The Milkweed Ladiesthe memoirs of poet Louise McNeill, is written our deep affection for and intimate knowledge of the lives of rural people and the rhythms of the natural world. It is a personal account of the farm in southern West Virginia where her family has lived for nine generations.
Born in 1911, McNeill tells the story of her own growing years on the farm through the circadian rhythms of rural life. She presents the farm itself, "its level fields, its fence row, and hilly pastures . . . some two hundred acres of trees and bluegrass, running water, and the winding, dusty paths that cattle and humans have kept open through the years." She writes movingly of the harsh routines of the lives of her family, from spring ploughing to winter sugaring, and of the hold the farm itself has on them and the earth itself on all of us.
By the 1930s, the farm and the surrounding community had been drastically changed by the destruction left by the lumber companies, by the increased access to the outside world resulting from railway and automobile, and by war. McNeill herself left the farm in 1937 to complete her college education and to persue her literary career.
ThroughoutThe Milkweed Ladies, McNeill juxtaposes the life of the farm with the larger world events that impinge on it. But the larger world moves closer and closer to the world of the farm as McNeill herself moves away from it. The book concludes with McNeill's perspective on the events of August 5, 1945. As she sits in the Commodore Hotel in New York City, reading the headlines about Hiroshima, she understands that she can never see the farm in the same way again.
The Milkweed Ladiesis filled with memorable characters - an herb-gathering Granny, McNeill's sailor father, her patient, flower-loving mother, and Aunt Malindy in her "black sateen dress" who "never did a lick of work." With her poet's gift for detail and language, McNeill creates a world, forgotten by many of us, to some of us never known.
Front MatterFront Matter (pp. i-viii) https://doi.org/10.2307/j.ctt6wrcbq.1
Table of ContentsTable of Contents (pp. ix-x) https://doi.org/10.2307/j.ctt6wrcbq.2
AcknowledgmentsAcknowledgments (pp. xi-2) https://doi.org/10.2307/j.ctt6wrcbq.3
A Patch of EarthA Patch of Earth (pp. 3-8) https://doi.org/10.2307/j.ctt6wrcbq.4
The farm, a wide plateau of rocky, loam-dark fields, lies above Swago Crick, along the Greenbrier River of West Virginia and some twenty-five to thirty miles north of the Virginia line. This patch of earth is held within a half stadium of limestone cliffs and mountain pastures. On the surface, the Swago Farm is quiet and solid, green in summer and in winter deep with snow. It has its level fields, its fence rows and hilly pastures. There are some two hundred acres of trees and bluegrass, running water, and the winding, dusty paths that cattle and humans have kept...
G.D.’s Sea ChestG.D.’s Sea Chest (pp. 9-16) https://doi.org/10.2307/j.ctt6wrcbq.5
It seems the Swago Farm has always beenthere for me, and fragments of the stories drifting across my mind. How the stories first came to me I cannot answer, for they came in bits and pieces. But I know that I was always there in my small place in the circle and always listening, the scraps and fragments sinking down into my child-mind.
The Indian years were still close to us, and the two Indian graves still lay quiet in our Tommy woodland. The old Seneca Trail, running south from the Iroquois Nation, wound its way across our pastures,...
Granny Fanny’s Thorn Broom HandleGranny Fanny’s Thorn Broom Handle (pp. 17-30) https://doi.org/10.2307/j.ctt6wrcbq.6
The summer of 1911 was the summerthe Slashing saved the farm. The Slashing, that tangled mass of dead braches the loggers had left on Captain Jim’s up-the-hollow when they skidded away the virgin oak, had begun to let in sunlight that summer and had allowed black raspberries to grow. Even now, seventy-five years later, when I go home, my sister Elizabeth and I will sometimes speak about The Slashing as though it were still a living thing. That winter, the year I was born and the old Captain died, there was no money and no job for G.D., still...
The Door PegThe Door Peg (pp. 31-40) https://doi.org/10.2307/j.ctt6wrcbq.7
Because those years were the years of mychildhood, I might tell them in a way that would break my heart. But my heart does not break. There is a kind of benison that falls sometimes on the fields and mountains. Sometimes it is sunlight; or a slow misty rain; or a goose-feather snow drifting down from the sky; and the mountains ringing the fields, ringing the little village down at the crossroads and the white steeple of the Upper Church. And though I realize that I am old now, so that the years play tricks on me, it is...
Green-up TimeGreen-up Time (pp. 41-56) https://doi.org/10.2307/j.ctt6wrcbq.8
We had a store calendar on the kitchenwall, and Granny Fanny’s old clock on the mantel struck the hours; but time, as we deeply knew it, was hitched to the circle of the year. It was the old peasant calendar, turning with the earth, from winter to spring, to summer, to autumn, back to winter again.
In the late winter season of freezing nights and thawing days, when water began to sing under the ice, and patches of bare ground opened on the south slope, we had “sugar-makin’” in the Woodland-up-the-Hollow. There on the wooded slope stood the sugar...
Apple Butter RedApple Butter Red (pp. 57-64) https://doi.org/10.2307/j.ctt6wrcbq.9
After corn planting was Oller, summer ranhot and fast toward fall. It glimmered in heat waves over the hay stubble and whirred like the jarflies in the tallest trees. The cornfield had to be cultivated twice every season before it could be “laid by,” and that was, to me, a hateful task. There were always eight or ten acres of corn rows, thousands of hills, all grown thick with bindweed, ragweed, and smartweed. Every stubborn weed had to be dug out, shaken off, and thrown into the open furrow. But after five rows, we could rest for a few...
Neighborhood WaysNeighborhood Ways (pp. 65-80) https://doi.org/10.2307/j.ctt6wrcbq.10
The Swago neighborhood was interlacedwith wagon roads and with little footpaths that wound and sprangled across the hills. The Big Road that ran through the village, following the old Indian Trail, was not hard-surfaced until the late twenties. There were also smaller dirt roads: one down the river, one up Dry Crick, and the one across the river bridge. We were, essentially, a foot-walking society; and the paths intersected farm fields, ran up over pasture hills, along fence rows and the winding cricks. All paths and roads led eventually to the village, and there were the three centers of...
Signs and PortentsSigns and Portents (pp. 81-92) https://doi.org/10.2307/j.ctt6wrcbq.11
Aunt Malindy was no kin of ours, but allthrough my childhood she stayed at our house, a free boarder who always sat in our best rocker. She was very old and very fat and always wore her shining fat dress of black sateen; and she ate enormously, never did a lick of work, never even peeled an apple or snapped a bean, and I loved her and lay safe and warm, pillowed against her sateen breasts.
G.D. always said that she was there because she had no other place to go to; but we never thought why she was...
Over BonnieOver Bonnie (pp. 93-102) https://doi.org/10.2307/j.ctt6wrcbq.12
Once, fifteen million acres of virgin foreststretched from the top of the Allegheny range to the Ohio River shore; and, when I was a child, G.D.’s and Uncle Dock’s part of it ran for sixty unbroken miles beyond our Pinnacle Mountain: a quarter million acres of hardwood forest. For over a hundred years, our menfolks and all the other Swago hunters walked it as though it belonged to them.
Every spring and every fall, G.D., Uncle Dock, Cousin Rush, and my brother Ward took off Over the Mountain for their fishing trip to Cranberry River, to Williams, and Gauley,...
The Coming of the RoadsThe Coming of the Roads (pp. 103-114) https://doi.org/10.2307/j.ctt6wrcbq.13
The chestnut blight came slowly, a grayquiet death. At first there was a canker on one old tree, and then the canker spread. The spores blew in wind, and the branches began dying.
We had always called Uncle Dan’l’s trees “the chestnut orchard,” just across our line fence on the flat knoll of his part of Old Tom’s farm. Forty or fifty big American chestnut trees stood there together, as the old men had saved them from the first clearings back in Indian times, and for generations they had been the neighborhood nutting ground. On crisp autumn days, the...
Night at the CommodoreNight at the Commodore (pp. 115-122) https://doi.org/10.2307/j.ctt6wrcbq.14
After I left the farm, I often felt as I hadwhen I used to plumb the depth of water as a child. In summer, after every big rainstorm, a flood would come, and our tiny cow-spring trickle would become a roaring stream that flowed foamy and green over the leaning grasses. I would go out barefoot in the early morning with a long straight pole; and with my dress tied up above my knees I would wade along the shallows to measure the deep holes. I felt my way out into the current and walked slowly upstream, my feet...
Back MatterBack Matter (pp. 123-124) https://doi.org/10.2307/j.ctt6wrcbq.15