Wilma Dykeman (1920-2006) pioneered and popularized the concepts of Appalachian Studies and Appalachian Literature. She wrote prolific columns for the ‘Knoxville News-Sentinel.’ She served as the Tennessee State Historian, a Trustee of Berea College, and as a Senior Fellow of the National Endowment of the Humanities.
During her long career Dykeman was awarded the Sidney Hillman Award (shared with her husband James) and a Guggenheim Fellowship, and was honored as a Tennessee Conservation Writer of the Year.
Wilma Dykeman’s writing interests ranged from early Tennessee history (“The French Broad,” 1955) to civil rights (“Neither Black Nor White,” 1957) to the role of the mountain woman in her family and the community. This last focus is perhaps reflected best in her novels “The Tall Woman” (1962), “The Far Family” (1966), and “Return the Innocent Earth” (1973).
The following piece is an excerpt from “The Tall Woman.” The main character, Lydia McQueen, wants to build a school for the children in her valley, but one of the men in town, Ham Nelson, opposes the idea.
Lydia was down by her spring the last day of January. The afternoon had been somewhat warmer than usual and she had come to dip out any leaves that might have blown into the water since the last storm. She had brought along her hoe to deepen the bed of the overflow stream that ran from the spring. The smell of the wet leaves and the soaked ground and the chilly day gave her a feeling of being under water, of drenched lungs and body.
When Dr. Hornsby rode into the yard at the other end of the path and up the rise, she called to him. She did not recognize who the visitor was until he dismounted and she saw the heavy saddlebags across his panting horse. Before she could get her hoe and start down the path he was striding toward her.
“And what are you doing this bleak day on this godforsaken mountain?” he asked.
She laughed at the gloom of his words, belied in part by the heartiness of his smile. “Cleaning my spring.”
“And pray tell me, Lydia McQueen, “he said, “how do you clean a spring? Do you wash the water?”
“Don’t be making fun of me! There”- she pointed with the hoe- “look under the ledge where the roots of those poplar trees are, and tell me if you ever set eyes on a bolder, finer spring than that? Or a cleaner one?”
He went and looked. The natural bowl of water, surrounded on three sides and overhead by a ledge of rock and tangled web of roots and earth, stood clear and cold as glass. Around the spring and beside the stream that flowed from if were beds of moss and galax, a luxuriant winter green, and the vines of other carefully preserved plants that bloomed in spring, were a dozen blackberry stalks. There were no other briers or dead weeds or fallen limbs around this spot. Someone had worked here lovingly and well.
“I never set eyes on a bolder, finer spring, “he repeated. “Or a cleaner.”
“This is my favorite place on our farm,” she said.
“Sometime,” the doctor said and he snapped the leaf off a galax plant with a sudden angry flick of his switch, “just one time I wish I could bear you word of something good. Now I’ve got other bad news.”
She clutched the hoe. “What?”
“Ham Nelson will fight you on getting your school for Thickety Creek.”
She waited for him to go on.
“Was that your news?”
He nodded and she threw back her head and laughed. Her shawl came loose and her hair fell around her shoulders. She laughed as though she could not stop.
“But I thought it meant so much to you,” he said stiffly. “I misjudged—”
“Oh, no!” She took a step neared to him. “A school means everything to me. It’s just Ham Nelson that doesn’t mean anything.”
The doctor looked at her. Laughter and sarcasm and amazement were mingled in his look. “Nelson’s a powerful man, ” he said.
“The power of a rock,” she said.
“But there’s something stronger than a rock. You see that ledge over my spring? I’ve seen it cracked by the stem of a little vine that had to come up to sunlight through it. There’s nothing strong enough to stop for long the strength of growing things. And children are stouter than any vines.”
They walked to the yard. He mounted his horse and sat for a moment looking down at her. “I’m glad to have seen your fine spring of water, Lydia McQueen,” he said. He smiled down at her. “I’m glad to have seen you.”