“Because we stood so long in one place, our rocky old farm and the abundant earth of the continent were linked together in the long tides of the past. Because the land kept us, never budging from its rock-hold, we held to our pioneer ways the longest, the strongest; and we saw the passing of time from a place called solid, from our own slow, archean and peculiar stance.”
~ Louise McNeill, “The Milkweed Ladies”
The late author and West Virginia Poet Laureate Louise McNeill was born on the old Thomas McNeill farm near Buckeye in 1911, one of four children born to Douglas “G.D” and Grace McNeill McNeill.
The love of the land and agriculture is in the blood of this family, and McNeill found her voice and life’s work in putting words, not plows, to the soil.
Receiving her education at Edray District High School and at Concord College (AB, 1936); Miami University of Ohio (MA, 1938); and West Virginia University, (PhD, 1959), McNeill left the farm, but the farm never left her.
In her book, The Milkweed Ladies, she introduces herself:
‘Until I was 16, until the roads came, the farm was about all I knew: our green meadows and hilly pastures, our storied old men, the great rolling seasons of moon and sunlight, our limestone cliffs and trickling springs. It was about all I knew, and, except for my father and before him, the old Rebel Captain, all that any of us had ever known: just the farm and our little village down at the crossroads, and the worn cow paths winding the slopes; or the winter whiteness and stillness…”
In 1927, at the age of 16, she penned her first poem and, in 1939, she published her first book, Gauley Mountain, a collection of poems that narrate the settling of a fictional land called “Gauley” by the first white people who crossed the Allegheny Mountains into western Virginia.
In 1967, she was selected as “Teacher of the Year” at Concord College, and in 1977 as West Virginia’s “Daughter of the Year” by the West Virginia Society of Washington, DC. She was given the distinction of Poet Laureate of West Virginia in 1979 and was recognized as West Virginian of the Year in 1985. In 1988 she received the Appalachian Gold Medallion from the University of Charleston.
McNeill and her husband, Roger Pease, had one son, Douglas, a research physicist at the University of Connecticut, at Storrs.
In her poem, “Hill Daughter,” she writes, “It has taken me long to return, and you died without knowing, but down where the veins of the rock and the aspen tree run – Land of my fathers and blood, oh, my fathers, whatever is left of your hearts in the dust, I have brought you a son.”
The story is told that when Douglas was a student, his mother sent him a container of dirt and some seeds from the farm and told him to plant them outside his dorm so he would never forget where he came from.
McNeill died in 1993.
But her writing in the “Appalachian voice” will endear her to future generations.
“Her passing is like the loss of West Virginia wilderness. It can never be replaced,” wrote Larry Groce, host of West Virginia Public Radio’s Mountain Stage.
Stories at Evening
“My great great grand-pa Jethro walked
The wild savannahs deep in grass;
He saw the herds of buffalo
File westward through the mountain pass.
“Great grandpa William in his time
Remembered pigeons wild and gray
Whose thousand wings beat out the sun
The morning that they flew away.
“My grandpa Frederick could recall
The wild trout flashing in their school;
He set his stick of dynamite
And scooped a hundred from the pool
“My father, Douglas, saw the trees
Across this bare, eroded land,
He saw the tulip tree and ash,
The spruce and hemlock– virgin stand.
“And I myself at morning saw
The chestnut on the ridge – its living green –
The blue-fringed gentian…
“Listen, now, my son –
Stories at evening – wonders I have seen;
And, as we sit, look sharp and well remember
Your son may hear the strangest tale of all;
How little rabbits hopped across our garden,
How grass grew by the wall,
And there, one night, when you were six or seven,
You heard a Bob White call.”
From the book Gauley Mountain – a history in verse
When a mouse squeak-ed or a board flapped
Or a cat knocked over a broken chair,
When the roof creaked or the fire snapped
Or a hound dog bayed at the empty air,
When the wind banged till the door was shaken
Or a wood rat gnawed on a crusty bun,
Fred was always the first in the house to waken,
Rally, and grab his gun.
When a cork popped or a bow scraped,
When the fiddles twang-ed and the floor was oiled,
When the meat stewed or the cider brewed
Or the sugar sap in the kettle boiled,
When the dance was gay and the feed was grand –
Whether a wake or a hootchy show,
Fred was always the first on hand,
Always the last to go.
When the plague struck or the oats rusted
Or a wind storm scattered a rick of hay,
When a load stuck or a wheel busted
Or there was a parcel of debts to pay,
When a horse scared or a friend sickened,
Or a dead shot reached for his trusted gun,
Whenever the danger or trouble thickened,
Fred was always the first who quickened…
Always the first to run.