The Squirrels, the Twilight, the Kudzu, and the Mine-Dumps

Six centuries of Appalachian history in four poems.

Two Sketches Pulled from the Gray Air

One spring when his children were small,
my grandfather did what he had to do: he took
his gun to the edge of the field at the woods line,
where red-bellied woodpeckers hammered trees,
where animal eyes gleamed on the darkest nights. In
the lean years, the early years, he took his gun and
sighted and squeezed, he shot a fox squirrel
with a mouthful of leaves, he shot a fox squirrel
carrying bits of grapevine. They were collecting
materials for the loose masses they nested in.
He lifted and bagged limp bodies in rusty coats.
He waited. If he saw no more fox squirrels,
he crossed the ravine, went into the deep woods,
went looking for the smaller gray squirrels
he sometimes saw there, sometimes did not.

From his bloody hands, my grandmother took
the headless squirrel bodies, singed them to burn
any stray hairs. Bodies like puppets, like dolls. She
washed them in several waters, patted them with an
old dishtowel. She quartered or cut them into neat
pieces, she rubbed over them pepper
and salt, rolled them in flour or fine cornmeal,
dipped them in egg if she had an unsold egg.
She made squirrel and dumplings, or fried squirrel
and made gravy. She stewed them in salted water
until their meat was tender, their bones pink.

Twilight in the Appalachian Forests

At Citico after Irene McKinney

At Citico Creek, Cohutta, Slickrock, the fires are not contained. At Quarry Creek, at Chilhowee Mountain, not contained. Visitors, use care.

After weeks of sunny skies, no rain, record heat,
the hayfields crack, creeks shrivel, the tree limbs
rattle like dry bones. Then sparks from campfires,

cigarettes—then leaf litter ignites, harsh winds, trees
crashing down the power lines—then walnuts and
oaks flare up, tremble and glow. Black gums

and hemlocks stain the air red as tongues of fire
cry everywhere. At Rock Creek Gorge, rows
of fiery eyes. Soot peppers the skin, the lips. The air

is heavy above the charred trunks, the dead animals,
the sputtering hollows. Firefighters in hardhats swing
shovels, dig the ragged breaks. Their eyes

strain the haze, their teeth clench. Above Tellico,
a bulldozer gouges the earth, its windows smeared
with ash. The sun blinks out in the asphalt valleys,

in the Blue Ridge outcrops, the black cough,
the Ocoee watershed, the bloodroot, the ore heaps.
The fires in the mountains will not stop burning.

Lines Written the Night Before Driving to Lone Rock, Tennessee

Here, the kudzued strip of Tennessee,
buttercups, old farm where I abide, take
hold, take too much, what I think is mine.
Here, the grown-over hill, trenches,
Dollar General, stranger with a paper sign.
Here, the homes of the war women, 

Cornblossom and Standing Fern. Here,
the understory, foam flower, fire pink,
serviceberry, Lee Allen and Valaida Snow.
Here, a day trip, my wife driving, our sons in
the back seat, Happy Meals, smoothies,
a state park where the four of us will hike, 

Stone Door or Old Prison Mine Trail,
hemlock and blue magnolia, stockade
and guard house site, dog holes, hundreds
of lost graves. Here, the mouths I feed,
the fuels I go through like water,
the smoldering earth where they’ll bury me.

A Small History of Mines

from the Oxford English Dictionary

It is harde & perilous to abyde in mynes of erthe, for [they are] colde and moyste. (1398)

Them they condempned into ston quarris, and in to myenes to dygge. (1551) 

If the dampe in Colepits comes…the workemen haste to the mouth of the pit, lest they be choaked. (1642)

His bucket-engine drained a valuable Cannel-mine for many years at a small expence. (1792)

The starving agriculturists of Glamorgan would displace, at half price, the full paid miner in the iron and coal levels. (1834)

Black infiltration of the whole lungs, the black lung of coal miners. (1838)

The stones and bricks of buildings crumble more readily in towns where much coal is burnt. (1859)

The miners leave their working-faces at the allowed walking speed of 2⅔ miles per hour. (1942)

A landscape with only our mountains, the mine-dumps, yellow in the shadowless light. (1990)


About the author

William Woolfitt is a poet, prose writer, and editor. He is the author of four poetry collections, includingThe Night the Rain Had Nowhere to Gofrom Belle Point Press (forthcoming June 2024).

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