More Discoveries

Toward the end of 1998 and in the spring of 1999 my time at Drennon Woods became more balanced between work and pleasure.  I dug up and transplanted two red maple trees from the woods into the Blue Cabin’s yard and planted daffodils around its base on the southern and eastern sides.  I spent more time by the wood stove in the Blue Cabin, wandering trails, and exploring the hill sides and ridgeland of the 83 acres, rather than clearing downed trees, removing grapevines, and filling in ravines with branches, stumps, and tree limbs along Drennon Creek’s bottomland.

I took time to acquaint myself and visit with neighbors, learning local stories of my land’s use and disuse.  The reports were incomplete or inconsistent, but together sketched a continuous pattern of settlement, use, neglect, and abandonment in the Great Depression years and after the end of WWII.  I penned a note to friend and neighbor from the 1970s, writer Wendell Berry, telling him of my return to Henry County together with a brief description of the woodlands I had purchased.  In February, he welcomed me “home” with a note on the value of neglect in which man stops his use of nature and allows the restorative powers of  creation to heal and restore earlier damage.

Over time I substantiated the neighborly accounts with my discovery of three wells, collapsing hay sheds,a root cellar overgrown with honeysuckle, and the appearance in early April of daffodils and patches of daylilies suggesting human settlement and habitation.  On one walk with my dog, Lucy, in the upland woods, I came across a large rock structure, partially fallen in on itself.  Tucked back into a downhill slope of ground in a half-moon shape, one side consisted of carefully sculpted rocks laid up on their flat sides while the other side was a heap of soil covered rocks.  Between the opposing sides, at the upper oval end of the half moon, was a deep excavation with heavily rusted pieces of metal protruding out from rocks hanging over the opening.  The formation, now overgrown with grapevines, honeysuckle. and towering walnut trees, sat just above a ravine some three feet deep and twice that depth across, running at a right angle to the half moon.  The ravine, carved by rainwater runoff, crossed the lower end of a gradually sloping concave hillside that I called the “walnut amphitheatre”.

Christmas 2006 031

Across the ravine opposite the rock structure was a crossing used by deer and turkey that had caused a break in the ravine’s wall.  Perhaps too hastily, I took some of the flat-sided rock from the collapsed structure and, using hand tools and brute force, built a restraining wall on the far side of the ravine to stop erosion.  This work stretched out over many days and a few weekends, enabling me to better understand the structure’s site and intended purpose.  What I learned from working, talking with neighbors, and noticing similar structures across the county, is that this was an “improved spring”, dug out and walled in to provide drinking water for livestock and chilling suspended metal pails of fresh-squeezed milk.  Modestly constructed with impressively large exertions of excavation and rock lifting, hauling, and laying, it was an unroofed spring house serving multiple purposes and taking advantage of the upland forest’s gradual release of groundwater through the limestone’s karst-like geology.

Throughout the year I returned to the site and attempted to excavate the soil which had collapsed the one wall and filled the small pool.  After heavy rains, I could see water rise up in the excavated hole, overflow and subside, the eroded top soil in the basin soon drying out.  Into the summer I became discouraged by the task of removing so much uphill soil and setting aside rock from the collapsed wall.  With only a shovel and wheelbarrow, I abandoned hope of restoring and rebuilding the walled-in spring.  My time at the site and the solitude of my work allowed me to imagine its history.

Dug by hand at the bottom of a forested hill where a wet weather spring flowed out of the ground and walled in with shaled rocks uncovered in the excavation, it had served a small and useful purpose.  Over time, things changed.  The trees above and around the spring were cleared for timber and firewood.  The subsistent milk cow was replaced by a small herd of beef cows, grazing on the woody undergrowth and shrubs, topsoil unseeded.

The trees now cleared, soil compacted and sealed by hooves, rainfall ran over the land rather than through it.  The spring dried up, cows sought runoff water in the ravine, their weight pushing over rock walls, leaving the pool filled with eroded topsoil and useless.  A few hundred feet above the abandoned spring, perhaps a different landowner, using a small horse drawn blade, dug a small pond to provide livestock with drinking water.  Land used, abused, abandoned, neglected.  As, over time, I would understand better and confirm completely.




Family Names

In the first year at Drennon Woods my time there was a combination of accomplishment, wonder, and discovery.  Divorced for a decade, a son in Seattle, a daughter in school at Bloomington, living alone in the Highlands neighborhood of Louisville with my yellow lab, Lucy, my commute to the Blue Cabin along Drennon Creek was a forty-five minute drive.  The last ten minutes accompanied by Lucy’s upright alertness and salivation as she sensed our proximity to the woods and water.

In July when Raph’s work on the cabin was nearing completion and the electric was hooked up, I spent my first night at the cabin sleeping in a green velour bacca lounger on the linoleum floor with Lucy at my feet.  Sleep came easy after hours of work with the chain saw thinning cedar trees and pulling them to the deep ravines on either side of the cleared yard in front of the cabin.  The “yard” was an open area filled with limbs and branches from hickory, thorny locust, and hackberry trees that had accumulated in the two years or so since the property had been abandoned, once again, and the unfinished cabin left untouched.

The cabin perched on a promontory overlooking a 100′ wide swatch of bottom at the end of a gradual slope from the two-wheel track leading in from Denner Lane.  Beyond the bottom was Drennon Creek, visible from the back porch, and flowing from left to right,(south to north), on its way into the Kentucky River ten miles or so away.

The following day Rowan Claypool brought his son, John, out for an afternoon of tubing down the creek for the quarter mile of so of its frontage along my land.  The creek’s flow is highly variable, from torrential to dry rock trickle, depending on rainfall, temperature, and season of the year.  In my first months of ownership, during early spring, I would often see the creek bottom filled with dried flotsam and jetsam and the tall grasses bent to the ground from flash flooding.  On our day of tubing, the flow was high resulting in easy movement across the rocks, riffles, and pools downstream to a small electric line crossing and opening below the cabin.   cwvDm9asA_Lw9YsGTQNy8vWzJxA[1]   Earlier that day I used a crowbar on the small “Peice On Earth” homestead cabin to pry off 1″x14″x8′ rough sawn boards.  The cabin sits a few hundred feet from the Blue Cabin and on a higher elevation, once cleared, and with a view of the creek bottom and valley.  The one room “settler” cabin contained a half chimney suitable for a drum wood stove, a metal spring bed frame, and fading remnants of Sears’ wallpaper glued to the inside wall boards.  A few feet from its single door was a hand dug, stone-walled well about eight feet deep and three or so feet in diameter.  I  removed and carried the boards down to the Blue Cabin for materials to construct an outhouse.

In my first months at Drennon Lucy and I spent many hours exploring the 83 acres.  From creek side to ridgetop, back and forth across the hills, up and down slopes, and over open meadow.  Every walk an adventure.  Eventually, I began to discern the walkways of turkey and deer, their night beds, and the nests of squirrel, raccoon, hawks, owls, and songbirds.  I began to see their crossings of rivulets and ravines.  Then, old stone walls, rusted barbed wire, rock piles, collapsed deer stands, dented pails lodged in tree forks, rolls of woven wire, and many Old Milwaukee beer cans.

In October, my son, Jesse, came to Kentucky for a week.  We spent our time at the cabin cleaning brush, cutting cedars, constructing benches from cedar stumps and butt logs, eating lots of chili, and bathing in the creek.  Outfitted with a rough running lawnmower and neon flags on metal rods, Jesse and I retraced and marked my most obvious meanderings through the woods.  He would mow from flag to flag until we had a trail laid out from point to point.  At points along the trails we set in the ground benches made from split cedar posts. Through the autumn as I cut and stacked firewood, I began to split slim slices off of discarded cedar chunks and cut them into arrowed trail markers.

For Christmas in 1998, at my request, Mary and Jesse gave me an electric wood carving tool.  In January, next to the wood stove, I used the device to burn into my cedar signs— MARY MEADOW, LUCY LANE, and JESSE TRAIL.  I gave myself naming rights and began posting mostly alliterative markers for venues, destinations, and places of note.  Each named for family member.  I had begun to discover the layered connections between me, my family, and this Piece On Earth.

LUCY LANE is a small cut through from the two-wheel track into the woods.  It is near the Blue Cabin where she and I had many happy hours in our first year at Drennon.  MARY MEADOW is the three acre pasture on the ridgetop along Barton Lane.  JESSE TRAIL is a link from the two wheel track up a wooded spine and over an old cut-through road that years ago linked Barton Lane to the Point Pleasant Road and the village of Franklinton.