James Still, at 89 years of age, has a genuine and simple love of his eastern Kentucky home. He reflects his feelings in his poetry collection, "The Wolfpen Poems" and in his novel, "River of Earth."
Noah Adams, Host: It's All Things Considered. I'm Noah Adams. To find a life, picture the range of rumpled mountains -- the country of Appalachia. Draw a circle around eastern Kentucky. Find the town of Hindman. It's a small place. There's not even a traffic light in all of the county. And then draw a tiny circle around the Hindman Settlement School.
TEACHER: All right, let's get the roll checked first. Kim Anderson? KIM ANDERSON: Here.TEACHER: Jessie Barnett? JESSIE BARNETT: Here. TEACHER: Amos? AMOS: Here. TEACHER: Alice? ALICE: Here. TEACHER: Stephanie? STEPHANIE: Here. TEACHER: Ashley? ASHLEY: Here.
NOAH ADAMS: This is a special learning class at the Hindman school for youngsters who are dyslexic. TEACHER: Everybody together, what does this say? CLASS: [speaking together] [unintelligible]
NOAH ADAMS: These students come from many of the regular schools around the area. And at lunch time you can often find James Still sitting at a table with these youngsters. Mr. Still is 89 years old. Most of his regular friends are gone. James Still has been pleased, though, this fall to have the companionship of Lee Smith, a novelist from Virginia who is in a residency program at the Hindman Settlement School. Lee Smith back in college wanted to be a writer and didn't know how.
LEE SMITH, Novelist: Having grown up in this area myself, I was writing about everything else in the world. I was writing about Hawaii and all this stuff. My teachers kept saying write what you know. But I didn't know what they meant. And then I read James Still. Nobody showed him to me. I was just -- picked through the 'Ss' in the library and came upon James Still and started reading River of Earth which is still, I believe, the most moving novel I have ever read. And when I got to the end -- it's a kind of an Appalachian Grapes of Wrath, -- and when I got to the end the family is packing up yet again and they're heading off to find a better life. And they're heading off to Grundy, Virginia, which is my hometown. That's where I'm from. And it just killed -- I just couldn't believe it to see Grundy, Virginia written in a book. And not only that, but the best book I'd read so far. So, it's just for me his writing has been a kind of a touchstone.
NOAH ADAMS: Let's draw the last circle now and make it even smaller to include a few acres of land on Wolfpen Creek about nine miles out in the county from Hindman. James Still takes us for a walk there to meet his trees.
Now, tell me about -- describe this tree for me because I've never heard of this one before.
JAMES STILL, Author, "River of Earth,": Scotch broom. NOAH ADAMS: Scotch? JAMES STILL: Broom. NOAH ADAMS: Broom. Scotch broom? JAMES STILL: Scotch broom in the spring before the little leaves come, we have little tiny blossoms that look like small butterflies all over it.
This is a hybrid tree right here. When its leaves come in the spring, they're yellow in the spring and people think it's dying, you know? And they're yellow and then eventually they turn green.
And this little thing, this little tree, that's the tree of heaven. They call that the goose-egg walnut. Walnuts are generally about this size, you know? About this size. This one is big, like this. Huge.
NOAH ADAMS: We opened the cabin door. It's painted blue to keep the witches out. That was a belief among the Germans who settled here along Wolfpen Creek. This is a two-story log house with a big center room, a gas-burning stove. It is so quiet here that once Mr. Still heard some faint, ghostly music coming from a dulcimer he had hanging on the wall.
JAMES STILL: I went over there and here was a granddaddy spider running up and down, plucking very quiet, you know. Running up and down over the strings. NOAH ADAMS: On the dulcimer?
JAMES STILL: Yeah. NOAH ADAMS: Goodness. JAMES STILL: You know, I mean his legs? Yeah, harvest man they call them. NOAH ADAMS: It's called what? JAMES STILL: It's real name is harvest man. NOAH ADAMS: Harvest man? JAMES STILL: Yeah. NOAH ADAMS: The spider?
JAMES STILL: But we call them granddaddy spiders. And it's bad luck to kill one, incidentally.
NOAH ADAMS: Mr. Still's poetry comes from close around him. From the music of dulcimers, the feeling of dark night in the coal camps, the whippoorwill and the young horses in springtime.
JAMES STILL: I was trying to get home one night down here from Melondin. I came this way. It was about one o'clock in the night. And there was fog on the ground and I was coming along and all of a sudden a fox flared up in my headlights and I ran over it and killed it. And that bothered me and the next day I started to write a letter but instead I wrote this verse. And this is how it came out. How simple can a poem get and yet it is what's behind it that could mean nothing simpler than this.
Last night I ran a fox over
A sudden, brilliant flash of gold
A setting sun of gilded fur appeared in my car's beam
And then the fatal thump
I asked the fox to forgive me
He spat as he died
I asked God to forgive me
I don't believe He will
Is there no pardon anywhere?
NOAH ADAMS: When -- so I'm clear about this, when you say the importance is what's behind it, you mean what -- JAMES STILL: Well, I mean the reader must -- NOAH ADAMS: What the reader brings to it. JAMES STILL: Yeah, the reader has to meet me half way anyhow. NOAH ADAMS: Yes.
JAMES STILL: Sometimes children, they come up and ask me "How do you write a poem?" I finally decided on an answer. Ellen LeClark who is Mrs. Rob Penn Warren told me once what to do if I were attacked by an octopus. Yeah, and I said the thing, you know, you're all wrapped up in the arm, the thing to do -- the only thing you can do is to reach in its mouth and get a handful of something and turn it wrong side out. Now, that's what you do with a subject. You turn it wrong-side out.
NOAH ADAMS: James Still grew up in northern Alabama. He came to eastern Kentucky in 1932, working then for just room and board at the Hindman Settlement School. He's been involved with the school in one way or another ever since. But he's made a career as a writer. He started out selling poetry to the Atlantic magazine and Harpers just to buy socks and razor blades. And then he made a big sale. He had settled into his cabin to write full time.
JAMES STILL: What happened was I had hardly been here when I had sent a story to The Saturday Evening Post never thinking they would accept it. They did. But they wrote back and said, "If you will change the last paragraph" --- told me what to do with it -- "we'll pay you $500 for this story." I happened to be a t home when it was forwarded to me and my Daddy said "He really means $50." And I said "NO. It's $500." And "Well, you going to say "No?" I said "I'm not. It destroys the story." And I didn't. So, they accepted it anyway. And that's the story that won the O. Henry prize -- second prize, Faulkner won first prize in the 19- something -39, I think.
NOAH ADAMS: The short story money paid for the time to write a novel -- River of Earth. It was published in 1940. It has never been out of print. It's the story of desperate times in the coal fields of eastern Kentucky, the story of how families starved, survived -- making it through the icy winters.
When you were working on River of Earth, re-reading it now I'm struck by two things. Two things sort of send a shiver through you. One is the cold of those winters that you described. And the other is the lack of food. The people didn't have any food to eat.
JAMES STILL: Yeah. NOAH ADAMS: How did you find out though how people -- how hard it was for people? How they got though the winter and what they did?
JAMES STILL: One -- one of those summers the F-E-R-A - Federal Emergency Relief Administration -- the home visitor for some reason went away and they asked me to take their place which I did. And I had to walk. I had the Tooley backwoods section of Bald and Quicksand area. And --
NOAH ADAMS: These are creek areas, you mean? Quicksand Creek?
JAMES STILL: Yeah. Creek areas -- Bald Creek, yeah. And these were truly backwood people country. A great many log houses, people never been anywhere and so we kept notebooks there. We kept -- Now, I'd count the chickens, you know. If they had them any cows, how much milk they got, butter, their can goods, the garden and one thing and the other. Look in their meager barrels. And we stayed at home in Hindman in the office on Fridays and wrote up our reports from these notes. See, visiting these homes is where all summer long, that's where River of Earth came from, the background, I mean.
NOAH ADAMS: Mr. Still says he hasn't read that book since he wrote it. There'd be too many things he'd like to change. At 89 years of age, he says, he probably will not write another novel. He feels his poetry is still strong and his love of great literature remains. He estimates he's read four hours a day for the past fifty years.
JAMES STILL: I come over here weekends. Wake up about four in the morning. Make some coffee. I'm very often reading there at three in the afternoon -- eleven hours. I just finished a book in bed this morning about two o'clock. You see, I'm into French literature. I'm reading -- rereading now -- a translation of course -- the great ones, you know, Balzac, Diderot, Turgenev. Necosta??? gave Russia, but he was an ex-patriot.
NOAH ADAMS: James Still will soon close up the cabin on Wolfpen Creek and stay in his apartment in town for the winter working on his poetry, enjoying the company of the youngsters at the Hindman Settlement School. He's noticed that adults can tend just to ignore people his age. As we end our visits, thinking of November and the rainy, cold weather ahead, we have asked to hear a favorite poem.
JAMES STILL: Here it is.
Through the buttonwood balls suspended on twig strings
The rain-fog circles and swallows
Climbs the shallow plates of bark, the grooved trunks
And wind pellets go hurrying though the leaves
Down, down the rain
Down in plunging streaks of watered gray.
Rain in the beechwood trees
Rain upon the wanderer whose breath lies cold upon the mountainside
Caught up with broken horns within the nettled grass
With hooves relinquished on the breathing stones eatened with rain strokes
Rain has buried her seed and her dead
They spring together in this fertile air loud with thunder
Still's Love of Life Reflected in Novels and Poetry., All Things Considered (NPR), 11-10-1995.