, which they ground them down for flour. Families that moved into the Appalachian region foraged the nuts to eat and sell. But people weren't the only consumers of the trees' bounty. Bear, deer, turkeys, and many of the forest dwellers relied on the nuts to fatten up before winter. Farmers would let their hogs and cattle loose in the woods to eat the downed nuts.
Chestnut trees could grow upwards of one hundred feet and often the lower trunk would be devoid of branches, making it an ideal tree to harvest for timber. The wood was rot-resistant which made it an ideal material for use around the homestead. It was literally used from cradle to grave. People used the wood for for constructing homes, fences, furniture (including cradles) and coffins. The Chestnut tree was instrumental in the industrialization of the country. The wood was used to make rail ties for the burgeoning railroad sector after the Civil War and when the telegraph took off, the wood was milled for the poles.
The Chestnut offered another valuable commodity: tannins. An industrious land owner could strip the bark off a tree and ship to a tannery where it would be boiled down and used to soften hides. The tree was so prolific and had so many uses that the loss to blight was a turning point for industries and people that relied on it for their livelihoods.
Around the turn of the twentieth century scientists began to notice a strange fungus blight infecting Chestnut trees found in a park in New York City. Unfortunately, the fungus was imported to the US via other plant species and there was and is no known cure. It spread rapidly, eventually reaching the Appalachian forests by the mid-late 1920s where it wiped out huge swaths of trees.
When the US government started the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) in 1933 as part of the New Deal program to counter the impacts of the Great Depression, the men recruited to work in the nation's park systems had to deal with the blight. At the time they tried various mechanisms to control the fungus, including harvesting young trees to bring to nurseries in the hopes of re-foresting the region. However, this proved fruitless because oaks and ash harbor the fungus and once Chestnuts reach a certain age, the fungus inevitably attacks.
To treat trees that had the blight, the CCC used a procedure called mud-packing, covering the cankers with moist soil and wrapping the area with black tarp. This also proved unsuccessful. Trees that were beyond help were often cut and the men used the wood to make bridges, stairs, and facilities for the parks. Indeed, many structures found in US parks may be remnants of old Chestnut trees.
Today there are efforts to genetically modify the native chestnut species with an Asian counter-part that is disease resistant. There are numerous research farms dedicated to re-introducing these modified Chestnut trees into the forests where they once thrived. In a matter of generations we may see a modified version of the majestic Chestnut grace our Northeastern forests once again.
At one time, the Eastern White Pine (Pinus strobus) dominated the northeastern forests of the U.S. and had multiple uses for both the Native Americans and the colonists. Its durable wood and straight trunk made it a valuable commodity during colonial times in the U.S. Because of its value, the white pine was at the center of numerous skirmishes between colonists and the men in charge of enforcing English laws on harvesting white pines for private use.
White pines grow rapidly and have longevity, some living as long as four hundred years. When the colonists arrived in New England in the early 1600s, they found virginal forests of pine and discovered trees towering over 200 feet in the air with bases several feet in diameter.
They also noticed how the Native Americans used the trees for utilitarian as well as medicinal purposes. Algonquins steeped the needles and inner bark to make a tea to prevent scurvy earning them the nick-name 'bark-eaters'.
The Haudenosaunee (Iroquois - Five Nations) culture refer to the white pine as the Tree of Peace. Historical accounts of a peace treaty agreed upon between the Mohawk, Onondaga, Seneca, Cayuga, and Oneida tribes, occurred after a meeting under the canopy of this majestic tree. And in a testament to the significance of the white pine to their culture, (the five needles represent the tribes) the tree is at the center of the Haudenosaunee seal.
I put this video together a few years ago to highlight the work of the US Civilian Conservation Corps. During the Great Depression they planted over three billion trees in our state and national forests. As it is approaching Arbor Day and the book launch date of my novel The Truth of Who You Are set during this time and about these men (April 28, 2022) I am sharing this video. Click Below and Enjoy!
About five years ago I was on a trip in the Orcas Islands when I learned about the men in the Civilian Conservation Corps who worked for a measly $5.00/week during the Great Depression, building infrastructure and planting over 1 billion trees in our nation's parks. Of course I'd heard of these men but never knew much about their work or their history. But after reading about the Corps, the multitude of men who hearkened from diverse geographic backgrounds, many of them first and second generation immigrants, I felt compelled to tell their story.
I hadn't realized it at the time, but this book project titled The Truth of Who You Are, would become an emotional journey for me that had me doubting myself time and time again. Was it worth it? I kept asking. Let me list the tribulations to see this novel through to a publishing deal.
1) Research - since the novel is historical, I had to do research, which meant traveling to some of the sites where these men worked. Being self-funded, I launched an online crowdfunding campaign. I made a video, which took hours, and I almost made my goals. But the campaign failed and I wrote about it here. So I scaled back my travel plans to something doable - research in the Smoky Mountains, near where my parents lived in South Carolina. There was a lot of history to work with and hey, it's a tax write off, right?
2) Contests - I am a sucker for them. After winning one literary contest in 2017 for my novel The Night is Done, I figured I might be in a roll, so why not enter my work in progress to some contests , see how it goes? I entered The Truth of Who You Are in five writing contests. It gained semi-finalist status in one, and lost in two others. One is still pending. But the most heartbreaking loss was a national, prestigious contest that required I not pitch the book to anyone, no agents or publishers, until they told me it was out of the running. Five months later and two weeks before they were going to announce the winner, I still hadn't heard anything. My novel was still in the running. I couldn't believe it. The prize was $25,000 and a publishing contract. Could it be that The Truth of Who You Are had won? Everyday that I opened my email and there was no rejection I got my hopes up. My anxiety level was through the roof. I told only a few select friends and family about my anticipation. And then....rejection.
3) Publishers and Agents- I've attended numerous conferences over the past few years, pitching this novel to agents and editors at publishing houses. One editor wrote back to me with constructive feedback as well as encouraging words. "The Conservation Corps sections are terrific, I think. They really conjure time and place and show the impact of the programs on the people who participated in them and on the communities they served. And the burgeoning romance is nicely done as well." Yay! I revised and resubmitted. It was rejected. That was one of many to come from other agents and publishers, after they requested to read the whole manuscript.
4) Revise, revise, revise - the next step in the process is always to self-reflect, reexamine the manuscript and revise. At some point though one has to decide. What is the issue here? Is this novel not marketable? What do people want? Many revisions later, I adjusted the concept, and started all over again with the pitching.
5) Publishing Contract - I sent the novel to a small publisher who offed me a contract. Yay! Then I read the contract. That and a few other things led me to believe I'd be no better off than if I published it myself, so I declined. I can't even begin to tell you what a gut wrenching decision that was.
6) Giving up - I firmly believe in this novel. I know what it feels like to not believe something is worth pursuing. I have a novel I wrote about smuggling along the US/Canadian border sitting on my laptop which will never see print. But this novel, The Truth of Who You Are, is different. I've had positive feedback from several readers, people who I've only met in online writing circles. And my critique partner, who is brutally honest, told me it is my best writing so far.
Recently a publisher asked me for the full manuscript and I’m waiting for their response. Their contract is posted on their website and seems more favorable. So we'll see. Like I said, this book won't quit.
But I imagine, neither did these guys from the Conservation Corps.
Post script: I wrote this blog in November 2019 and have since signed a contract with Black Rose Writing to publish. The novel launches April 28, 2022. You can pre-order (discounted) ebooks at the following links.
Sheila Myers is an award winning author and Professor at a small college in Upstate NY. She enjoys writing, swimming in lakes, and walking in nature. Not always in that order.
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