Please welcome guest author and playwright Lisa Soland. Soland is an award-winning playwright with over 40 international publications. You might have caught her plays Waiting or The Sniper’s Nest at The Clayton Center for the Arts, or The Ladder Plays produced at Pellissippi State. Soland relocated to Eastern Tennessee with her husband after living most of their adult lives in Los Angeles. She now teaches in the theatre departments at both Maryville College and Pellissippi State. Soland is writing a five-woman stage play about the lives of the Walker Sisters, while on a promotional tour with her new children’s book The Christmas Tree Angel.
In 1933 the U.S. government decided that a significant amount of land in Eastern Tennessee should be vacated by its residents and turned into one of America’s great National Parks. Soland’s inspiration to write the play on the Walker sisters began when she learned of these five women and their persistence to remain in their home in spite of the fact that everyone around them was leaving theirs. In 1941 the sisters agreed to sell their land to the government but they were able to retain a lifetime lease on the property so that they could live there until the last sister died, which was in 1964.
The five unmarried women survived off the land, making their own clothes and growing their own food. They claimed that the land provided everything they needed except for sugar, coffee, soda and salt. After an article about them was published in the Saturday Evening Post, park visitors flocked to their cabin just to be able to visit with them and witness for themselves the simple way of life the sisters were continuing to choose to live. The sisters would sell souvenirs to the tourists to pay for those few items they were not able to produce by themselves.
Two summers ago the playwright and her husband hiked to their home, which still stands, starting out at Metcalf Bottoms Picnic Area and passing by the Little Greenbrier Schoolhouse. “The real adventure begins when you reach the cabin and have the opportunity to rediscover, through the use of your imagination, what the Walker sisters’ lives must have been like,” Soland says.
Their visit that day to the Walker sister’s home is what got this imaginative playwright thinking. “Half of the stage would be represented by what’s inside the cabin — their fireplace, cast iron cooking pots and pans, and rudimentary beds stuffed with straw. The other half would be their front porch.” Soland writes as she speaks, “The play might be made up of four scenes showing what each of the four seasons might have been like, trying to live off the land and survive through the winters with no electricity or running water.”
John Walker (the Walker sister’s father) was a Union Army veteran just returning from the Civil War when he married Wiley King’s daughter, Margaret. They moved into the cabin in 1870. In 1909, John Walker deeded the land to five of his daughters – Margaret, Martha, Nancy, Louisa and Hettie, and to his youngest son, Giles. Father Walker’s other five children had married and moved away. But in 1921, brother Giles turned his share over to the five sisters.
“The sisters believed in self-reliance. They raised sheep and grew cotton and corn. They made their own clothes out of the wool from the sheep. Combed it, cleaned it and spun it on the spinning wheel. Life was hard.” Soland adds. “But they knew what mattered and it wasn’t found in the stuff they owned. They were practical and most of what was theirs was theirs for reasons of survival.”
Soland has hiked six 14,000-ft peak mountains in Colorado and California. When she hikes she brings with her a backpack, sleeping bag, tent, bandana, cooking utensils, stove, gas, matches, toilet paper, warm sweater, extra socks and a first aid kit. One time when she was hiking on a five-day trip in Colorado, she sprained her ankle. She wrapped it in my bandana and tape from the first aid kit, and every time she had to cross a river, she soaked it in the cold mountain stream.
“Simple,” Soland says. “Life like this is simple and when you’re living this way, you become bigger, larger and stronger than most of the circumstances you’ll encounter. Problems dissolve in a way in which they can’t when we’re busy relying on so many things that in truth are unnecessary.”
This is what attracted Soland to the Walker Sisters’ story. “Without TV’s, IPads, I-phones, texting, shopping… What was their most precious activity?” Soland asks. “What thoughts did they have on a warm summer night when the sun set late and they found themselves sitting on the porch listening to the owls and the night moving in the dark? What did they do with the time we, in today’s world, are so willing to give away with our addiction to purchasing so much of what we don’t need? What did they do with all that precious time we’ve thrown in the garbage with our need to be busy?”
It is clear that Soland appreciates the Walker Sisters’ way of life. “Our ancestors worked hard so we wouldn’t have to live like that. If they only knew, we needed to work hard in order to appreciate what we’ve been given.” She adds, “Now it seems what’s most appreciated, what’s most precious, has dissolved into the rolling rivers whose sound no one no longer really hears.”
The Walker Sisters were some of the last living residents inside what is now known as the Smoky Mountain National Park. They appreciated the mountain life with an appreciation the author longs for. With the help of Lisa Soland’s play on the life of the Walker Sisters, maybe we too can live what a quiet and simple life in these beautiful mountains of Eastern Tennessee might have been like.
For more information on Lisa Soland and her new children’s book The Christmas Tree Angel, visit www.LisaSoland.com.