In James Still's River of Earth
By Charles Duncan
Editor's Note: This is the first of a planned analysis of James Still's River of Earth.
In his seminal essay on James Still’s fiction, H.R. Stoneback speaks of the sacralized sense of place in his work, likening it to the “holy places” and “ritualized landscapes” found in the ancient Chinese agrarian religions. Examples abound throughout Still’s oeuvre — especially the poems, which are fundamentally hymns to his Faulknerian “postage stamp” of Eastern Kentucky earth just as their initial Viking Press promo suggested:
The poems have one quality, among others, which sets them apart and earns them a distinguished rank — they spring from a single locale and evoke a world of their own. The poet writes only of the Kentucky hills — of Troublesome Creek, along which he has lived, the sycamores and elms, the meadow flowers, the rabbits and foxes which haunt its banks.
In River of Earth, his crowning achievement, this hallmark of Still’s literary imagination is central to the novel’s main plot dynamic — the emotional tug of war between master coal miner Brack Baldridge and his deeply agrarian wife, Alpha, about where they should live. For Brack, life in the dismal mining camps is an acceptable trade-off for being able to practice a craft he feels he “was born to" and from which he derives pride as well as decent wages:
“I never tuck natural to growing things, planting seeds and sticking plows in the ground…A sight of farming I’ve done, but it always rubbed the grain. But give me a pick, and I’ll dig as much coal as the next ’un. Against my wont it is to be treading the camps, but it’s bread I’m hunting, regular bread with a mite o’ grease on it. …I choose mine work, the trade I know.”
However, by choosing the uncertain seasonal employment offered by the mines he uproots the family year after year, moving them from the rented farm plots where they spend the crop seasons to one soot-blackened camp after another. The stress on Alpha has been severe, because with every fiber of her being she longs to plant her roots in the soil of a pretty little hilltop farm:
“I allus had a mind to live on a hill, not sunk in a holler where the fog is damping and blacking. …a place certain and enduring with room to swing arm and elbow, a garden place for fresh victuals and a cow to furnish milk for the baby. So many places we’ve lived — the far side of one camp and next the slag pile of another … I’m longing to set me down shorely and raise my chaps proper.”
Nested within this classic battle there’s another archetypal dichotomy — the one epitomized by Wendell Berry in a famous line from one of his poems that affirm the value of a simple lifestyle in places unmolested by the advance of mechanistic “progress”: “There are no unsacred places; there are only sacred and desecrated places.”
For Alpha, the ultimate value of place is found squarely within Berry’s sacred dimension — the mystic harmony between humankind, Mother Earth, and the divinely appointed Cosmos. For Brack, the ultimate value of place is measured only by the degree to which it can provide sustenance and promote self-worth even if in the process it’s irredeemably desecrated.
Still’s alter ego in the novel — the 10-year-old narrator — serves to flesh out the dichotomy by virtue of things he notices with “the acute consciousness of nature [which] frames and interpenetrates most scenes in the book." The way he registers the onset of spring during the year he lives with his maternal grandmother on her thriving little farm, contrasted with his impressions of the Blackjack mining camp a year and a half later, parses the radical distinction between sacred and desecrated places in Still’s eastern Kentucky microcosm. In fact, it even calls to mind the diptychs of Heaven and Hell which sometimes served as altarpieces in medieval cathedrals:
Before a tip of green showed in any brushy place, you could feel spring growing through the sky. The robins came early, cocking heads in the cold. The gray bodies of goldfinches yellowed, for all the world like pussy [willow] buds blooming. And where no other sign held on wood or field, finger twigs of elder and willow and service swelled beneath their hull of bark.
Our homeseat was near the burning slag-pile. The camp was alive with the groan of the coal conveyor. It rang through the town like a rusty bell. . . . The waters [of Blackjack Creek] ran yellow, draining acid from the mines, cankering rocks in its bed. The rocks were snuffy brown, eaten and crumbly. There were no fishes swimming in the eddies, nor striders looking at themselves in the waterglass.
Even though the narrator loves and admires his father, there’s no question where his true sympathies lie — namely, with his mother and her side of the family, agrarians all.[3, 6] Nor is there much question of where our sympathies lie. As confirmed by two generations of research in evolutionary psychology, we’re endowed just as surely as Still’s sturdy, resourceful, hill folk with a suite of native intelligences that have been likened to a compartmentalized toolbox  or Swiss Army knife. Among the faculties with which we come armed at birth, already primed for their environmental triggering and modeling,[8, 9, 10] there’s one in particular that bears directly on Still’s central theme and illuminates it from within — namely, optimal habitat criteria.
Cross-cultural data have proven beyond doubt that our evidently innate landscape preferences include rolling hills and valleys, abundant vegetation, inviting shade trees, and enticing bodies of water such as clear lakes or streams — environmental features replicated and magnified in classic landscape architecture and celebrated in countless traditional landscape paintings.[11, 12] Such features signify an environment rich in sources of plant and animal nutrition as well as potable water, which throughout our ancestral past would have furnished an ideal survival habitat.[11, 13, 14] In short, as Simon Warner has neatly stated the case, aeons of selective pressures and reproductive advantage have programmed us to “subconsciously evaluate our environment as a theatre for survival, appraising places for their quality as habitats as if we had to depend on them.”
Of signal importance in an optimal habitat are the elements of prospect and refuge posited originally by landscape art historian Jay Appleton and now accepted as basic principles of landscape aesthetics.[12, 16, 17] Simply stated, prospect-refuge theory explains the well-nigh universal preference for environments with open prospects from which the surrounding terrain can be surveyed, complemented by refuge elements (e.g., copses of shade trees, man-made shelters) which provide a sense of security. Anyone who has hiked a stretch of Appalachian mountain trail will have experienced first-hand the power of these natural affinities, and thus when Alpha declares, “I allus had a mind to live on a hill, not sunk in a holler where the fog is damping and blacking,” she affirms an environmental preference as deeply rooted in human nature as the fondness for sunny days with blue skies.
She finally gets her wish early in Part III, the novel’s denouement in an essentially three-act dramatic structure reminiscent of Ibsen’s and Chekhov’s. In March of the novel’s third year, after the mines have closed for the season, Brack rents a farm “on the hills rising from the mouth of Flaxpatch on Little Angus” two of the numerous creeks which carve Still’s landscape into hills and valleys and serve as touchstones in his fiction. Alpha’s expression of her contentment there after the successful harvest — “It’s the nighest heaven I’ve been on this earth” — is therefore literally as well as figuratively apt. Moreover, not only has the earth been consecrated to human use with the plow and blessed with an abundant crop: it also has been hallowed by the grave of her infant lost in March to a round of “the croup” (i.e., influenza) compounded by malnutrition. Hence, when Brack announces his decision to move the family back to the hideous Blackjack coal camp in October, Alpha is utterly dismayed:
‘“I’m a-mind to stay on here,” Mother said, her voice chilled and tight.” . . . “‘The baby is buried here, and I’ve earnt a breathing spell. We done right well this crap [i.e., crop season]. We got plenty."
As if that were not enough, she has further consecrated her plot of fertile soil by creating an egg tree — a bare-branched sapling decorated with egg shells mouth-blown together with her daughter Euly — which she’s especially loath to abandon:
“Moving hain’t nothing but leaving things behind. . . . Nigh we get our roots planted, we keep pulling them up and planting in furrin ground. Thar’s a sight of things I hate to leave here. I hate to leave my egg tree I set so much time and patience on. Reckon it’s my egg tree holding me.”
Alpha is not talking here about some quaint Appalachian custom buried in history. Originally introduced by German immigrants to Pennsylvania in the 18th century, the gaily decorated egg tree, an Easter counterpart to the Christmas tree, became an American folk tradition which still survives.[18, 19] Research on the topic suggests that from the mid-19th century until the mid-20th, egg trees were popular among residents of Appalachia and the Ozarks, who saw them not only as symbols of renewed life but as talismans to help ensure good crops, safety from evil spirits, and successful pregnancies. Already anticipating another pregnancy to replace the dead child, Alpha alludes to this belief-set when she declares, “I allus did want me an egg tree. . . I hear tell it’s healthy to have one growing in the yard."
However, an even more cogent and universal explanation of its value to Alpha can be found in all the “time and patience” spent on its creation, which Ellen Dissanayake, in her evolutionary theory of the arts, simply calls “making special”. Dissanayake’s elegant reduction encompasses all the artistic behaviors which since the dawn of a distinctively human culture some 100,000 years ago have shifted the focus of life from mundane survival needs to a transcendent aesthetic realm often allied with religious belief.[21, 22]
At this level of signification, the tree plainly symbolizes Alpha’s deep spiritual attachment to her farm, and when Brack seeks to appease her by uprooting the tree and transporting it to their Blackjack cabin in the dead of night, he only makes matters worse. Alpha’s sarcastic comment when she spies the wretched-looking sapling replanted in the coal-blackened camp soil — “It takes a man-person to be a puore fool” — suggests unmistakably that although she’s been touched by Brack’s crude gesture of affection, it has failed miserably to make its mark. No longer an emblem of the sacred place where it grew and the family’s blessings while living there, it symbolizes with ironic precision their chronic uprootedness, poverty, and confinement to toxic desecrated places for their survival. With the merest of imaginative leaps, we could picture the final move to Blackjack as an expulsion from Eden, and the egg tree a Tree of Life ripped from its sacred soil and now a sad memento of the paradise that was lost.
There is a great deal more to be said about River of Earth, which arguably surpasses as a work of art the novel to which it’s most often compared — Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath. I discovered it at the 2008 SAMLA conference in Louisville, and after reading it twice was convinced it would make an ideal subject for my newly acquired critical approach, commonly but somewhat misleadingly known as Literary Darwinism. Since the article I’ve already published left so much of the story unexplored, I’m grateful for the opportunity to revisit Still’s consummate artistry in this exciting new journal and look forward to continuing the journey of discovery in subsequent issues.
Charles Duncan is a scholar of Appalachian culture and is retired after nearly 50 years of teaching literature at Clark Atlanta University.
1. Stoneback, H. R. “Rivers of Earth and Troublesome Creeks: the Agrarianism of James Still.” The Kentucky Review 10. 3 (1990), 3-26. In Olson & Olson, 7-20.
2. Boggess, Carol. James Still: A Life. Lexington: University of Kentucky Press, 2017.
3. Still, James. River of Earth. New York: Viking, 1940. Reprint, Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1978.
4. Berry, Wendell. “How to Be a Poet.” Poetry Magazine. (January 2001): 270.
5. Foster, Ruel. “Sense of Place in River of Earth,” in Sense of Place in Appalachia, ed. by S. Mont Whitson. Morehead, KY: Morehead State U., 1988, 68-80.
6. Duncan, Charles. “‘Never Would I Be a Miner Digging in a Darksome Hole’: James Still’s Biophilic Perspective in River of Earth,” South Atlantic Review 79.1 (Fall 2015): 25-42.
7. Gigerenzer, Gerd. Gut Feelings: The Intelligence of the Unconscious. New York: Penguin Books, 2007.
8. Cosmides, Leda and John Tooby. “Better than Rational: Evolutionary Psychology and the Invisible Hand.” American Economic Review 84.2 (1994): 327-32.
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10. Pinker, Steven. The Language Instinct. New York: William Morrow, 1994.
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14. Uhlrich, Roger. “Biophilia, Biophobia, and Natural Landscapes.” In Kellert and Wilson, 73-137.
15. Warner, Simon “Landscape as Sign Language: A Photographer’s Guide to Prospect-Refuge Theory.” Environment, Space, Place 9.1 (2017): 94-110.
16. Appleton, Jay. The Experience of Landscape. London: John Wiley, 1975.
17. Dosen, Annemarie, and Michael J. Oswald. “Evidence for Prospect-Refuge Theory: A Meta-analysis of the Findings of Environmental Preference Research.” City, Territory, and Architecture 3 (2016).
18. Kaufman, Cathy K. “The Egg Tree in America,” in Eggs in Cookery: Proceedings of the Oxford Symposium on Food and Cookery 2006, ed. Richard Hosking. Totnes, Devon, UK: Prospect Books, 2007, 107-13.
19. Newall, Venetia. “Some Notes on the Egg Tree.” Folklore 78.1 (19670: 39-45).
20. Dissanayake, Ellen. Homo Aestheticus: Where Art Comes From and Why. Seattle and London: University of Washington Press, 1992, 1995.
21. Morris-Kay, Gillian. “The Evolution of Human Artistic Creativity.” Journal of Anatomy 216 (February 2010): 158-76.
22. Hershilwood, Christopher S. et al. “A 100,000 Year-old Ochre Processing Workshop at Blomberg Cave, South Africa.” Science 334 (Oct 14, 2011): 19-22.
23. Chapell, Fred. “The Seamless Vision of James Still.” Appalachian Journal (Spring, 1981): 196-202. In Olson & Olson, 222-228.
24. Olson, Ted. “Reclaiming an Appalachian Masterpiece.” Journal of Appalachian Studies 1.1 (1995): 87-98. In Olson and Olson, 80-88.