after “The White Horse” by Yasunari Kawabata In the low light…
Each fall, Appalachian Heritage devotes a special section of the magazine to a featured author, and over the years we have celebrated some of the finest writers in the country. But this year is different. Instead of a single author, we have delved into our archives to present a collection of featured authors—poets who, over the years, have engaged with the natural world on the page in surprising, revelatory ways.
The natural world, of course, is one of the major themes of Appalachian literature. The beauty and harshness of the mountains; the deep sense of place provided by topography and traditions; turning to the land for a living through farming, timber and coal; the natural world versus Appalachians themselves—all these are recurring themes in creative work from and about the region.
In American literature, this realm has historically been seen and treated as a man’s domain, due in part to antiquated patriarchal notions involving men’s supposed dominion over forests and the wild, threatening outdoors. Tis idea was, of course, preposterous—a fiction seen through a machismo-smudged lens that obscured the long-standing contributions of female writers. The great Phillis Wheatley, for instance, was writing about the natural world early on, celebrating “the zephyr’s wing” which “exhales the incense of the blooming spring” and a God who “draws the sable curtains of the night.” Emily Dickinson famously wrote about keeping the Sabbath “With a Bobolink for a Chorister — / And an Orchard, for a Dome —” And in her mystical poem “Memory of Cape Cod,” Edna St. Vincent Millay conjured “the wind in the ash” and “The mosquitoes…thick in the pine-woods”—a poem I loved as a child, one that continues to sustain me.
In their poems, Wheatley and Millay were not only engaging with the seemingly restricted space of nature as women but through other excluded identities—as a black woman, in the case of Wheatley, and as a queer woman, with Millay.
Exclusive beliefs about nature have often been deeply embedded in Appalachian culture and literature as well. But such ideas were also defied from the outset, with women like Emma Bell Miles and Effie Waller Smith claiming their space and voices in the realm of the natural world.
While curating these poems, it is to that spirit I kept returning—the notion of the natural world as a common land to which we are all invited. As I read, I listened for Millay’s wind, searched for the mosquito’s bite. I heard it in “the rush of sound” described in Llewellyn McKernan’s “Stream” and in the “lifting, lifting” of wings in Richard Hague’s “Luna Moth.” I saw it embodied in Crystal Wilkinson’s masterful “Terrain,” in which the narrator depicts herself as “a homing blackbird destined to / always return…called back home through hymns / sung by stout black women in large hats and flowered dresses.” I smelled it in the dark loam of Louise McNeill’s “The Tree Ferns” and in the “ground cedar and springy peat” of Marc Harshman’s “Not All That Much.” I felt it in the heat of the Georgia summer, conjured with humidity in doris davenport’s “hog killing time.” I tasted it in the flavor of onions, beans, and cornbread arrayed across the table of a queer household in Jeff Mann’s “Yellow-Eye Beans.”
This tribute, of course, is not intended to be a comprehensive anthology of Appalachian naturalist poets. Instead I have envisioned it—or better yet, heard it played—as a symphonic movement, a piece that can stand alone, but one that is also part of a greater whole that would include other poems and poets.
Let that music—that wind—whip around you while reading these poems. Let it carry you away, off to a mountain clearing, to a great Commons for all of us to explore and tend.