Thursday, February 09, 2006

Milkweed Ladies Sail Away

Unpopped milkweed pod

Long before I was first entranced by milkweeds, Louise McNeill invited them to tea, and wrote them her first poem. In The Milkweed Ladies (1988, University of Pittsburgh Press), a brief but vivid memoir of a Pocahontas County childhood, McNeill relates the poem she composed as a child for her playhouse tea parties, where her guests were made of milkweed pod fluff:

Milkweed ladies so fair and fine,
Won't you have a sip of my columbine?
Or a thimble of thimbleberry wine?
Milkweed Ladies sail away

Nobody has described Pocahontas County more lovingly or more vividly than Ms. McNeill.

The farm, a wide plateau of rocky, loam-dark fields, lies above Swago Creek, 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 open through the years. There are three small woodlands, two of them still virgin and mostly of oak. (p 3)

Milkweed Ladies have sailed away.

Until I was sixteen years old, until the roads came, the farm was about all I knew: our green meadows and hilly pastures, our storied old men, the great rolling seasons of moon and sunlight, our limestone cliffs and trickling springs....But before I grew up and went out into the world--and a bloody thing I found it--we were all at home there in our faded cottage in the meadow, all of us safe and warm. Sometimes now, a quiet sense comes to me, the cool mist blowing in my face as though I am walking through islands of fog and drifting downhill slowly southward until I feel the mountains behind my shoulder. (pp 5-7)

Because those years were the years of my childhood, 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....And though I realize that I am old now, so that the years play tricks on me, it is all still there sometimes, an unchanged presence, even the rat manure in the water spring; and sometimes we are still at home and it is summer. (p 31)

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