Sunday, January 28, 2024

Writing in Nature: 26 January 2024


A beech tree stands out in the muted woods

My focus for this year is to improve my writing skills which I hope to put to good use in a project about kith (a familiarity with one's home turf). You probably already see that there is vast room for improvement! Floracliff Nature Sanctuary has been offering the perfect opportunity for practicing with sessions called,  The Natural Word: Nature Journaling at Floracliff. Instead of sitting down, looking and sketching we are invited to sit down, sense and write. Carol Spence is our guide for these sessions. We had a fun session with a small, but very preceptive group, walking and journaling on January 26th.

Here are my observations:
A bit of wandering before we settle down to write

We are sitting in the woods after a bit of wandering to gather our wits for perception. The scene at first glance displays as somewhat dreary with cloudy skies after a couple of rainy days and snow before that. But, actually, my overwhelming feeling is that there is a riot of texture and an infinite layering of seasons and years all gathered together here in this place; this sanctuary for letting nature be. 

A surprising number of trees are down. Carol tells us that many are ash trees that weren't treated in time as they are on Floracliff's recently acquired tract of land. Thus, in a quick scanning I see that life exists in full spectrum, from being alive to feeding the future. Meanwhile, even as a golden spider is dashing by my feet, I hear the trucks on the nearby interstate running on life that was teeming eons before. 

I am sitting on one of the downed ash trees. It is a very comfortable perch! The leaves at my feet form a deep bed of swirling shapes composed after landing from their graceful flight on high. Red and white oak leaves stand out, their form elegant as their stems twists and their rounded or pointed tips twirl. Designers' inspiration!

Exuberant moss and delightful lichen adorn the woods

Winter has the best colors. The soft taupe backdrop is the perfect setting for oak and beech leaves still on the tree. Those leaves are the color that the deer will return to when the bambiis make their appearance in spring. Close observers in our little band of wanderers spotted not just one, but two, lichen-carrying green lacewing larvae. These lacewing larvae are known for carrying 'debris' that is on hand, such as lichen. The beautiful gray-green-blue lichen stands out in this part of nature far from the sea shore. It is a beautiful sea glass green abundantly observable in the winter woods. Carol pointed out how the moss has really 'blossomed' after the recent snow and rain. It is true that the intense green of the moss demonstrates an inability to hold back on life as its lively 3-D nature is well revealed right now. Green seedlings dot the blanket of leaves. Blades and tiny leaves are everywhere in the midwinter landscape. The overall effect is of a gentleness. A few days before we had snow and bitter cold. Today it is mild enough as to be unnoticeable. Just now, the wind has picked up and I am able to experience the satisfying susurrus* (the rustling sound leaves make in the wind). It joins an aural composition with crows, wrens, woodpeckers and jays. 

I am sitting in a juxtaposition--so many trees I couldn't count them, and yet, I hear the jets overhead and the interstate traffic. We live in a hybrid world. The resourcefulness and connectedness surrounding me let me know that nature will always be. 

* You may watch my short video about susurrus. 

Wednesday, November 8, 2023

Home and the Art of Letting Go

Today is the anniversary of moving into our home. We have lived here for 37 years. Thirty-seven years ago on November 8th, it was cold and rainy. We learned why the previous owners had stuck around in the backroom while we looked at the house on a rainy September day--the roof leaked! We huddled around the little round oak table in the dim light (we didn't seem to have many lamps) and ate our slapped together supper. 

I was almost 8 months pregnant and David had decided that we would need more space. I had spent the last year painting and cheering up the small ranch house that David had owned for 13 years. I even stripped the hardwood floors and waxed them--that might have shaved a few points off of Jacob's IQ...  The new house was larger and our small holding of furniture seemed meager in the space. David had not been convinced of the size of the house and required a visit with a tape measure to assure himself that it was big enough. (He might be more comfortable with abstract numbers.)

Today, it is sunny and pushing 80 degrees. Our house is full even with new space added within this decade. When Mary was home over the summer, we began a process of thinning the stash of stuff. This process is going to take a while. This house has been both embracer and launching pad through the years, giving me the ability to let go when necessary.

The location of our home has been key to our life as it developed with kids. Although I toyed with the idea of using the Waldorf School as a model for homeschooling, I have been fortunate that David serves as a kind of speed bump to my enthusiasms and that idea was squashed. I had to let it go. Fortunately, a friend suggested a preschool for Jacob. I hadn't even considered preschool and this was the time when, if you didn't get your child in the right preschool, well, they wouldn't get into Harvard! The kids loved Temple Adath Israel Preschool and I could see that they enjoyed meeting other kids and developing their own interests, even at that age. We are crawling distance from public schools and the kids thrived. We are also close to the University of Kentucky so David could easily commute by bicycle to the campus.

There was room in our home for creating and for friends to come over. I perfected my chocolate chip cookie recipe and began making pain au levain (daily bread). A half a dozen years after moving in, we had a new resident, my grandmother's old single-action pedal harp. That addition set the stage for a new kind of learning in the house. I began Suzuki harp lessons and a couple of years later the kids started harp and cello Suzuki lessons. (David's speed bump was not engaged apparently! I got in my fill of homeschooling in spite of myself.) 

At the turn of the century/millennium, I got the hankering to have a place near water. I was thinking about how much I loved being at my paternal grandparent's resort in Michigan in the summers and my children had a similar situation when we would visit my mother in Maine. My stepfather's family had a home that was pre-Revolutionary War, and he had some land at the shore where they built a small cottage, one bay over from Frenchman Bay. I knew that my children would not have access to that setting down the road and so one year, after our summer visit to Maine, I went out in search of a lake place. In no time at all, I spotted a lake of interest with two houses for sale. David refused to go (speed bump) but Jacob went with me. We were amazed when we turned onto the road off of US 68 and just over a rise, a beautiful lake, lined with graceful reeds, appeared. The road serves as a dam to the spring-fed lake. It probably didn't hurt the cause as far as Jacob was concerned that there was a small 9-hole golf course on the slopes coming off of the lake. He could even have a sort of membership there (the closest he would come to belonging to a 'country club' under our sponsorship.) One of the houses had already sold, but the other one was situated on a gentle slope that led down to the shoreline. It was so peaceful and beautiful. I was enchanted and Jacob was enthusiastic (this was key). When we went home with our report, I suggested that David and Mary come check it out and if they didn't like it, I would drop the idea of a lake house. 

We scheduled a visit with the realtor and to my surprise, David liked the place! The magic continued there as we met such wonderful people in the Carlisle community. As it turned out, I had to give up my habit of chocolate chip cookies and daily bread, so it was good that we met a farmer in Nicholas County who also had/has Lexington connections. We joined his CSA and vegetables became increasingly important. Place was affecting our wellbeing.

Since we had the place in Nicholas County and there was an Episcopal church (St. Peters Episcopal) midway between in Paris, Kentucky, we started going to church there. This pleased David's heart and we became involved with that community as well. 

Meanwhile, the kids were growing up and getting ready to launch. My dream that the lake house would be the place of their dreams to return to wasn't happening. They had friends and their own dreams in the making. David and I were going out to the lake mostly to do maintenance work. I had a studio out there, but if David were ailing, I couldn't count on being able to go out there. I had to let that dream go. 

Being part of a community is important to me and I knew it would not be effective to try to be a meaningful part of three communities. Perhaps others can do that, but I find it difficult. I also was coming to understand that I am more of a village person, not country or urban, but village. Our home in town in Lexington is kind of like a village. We have within walking distance a wonderful hardware store and a major grocery store. My favorite places like Ashland Estate and the Arboretum are close by. We made plans to consolidate the houses, adding space so that we could have a nice study for David and a studio area for me. The house really works for us. We did quite well during the pandemic. 

We are also fortunate to have a farmers market just up the street. Much of our meal tonight came from there. Featured is a beautiful loaf from Wild Lab Bakery--fig and garlic with herbs. Delicious! I am trying to find the balance in eating that is good for the earth and for my aging body. I may not perfect this, but I will enjoy the journey! 

Something that I've also come to realize is that being close to a university has been important to me. The University of Kentucky has been a constant in my life since the age of five. Being in proximity to a universe of ideas has naturally integrated my understanding of the greater world and it has inspired my creative work. 

Letting go has allowed me to deepen my relationship with home. Breadth has been replaced by depth. Our home has been steadfastly supportive through the years. I am grateful for the people we have met during our expansive years. They are very dear and continue to enrich our lives. I am thinking of all the ways my art and creativity have been influenced by relationships along the way. And I'm grateful for a home that has been able to hold all these experiences so generously for thirty-seven years. 

Of course, at some point I will have to let go of this home for some reason or another. But, in the meantime, it has proven to be a wise and stable guide. Thank you, my dear home. 

David at our 37 years at home celebration

Monday, October 23, 2023

Visiting the Old Oaks at Floracliff

Woody at Floracliff, detail

 I love to take hikes at Floracliff, a local nature sanctuary. It is an opportunity to relax in the woods and just be. One of my favorite hikes is to visit the old chinkapin oaks. In 2008, Floracliff's preserve director, Beverly James suspected there might be some old trees at the nature sanctuary. She approached dendrochronologist Neil Pederson about the possibility. Although Pederson was initially doubtful of standout old trees, he found out otherwise and you may read his account about that here. Naturally, this was an exciting discovery for Floracliff visitors. We can imagine the scene when the trees were young and all that they have seen through the centuries!

There are four trees that have particularly captivated my attention so I was drawn to make paintings of them and create a musical portrait for each. Using these visual and audio portraits, I created a video celebrating the old chinkapin oaks at Floracliff. 

I'm using this blog to post 'still' images of the paintings I made for this video and to add some more details.

On the way, hiking down to the old oaks, watercolor and pastel, 5.9 x 11.8"

My goal in creating a video about the old oaks hike was to encompass the experience, so I had to include a bit of the walking--andante. I had already considered that it would be funny to do a riff on the Promenade from Pictures at an Exhibition by Modest Mussorgsky. As it turned out, as I was working on this little painting, I attended a concert of trumpet and organ music and Mussorgsky's composition was included! Thus, the promenade was still warm in my ears. I tuned up my lever harp for a practice session and putting up the e, a, and b levers, I heard a sequence that was sympathetic with a walk in the woods. In fact, expanding out from the e, a, and b, I found that I was in a pentatonic mode. Mussorgsky's promenade is in the pentatonic mode! My improv for hiking down practically wrote itself.
Wolf Tree, watercolor/pastel, 10 x 7"

A wolf tree is kind of a counter-type in the old tree world. It exhibits more vigorous growth because at some point, its competitors were cut down and the tree was allowed to grow, not only up, but also out. Unlike the other old, old trees, the wolf tree expands outward. The angles of this tree encouraged me to use the passionate Phrygian mode. 

Number 4 Tree, watercolor/pastel, 11.8 x 5.9"

Neil Pederson armed Beverly James with some distinguishing features of old trees and where they might be located. Steep, southwest-facing slopes hold promise. Trees that exhibit 'balding' bark, low stem taper, high stem sinuosity and low crown volume are subjects to consider. James found a number of trees on a southwest-facing slope that held these qualities. Significant age was confirmed and Pederson deemed this spot on the sanctuary to be the epicenter. Within this arboreal treasure trove is a uniquely shaped tree. The sinuous upper branches form a 4-figure, so that is my name for this tree which sprouted around the year 1661. The number 4 assisted me in shaping the improv. I went to the Lydian mode which starts on the fourth pitch of a major scale. And then, I also focused on the 4th pitch of the Lydian scale. It has a light and airy sound to go with the light and airy crown of this tree.  

By the Tufa Falls, watercolor/pastel, 5.9 x 11.8"

Past the epicenter, we walk by the top of Elk Lick Falls and on around past the tufa formation created by calcium deposits that have trickled over the edge. It is a wondrous thing to view! My musical rendition continues with the promenade theme. 

Woody C. Guthtree, watercolor/pastel, 10 x 7"

The star of our venture is Woody, who was sprouted in approximately 1611. As Tom Kimmerer points out in his Venerable Trees book, that is the same year that Shakespeare's The Tempest was first performed. We have a link to the past right in our backyard! To portray Woody, I guess I could have played a Woody Guthrie tune, but it might still be under copyright, so I decided to be influenced by ancient chants in the Dorian mode. Of course, in the scheme of things, Dorian chants and even 400+ year-old trees are not that old. 

But, why did Woody make it this long without being harvested? Well, for one thing, his location is not convenient. Also, chinkapin oaks grow quite slowly, so their size is not conducive for logging. All the old trees at Floracliff are chinkapin oaks. This makes a case for late bloomers!

Young Old Tree in Afternoon Light, watercolor/pastel, 10 x 7"

We head up the hill, the sun is slanting through the trees. Indeed, the seasons are making their journey, though it seems like we were just in high summer. I wonder if the trees feel about time like I do?

This tree painting, of the Young Old Tree was painted this year. All the other tree portraits are from 2022. That autumn seemed further along and a bit more golden. 

Young Old Tree, watercolor/pastel, 10 x 7"

The Young Old Tree grows close to the tufa formation. We have indeed already walked by it, but I wanted Woody to be featured at the Golden Mean of our tale. And, I wanted to send us out on a Mixolydian tune as we celebrate the Jungling who is only about 150+ years old. This tree's growth is a bit more vigorous and I leave you with a musical portrait that is a bit more lively. 

I hope you have enjoyed this little tour of the old oaks at Floracliff. I encourage you to make your own trek there to see this treasure of the Inner Bluegrass. To join an event or hike, please visit

Wednesday, September 6, 2023

Solastalgia: Yes, And

Mary in Maine

 Sunday morning I was listening to With Good Reason, a program produced by Virginia Humanities and I was introduced to the idea of solastalgia. I learned that solastalgia is the sadness or pain that we feel when a beloved aspect of our landscape no longer exists. Paul Bogard is the editor of the book, Solastalgia: An Anthology of Emotion in a Disappearing World and he was the guest on the show. Bogard spoke of a childhood spent in intimate contact with wildlife and skies dark enough to experience a starry night properly. I was so enchanted by the description of his world that I immediately ordered the book, published by the University of Virginia Press. 

I looked forward to cracking open this book which offers reflections by thirty-four writers. They share their solastagia for their particular loved places. I was immediately drawn in, and I've only begun reading, so I'm sure more extraordinary observations will be revealed to me, but an early essay by Kathryn Miles gave me an intense notion of what solastagia is about. Miles grew up in places that have seen great change and manmade alteration. She speaks with true fondness for childhood vacations at Lake Powell when her family lived in Arizona's red rock desert. That lake is a travesty for many who recognize the land as Glen Canyon. Later family homes were in Iowa and Illinois where industrial agriculture dominated the landscape. But, her overwhelming emotion in regards to the landscape as she knew it is joy. 

After graduate school, Kathryn Miles dropped her anchor along Mid-Coast Maine where she felt reassured by the 'glacier-swept granite defining that landscape'. My antenna tuned in to this because my mother lived in Maine and we visited there each summer for twenty-two years. And now, my mother has been gone for about the same amount of time that Miles has made Maine home. My connection with Maine mostly died with my mother, but as Miles tells it, that Maine no longer exists. The water in the Gulf of Maine is warming seven times faster than 99 percent of the world's ocean. Lobsters are moving north and new species are moving in. Miles vividly describes the grief of Mainers and summertime visitors over losing the iconic coastline. I grieve it, too. I understand I can never go back and part of me feels glad that my mother, but particularly my stepfather, is not having to experience this grief. 

But, what to do? Here, our writer is as compelling as she was in her rendering of joy and sorrow over landscapes found and lost. Miles points to inspiration from an unexpected source: the Chicago improv school and theater Second City. Two words convey the idea: yes, and. There is even a book written by Second City executives by the same name. The idea is that reality is accepted (yes) and then you build upon that reality creatively (and).  This is the process of improvisation. And, it is funny because just earlier last night, I was partaking in a Q + A session with my online harp circle. We were talking a lot about improvisation. My contribution was to point out that we can learn how to improvise in a different discipline by understanding how we improvise in another area of our life. Don't we all improvise in some fashion? Life simply couldn't happen if we didn't know how to! I loved and appreciated that this is the answer for each of us as we face the future. Our own contribution to the solution will be what only we can offer. Change is the only constant and it is a constant opportunity for creativity. 

Mary reading on the rocks

I so appreciate that Kathryn Miles acknowledges her struggle to "understand why it wasn't okay to simultaneously love a place and to mourn the damage that has occurred there--to hold both sentiments as equally valid and true." With her words I also understand that I will never be able to go back to the Maine that refreshed so many summers and was the vacation 'home' for my children. They will never test that frigid water again! Maybe they will enjoy a more tepid temperature! And yet, creative things will happen. My stepfather told the story from his youth that lobsters were so plentiful and regarded as pests (clearly before they became fine dining and stuffing for lobster rolls!) that they would be thrown on the garden as fertilizer! So, some creativity probably happened to make the shift from fertilizer to roll stuffing...

I highly recommend Solastalgia even as I look forward to reading the rest of the offerings.

Solastalgia: An Anthology of Emotion in a Disappearing World. Charlottesville : University of Virginia Press, 2023

Friday, September 1, 2023

Seeing with Vacation Eyes

Walkers at Ashland

 It is the last day of August and my focus this month has been on seeing my home turf with 'vacation eyes'.  Much of the time I miss a lot of what is happening in my environs unless I have a pointed objective for observing. So, I'm setting out for Ashland Estate, my almost daily destination, with fresh expectations--or none--I have vacation eyes today! And, I am helped because it is about 10 degrees cooler than normal, making it feel like a change of seasons, when my senses are already heightened. 

Low hanging bur oak acorns
Crossing over to Ashland, I am close to the mature bur oaks on the grounds. I have been keeping an eye on the  bur oaks because they seem to have a generous crop of acorns this year. I love the bur oak acorns with their full caps. The acorns are still green and growing, but their charm is already apparent. I have read that oaks have mast years when all the trees of a type produce copious acorns so that they can feed the 'feeders' who partake of their fruit and still have sufficient left over to keep the oak population growing. This does not happen every year. Nature is exquisite in creating balance! And look at the beautiful shape of the bur oak leaves--lovely!

I walked along the outer path at Ashland and took note of how it felt to walk along the heat hardened ground. I was reminded of walking at Lyme Park in the north of England. It is/was a sensation of connection with a beautiful place. How good that I can simply walk to Ashland and reenact this feeling whenever I want! 

As I rounded the corner of the grounds that parallels the main thoroughfare leading to downtown Lexington, I was reminded of walking along Wilmslow Road leading in/out of Manchester, England. I'm not sure why this reminds me of a busy, urban road surrounded by fragrant mom & pop shops like the Rusholme Chippy. Perhaps it is the multitude of vehicles of all sorts-- buses, cars, utility trucks. They are loud and there is a distinct difference between walking on much of the grounds and walking along Richmond Road. As I was pondering this, I spotted a couple of women walking the same direction as I was, but on the sidewalk along the busy road. I believe they were speaking English but the inflection suggested South Asian origins. Along my doppelg√§nger road in Greater Manchester, I learned about dal and other tasty mots. 

I was contemplating this and remembering to take a photograph of the Ashland home, so I was paused when I noticed that the women were walking on the Ashland path now, deep in conversation. I took note, but not a photo and my sketch above is from my mental note. More and more, Lexington is becoming cosmopolitan with people from all over the world adopting this place as home, just as I have. 

Ashland, the Home

But, why I wanted to be sure to take photo of the Ashland is because it is dawning on me that part of my fondness for Henry Clay's estate is that it reminds me of enjoyable experiences from our stay in Manchester in 1985, when David was on sabbatical. One of my haunts was Platt Hall which housed a wonderful costume collection. Designer Laura Ashley was at the height of her popularity at this time and created a publication around Platt Hall and the costume gallery. The book has photos and plans for the historic building and so I was surprised to see that there is a striking architectural resemblance between Ashland and Platt Hall. Both have center blocks with connecting 'hyphens' and end blocks on either side. Looking again at the Ashley Book (Fabric of Society: A Century of People and their Clothes, 1770-1870, by Jane Toner & Sarah Levitt) I am seeing all kinds of connections, such as the lovely rose garden just by the mansion; Ashland is lovelified by the perennially popular peony garden. Just the other day, garden club members were shoring up the patch for winter's rest so that another spring might be blessed with the eye-popping blooms. 

There are many connections between Platt Hall and Ashland, but I would like to highlight one more: the role of slavery and the Civil War. Lancashire/Manchester was a manufacturing center for cotton and printed calicoes. President Lincoln obtained an agreement by the English cotton industry not to receive cotton from Confederate cotton plantations. This plantation cotton depended upon the labor of enslaved people. I was surprised to find a statue of Lincoln in front of Platt Hall when we were there in l985. (The statue has since been moved to the city centre--making a Lincoln Square in Manchester.) Enslaved people were an essential part of life at Ashland during Henry Clay's time. A concerted effort is underway at Ashland to tell the stories of these individuals who were enslaved on the estate.

Garden sculpture and yew nubs
Whilst I was in the English mode, I made my way to the estate's garden. In the last couple of years it has undergone extensive change. A boxwood blight necessitated the removal of dozens and dozens of the shrub which had been a major component of the garden plan. Before that, the yew hedge bordering two sides of the garden had been in the process of 'rejuvenation'. First, the inside face of the yews were cut down to the nubs. Those nubs were allowed to sprout out and grow and then the next year, the outside was cut down and topped. The garden has had to be reimagined. Part of the reimagining has involved reworking and sometimes redesigning the brick path ways around the plantings. Yellow caution ribbons are regularly festooned across sections of the garden. So, I was not surprised when I came upon some caution tape just before the garden sculpture. I couldn't figure out why the caution tape was in place. No apparent renovation activity was in process there and then. I turned around to go the other way so that I could check it out from the other side. I met with a delighted woman coming from the other direction. She exclaimed, "I just love this garden! I was married over by the sculpture!"  I responded, "I love this place, too! And I've made a painting of that sculpture!" The woman lamented as she exited the garden that she could not bring her dog to this inner sanctum, but she understood.

The sculpture today. How the yew have grown!

Meanwhile, I ventured to the other side of the be-ribboned caution zone. It turns out that it was taped off because of bee danger! I looked over and the Japonese anemones were busy with bees! Someone is always working in the garden... 

As I was making my way out of the garden a very distinguished and self-possessed cat entered (through an unofficial 'gate'). I guess cats are allowed. I wonder what the garden looks like through cat eyes.

Self-possessed kitty in the garden under the stately elm tree

I wasn't quite finished with my visit to Ashland. La Tour, a sculpture by the late John Henry is going to be leaving the premises to go to a sculpture park in Chattanooga, TN. I try to appreciate the view each time I come to Ashland. The impetus for bringing the large sculptures to Ashland was to prompt an extra look at the vistas. I never felt like I needed that prompting, but I've really enjoyed having these sculptures at Ashland. The other major one, formerly known as Publisher is now downtown at the Central Bank Center. It was a magnet for kids who were enjoying the nearby catalpa stump. The play of light and shadow on that white sculpture was just beautiful. La Tour is more rustic, but I've loved seeing it through the pine trees and paired with the newly planted copper beech. Clearly, there is always something to see on our daily walks!

La Tour sculpture by John Henry

A final stop on this visit, to view and study one of the special Ashland Park signs. These sport line drawings of the Ashland mansion.  This one has a brief history of the Henry Clay Estate and it talks about the ash trees that were abundant even before Clay's time on this land--they put the ash in Ashland!

I end my 'vacation' where I began--thinking about trees. Ultimately, it is probably the trees that draw me to this place. It has been kind of a rough year for trees at Ashland. Part of this might have to do with their maturity--they are more eternal than we are, but still mortal. Extreme weather events have taken their toll as well. Trees that were planted by Henry Clay came down in a major wind event in March. Just as the garden has been reimagined, some of the downed Norway Spruce has been milled and will be used to recreate a slave dwelling as might have existed at Ashland. Quite a repurposing!

Trees bring us into the present but also tie us with the past and the future. This is so beautifully true at Ashland. 

Monday, June 19, 2023

Landscape Harmony

Maintenance Worker, 8 x 8", watercolor/pastel

 We had just arrived out at Shaker Village in advance of a weekend of music performed by musicians of the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center. My favorite aspect of this weekend is that it combines world class music performed in a tobacco barn, and in-between concerts, the wonderful surrounding landscape with all the creatures and stone walls and Shaker designed buildings. I was anxious to get a quick walk in before things began. And, having just thought pretty deeply about my home landscape (see last month's blog ) I was seeing all sorts of connections. I was stopped in my tracks when I came upon a the scene shown above.   

What first struck me was how it reminded me of a scene I saw some years ago. We were touring with Performance Today (another musical indulgence!) in Normandy, France. It was springtime and I could see that apple trees were blooming as we were ferried by bus to a chamber music festival in Deauville (which happens to be Lexington, Kentucky's Sister City). Underneath the blooming loveliness were cows! Grazing!  The apple trees are cultivated to create the celebrated cidre that the region is known for. The cows are cultivated for the Camembert cheese their milk makes possible. I just loved this image--cows for cheese grazing under blooming cider apple trees! Such a perfect, harmonious combo. The cows help keep the grass under control and provide fertilizer for the trees. Perhaps it is also okay if they thin out the blossoms a bit, so that the apples won't be crowded. What I don't know is what happens once little green apples appear, but in the springtime the sublime reigns. 

Camembert-producing cows under the cider-producing apples trees in Normandy,
~5x7", watercolor/pastel

As I alluded to at the beginning of this blog, I also was struck by the link between this scene and how the Bluegrass landscape was developed up until the time of the European settlers. Trees, bovines (in the form of bison) and grasses were involved. How enchanting to discover that I was meant to make this connection as I read on a sign at the edge of the instructional fields. Here, an even earlier landscape-shaping scenario preceding the the presence of copious bison was suggested. 

From the sign:
Prehistoric Savanna 
Prehistoric mammals helped shape and manage vast savanna ecosystems across North American.

Clearing and Fertilizing
"Edge" spaces between grasses and trees are valuable wildlife habitat that can be improved with prescribed grazing.

Bedding in Native Grasses
Cattle can thin and fertilize forests that are out of balance, improving diversity of woodland species from ground cover to canopy.

My little walk had reaffirmed both my delight in the cidre cows and my newfound knowledge around how the Inner Bluegrass was formed.

Shaker Village is part of the Inner Bluegrass region like Lexington, so it has a similar geologic history. I was thinking as I came upon my opening scene at Shaker Village: 'What are the chances of seeing a reenactment of the very story I just learned about?!' Well, the chances are pretty good because it is totally natural. Of course, what exists now is connected intimately and harmoniously with what has developed over millions of years. Harmony is a totally natural phenomenon, especially regarding landscape.  

The Bluegrass is known for grazing animals (the horse, of course) and the supporting pastureland. Not as common are apple orchards, though we do have those and I am able to eat local apples most of the year.  Recently, I was skeptical when David brought home a six-pack of a hard cider from a local brewery, West Sixth Brewery. Many American hard ciders are pretty sweet. But, when I cracked open a can I found it to be as rafraichissant as a dry Alsatian Riesling. 

West Sixth's House Cider, dry and so rafraichissant! In the background, our non-producing apple trees. 

The apples used for the House Cider are grown on the West Sixth Farm, about 35 miles from Lexington. The farm has trails for hiking and a couple go right by the orchard. I'm looking forward to walking that land and experiencing the harmony. And, there's a taproom on site--I can sip on a House Cider while looking out on the orchard that produced the cider! I wonder if any cows will be about...

I made a short video to round out my story. Enjoy!

Wednesday, May 10, 2023

The Story of my Kithscape

Troisi√®me Age, a Blue Ash tree at Ashland which pre-dates Henry Clay. Perhaps this tree was part of a woodland pasture that makes up the Inner Bluegrass landscape. 

 I am deep into a project which will be an invitation to explore one's own 'kith'. Kith is an older english word that we only use now when we say 'kith and kin'. This, of course, refers to kin for the most part, but I learned from reading Lyanda Lynn Haupt's engaging book, Rooted,* that kith actually refers to a familiarity with one's home turf. 

Through a bit of serendipity, a course on Dirt Discipleship was offered through the Center for Deep Green Faith. I jumped at the chance to enhance my earthy connections. As part of the course we are to select a patch of dirt to 'experiment' upon. I thought this would require digging up dirt and testing for...acidity? chemicals? evidence of past lives? So, I selected a patch in my yard. It is behind our 8' x 4' compost enclosure--should be fertile territory!

A backyard corner selected for lab work

Our first experiment is to discover the history of our patch of dirt. I thought I knew most of the story, especially how our house (85+ years old) sits on land that was part of the Ashland Estate.** It is on a tract  that was passed on to his son John after Henry Clay's death. This new estate was called Ashland-on-Tates-Creek for the road that ran along one border. John Clay had a stock farm and was a horse breeder. He created a training track for horses on his property. Right across from our house is a short curved street that neighbors claim was part of that track. If that is the case, our yard would surely have been part of the track or very close. Perhaps there are 150-year-old horseshoes buried about in our yard!

I wasn't as clear on the geology of this patch of dirt. My working knowledge going into this experiment was that the Inner Bluegrass is a plateau and the landscape is basically a savanna. This is where things got interesting for me. I googled the geology of the Inner Bluegrass (of course) and learned that the basic landform is the result of the Cincinnati Arch a geologic limestone structure that pushed up from beneath present day Tennessee toward the close of the Paleozoic era. A dome composed of limestone formed in what is now the Inner Bluegrass. The limestone eroded over millions of years exposing the oldest layers of Ordovician limestone around. The resulting landscape is called a karst landscape (karst is a limestone region with underground drainage and many cavities and passages due to the limestone's porosity). 

As I was reading about the geology of the Inner Bluegrass, I was directed to Tom Kimmerer's website and realized I was reading excerpts from his book Venerable Trees: History, Biology, and Conservation in the Bluegrass. I have this book in my collection since I am a tree lover. I pulled the book from my shelf and proceeded to learn how my home landscape came to be. It was quite surprising (and I wondered why this information hadn't landed before). I knew about the limestone, which gives horses their strong bones and amply supplied material for the stone walls which accent the pasture lands. What I didn't know is that this karst topography makes the Bluegrass region prone to drought even though there is plenty of rainfall generally. In Kimmerer's book he includes a Drought Index chart with information based on dendrochronology (tree-ring analysis). The chart shows an extreme drought beginning in 625 and lasting for 368 years. Now that is a drought! So, Kimmerer's posit is that the karst and drought are factors in the establishment of the Inner Bluegrass landscape. He proposes a third essential element that is quite intriguing: an abundance of bison. This abundance, he suggests, is evidence that the Bluegrass landscape was mostly woodland pasture, with some variations on the density of tree growth, but plenty of grazing opportunity.  The bison might have also kept Indigenous tribes from creating permanent settlements in the area. Apparently, the bison were not fazed by mere human-built fencing or housing and would just stampede right over these structures. There is only one known permanent Indigenous settlement known to have existed in the Inner Bluegrass area. It was abandoned around 1754, the time of an extended drought.  Bison helped to maintain this landscape by grazing heavily and then moving on to saltier and wetter opportunities. Since they did not feed on trees, the trees were left to grow and developed deep roots that kept them from falling victim to droughts (though perhaps not a 368-year drought!) As Kimmerer states: "It appears likely that drought, karst, and bison were the three main factors that created the conditions under which woodland pastures developed with little human influence."***

I've long known that bison were the original road creators in Kentucky--there are quite a few important corridors that were originally buffalo traces. But, I didn't know that bison could be an essential factor in the 'cultivation' of our Inner Bluegrass landscape. 

A small herd of bison has been re-established at Land Between the Lakes

Now we are famous for our fields of bluegrass, but that grass is not native to Kentucky. What grew when the bison roamed freely were other grasses and lots of cane (Kentucky bamboo) and clover. In particular, running buffalo clover was prominent. The relationship between bison and clover was symbiotic because the buffalo would feast on the sweet clover and then helped to propagate the clover by 'processing and sowing' it, and also disturbing it a bit. I've written about this is a previous blog

Running Buffalo Clover is being encouraged at Ashland Estate

It turns out that this bit of backyard dirt has a more interesting story than I thought. It is also part of a woodland pasture landscape that does not exist anywhere else in North America. It has more in common with the 'wood pastures' in Northern Europe--but that is a story for another time...

I walked over to the Arboretum to check on their information about the Bluegrass Region and I'll post the photo of a nice summary of how the Bluegrass region came to be. Note: Kimmerer has a little different idea around woodland pasture/savanna and the use of fire to create the grasslands. If you live in the Lexington (KY) area, I encourage you to visit the Arboretum. They have a really wonderful Walk Across Kentucky feature. You can walk among the trees and vegetation that grows in each of the regions of Kentucky. And there is an Inner Bluegrass woodland remnant that you can wander through--a real treat!

* Haupt, Lyanda Lynn. Rooted: Life at the Crossroads of Science, Nature and Spirit. New York: Little, Brown Spark, 2021.

** Ashland Estate was Henry Clay's home. Henry Clay came to Kentucky as European people were heading west from Virginia. Clay began to acquire land for his estate in 1804. It is now a museum and arboretum. In fact, many of the trees that made up the woodland pasture landscape are growing at Ashland. It is a wonderful green space in our community. For more information, visit:

***Kimmerer, Tom. Venerable Trees: History, Biology, and Conservation in the Bluegrass. Lexington, KY: University Press of Kentucky, 2015. p. 84. This book is a font of wonderful information, including a listing of all the trees that make up the Inner Bluegrass landscape.