Marion Harless’s Earth Days

by Hugh Rogers

Marion Harless, an herbarist, teacher, weaver, West Virginia Folklife Master and outspoken environmentalist, who inspired countless people to learn and practice what she referred to as “green traditions,” died on Jan. 17 in Elkins. She was 87. 

She called herself an “herbarist” because she said, “An herbarist is a person who grows herbs and uses them, and an herbalist is a person who uses herbs medicinally and doesn’t necessarily know anything about the plants!”

Marion had a way with words. She published many in The Highlands Voice, some typed by my wife Ruth. Marion did not own a computer. She was ahead of her time in important ways, and behind in ways that were not important to her. 

In “Another Earth Day” (April 2021) Marion recalled the first Earth Day, fifty-one years before. She was teaching then at “a small Texas state university” in Wichita Falls. A few faculty arranged for a “teach-in.” Marion spoke for an hour and a half. The tenor of her talk is suggested by a dialogue with a student afterwards:

In one of my classes I remember Brenda Hardy asking, “Miss Harless, how long do we humans have to change our behavior?” (We were very formal in those days!) Long pause. I answered, “Ten years. Fifteen, at the most.” I have never seen a reason to change that gloomy estimate.

That’s Marion. For readers now, she cited some reasons for gloom: “Except for those swimming right around Antarctica, all the fish on the planet contain microplastics.” She cited tire treadwear dust, glitter, endocrine disruptors, a whole range of pollutants, concluding, “petrochemical plastics, pesticides, herbicides, fertilizers are part of most living organisms inhabiting this fragile planet.”

Nevertheless, she wrote, “Meanwhile with April come Arbor Day and Earth Day. I still plant trees, including shagbark hickories, which may take 50 years to produce nuts. Plant trees. Read Doug Tallamy’s Nature’s Best Hope. Then follow his pleas to plant native trees. Happy Arbor Day. Happy Earth Day.”

My favorite of hers is a poem from March 2015 titled “Nothing There.” Then Editor of The Highlands Voice, John McFerrin, reprinted it four years later. You can find it in the Voice archives at And you should, so you can feel its power and enjoy Marion showing off: against the speakers in the first line who want to “put it there,” whatever “it” is, since “There’s nothing there,” Marion arrays a hundred and six nouns in 35 lines, every noun beginning with “S.” 

A sample: Sowbugs and spiders, Salamanders and song sparrows. Solomon’s seal, spignet, Sambucus. Skunks and skinks. Sanicle, ‘sang, Sanguisorba, Sorbus. Sleep site of ursine sow. Squirrels of every sort. Sirtalis. Scrub pine, scrub oak, squirrel corn.

Unmoved, her antagonists proclaim, “There’s nothing there that matters. We’ll put it there.” In six quick lines, “S” verbs tell what they do. Finally, Marion must admit defeat. The last “S” words describe the result. She’s left with “Nothing.”

Her joy in the Earth’s multiplicity, in her knowledge of that multiplicity, was wrapped in pessimism—but the joy overflowed when she was teaching willing learners. 

Her garden in Kerens, “The Mulch Patch,” was a living classroom. Over 32 years she brought students from the Augusta Heritage Arts Workshops to this garden—actually, two gardens, both in Kerens, one at the house she rented in 1977 (we arrived on the same lane at the same time), the other at the one she bought in 1998. Foodways and natural healing arts that she had grown up with were being lost, just as they became of interest to young back-to-the-landers.     

Marion Dolores Harless (note the middle name) was born on June 29, 1935 and grew up in Weirton. Her father, Everett Harless, had come there from Logan, and her mother, Jane (Hoag) Harless, from across the border in Pennsylvania. Both were familiar with native and cultivated plants and their uses. Marion said, “By the time I was five, I knew the names of the 21 tree and shrub species” around the house.

Marion participated in 4-H from the age of 13 to 21. She was a counselor at nature camps from Oglebay Park in Wheeling to Palisades Interstate Park in New York.  

Her bachelor’s and master’s degrees from West Virginia University were in psychology, and she did further graduate work in animal behavior and ecology. One of her many interests led to the co-edited book, “Turtles: Perspectives and Research,” published by Wiley in 1979. She had teaching positions in Missouri, Texas, Washington, and for two years in Venezuela. 

Then it was time to come home. Subscribing to local newspapers helped her to decide where in the Mountain State she should settle. We’re lucky she chose Elkins. 

Besides teaching at Augusta, she served as director in 1979-80. For many years, she taught English as a Second Language in the International Language Institute at Davis and Elkins College. 

She was a longtime member of the WV Herb Association, and in the late 1980s, she helped found the Mountain State Organic Growers and Buyers Association and edited its newsletter. She also enjoyed participating in the local Weavers Guild. Her handspun, handwoven scarves of local wool and mohair, along with her produce, herb plants and salves, were popular at farmer’s markets in Elkins. 

Kara Vaneck, proprietor of Smoke Camp Crafts in Weston, studied with her as a WV Folklife Apprentice. She said, “Marion will live on in each of those plants that she so graciously cared for throughout the course of her life.”

A memorial gathering will be held in Elkins during Augusta’s summer season.