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.
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'
'Unemployed Coal Miner'
'Mine Is a Wide Estate'
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.