James Still, poet and passionate defender of Knott County

June 22, 2013 

James Still (1906-2001) spent much of his life writing in an old log house between Wolfpen Creek and Dead Mare Branch in Knott County.

Still is best known for his 1940 novel River of Earth, which told of a family struggling to find its place in Eastern Kentucky's coalfields during the Great Depression. He also published volumes of poetry and was Kentucky's poet laureate. Still read his poem Heritage at the 1990 funeral of Harry Caudill, author of Night Comes to the Cumberlands.

As a farmer, Still resented the ruination of land and water. "The creeks mean a lot to people," he said in a 1984 documentary on the Kentucky River. "It's how they identify themselves and where they live."

"One of the biggest problems from the coal exploitation is acid runoff in the water," he said. "In the creeks and the river, as more strip-mining is done, it's getting so you can't even raise a decent mosquito around here. We need to educate people so they ­understand pollution and what it does, how it affects people and towns."

His poems are reprinted with permission of The University Press of Kentucky.

'Heritage'

I shall not leave these prisoning hills
Though they topple their barren heads to level earth
And the forests slide uprooted out of the sky
Though the waters of Troublesome, of Trace Fork,
Of Sand Lick rise in a single body to glean the valleys,
To drown lush pennyroyal, to unravel rail fences;
Though the sun-ball breaks the ridges into dust
And burns its strength into the blistered rock
I cannot leave. I cannot go away.

Being of these hills, being one with the fox
Stealing into the shadows, one with the new-born foal,
The lumbering ox drawing green beech logs to mill,
One with the destined feet of man climbing and descending,
And one with death rising to bloom again, I cannot go.
Being of these hills I cannot pass beyond.

'I Was Born Humble'

I was born humble. At the foot of mountains
My face was set upon the immensity of earth
And stone; and upon oaks full-bodied and old.
There is so much writ upon the parchment of leaves,
So much of beauty blown upon the winds,
I can but fold my hands and sink my knees
In the leaf-pages. Under the mute trees
I have cried with this scattering of knowledge,
Beneath the flight of birds shaken with this waste
Of wings.
I was born humble. My heart grieves
Beneath this wealth of wisdom perished with the leaves.

'Unemployed Coal Miner'

What
else
to
do
with
hands
except
to
put
them
into
pockets
where
nothing
is?

'Mine Is a Wide Estate'

I am wealthy with earth and sky,
Heir to far boundaries of field and stream,
And scarce can keep track of so much property:
Cloud-herd, dew-diamond, midge and bee,
Wasp-way, wind's wisdom and the foxfire's gleam —
I am rich despite a seeming poverty.

Mine is a wide estate. It is a legal jest.
These are a neighbor's hills, those a stranger's.
Who owns the water's speech, the hornet's nest,
The catbird's mew, the grassy breath in mangers,
And who in cricket song and mayfly nymphs invest?
I am possessor and possessed.

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