Friday, March 09, 2007

Emma Bell Miles -- Part 1

Chattanooga, Tennessee. The early 1950s. I am 16 years old, dreaming lazily in bed on a summer morning. I look out the window and see a bird unlike any I have noticed before, brilliant orange, like a leaf afire.

I have a job that summer as stack boy for the Chattanooga Public Library. When I get to work I look for a book that might help me identify the bird, and find Our Southern Birds by Emma Bell Miles. It isn't the most useful guide I might have found -- the author's pen-and-ink illustrations aren't in color -- but it helps me identify a Baltimore oriole. Inspired by her simple but lively sketches, I spent a few weeks sketching birds myself.

Decades pass. The early 1990s. I am back in Chattanooga on a visit, browsing a bookstore, and come across a reprint of Our Southern Birds, published by the Walden's Ridge Historical Association. In a moment of nostalgia, I buy the book and rediscover Emma Bell Miles.

She was born on October 19, 1879, to schoolteacher parents in Rabbit Hash, Kentucky. At the age of 11, she moved with her family to wooded Walden's Ridge near Chattanooga. Her interests were art and nature. At age 20, she went away to the St. Louis School of Art, but after two winters returned to her beloved mountain, where she married Frank Miles and bore five children.

Her life was hard. The family lived in a shack. Emma sold stories, poems, and paintings to make ends meet, including a book called The Spirit of the Mountains, drawn from her experience as a school teacher on Walden's Ridge (later, the book would become a treasured record of the life and songs of the mountain people). Her health broke. Tuberculosis.

In and out of the sanatorium, Emma moved with her family to Chattanooga, where she painted and lectured on birds to school and civic groups. She acquired a modest local fame, but clung to life by a thread. The thread was her love of birds.

In the spring of 1918, a Chicago book publisher called on Emma and together they planned a book on southern birds. Preparing the text and illustrations kept her alive for another summer. Our Southern Birds came off the press in March 1919, and the publisher brought copies to her house. Two weeks later she was dead, at age 39.

More tomorrow.