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JERE BRTTAIN: Reflecting on the life of Wilma Dykeman

In 1970, Joanne and I were visiting our favorite elementary teacher at old Mills River School, Miss Ruth Corpening. Miss Ruth, aware of our involvement in efforts to preserve French Broad River tributaries, gave us a copy of Wilma Dykeman’s The French Broad.

Published in 1955, The French Broad traces the geological and social history of the river from its ancient origins to the present. Her vivid account of the chaos and disruption within the French Broad valley during and after the Civil War includes an informative discussion of the controversial role of Governor Zebulon Vance. The book also called attention to the fact that municipalities and industries were killing the river with pollution. Rachel Carson’s widely influential treatise on environmental impacts of agricultural pesticides, Silent Spring (1962), was said to have been inspired in part by Dykeman’s earlier work.

Wilma Dykeman’s novels are also a major part of her rich literary legacy. The Tall Woman (1962), The Far Family (1966), and Return the Innocent Earth (1973), paint vivid images of life in Western North Carolina and East Tennessee during the first half of the twentieth century. These novels examine the impact of economic development on environmental quality, traditional values, and social equity. Dykeman’s books are as relevant today as they were when they were published fifty or sixty years ago.
Joanne frequently forages for books at Friends of the Henderson County Library on Spartanburg Highway. Included in her recent box was a slim volume, Family of Earth, by Wilma Dykeman (2016, The University of North Carolina Press), with a forward by Robert Morgan. Morgan reported that Dykeman’s son, James Stokely III, discovered this unpublished manuscript in her house in Newport, Tennessee, in 2006. Evidently written during World War II, when Dykeman would have been in her mid-20s, the book is a fascinating account of the author’s childhood in the Beaverdam Creek section of Buncombe County, North Carolina.
Prominent themes in Family of Earth include her admiration for her father, Willard Dykeman, who was 60 years old when Wilma was born, her freedom to roam freely and discover the creatures of local streams and springs, and visit nearby family elders who regaled her with stories.
I was honored to present a reflection on the life of Wilma Dykeman (1920-2006) at a meeting of Friends of the French Broad River, June 4, 2007.
“In our daily decisions as farmers, consumers, developers, public servants, and educators, we ourselves are tributaries of the French Broad,” I said then. “Just like the East Fork, the Mills, the Swannanoa, and Big Laurel. The connectivity of water, especially rivers, has always appealed to poets, singers, artists, and authors. Tonight this confluence of Friends of the French Broad River celebrates the life of one of the most acclaimed of these, Wilma Dykeman. Wilma Dykeman has informed our stewardship with her eye for beauty, her ear for folk wisdom, and her legacy of truth-telling. Let us pause for a few moments of silent reflection upon the creative life of this Tall Woman of the French Broad.”
Journeying on …