My Kentucky, outside of the major urban centers, has an endearing method of communication and it’s the manner of the every-man that I have grown up with. It’s not uncommon to have discussions leaning over the bed of someone else’s truck and it’s a sure sign of comfort and confidence when a relative stranger does the “Kentucky Lean”; Our patter might be tough to understand from someone who hasn’t grown up with it, as the accent might be tough to distinguish but a shuffle of the boot, the tilt of a ball cap, or the glancing looks are not. There is a particular way of communicating around here and everyone from millionaire farmers to factory workers and everyone who should fall in the middle, use it.
But the most enduring conversation that I’ve had in my 46 years on this earth, has been within, and with, the woods of Kentucky and it has happened as naturally as the waters of the streams, creeks, and rivers flow and ebb, finding their own path across the landscape.
The sycamores and I have struck an easy friendship and the conversation has been long between us, not only on this particular hunt but I've been drawn to them since I was young. They were the first tree I learned to identify and stood as easy landmarks when learning to read the landscape due to their towering heights, winter bone coloration, and affinity for water. Birch and cedar trees seem to be friendly to me as well but the honey locust, switch grass, and briars that dot my native landscape are either indifferent to me or outright hostile. The delicate willow tree that graced my childhood creek banks is long gone and so is the chestnut, which provided both nutrition and income to the generations of past Kentuckians. In my lifetime, the hemlock might disappear and with it goes the look of some of the eastern cliff lines and ridge tops that probably looked similar to the pioneers that came through these parts over 250 years ago.
I've had good conversation with all those trees and they quietly give me comfort and a sense of reliability; they are always there and willing to show me things if I’m patient enough, or open enough, to hear what they have to say. White, red, and Black Oak trees offer their stoic voices and canopies to the conversation by their solid trunks and large branching canopies that add an anchor to the woods; their voice is quiet and unassuming for most of the year but, in the fall, when their acorns drop, their voice to the parley of the woods becomes larger as the nuts hit the floor, and they become a busy coffee shop for animals. The area below an Oak becomes lively as turkey, squirrel and deer come to partake of its bounty. The older Oaks stand tall at an easy 80’ height but can reach over 100’ over the forest floor and prefer to live in the sunnier locations; their color in the fall is subdued compared to the added flash and flame of the red maples or the golden color of the hickories.
And before you think to yourself that I might be crazy in that I think I can talk to trees, I would submit to you that it’s rather the premise that if one is able to subdue his own need to verbalize and simply sit in the woods without the construct of expectations and through the use of observation, that the land has it owns methods of communicating.
Shagbark hickories give the appearance of the old man out there as the bark curls away from the tree in foot long plates giving it the appearance of a rugged, bearded and skinny octogenarian and it also provides an edible nut that has been used by many generations of indigenous populations as a staple of their diet. The shagbark wood was found to be useful to many as the heavy and tough but flexible and shock-resistant properties lent themselves to tool handles, furniture, and flooring. Their lower branches seem to swoop as if to dust the forest floor but their upper branches tend to ascend, as if reaching for light or knowledge. On the grayest of days, their appearance is grumpy and foreboding, and they change shape in the shadows of dawn or dusk.
Paw-paws and Persimmon trees are the comedians of the Kentucky woods—the paw-paws bulbous fruit reminds me to laugh as I liken it to an engorged clown nose and the persimmon fruit is bitter which elicits an ugly and pinched face from even the deer that visit prior to when it ripens and become sweet. Early Kentuckians (and even some nowadays) used the paw-paw fruit for jams and jellies, and the inner bark was used to string fish. The Catalpa tree, with it’s long bean like fruit pods, are known to be indicators of the best fishing, as their hearty and thick walled “bean” will often attract worms. If one finds this tree near a stream or pond, it is a good idea to get a line wet.
Sweet Birch and the Sourwood are the artists of the community; the dark and smooth bark of the Birch contains a natural oil of wintergreen and their stature is often small. The purple, yellow, and red colors of the leaves of the Sourwood in fall help paint my landscape and all three colors can often appear on one tree only to change to change its mind the following year—not unlike an artist who whimsically change their pallet depending upon their mood.
Rhododendrons fill out the shaded hillsides with their low shrub-like nature and waxy and always large and green leaves. And you would probably find the walking through a patch of these tough going as they grow together in groups, intertwined and close together like a group of school children on a field trip. Indiangrass, Little blue-stem, and side-oats grama fill in the unused pastures and cleared meadows of the more rural areas, reclaiming their ground lost to a different and past generation where Kentuckians still lived and worked on a family farm. Their conversations are added chatter and those grasses can give up secrets—deer trails, rabbit holes, and raccoon tracks lend themselves to the discovery of naturally occurring social life of a meadow.
Conversations in the woods change depending on the location and the language used has different accents wherever you should be, the woods of Eastern Kentucky are much different than the woods of the central and western parts of the state—as much as they are differing from the conveyance of the Pacific Northwest, upper New England, or the long stretch of Georgia Pines. But just like the shuffling feet, indirect communication, and particular cadence or accent that I find in many Kentucky conversations, the natural world offers it own.