Emma Bell Miles, artist, naturalist, and author of The Spirit of the Mountains (1905) as well as poems, stories, and essays, was born in Evansville, Indiana, on October 19, 1879, to schoolteachers Benjamin Franklin and Martha Ann Mirick Bell. She spent her early years in the Ohio River town of Rabbit Hash, Kentucky. In 1890 the family moved to Walden’s Ridge on Tennessee’s Cumberland Plateau, where Emma lived among the mountain people and roamed the woods, drawing, reading, writing, and studying nature.
In the fall of 1899 Emma Bell entered the St. Louis School of Art, where she spent two winters. There she first encountered the writings of Henry David Thoreau, which strongly influenced her life and thought. Desperately homesick, she returned to Walden’s Ridge resolved to remain in the mountains despite her father’s hopes for her to study further in New York and Paris.
On October 30, 1901, just three weeks after her mother’s death, Emma Bell eloped with Frank Miles, a mountain native with whom she had fallen in love three years earlier. The first of their five children were twins, Jean and Judith, born in September 1902. Less than a year later, B. F. Bell turned them out of the frame house on Anderson Pike which Emma’s mother had left to her in a penciled will.
After the March 1904 publication of her poem “The Difference” in Harper’s Monthly, Miles’s work appeared regularly in national magazines. In November 1905 James Pott & Company of New York published The Spirit of the Mountains, a classic study of Southern Appalachia. Her first published story, “The Common Lot,” appeared in Harper’s in December 1908.
At first Miles’s writing and painting seemed barely interrupted by the births of Joe Winchester (February 1905), Katharine (January 1907), and Mark (March 1909). Her health began to deteriorate, however, and the family spent the winter of 1909-10 in Miami, Florida. They returned to upper East Tennessee the following spring, and Miles accepted a position as artist-in-residence at Lincoln Memorial University. There a local physician diagnosed her illness as tuberculosis.
After returning to the mountains near Chattanooga, Miles supported her family through the sale of paintings, poems, and stories. The death of her youngest child was the great sorrow of her life. In the spring of 1914, she began writing the “Fountain Square Conversations,” a series of columns for the Chattanooga News in which she expressed her views on the environment and human nature.
In February 1917 Miles entered Pine Breeze, the county tuberculosis sanitarium, later returning to Walden’s Ridge, where she began a series of bird paintings. That fall she returned to Pine Breeze, where she remained, living in a tent provided by the Chattanooga Writer’s Club, until a few months before her death on March 19, 1919. Bedridden most of the time, Miles managed to complete the bird book she had always dreamed of writing and illustrating. Our Southern Birds came off the press just two weeks before she died at the age of thirty-nine.
Kay Baker Gaston, Emma Bell Miles (1985)