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”.
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.