Winter’s last gasp reinforces the joy of springtime in Kentucky

April 15, 2014

Mahan-KeenelandA horse is exercised at Keeneland after Tuesday’s snow. Photo by Mark Mahan. Below, snow melts off a tulip at Mathews Garden at the University of Kentucky. Photo by Pablo Alcala.

 

We should have known this winter would not give up easily. But I just smiled when I woke up Tuesday to that little last gasp of a snow storm.

I smiled because I had already seen, felt and smelled the warm promise of spring. I had a sunburn from the weekend. And I knew that there is no better place to enjoy springtime than in Kentucky.

Two Saturdays ago, I saw the new season arrive on the tiny blooms of Dutchman’s breeches, bloodroot and rare snow trillium. The rugged creeks that feed into the Kentucky River Palisades harbor a unique array of spring wildflowers, both common and endangered.

Wildflower hikes are offered by such places as the Floracliff Nature Sanctuary, the Lower Howard’s Creek Nature and Heritage Preserve and the Salato Wildlife Education Center. But opportunities are limited, and the flowers are fleeting.

More common wildflowers can be enjoyed on lawns whose owners eschew toxic chemicals. My yard is awash in purple violets. The grassy median that divides my street has patches of white spring beauties. The grounds at Ashland, the Henry Clay Estate, have been so covered with spring beauties that it looked as if the snow had arrived there early.

TulipThe lilac bushes beside my front porch have made it a fragrant place to relax on warm evenings and watch my neighbors dust off their bicycles and take a spin.

Last weekend was a perfect opportunity to get reacquainted with some of my cycling friends. Sunshine and perfect temperatures made it feel like late May, although our out-of-shape bodies kept reminding us that it was only early April.

We rode a 35-mile loop Saturday past manicured horse farms in Fayette, Scott and Bourbon counties, then enjoyed a late lunch at Windy Corner Market, where a steady line of customers stretched out the door for hours.

Sunday’s ride was more ambitious: 50-something hilly miles from our Lexington homes to Berea. A few steep climbs and a constant headwind showed who had and who had not kept in shape over the winter. I had not. As we crossed the Kentucky River on the Valley View Ferry, a crew member serenaded us with his guitar. Birds took over the musical duties as we pedaled along Tate’s Creek on the other side, admiring redbud trees in full bloom.

We stopped for lunch at Acres of Land winery, the road up to which required climbing acres of steep asphalt. We needed the rest before continuing on to Boone Tavern for a round of iced tea on the veranda.

Madison County showed a visiting friend from Atlanta a more rugged view of Bluegrass beauty than he had seen the day before. Sadly, though, many back roads were littered with plastic bottles and fast-food cups tossed from passing vehicles. As Forrest Gump would say, “Stupid is as stupid does.”

While we were biking, many others were enjoying one of my favorite spring venues, Keeneland Race Course. Saturday’s weather made it no surprise that nearly 40,000 people attended the Toyota Blue Grass Stakes, the second-largest crowd in history.

I haven’t been to the races yet this season, but I have been to Keeneland. When I can manage to pull myself out of bed an hour before daylight, I like to go out there, walk around the backside and watch exercise riders warm up that day’s competitors on the track. It is one of the best free shows in Lexington.

As the rising sun fully illuminates forsythia and dogwood, and as Keeneland’s equine athletes are being cooled off and groomed, I walk to the Track Kitchen for the sort of delicious breakfast cardiologists disapprove of.

As I finish writing this, the last remnants of the snow have melted off my front yard. The budding leaves on my tulip poplar and the giant sycamore across the street look twice as big as they were yesterday. It will be at least six months before they turn color and fall, big as dinner plates.

So long, winter. Don’t be in any hurry to come back.

 


Warwick nature hike a chance to see rare spring wildflowers

April 9, 2014

If you live in Central Kentucky and like to get out and enjoy its unique natural landscape, you should take at least one early-spring wildflower hike along the Kentucky River Palisades.

I hiked last Saturday morning in the Jessamine Creek gorge with botanist Julian Campbell, an authority on native plants of the Inner Bluegrass and a terrific guide. Among the wildflowers we saw were tiny “Dutchman’s breeches” and a couple of rare snow trillium.

Campbell is leading another hike this Saturday morning, exploring Shantalaya, the nature preserve near the late architectural historian Clay Lancaster’s Warwick estate along the Kentucky River in Mercer County. The event is sponsored by the Warwick Foundation, which now owns and cares for this remarkable Kentucky landmark property.

Below are details of Saturday’s hike (click on the image to enlarge), plus some photos from my hike last Saturday in the Jessamine Creek gorge.

Jennie-Warwick-flyer-3-14-LIINES.jpg

140405JessGorge0008The Jessamine Creek gorge near Wilmore.

140405JessGorge0032Julian Campbell holds a rare snow trillium

140405JessGorge0040A more common trillium

140405JessGorge0133Dutchman’s Breeches


Building movie complex in historic district would set bad precedent

March 1, 2014

House1The theater developer’s plans call for moving the John Lowman House from the West High Street bluff, where it has been since 1808. Photos by Charles Bertram.

 

The good news is that a proposed 10-theater IMAX movie and restaurant complex would be a great addition to downtown Lexington. The bad news is that the developer wants to build it in the wrong place.

Dallas-based Look Cinemas is proposing this huge complex for the southeast corner of West High Street and South Broadway. The site is within one of Lexington’s most significant historic districts, which homeowners have painstakingly restored after decades of demolition, abuse and neglect.

If city officials approve Look’s plan without substantial changes, it could undo a half-century of preservation efforts and undermine legal protections for all 15 Lexington historic districts.

Look has yet to make a formal application to the city, but it has been working on the project for a year. It has met with the South Hill neighborhood and others to try to address concerns and minimize the impact on adjacent homes.

The complex is well-designed, but it is too massive for that location. It fills virtually the entire one-acre site and rises as high as 70 feet above street level. Plans would require moving a 206-year-old house that is one of the last remaining on the High Street bluff.

At an informal design review last Wednesday, the three architects and one engineer who serve on the city’s Board of Architectural Review made it clear that this project, as now envisioned, meets none of the legal guidelines for construction in a Lexington historic district.

Board members all but rejected the developer’s plan to move the 1808 John Lowman House a half-mile away to the Western Suburb historic district. They also expressed skepticism about moving it within South Hill to one of two parking lots across from Dudley Square at Mill and Maxwell streets.

Board members noted that much of the house’s historic significance has to do with its location on High Street. They also expressed concern about the movie complex’s proximity to the 1895 George Lancaster House on South Broadway. Both houses are some of the last examples of the 19th century mansions that once lined both streets in that neighborhood.

Board member Graham Pohl, an architect, said moving the Lowman House off High Street is a “non-starter,” and he warned that this entire plan has serious implications beyond South Hill. “It sets a terrible precedent for every historic district in town,” he said.

Indeed, this would be the first case of moving a house in a historic district since the early 1980s, when legal protections were more lax. A few houses were moved before city historic districts were created, to keep them from being demolished. They include the circa 1784 Adam Rankin House, Lexington’s oldest house, which was moved off High Street to South Mill Street, directly behind where Look Cinemas now wants to build.

“This area has been gnawed on since the ’60s,” said board member Sarah Tate, an architect. “I think there’s a time when you just have to say, ‘Stop. This neighborhood can’t be infringed on anymore.’”

Here’s what Tate was referring to: When Rupp Arena and Lexington Center were built 40 years ago, most of the historic South Hill neighborhood was demolished to create a massive parking that lot city officials now want to redevelop. The fraction of the neighborhood that remained was given city historic district protection.

Most of those old buildings have since been restored into valuable, owner-occupied homes and condos. Many South Hill structures date from the early 1800s and are architecturally significant. If this incursion is allowed, what will be next?

The Board of Architectural Review is unlikely to approve Look’s plan unless the 1808 house stays and the cinema complex gets smaller. But the board could be overruled by the Planning Commission, which is more susceptible to economic and political pressures. That would be a tragedy.

The good news is that there is a much better site for this complex: across South Broadway on the huge city-owned parking lot where the rest of the South Hill neighborhood once stood.

Look Cinemas’ complex is just the kind of private development Mayor Jim Gray wants and needs on that lot to help pay for the proposed $328 million renovation of Rupp Arena and Lexington Center.

Look officials told the board they prefer their site, in part because the Rupp redevelopment process is still in its early stages. They said they can’t wait. Developers always say they can’t wait.

Here is what needs to happen: City officials must quickly figure out how to speed up their process and relocate Look Cinemas to the Rupp lot or some other downtown site. What they cannot do is further damage South Hill and risk setting a precedent that could jeopardize the investments made in all Lexington historic districts.

Yes, downtown needs new development like Look Cinemas. But Lexington will never “save” downtown by continuing to destroy the irreplaceable historic fabric that makes it unique.  

lotDevelopers hope to build an IMAX theater in this block bounded by West High Street at the bottom, South Mill Street on the left, and South Broadway on the right. 


Book combines cross-country unicycle ride, off-the-grid living

February 25, 2014

140219Schimmoeller0010AAMark Schimmoeller, author of Slowspoke: A Unicyclist’s Guide to America,  in the small cabin he and his wife, Jennifer Lindberg, built themselves on a wooded hillside in northern Franklin County. Photos by Tom Eblen 

 

PEAKS MILL — Mark Schimmoeller has spent much of his adult life trying to slow down, think things through and contemplate his place in a hectic world.

These days, he does it with his wife, Jennifer Lindberg, in the wooded hills of northern Franklin County. For more than a dozen years, they have lived “off the grid” in a cabin they built themselves, growing much of their food and making time to read, write and reflect.

But as a young man in 1992, Schimmoeller took an even more unusual route. He filled a backpack with camping gear and rode a unicycle from North Carolina to Arizona. Nothing focuses your mind, he says, like traveling very slowly for six months on one carefully balanced wheel.

He has written about both adventures and his unusual life in a touching new memoir, Slowspoke: A Unicyclist’s Guide to America (Synandra Press, $26.95 hardcover, $14.95 paperback).

140219Slowspoke001With a glowing cover blurb from environmentalist and author Bill McKibben, the book is getting good reviews around the country. Schimmoeller will discuss and sign his book at 2 p.m. March 2 at Joseph-Beth Booksellers in Lexington Green.

I met Schimmoeller, 46, in November at the Kentucky Book Fair after a friend insisted that I had to meet him and buy his book. After reading it, and looking at his website (Slowspokethebook.com), I couldn’t wait for the snow and ice to melt enough to visit the author at his cabin in the middle of a 250-acre woods.

“When we first moved here, we knew it was beautiful, but there were a lot of things we didn’t know about it,” Schimmoeller said as we walked across melting snow.

He showed me their garden and apple trees, the brick oven where they bake bread and the tool shed where his unicycle rests on a hook, gathering cobwebs. And he talked about their seasons of discovery: where the prettiest wildflowers bloom, and where the wild mushrooms flourish.

Schimmoeller grew up in Central Kentucky in a family that valued independence and intellectual pursuits more than money. He graduated from Transylvania University in 1989 with an English degree, and he has published poems and essays. He is working on a novel. Lindberg is a health-related educator.

Slowspoke alternates among three stories: Schimmoeller’s unicycle trip across America and the people he encounters; his personal journey of self-discovery, marriage and homesteading; and the couple’s efforts to buy a neighboring old-growth woods from a neighbor, who plans to log and develop it. His sweet, vivid prose weave an engaging tale, told in bite-size chapters.

Schimmoeller and Lindberg began building their cabin, which they call the Snuggery, in 2000. The home is neat, cozy, efficient and quite pretty, filled with natural wood, sunlight and books. South-facing windows keep it warm on sunny winter days, with help from a small wood stove.

Solar panels on the roof provide electricity. Rainwater is channeled into a stone cistern that Schimmoeller built. Pumps bring the water up to their kitchen and to an old claw-foot bathtub. There is a composting toilet in an outbuilding. Food from their garden is stored in the cellar, along with homemade wine.

“We enjoy being here and working here and having that reciprocal relationship with the land,” he said. “You grow to love the land as you are active on it. We like to be as self-sufficient as we can be, but we’re not purists.”

Schimmoeller and Lindberg’s lifestyle recalls Harlan and Anna Hubbard, a Kentucky couple from a half-century ago. Hubbard, a painter, wrote books about their adventures living on a shanty boat as it floated down the Ohio and Mississippi rivers, and their decades of homesteading along the Ohio River in Trimble County.

Like his adventure on a unicycle, Schimmoeller’s lifestyle is something many people find intriguing, because they know they could never do it themselves.

Schimmoeller, a shy and private person, said one of the hardest things about publishing his book has been going out to promote it. But he has been rewarded with about 30 letters so far from readers who found it inspiring.

“Generally, people like it that, at a time when we all seem to be rushed, I’m attempting to ease away from that a little bit,” he said. “I have never liked to rush, and I don’t like being rushed.”  

140219Schimmoeller0023The cabin, which Schimmoeller and his wife call the Snuggery, is “off the grid.” Water comes from a rain-collecting cistern, power from solar panels on the roof, and heat from a wood stove and South-facing windows.

 


Voters should push back against pro-pollution politicians

February 17, 2014

Politicians say a lot of dumb things. What’s puzzling, though, is how much we listen to them.

Some of the dumbest things politicians say these days involve criticism of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and other state and federal environmental watchdogs. These politicians are indignant that “regulators” are enforcing the laws they and their predecessors passed to keep air fit to breathe and water safe to drink.

The Democrats and Republicans who passed those environmental laws and created the watchdog agencies during the last half of the 20th century were smart enough to realize that pollution spoils our nation, makes us sick and, in the long run, is bad for business.

So why are many politicians today fighting for more pollution? It’s really very simple: Companies pay them to.

If you look at these politicians’ campaign funds, you will see big contributions from polluters: coal companies, chemical companies, electric utilities and other corporations that make more money when they can push the environmental costs of their businesses off on the public.

The politicians who complain loudest about environmental regulation tend to get the most money from polluters. Funny how it works that way.

When these politicians can’t repeal or ignore environmental laws and regulations, they argue that they should be enforced by state rather than federal agencies. That’s easy to understand, too: the smaller the watchdog, the easier it is to muzzle.

Federal prosecutors last week launched a criminal investigation into the relationship between North Carolina regulators and Duke Energy after 82,000 tons of coal ash and 27 million gallons of contaminated water spilled into the Dan River on Feb. 2. It was the third-largest coal ash spill in U.S. history.

The Associated Press reported last week that North Carolina regulators repeatedly thwarted attempts by environmental groups to use the federal Clean Water Act to force Duke to clean up leaky coal ash dumps near its power plants.

Two recent incidents in West Virginia, another state where politicians are frequently hostile to environmental regulation, also has raised questions about cozy political relationships with polluters.

The water supply for more than 300,000 people in nine counties around Charleston hasn’t been right since Jan. 9. That’s when storage tanks owned by Freedom Industries leaked as much as 7,500 gallons of coal-processing chemicals into the Elk River.

Freedom Industries has filed for bankruptcy protection to avoid lawsuits. The spill will cost taxpayers millions of dollars.

Then, last Tuesday, a pipe ruptured at a Patriot Coal processing plant about 18 miles from where the chemical spill occurred. It sent more than 100,000 gallons of coal and chemical slurry into Fields Creek, a Kanawha River tributary. State officials said the spill “wiped out” six miles of stream, causing “severe, adverse environmental impact.”

We’ve heard these stories many times before. Remember the 2008 coal ash pond collapse in East Tennessee that released 5 million cubic yards of ash and cost $1.2 billion to clean up? Or the spill in Martin County, Ky., in 2000 that sent 306,000 gallons of coal sludge into two tributaries of the Tug Fork River? And there are many more smaller incidents that never make headlines.

Does this sound like environmental regulation that is too strict, or too lax?

Many Kentucky politicians like to complain about the “war on coal” — a phrase coined for a well-financed industry propaganda campaign. But the real war is being waged against Kentucky’s land, water, air and public health by companies that want more freedom to blast mountains, bury streams and release toxins into the environment.

Many people support polluters because they buy into the argument that you can’t have both a strong economy and a clean environment.

Sure, sometimes environmental regulation does cost jobs and raise costs in the short run. But history has shown that it has always been good for the economy in the long run because it creates a healthier environment and sparks job-creating innovation. Perhaps the best example is government fuel-efficiency standards for automobiles, which over several decades have given us better cars and cleaner air.

How long will some politicians keep fighting for more pollution? As long as polluters keep paying them to. And as long as we keep listening to and re-electing them.


Could Eastern Kentucky’s coalfields learn from Eastern Germany?

January 25, 2014

140123Doering12

An old mine in eastern Germany is used for a film screening.  The metal construction is the retooled front end of an overburden spreader that will function as a pier once the lake in the former mining pit has filled.  Photo by Frank Doering

 

Coal is still mined in this region, but the industry employs only a fraction of the people it did for more than a century. Huge tracts of damaged land must be reclaimed. Leaders struggle to build a new economy, create jobs and keep young people from leaving.

Eastern Kentucky? No, eastern Germany.

Frank Doering, a German-born freelance photographer who has lived in Lexington for nearly two decades, spent three years documenting the land and people of eastern Germany’s Lausitz region.

Except for the flat topography, this area the size of Rhode Island has much in common with the coal-rich mountains of Central Appalachia. And it could offer a few ideas for Kentucky leaders grappling with the same issues, Doering said.

Coalscapes, an exhibit of Doering’s compelling photographs, opened last Thursday at Institute 193, the small, nonprofit gallery at 193 N. Limestone. The free show continues through Feb. 26.

140123FrankDoering0006Doering, 55, grew up in western Germany and earned degrees in German literature, history and philosophy. He came to this country to earn a Ph.D. at Princeton University, where he met his wife, Wallis Miller, an architectural historian.

They lived for several years in Europe, where Doering worked as a cognitive science researcher at the École Polytechnique in Paris. Miller was hired in 1994 by the University of Kentucky, where she is an associate professor of architecture.

Doering taught philosophy at Johns Hopkins University and the University of Cincinnati before quitting in 2000 to pursue photography, a hobby since his youth. He now works on personal projects between commercial commissions.

The Coalscapes project grew out of a 2004 trip to Canada, where the couple visited a huge, open-pit asbestos mine.

“It was visually overwhelming,” Doering said. “I’ve always been interested in the industrial underpinnings of society and the scale on which it happens. This was a chilling landscape because it was all manmade.”

The experience made Doering want to photograph large surface mines in Eastern Kentucky, but the mountain topography and lack of access made that difficult.

When Miller made a research trip to Berlin, Doering discovered the Lausitz region, less than two hours away. It had been an industrial powerhouse of the former East Germany, but state-owned industries there all but collapsed after German reunification in 1990.

Only three of 17 former mines still operate there, he said, but they are vast. More than 136 villages have been obliterated by mining, and more are targeted by Germany’s decades-long mine-planning process.

The region has some of the world’s richest deposits of lignite coal, used primarily to fuel nearby electric power plants. Despite Germany’s ambitious commitments to solar and wind energy, it uses a lot of coal and will for decades.

Still, Lausitz is economically depressed. Since the Berlin Wall fell, many former miners have been employed by the government, which has spent billions to dismantle old industrial plants and reclaim former surface mines.

“Many people there feel they have gotten the short end of the stick since reunification,” Doering said, adding that the region has a stigma within Germany similar to what Appalachia has in this country. “There is a distrust of outsiders.”

But the more trips Doering made to Lausitz, where he rented an apartment, the more locals opened up to him and the better his pictures got. The project was supported by a grant from the Graham Foundation in Chicago.

Although initially attracted by the raw landscape, he said, “The project took on much more of a human side. The industrial history and the people’s life stories are unbelievably interesting.”

Doering’s photographs document efforts to restore old mine pits as lakes that will attract tourists. Former mines have even been used for concerts and film screenings, and even public art installations.

There is also a push for “industrial” tourism — with mining companies building observation platforms so visitors can watch the mining process, which Doering said is fascinating because it is done on such a super-human scale. For example, the conveyor assemblies that remove soil above the coal seams are twice as long as the Eiffel Tower is tall.

“People from different backgrounds come and look at stuff they wouldn’t normally look at,” he said. “It starts some unexpected conversations” about balancing energy needs and the environment — conversations that rarely happen in an Appalachia polarized by “war on coal” rhetoric.

One metal fabricating company, which used to make industrial buildings, now makes innovative housing for locals and vacation rentals. It reminds Doering of the UK College of Design’s efforts to retool idled houseboat factories near Somerset to make energy-efficient modular housing.

Doering said his photos have been used in Germany to both document and promote the sparsely populated region, where leaders realize they must rebuild to high standards. “It had better be cutting-edge stuff, because that’s the only way to attract outsiders who might pour some money into the area,” he said.

Doering said he doesn’t know enough about Eastern Kentucky to say what lessons its leaders might learn from Germany. But he said the keys to progress there have been locals and outsiders overcoming traditional fault lines to find creative solutions.

“They have forged some odd alliances,” he said. “They have found a way to work together and get stuff done.”

 

If you go

  • What: Coalscapes, a photography exhibit
  • Where: Institute 193, 193 N. Limestone.
  • When: Now until Feb. 26. The gallery is open 11 a.m.-6 p.m., Wednesday through Saturday, and by appointment. Admission is free.
  • More information: Institute193.org, Coalscapes.com, Doeringphoto.com
Read more here: http://www.kentucky.com/2014/01/25/3052745/tom-eblen-eastern-germany-eastern.html#storylink=cpy

 

Click on each photo to see larger image and read caption:


Berea College archive preserves the sounds of Appalachia

December 29, 2013

131120Eblen-Berea0006

Renfro Valley radio show cast at the old barn stage in the early 1950s. Left to right are Ray Sosbyee, Linda Lou Martin, Claude Sweet and Glenn Pennington. Photo courtesy Berea College Special Collections and Archives.

 

BEREA — As soon as sound recording equipment became small enough to fit in a car trunk in the 1950s, academics began racing around the mountains, trying to preserve the music and stories of a disappearing Appalachian culture.

Now archivists at Berea College are in another race against time: to preserve those old recordings for the 21st century and beyond and make them more widely available through the Internet.

Over the past eight years, sound archivists John Bondurant and Harry Rice have digitized more than 3,000 hours of recordings. Bondurant figures they are about halfway through the archives’ current holdings.

Some of that material, as well as a more limited collection of digitized video and photos, can be seen and heard on the archives’ website:Libraryguides.berea.edu/soundarchivesguide.

131120Eblen-Berea0001The collection includes an impressive array of traditional Appalachian music, oral-history interviews, ballads, folk tales, old radio programs and black and white religious music. Plus, there are recordings of events, speakers and performances at the college going back to at least the 1960s.

Many of the recordings came from a collection started by Loyal Jones, who from 1970-1993 headed the college’s Appalachia Center, which is now named for him. But, over the years, many more collections have been donated to the college, providing a rich tapestry of authentic, one-of-a-kind sound.

The Appalachian music archives includes collections of fiddle, banjo and dulcimer tunes, band performances and recordings of Berea’s annual Celebration of Traditional Music, which began in 1974. Several collections focus on religious music, from Old Regular Baptist hymns to gospel music radio performances and Sacred Harp singing in rural black churches.

The archives also include broadcasts of John Lair’s Renfro Valley Barn Dance and related radio programs, which were broadcast between the late 1930s and the late 1950s on Cincinnati’s WLW-AM, Louisville’s WHAS-AM and the CBS Network. Although less famous than the Grand Ole Opry on Nashville’s WSM-AM, the shows had a huge impact on the development of country music.

131120Eblen-Berea0002Much of the radio collection was donated to Berea in the 1980s, when WHAS changed ownership and moved studios after the breakup of the Bingham family’s Louisville media empire.

“They called here and offered us these, implying that if we didn’t take them they would be thrown out,” Bondurant said. That archives included 1,500 16-inch transcription disc from the 1930s through the 1950s that were meant for short-term rebroadcast or advertiser verification.

“Like most media, it was never intended to be saved,” Bondurant said, so the transcription discs have been a challenge to copy before they disintegrate. “For most of these old programs, these are the only copies that exist.”

Those discs included episodes of Circle Star Ranch, a children’s radio show from the 1940s that featured a cowboy singer and the predecessor of WHAS-TV’s famous kids’ show, T-Bar-V Ranch, which had a loyal following among Louisville baby boomers.

Bondurant works in a tiny studio with a reel-to-reel tape player and a specially a specially modified turntable with a variety of sizes of phonograph styluses. Both are hooked up to a computer with digital sound software.

“Some of these materials, you have one shot; we play it to copy it and it should never be played again,” he said. “I’m trying to get the cleanest signal so it sounds like the original document.”

Bondurant, an amateur guitar player, worked in music licensing for Broadcast Music Inc., better known as BMI, in Nashville before earning a master’s degree in library science at the University of Kentucky.

Bondurant said the digital technology he uses to copy archival recordings has improved dramatically since he joined Berea College in 2005. And, unlike other preservation methods, digital copying makes it safe and easy to share material with researchers and other interested listeners more widely.

That’s the good news. The bad news is that digital technology is changing so fast, it will be a constant challenge to keep material preserved and accessible.

“The digital life cycle is a lot shorter than the analog life cycle,” Bondurant said. “We can still play recordings that are century old easier than we can play some DAT (digital audio tape) recordings from the 1990s that have essentially erased themselves.”

Click on each image to see larger photo and read caption:

 


Kentucky realizing conservation can be economic development

November 16, 2013

IRVINE — Kentuckians are beginning to realize that developing natural resources means more than looking for things to chop down, dig up and export.

In some cases, economic development can be as simple as thinking about what you like about your community — a beautiful landscape, an interesting culture — and figuring out how to attract more people there to enjoy it.

One great example is the proposed Kentucky River Water Trail. The idea is to clean up the 256-mile river and make it more accessible for paddling, fishing and other kinds of outdoor recreation. And figure out how communities along the river can profit from it.

watertraillogoThe Kentucky River Water Trail Alliance, which is organizing the effort, met last week in Estill County. The meeting attracted about 75 citizens in addition to state, local and federal officials.

“I’ve always thought the Kentucky River was one of the greatest natural resources Estill County has,” said Judge-Executive Wallace Taylor. “It’s something we need to better utilize.”

The idea has gotten a boost since Gov. Steve Beshear nominated the river trail as one of two Kentucky projects for America’s Great Outdoors, a federal initiative to bring a “21st century approach” to conservation and outdoor recreation. (The other Kentucky project is the Dawkins Line Rail Trail in Johnson and Magoffin counties.)

From three Eastern Kentucky forks that meet at Beattyville, the Kentucky River flows into Central Kentucky below Lexington, through Frankfort and into the Ohio River at Carrollton.

From pioneer days until railroads took over in the early 1900s, the river was a vital commercial artery — taking flour, whiskey and tobacco from Central Kentucky to New Orleans, and later timber and coal from Eastern Kentucky to the Bluegrass.

But for decades, the Kentucky River has been mostly ignored, aside from its role as a water supply. Locks and dams that turned the free-flowing river into a series of 14 pools more than a century ago were all but abandoned until recently, when the Kentucky River Authority began rebuilding them.

Many people think the river has enormous recreation and tourism potential because it is so scenic, especially around the limestone cliffs south of Lexington known as the Palisades.

“I’ve probably traveled 10,000 miles by water all over the country,” said Jerry Graves, the Kentucky River Authority’s executive director, “and the Kentucky River Palisades is as pretty as it gets.”

Attracting more visitors will involve several steps: cleaning up the river through volunteer efforts such as the annual Kentucky River Clean Sweep, the third Saturday of each June, and water-quality monitoring by Kentucky River Watershed Watch. Counties must build ramps, docks and portages for canoes, kayaks and fishing boats.

Another key element is adding and promoting visitor services — restaurants, bed-and-breakfast inns, outfitters and other stores, plus museums, historic sites, craft shops and cultural attractions. The final step is providing information about all of those things through websites, field guides and signs.

The Kentucky Tourism, Arts & Heritage Cabinet has a Trail Towns program to help communities figure out how to generate business by catering to visitors at nearby water, bike, horse and hiking trails. A couple of towns have gone through the program, and several more have applied, most recently Hazard.

Elaine Wilson, who directs the state’s Adventure Tourism program, explained the concept at last week’s meeting by citing the example of Damascus, Va., which was a declining lumber town until it built a new economy around the nearby Appalachian Trail and the Virginia Creeper bike trail, a former railroad line.

That example resonated with me, because about 15 friends and I went to Damascus last summer during a week-long bike trip in Virginia and North Carolina. We had a great time — and made a healthy contribution to the local economy. We plan to make a similar trip every summer, and it would be great if we had some Kentucky destinations to choose from that are as developed as others in the Southeast.

Damascus could provide a good example for places like Irvine and adjacent Ravenna, which have struggled since the Louisville & Nashville Railroad went away. Irvine already has a charming old downtown beside the river, historic resources such as Fitchburg Furnace and Estill Springs and delicious, down-home cooking at Rader’s River Grill.

The state’s Adventure Tourism initiative makes a lot of sense. Some people criticize the effort, saying it’s no “big solution” for depressed rural economies. That’s true, but it doesn’t mean it isn’t worth doing.

Big economic-development solutions are few and far between. Small-scale, entrepreneurial industries may be the best hope for Kentucky small towns and rural areas hoping to built sustainable, post-industrial economies.

Extraction industries run out of minerals to extract. Factories move away for cheaper labor. But natural resources such as scenic rivers and mountains can pay long-term dividends if wisely developed — and protected.


Longtime cook, maid finds fans when historic home opened for tour

November 4, 2013

House

Cozene Hawkins came to Airy Castle, then called Wyndhurst, in 1961 to work for Corrilla English. She stayed more than 35 years. Photos by Tom Eblen

 

PARIS — I recently wrote about Airy Castle, whose new owners restored the 1870s Victorian mansion and opened it for a tour to benefit the preservation group Historic Paris-Bourbon County.

That tour two Sundays ago drew a large crowd, but the elegantly restored mansion wasn’t the only treat. A friend who attended said an interesting thing happened when an elderly black lady in a dark pants suit walked through the door.

As Cozene Hawkins slowly made her way down the hall, she was stopped several times by older white women wanting to shake her hand. They asked if she remembered them and raved about her cooking, especially her beaten biscuits. They treated her like a star.

“That’s the way I felt!” said Hawkins, 79, who worked 35 years as cook and housekeeper for the mansion’s previous owner.

“It made me feel good after all those years that people remembered,” Hawkins said when I visited her in her own small home. “To be back in that house and see what the new owners have done; it’s remarkable! They restored so much. It brought back so many memories.”

HawkinsHistoric preservation is more than saving unique architecture and bygone craftsmanship. It is about preserving our collective memory. Old buildings are powerful links to the past, helping us realize how much society has changed. They also help us remember the valuable contributions of people like Cozene Hawkins.

Hawkins first saw Airy Castle in 1961. The oldest of 10 children, she was a young wife and mother working part-time as a domestic for a prominent Bourbon County family. She needed more work.

Hawkins was recommended to Corrilla English, whose grandparents bought Airy Castle in 1888 and renamed it Wyndhurst. English lived there with her grown son, Woodson. Hawkins was soon working full time for the Englishes.

“I never learned to drive,” she said. “Every morning Mrs. English picked me up at 8:30 and she brought me home at 2:30. And after she began to age, the men who worked on the farm would come in and get me.”

Hawkins spent much of her time cleaning the huge house and polishing an extensive collection of sterling silver. She also prepared a big noon meal each day. English was an excellent cook, and she taught Hawkins.

“As the years went, I learned so much,” she said. “Mrs. English loved to entertain with lunches for just women. That’s when she taught me to cook the finer dishes. We had to get out the fine china and the sterling silver and the crystal.

“She taught me to make a fabulous corn pudding; we made a lot of cheese souffles and her chicken salad,” she said. “And the famous dessert was egg kisses — meringues — and we always served those with sliced, fresh strawberries and homemade whipped cream, because they had their own cows.”

English also taught Hawkins to make beaten biscuits, a Southern delicacy that required dough to be beaten on a marble slab and run through rollers over and over for a half-hour until it popped. The hard, bite-size biscuits were served as country ham sandwiches.

“It never bothered me that whenever Mrs. English entertained I had to wear a white uniform,” Hawkins said. “And I could never wear pants out there. No woman in pants. No!”

Hawkins said the mansion was a pleasant place to work.

“Not a cross word was ever said to me from Mrs. English,” she said. “I was able to cook and please her, keep house and please her. She never had to tell me to do anything; I just knew.”

The only thing that bothered Hawkins was her low wages. It wasn’t as if English couldn’t see twice a day that she and her eight children — seven sons and a daughter — lived in a public housing project, which has since been demolished.

Corrilla English died in 1996 at age 96. Woodson English moved to an assisted-living facility and died in 2004.

“They were good days; I regret none of it,” Hawkins said. “It has a lot to do with the way you’re treated. I was always treated with respect. I learned so much, too.”

Hawkins now lives with a son, Darrell. Most of her other children are in Central Kentucky, too. She has lost count of all her grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

“She did a good job raising us; taught us all to cook,” son Steve said. “We all turned out well.”

Hawkins still likes to cook at church. “They’re trying to make me sit down,” she said, “but I refuse!”

Physicians Jack and Sonja Brock bought Airy Castle in 2003 and began an extensive restoration that is almost finished. They plan to retire there and open a bed-and-breakfast inn.

“It was awesome to go into each room and see what the Brocks have done,” Hawkins said. “The only thing that threw me off was my kitchen. Oh mercy! That new kitchen is so nice. I wouldn’t have had to roll beaten biscuits; they probably would have had an electrical roller.” 


Chef’s tour highlights growth in Kentucky’s local food culture

October 29, 2013

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Chef Ouita Michel, left, talks with Jean and Leo Keene, who since 1988 have operated Blue Moon Farm in Madison County, which specializes in garlics. Michel said she has bought garlic from them for her restaurants for years. Michel led a tour of the Lexington Farmers Market on Saturday that included Claire Carpenter, second from left. Photos by Tom Eblen 

 

Ouita Michel doesn’t get to the Lexington Farmers Market much anymore.

Since the acclaimed chef and restaurant entrepreneur became one of the largest buyers of Kentucky vegetables, fruits and meats, her employees do most of the shopping, and many of the 50 local producers she buys from deliver.

The five restaurants she and husband Chris Michel have created since 2001 — Holly Hill Inn, Wallace Station Deli and Midway School Bakery in Woodford County, and Windy Corner Market and Smithtown Seafood in Lexington — have bought more than $1 million in Kentucky agricultural products.

Michel credits the flavor and quality of Kentucky food for her restaurants’ success. And that success has helped fuel a local-food renaissance that began in the 1970s with farmers markets and pioneer restaurants such as Alfalfa and Dudley’s.

The Fayette Alliance, a land-use advocacy group, recently asked Michel to give a tour of the Lexington Farmers Market. Michel said it was a good opportunity for her to meet new producers she might want to buy from — and she did meet some.

Many people are now willing to pay a little more for healthier, better-tasting food grown with fewer chemicals. They also like the idea of their money going to local farmers rather than giant corporations.

Kentucky’s local food economy began taking off in 2004, when the tobacco quota buyout program helped finance crop diversification. The state’s Kentucky Proud program then helped market those products.

Whenever possible, Michel said, her restaurants buy local food. For example, the lettuce and tomatoes for Windy Corner’s salads are grown 100 yards up the road at Berries on Bryan Station, a small, family-owned organic farm that also grows okra for Ramsey’s restaurants.

131026OuitaMichel0072About a dozen people showed up Saturday to take Michel’s tour. She walked them from stall to stall, looking for lesser-known vegetables, such as Hubbard squash and Jerusalem artichoke, and explaining how she likes to prepare them.

Michel introduced the group to several of her suppliers, including Eileen O’Donohue of Kentucky Lamb in Washington County, and Ann and Mac Stone of Elmwood Stock Farm in Scott County, the state’s largest certified organic farm.

“There is a seasonality to local food,” Michel said, and new techniques such as hoop houses have extended vegetable growing seasons in Kentucky.

Michel develops menus around seasonally available produce. Her restaurants also try to use almost all of the local cattle, chickens and lambs they buy, not just choice cuts.

“We need to eat all of the animal to make it work economically,” she said. “It’s also better for the farmers, and it’s just a more responsible thing to do.”

Michel’s newest restaurant is Smithtown Seafood, next to West Sixth Brewing in the Bread Box building at West Sixth and Jefferson streets. It serves fish and greens grown in an adjoining room by the urban-agriculture non-profit organization FoodChain, which uses a process called aquaponics. Brewery waste is fed to the fish, whose waste fertilizes greens grown under lamps.

“I know the Magic Beans people are here today, and I want to talk with them about buying their coffee for Smithtown,” Michel said at the beginning of her tour. Magic Beans roasts its coffee in a back room of the Bread Box building.

The University of Kentucky has played an important role in developing the local-food economy through its sustainable agriculture and food science programs, Michel said. So have processing plants such as Marksbury Farm Market in Lancaster.

Kentucky needs more commercial kitchen space and contract packaging plants, so farmers can process more of what they grow into high-profit, value-added products such as jellies and sauces, Michel said.

“We could produce a lot of artisanal pork products that could be shipped around the world, like Spanish ham is,” she said. “It’s just a matter of taking these well-known cultural foods that we’ve had in Kentucky for 200 years and developing and promoting them to a wider market.”

State and local officials who make economic development investment decisions too often overlook agriculture while focusing on trendy areas such as high technology, Michel said.

“If we could make some strategic investments in our food economy, we could have tremendous returns,” she said. “Economic development does not just mean guys in a room staring at computers.”

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Former Disney exec highlights value of natural beauty in cities

October 27, 2013

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Katy Moss Warner, center, who once led the American Horticulture Society, was in Lexington last week to promote the economic and aesthetic benefits to city landscape beautification. At a workshop with Lexington leaders Thursday, she talked with Kay Cannon, left, and Ellen Karpf. Photo by Tom Eblen

 

Beautiful landscapes enrich a city — well-tended flowers, trees, gardens and lawns. But when money is tight, it is easy to see them as frills, as costs to be cut.

What is the value of beauty? What is the cost of ugly?

The answer to both questions, says Katy Moss Warner, former president of the American Horticulture Society, is a lot.

Warner spent last week touring Lexington, speaking and meeting with people as an unpaid guest of Friends of the Arboretum and the Fayette County Master Gardeners.

Warner has a degree in landscape architecture and was a Loeb Fellow at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Design. But she said she learned the economic value of beautiful landscapes during the 24 years she spent supervising a staff of 700 as director of horticulture and environmental initiatives at Walt Disney World in Florida.

Disney spends millions each year on advertising and new attractions to lure new visitors. Warner said she struggled to prove the economic return on investing in landscape until visitor surveys revealed some interesting facts: 75 percent of Disney World’s visitors were repeat customers. Why did they keep returning?

“Atmosphere,” she said. “The beauty of the landscape. This is helpful information not just for Walt Disney World but for cities. If cities are beautiful, people will come back. Horticulture can drive revenue.”

At a lecture Wednesday, Warner said many people have “plant blindness” — they often don’t notice the plants around them or realize their value. We move so fast in our daily lives that we fail to notice “the subtle music that truly is the beauty of nature.”

Many cities think plants are nice, but not necessary. Study after study shows they are wrong, she said.

When a city’s public and private spaces are clean and well-landscaped, people tend to be happier, healthier and care more about their neighbors and community. Urban tree canopies reduce energy costs and calm traffic. Indoor plants filter pollution and make people feel better. Good landscaping increases property values.

In places that are ugly, barren or junky, where there is a lot of noise and artificial light pollution, crime goes up and private investment goes down. People understand, consciously or subconsciously, that they don’t want to be there.

“Schools are probably the most derelict landscapes we have,” Warner said. “We design them like prisons.”

But schools are a perfect place to teach children the importance of natural beauty with school vegetable and flower gardens, and planting trees as legacies.

Studies have shown that gardens make good learning environments, especially for students who struggle in structured classrooms. Warner said the most popular attraction at Disney’s Epcot is the vegetable and hydroponic gardens at the Land Pavilion.

Warner is a board member and volunteer for the non-profit organization America in Bloom, which helps cities learn beautification strategies from one another. At a Thursday workshop, she made a pitch for Lexington to participate.

The workshop at the University of Kentucky was attended by Vice Mayor Linda Gorton; three more Urban County Council members; Sally Hamilton, the city’s chief administrative officer; and more than 40 leaders in Lexington’s landscape, horticulture and sustainable agriculture movements. Earlier in the week, Warner met with Mayor Jim Gray.

This was Warner’s first visit to Lexington. She remarked on what a clean city it is for its size, in both affluent and not-so-affluent neighborhoods. She also was impressed by local food and recycling programs, and by good examples of historic preservation and adaptive reuse of old buildings.

In an interview afterward, I asked Warner what she would do to improve Lexington. Her observations were perceptive, especially considering she had spent only three days looking around.

“I think it’s a shame that so much of the historic fabric has been lost downtown, but those spaces offer an opportunity to bring back character through horticulture,” she said, adding that she thinks the Town Branch Commons plan is brilliant. “That could really be a signature for the city.”

Warner thinks Lexington also has a lot of opportunity for beautification by planting native plants, community gardens, installing rooftop greenhouses and by protecting existing assets such as the majestic, centuries-old trees that dot the landscape.

Lexington seems to have fewer walking paths and biking trails than other cities its size, Warner said, so there is an opportunity to create more of them to get people outside and closer to the landscape.

“As a community you also seem to have amazing talent, an amazing spirit, an amazing history,” she said. “I do believe that it takes the whole community to make the community beautiful.”


Forester’s new non-profit aims to save ancient Bluegrass trees

October 5, 2013

An ancient blue ash tree on a Fayette County horse farm.  Photo by Tom Kimmerer

An ancient blue ash tree on a Fayette County horse farm.  © Photo by Tom Kimmerer

 

What makes Central Kentucky’s landscape unique? Rolling pastures. Grazing horses. Stacked-stone walls. Four-plank fences. Antebellum mansions. Black tobacco barns.

But one distinctive feature is often overlooked: centuries-old trees.

Many of the enormous oak, hickory and ash trees scattered throughout the Bluegrass were here before Daniel Boone ever heard of Kentucky, much less explored it in the mid-1700s.

“I believe that we have more old, pre-settlement trees than any other urban and agricultural landscape in the country,” said Tom Kimmerer, a tree physiologist with a doctorate in forestry and botany.

But these leafy giants are rapidly disappearing, and Kimmerer thinks neglect and mismanagement are as much to blame as developers’ chainsaws.

“As we lose these trees,” he said, “I think we lose an important characteristic of the Bluegrass.”

Tom Kimmerer. Photo by Tom Eblen

Tom Kimmerer.   Photo by Tom Eblen

Kimmerer is writing and photographing a book to raise awareness of these trees, many of which are more than 300 years old. He also is creating a non-profit organization, Venerable Trees Inc., to identify remaining specimens, research the best ways to take care of them and teach landowners how to do it.

“I believe that these trees could easily live another 500 years, many of them,” he said. “We know that some oaks can live beyond 1,000 years.”

Kimmerer has created a webpage (Venerabletrees.org/locate) for citizens to report “venerable” trees they know of. He will have a workshop Oct. 12 at Floracliff Nature Preserve for people wanting to know more about these trees. Details: Venerabletrees.org/classes.

And because many slow-growth tree varieties do not reproduce well naturally in an increasingly urbanized environment, Kimmerer hopes to propagate seedlings branded as progeny of some of Lexington’s most iconic specimens.

“I would like people in the Bluegrass to identify with these trees more,” he said. “So instead of just planting any old thing you can get from the nursery, we develop a tradition of planting our native trees, because they are so magnificent and so long-lived.”

When settlers arrived in Central Kentucky in the 1770s, they found a unique landscape with fields of cane and grass dotted with bur, shumard and chinkapin oaks, blue ash and a hickory they called kingnut, shellbark or shagbark.

“These old trees were kept because settlers had compelling reasons to keep them,” Kimmerer said, noting that they helped shade livestock pastures and decorate the estates of wealthy landowners.

There is no way to tell the age of a tree by looking at it; a core sample must be drilled and growth rings counted. It is a time-consuming process. But very old trees give visual clues: cylindrical, rather than tapered, trunks; stout, twisted branch patterns; tufted groups of leaves at the ends of branches.

Not all giant trees here are very old. For example, there are many huge sycamores, but Kimmerer thinks they came after settlement when much of the cane had been grazed off. Scientists know that many of the large ginkgo trees around Lexington descend from Japanese specimens Henry Clay planted at his Ashland estate.

Many old-growth trees have been lost to suburban development. A 1950 survey of bur oaks in Fayette County found about 400. A similar survey in 1978 found 180. When Kimmerer replicated the survey last spring, he found 43. (However, he found about that many more by surveying along roads built since 1950).

A few years ago, Kimmerer found the most magnificent blue ash he had ever seen at a development site off Winchester Road. It had survey markers around it, which he thought meant the developer was planning to keep it. When he returned a few days later, the giant tree was a pile of mulch.

Some people take down old-growth trees because they incorrectly think they are dying and could pose a liability. Blue ash usually continue to thrive despite dead tops or hollow spots from lightning strikes. Even the emerald ash borer, a beetle now decimating many varieties of ash, usually doesn’t kill blue ash, Kimmerer said.

He recalled talking with a farmer who thought his damaged blue ash needed to be cut down. “I told him, yea, I doubt it’s got more than 300 good years left,” he said. “He was surprised.”

Because Lexington’s venerable trees are living historical markers, they often are found in what now seem like odd places. Kimmerer took me to one such tree along South Broadway, in front of an Avis rental car office. Previously, it was part of the vast lawn of Ingleside, a mansion built in 1852 and demolished in 1964.

Another example is the huge bur oak surrounded by a parking deck at the medical office complex across Harrodsburg Road from St. Joseph Hospital. It was the largest of a grove of bur oaks there as late as the 1950s. Only public outcry kept it from being cut down.

Kimmerer said some Lexington builders now realize that preserving these trees can create valuable amenities for their developments. Ball Homes kept a giant bur oak, the Blackford Oak, in a development near Hamburg. The neighborhood is called Blackford Oaks.

Many ancient trees have been saved from the chainsaw only to decline and die because landowners neglect or mismanage them.

“In England, where they have a long tradition of taking care of old trees, they have a huge manual for managing what they call veteran trees,” Kimmerer said. “We need something comparable to that. We know that good care can make a big difference.”

The most frequent problem Kimmerer sees is old trees whose lives are being shortened by compacted soil and the use of herbicides and fertilizer around them. “You would think fertilizer would be good for trees,” he said. “But the faster a tree grows, the shorter its lifetime.”

Kimmerer said landowners could learn a lot about managing old-growth trees from Keeneland, the Kentucky Horse Park, several area horse farms and neighborhood associations such as Squire Oak.

Perhaps the best local steward, he said, is Lexington Cemetery. Begun in 1849 in a grove of old-growth trees, the cemetery has been nurturing and planting bur oaks and other native varieties ever since. The beautiful cemetery uses no herbicides and little fertilizer, and its ancient trees are thriving.

Kimmerer hopes Venerable Trees Inc. can have a big impact on preservation efforts, because many old-growth trees are in the areas near Hamburg now slated for development. With good planning, those ancient trees could survive and thrive as neighborhood icons for generations.

“There are so few of these trees left now,” Kimmerer said. “We need to be more conscious of them and do more to preserve them.”


Wendell Berry partners with college on sustainable farm program

October 1, 2013

130920BerryAg0094Jonas Hurley, right, owner of River Run Farm & Pottery in Washington County, shows students in St. Catharine College’s new Berry Farming Program his array of solar panels, which provide about 60 percent of his farm’s power and should pay for themselves within a dozen years. In the center is the Berry program’s director, Leah Bayens. Photos by Tom Eblen 

 

SPRINGFIELD — Agriculture economists have been sounding a death knell for the American family farm for decades. Since World War II, farming has been all about machinery, chemicals and the idea of “get big or get out.”

More recently, though, the sustainable-agriculture movement has shown an alternative path. It is based on creating new markets and innovative farming techniques rooted in the wisdom of nature.

The movement has been fueled by consumers who want fresher, tastier produce and meat that isn’t sprayed with chemicals and pumped full of hormones. Many consumers are willing to pay more for better quality.

Sustainably produced local food nourishes communities as well as bodies. Many farm families want to stay on their land, finding that the rewards are worth the hard work. They also want to make sure the land isn’t poisoned and eroded, so future generations can keep farming.

With its fertile soil, temperate climate and central location, Kentucky would seem to be a great place to capitalize on this trend. Plus, Kentucky is the home of writer Wendell Berry, one of the global gurus of sustainable agriculture.

This fall, St. Catharine College, a Catholic school founded by the Dominican Sisters in Washington County, started offering bachelor’s degrees in farming and ecological agrarianism.

St. Catharine’s Berry Farming Program incorporates Berry’s sustainability philosophies and was developed in conjunction with his family’s Berry Center in the Henry County town of New Castle.

(Berry’s alma mater, The University of Kentucky, where he taught English for many years, has developed a respected sustainable agriculture program. But Berry had a very public breakup with UK in December 2009, when he withdrew his papers after the university named the new basketball players’ dormitory Wildcat Coal Lodge in return for millions of dollars in coal industry donations.)

Assistant Professor Leah Bayens developed St. Catharine’s four-year Berry Farming Program, which combines interdisciplinary study in agriculture, ecology, business, marketing and community leadership with hands-on farm internships.

The-Unsettling-of-America (1)Bayens launched the program this fall with four students in the introductory class, which uses as a supplementary text Berry’s landmark 1977 book, The Unsettling of America: Culture and Agriculture, which helped spark the sustainability movement.

Three international students will join the program in January, thanks to scholarships from Eleanor Bingham Miller, whose Louisville family once owned The Courier-Journal. Bayens will choose those students from the more than 60 applicants from sub-Saharan Africa, the Indian subcontinent and Latin America, where sustainable agriculture is desperately needed.

The Berry Farming Program’s first four students represent an interesting mix of the sons and daughters of Kentucky farm families.

Freshman Marshall Berry is Wendell Berry’s grandson, and he is trying to figure out whether he wants to make a career of farming, as his father, Den Berry, did. Does he feel any family pressure? Maybe a little, he said.

“I know I want to live and work on a farm,” said freshman Winifred Chevront, who grew up on a Taylor County farm. “I think this could help me achieve my goals.”

Pamela Mudd, a junior who transferred here after studying food science at UK, comes from a large Washington County farming family.

“I want to get some new ideas for keeping our family farm in the family,” she said.

Jacob Settle, a junior, comes from a Washington County farm family and has built a regionally successful freezer-beef business with his brother, Jordan. Rising Sons Beef sells locally bred, born and raised beef that is free of antibiotics, steroids and hormones.

Bayens has taken her class on several field trips to see area farms. Last month, I joined them on a tour of Jonas and Julie Hurley’s River Run Farm & Pottery near Springfield.

The Hurleys raise sorghum and vegetables, hogs, chickens, goats, turkeys, ducks and sheep. They also have a dairy cow and a llama. They produce almost all of the food they and their two young sons eat, selling the surplus at a local farmer’s market. Jonas Hurley also sells his pottery and teaches classes.

A few months ago, Hurley installed solar panels that produce about 60 percent of his farm’s power. The $14,000 investment should pay for itself within 12 years, he said.

“I want the students to get opportunities to meet, mingle and work side by side with different kinds of farmers so they can see what kinds of creativity and inventiveness are at work,” Bayens said. “There is a lot of opportunity out there for farmers willing to find it.”

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Officials open extension of Lexington’s first recreational rail trail

September 30, 2013

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Mayor Jim Gray gets help from Maya Wijesiri, 3, and her mother, Wendy Wijesiri, in cutting the ribbon opening the second phase of the Brighton East Rail Rail.  Photo by Tom Eblen

Lexington officials Monday opened the first extension of the the Brighton East Trail, Fayette County’s first rail trail.

The 12-foot-wide recreational trail had run a mile from Bryant Road to Pleasant Ridge Drive, through the new residential neighborhoods around Hamburg. The one-mile extension takes the trail along an old railroad bed into the country as far as Walnut Grove Road.

The original trail, completed in 2007, has been so popular that area residents wanted the extension, said district Council member Kevin Stinnett. As Stinnett, Mayor Jim Gray and Council member Harry Clarke prepared to cut the ribbon on the new section, people from the area were already using it for running, cycling and taking children for stroller rides.

Eventually, city officials hope to extend the trail out to the Clark County line and in to connect with the Liberty Park Trail.

The trail extension was funded by $450,000 in federal, state and local money. But key to the project was an easement donation, 100 feet wide and one-mile long, by property owner Marion Clark. She made the donation because she realized what a good amenity the trail would be to future development of her property, said Keith Lovan, the city engineer who heads local trail projects.

The wide easement allowed the city to preserve existing trees from the old rail line, as well as plant more trees to keep the trail pleasantly shaded in hot weather.

Many other states have developed extensive trail systems using abandoned rail lines. But that has been difficult in Kentucky, because abandoned rail lines were often acquired by adjacent property owners.

Parking for the new trail is at Pleasant Ridge Park, 1350 Pleasant Ridge Drive.


The gift of nature: new preserve showcases Palisades’ ecology

September 29, 2013

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Evan Edwards, a fourth grader at Camp Dick Robinson Elementary School in Garrard County, looks up an on old-growth American Beech tree after reading an informational sign about it at the Nature Conservancy’s new Dupree Nature Preserve along the Kentucky River palisades.  Photos by Tom Eblen

 

LANCASTER — Thomas P. Dupree Sr. spent his career in high finance, but his heart has always been in nature.

While building a successful municipal bond brokerage in Lexington, Dupree spent more than three decades of his spare time as a volunteer, board member and chairman of The Nature Conservancy, a nonprofit organization that works to preserve and protect America’s special wild places.

Dupree said he fell in love with Kentucky’s natural landscape as an Eagle Scout growing up in Harlan, where he spent as much time as he could in the woods. Thanks to his generosity, more Kentuckians will be able to do the same.

The conservancy on Oct. 5 will open its newest and most developed Central Kentucky property: The 300-acre Dupree Nature Preserve. Located on Polly’s Bend with 3 miles of Kentucky River frontage, the preserve is a short drive off U.S. 27 south of Nicholasville in Garrard County.

dupreemapLike Lexington’s city-owned Raven Run Nature Preserve, the Dupree preserve will have accessible public trails and environmental education facilities and programs for schools.

“I could only dream at one time that I would have enough money to do this,” Dupree, 83, said as he and his wife, Ann, took a preview tour of the preserve last week. Despite battling Parkinson’s disease for two decades, Dupree walked the trails with vigor.

While conservancy staff member Jim Aldrich showed the Duprees around, the preserve hosted an inaugural group of fourth-graders from Camp Dick Robinson Elementary School in Garrard County.

“Kids who come out here can get a deep feeling that this belongs to them,” Dupree said. “This belongs to everybody, and I hope it gives them a feeling of wealth — natural wealth.”

Land restoration efforts at the preserve so far have involved removing invasive Asian species such as honeysuckle and winter creeper and the planting of 12,000 native trees.

Facilities will eventually include a dock, a picnic pavilion and educational information about the natural landscape and history of the bend, where Daniel Boone and other early pioneers once hunted and lived. Bluegrass Greensource will help with educational programming.

In addition to Dupree and other private donors, including Warren Rosenthal, the conservancy received help on the project from the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, the Kentucky River Authority, Toyota USA, Kentucky American Water, Sterling Ventures and foundations affiliated with Ashland Inc., LG&E and KU Energy and the Hinkle family.

Over the past 38 years, the conservancy has partnered with government and other private conservation organizations to protect 45,786 Kentucky acres. That includes nature preserves and 6,534 acres of privately owned land put under conservation easements that limit development.

The conservancy’s biggest Kentucky acquisition ever was completed earlier this month: 4,241 acres near the Ohio River in Crittenden County as part of a project to improve water quality. After purchase, the land was transferred to the state, whose wildlife and forestry divisions will manage it.

The conservancy is working to preserve wetlands in the Obion Creek/Bayou du Chien watersheds of far Western Kentucky and portions of the Green River. In Eastern Kentucky, it works with energy companies to try to minimize or mitigate environmental damage from coal mining in sensitive areas.

In Central Kentucky, the conservancy’s efforts have focused on the palisades region of the Kentucky River between Boonesborough and Frankfort, which increasingly are threatened by suburban sprawl. Through easements and nature preserves, the conservancy has protected 3,000 acres along the river.

The Dupree preserve represents a new direction for the conservancy, said Terry Cook, the state director.

Rather than just saving sensitive natural areas from development or damage, the organization wants to get more people outside to enjoy them. The conservancy also wants to improve environmental education to create future generations of advocates like Tom Dupree.

The conservancy has been doing more environmental education with adults, too, including helping corporations figure out how to reduce their impact on the planet and understand how a cleaner environment can reduce their operating costs.

“Then we started looking at how we could reduce our own footprint,” Cook said.

That effort includes a new Nature Conservancy state headquarters office in a restored 19th-century house on Woodland Avenue. The project has included both historic preservation and incorporation of new energy-saving technology.

Cook said the building will be made available to partner organizations for meetings and events. Next year, the conservancy hopes to join Gallery Hop and showcase local artists and photographers whose work depicts Kentucky’s natural landscape.

“We’re at the point where we’ve got a foundation in place,” Cook said. “Now we’re looking what the future opportunities might be.”

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A beautiful state, forever challenged to live up to its potential

September 28, 2013

Indian Fort Mountain, Berea. Photo by Tom Eblen

The view from Indian Fort Mountain near Berea. Photo by Tom Eblen

 

Every state is unique. So what makes Kentucky so special?

To begin to answer that question, you must go back to 1750, when the first land-hungry white Virginians crossed the Appalachian mountains to see what was on the other side. What they found created quite a buzz.

John Filson, who published the first book about Kentucky in 1784, boasted that it was “the new Eden … like the land of promise, flowing with milk and honey.” A frontier preacher is said to have explained heaven to his flock as “a Kentucky of a place.”

Of course, this was long before strip mining and strip malls.

Still, people continue to be awed by Kentucky’s beauty: lush mountains, rolling meadows, scenic rivers, vast limestone caves and manicured horse farms.

Kentucky’s fertile land has always made it an agriculture powerhouse. The Bluegrass region’s karst geology and calcium-rich soil is the foundation for two signature industries: strong-boned horses and pure water for bourbon whiskey.

Originally, Kentucky was considered the West. When the Civil War came, this citadel of slavery remained in the Union. Once the Union won, many Kentuckians sided with the Confederacy. Go figure.

But Kentucky has often been a paradox. For example, 95 percent of all bourbon whiskey (and, really, all that’s worth drinking) is made in Kentucky. Yet, you can’t legally buy it in more than one-third of the state’s 120 counties. Of course, that doesn’t mean a lot of it isn’t consumed there.

Kentuckians love to eat, too, from spicy Western Kentucky barbecue to the delicately flavored cucumber spread of Louisville known as benedictine. Ask people on the other side of the world what they know about Kentucky and they are likely to reply: “Ah, Kentucky Fried Chicken!”

Kentuckians tend to be friendly, independent, fun-loving, stubborn and resistant to change. The local cultures we have created vary widely from the Cumberland mountains to the Jackson Purchase. The common denominator seems to be a passion for basketball.

Unless we are from one of the state’s larger cities, Kentuckians tend to identify themselves by their native county. And we have more and smaller counties than almost any state.

But we still love our little towns. We have given many of them colorful names, such as Red Bird, Hi Hat, Cutshin, Mousie and Fancy Farm. Occasionally, imagination has failed us and we have copied the names of European cities, but we have insisted on pronouncing them differently.

During its first decades of statehood, Kentucky was often a national leader and innovator. But the state seems never to have fully recovered from the Civil War and the human slavery that caused it. For a century and a half, Kentucky’s progress has always seemed like three steps forward, two steps back.

Still, some of us think Kentucky is capable of being a national leader rather than a persistent laggard. Kentuckians are hard workers, blessed with a central location, abundant resources and a beautiful place to live — when we don’t insist on messing it up.

The name Kentucky is derived from languages of the American Indian tribes we took this land from, but nobody is sure what it really meant. Some say it meant “dark and bloody ground.” Others say, “the land of tomorrow.” While a lot has happened to support the first theory, I choose to believe the second.

Now, would somebody please pass the barbecue and freshen my bourbon? We have a lot of work to do after dinner.

 


‘Diggers’ help discover real site of Ashland’s Civil War skirmish

September 24, 2013

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“Ringy” Tim Saylor, left, and “King” George Wyant, right, hosts of the National Geographic Channel show Diggers, used metal detectors to search for artifacts at Ashland, The Henry Clay Estate. Photo by Eric Brooks.

 

When Ashland, the Henry Clay Estate, invited the public over last fall to mark the 150th anniversary of a Civil War skirmish there, curator Eric Brooks needed a convenient but inconsequential place to put portable toilets.

He didn’t want them near the mansion, historic outbuildings or gardens. And he didn’t think they should go near the corner of Woodspoint and Fincastle roads, where it was thought that Gen. John Hunt Morgan’s Confederate cavalry surprised a camp of sleeping Union soldiers on the morning of Oct. 18, 1862.

He found a nondescript spot for the toilets about 20 yards from a back corner of the mansion. “But we’re not going to do that this year,” he said about Saturday’s second annual Living History Event.

That’s because metal detectorists with the National Geographic Channel show Diggersmade a surprising discovery when they visited Ashland last spring to work with Brooks and archaeologist Kim McBride. The Union camp wasn’t where everyone thought it was. It was right where the portable toilets had been placed.

“The beginnings of protecting a resource are identifying where it’s located,” McBride said with a laugh. “Now that area will get the respect and special treatment it needs, and we can study it further.”

Ashland staffers and docents will be there Saturday, explaining how Morgan’s men used rifle and cannon fire to quickly subdue the Yankee camp. They also will show whatDiggers found there: a button, a rations tin, a knife, bullets, a mortar fragment and the brass handle from a cannon’s leveling mechanism.

Saturday’s event will focus on the war and the preceding Antebellum period, when Clay played the central role in stalling Southern secession.

“The bitter, brutal irony is that once he died, there was no one to keep that from happening,” Brooks said. “And the consequence of secession literally came to his back door. That’s a pretty amazing story.”

McBride, co-director of the Kentucky Archaeological Survey, has done occasional work at Ashland since 1989. She excavated former privies, finding a trove of broken china and crockery, and she recently checked for artifacts on the mansion’s north lawn so geothermal wells could go there.

McBride had never done any excavation related to the Civil War skirmish. So when producers forDiggers asked permission to explore the 17-acre grounds, she and Brooks saw an opportunity.

McBride set up a grid near Woodspoint and Fincastle, beside a stone monument erected decades ago to mark the skirmish. Diggers hosts George Wyant and Tim Saylor searched there but found nothing.

“We thought that was odd, and quite disappointing,” Brooks said.

Then he remembered an old book that a visitor had brought in a few weeks earlier. It was a history of the Third Ohio Veteran Volunteer Cavalry, the unit that set up camp at Ashland the day before the skirmish.

When Brooks read the book more closely, he found this passage: “Our camp was in a fine grove of native forest trees on the south side of the road, and a short distance east of the Clay mansion.” So Brooks, McBride and the Diggers hosts went to that side of the Ashland property and started finding artifacts.

Discovery of the camp’s true location helps explain a couple of old stories, Brooks said. One was that Union soldiers came to the mansion the evening before the skirmish because they heard piano playing. The other story was that Susan Clay, Henry’s daughter-in-law, held her 5-year-old son, Charles, on the floor because he kept wanting to look out the window at the battle.

“She was afraid he was going to get shot,” Brooks said. “And no wonder! The fighting was really close to the house. That’s a cool dimension to the story we didn’t have last year.”

There will be plenty to see and do Saturday. Civil War re-enactors will drill and fire cannon. Others in period dress will cook, do laundry and demonstrate farm work. Artisans will make and sell crafts.

Milward Funeral Directors, which handled Henry Clay’s burial in 1852, will have its old horse-drawn hearse there, along with the same type of metal coffin used to bury him.

And if visitors need toilets, they will find them on the north side of the mansion, where the geothermal wells will soon be dug. Brooks and McBride are pretty sure there’s nothing important under there.

Click on each photo to see larger image and read caption:

If you go

Ashland Living History Event

When: 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Sept. 28

Where: Ashland, the Henry Clay Estate, 120 Sycamore Rd.

Admission: $14 adults, $7 ages 17 and younger, $35 family rate.

Information: (859) 266-8581, Henryclay.org


KET, architects ask public to rank Kentucky’s best buildings

September 3, 2013

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Kentucky’s Old Capitol in Frankfort, designed by Kentucky architect Gideon Shryock and built in the late 1820s, is a Greek Revival masterpiece that has a self-supported double stone staircase and a dome that floods the interior with light. It was Kentucky’s Capitol from 1830 until 1910. Photos by Tom Eblen

 

Kentucky has such beautiful natural landscape that the built environment often gets short shrift. Kentucky Educational Television and the American Institute of Architects Kentucky hope to change that.

The two organizations asked the public in April to nominate buildings for two lists, “50 of the Best Kentucky Buildings” and “10 Buildings that Changed Louisville.” The list of 50 was compiled from more than 300 suggestions.

KET and AIAK are asking the public to vote online (KET.org/topbuildings) before the end of September to rank those 50 buildings. A professional jury will choose the “10 Buildings that Changed Louisville.” The rankings are to be announced in mid-November.

These sorts of lists are subjective, but compiling them is fun, because it offers a chance to step back and reflect.

The 50 finalists represent a good cross-section of style, function and location. They include most of the iconic buildings you would expect, such as the State Capitol, Churchill Downs’ Twin Spires and Federal Hill (My Old Kentucky Home). Others are not so familiar, such as the Begley Chapel, a modernist masterpiece at Lindsey Wilson College in Columbia.

Not all of the finalists are specific buildings. One is Lexington’s Calumet Farm, which in the 1920s set the style for Bluegrass horse farms’ elegant blend of natural and built environments.

Before you go online to vote, let me tell you about five buildings I like and voted for — plus one that didn’t make the list, but should have.

The State Capitol is magnificent, with lots of marble columns and a dome reminiscent of the U.S. Capitol. But I have always been charmed by the Old Capitol, which was used from 1830 until it was replaced by the current one in 1910.

The Old Capitol is a Greek Revival jewel box of Kentucky River limestone. It was the first building designed by Kentuckian Gideon Shryock, who was then in his mid-20s and had studied under the famous architect William Strickland.

The windowless front façade looks like a Greek temple, with Ionic columns and a triangular pediment. As with many great buildings, the best stuff is inside: a dome that fills the interior with light and twin self-supported staircases made of stone. They create one of Kentucky’s most magical spaces.

Another of my favorites isn’t a building, but the Kentucky Vietnam Veterans Memorial on a hillside overlooking Frankfort. It honors the state’s 125,000 Vietnam War veterans and pays special tribute to the 1,103 who died there.

What makes the memorial unique is that it is a giant sundial — a large, granite plaza carved with the name of each fallen soldier. A 14-foot steel gnomon casts a shadow on each name the day he or she died.

The memorial was designed by Lexington architect Helm Roberts. Two years before he died in 2010, Roberts gave me a tour of the memorial and explained how he figured out the mathematical calculations to make it work. The result is literally a moving tribute to fallen warriors.

My last three favorites on the list are a dormitory and homes designed by two of America’s most famous architects.

Centre Family Dwelling at Shaker Village at Pleasant Hill was designed by Micajah Burnett and built between 1824 and 1834 of locally quarried limestone. The largest building at the Mercer County village housed as many as 100 of the celibate Shakers until the religious sect’s last members died around 1910. The building’s symmetry and use of space, light and materials make it a masterpiece of elegantly simple Shaker design.

The Jesse Zeigler house in Frankfort is the only building in Kentucky designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, perhaps the most influential architect of the 20th century. He created it in 1910 for a Presbyterian minister he met on a voyage to Europe.

The modestly sized, four-bedroom house has the strong horizontal lines of Wright’s “prairie” style and is a forerunner of today’s open floor plans. Leaded-glass windows and Roman brick on the fireplace came from Wright’s Chicago studio. It is now the home of Ed and Sue Stodola.

My final favorite may be one of the most architecturally significant houses in America, despite a history of abuse. Pope Villa in Lexington was designed in 1811 for Sen. John Pope by Benjamin Latrobe, America’s first great architect. His most famous work includes parts of the U.S. Capitol.

Latrobe used Pope’s commission to express his ideas about how a “rational house” in America should be designed. It is a perfect square with a dome in the center, service areas on the first floor and the main rooms on the second.

Latrobe’s design was so radically different than most American mansions of the 19th century that succeeding owners did everything they could to alter it to look more conventional. Pope Villa was eventually divided into student apartments, and it was heavily damaged by fire in 1987.

The Blue Grass Trust for Historic Preservation acquired Pope Villa after the fire and has slowly been working to return it to its original glory. The Trust is seeking National Landmark status for the building, which could make it easier to raise restoration money.

One building that didn’t make the top-50 list, but should have, is the Miller House in Lexington. It is not much to look at from the outside, but inside, the use of volume, space and light is amazing.

The Miller House was completed in 1992 for Robert and Penny Miller. It was designed by José Oubrerie, a protégé of the modernist French architect Charles-Édouard Jeanneret, who went by the name Le Corbusier.

After Robert Miller’s death, the 21-acre property was sold for development and the house was vandalized. The damage was repaired, and the house has recently been for sale. Unfortunately, surrounding development has compromised much of the view out its glass walls.

In many ways, the Miller House is the late 20th-century equivalent of Pope Villa: a radical rethinking of home design that people either love or hate. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and that is what makes best buildings rankings so interesting.

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Plan to turn farm into open-pit quarry riles Clark County residents

August 24, 2013

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The Allen Co., which for decades has operated an underground limestone quarry on the Madison County side of the Kentucky River at Boonesborough, has bought this farm on the Clark County side of the river and has asked for a zone change to turn it into an open-pit quarry. The new quarry would cover all of the land shown in this photo. The existing quarry across the river can be seen at right.  Photos by Tom Eblen

WINCHESTER — A diverse committee of citizens spent more than two years writing Clark County’s 2012 comprehensive land-use plan. It calls for the area near Fort Boonesborough State Park and the Kentucky River to be managed primarily for farms, homes, tourism and historic preservation.

So imagine the surprise of Deborah Garrison and her neighbors when they heard the county’s staff planner had recommended that the Allen Company should be allowed to turn the scenic, 103-acre farm beside their homes into an open-pit limestone quarry.

“Our home of 30 years is being threatened by big business,” said Garrison, a retired state employee. “It’s just such a blatant power grab.”

For more than 50 years, the Allen Company has operated an underground quarry beneath the hillside across the river in Madison County. The quarry sends a steady stream of gravel trucks up and down the steep hills of Highway 627 in both directions.

But there hasn’t been a quarry on the Clark County side of the river since the 1940s. That is when the Allen Company closed what is now an abandoned, fenced-off pit and tunnels adjacent to the farm where Ben Shearer raised tobacco, cattle and prize-winning sheep until his death in 1993.

MAPThe Allen Company recently bought the farm from Shearer’s heirs and filed for a zoning change, from agriculture to heavy industry. An Aug. 6 hearing before Clark County’s Planning Commission lasted four hours. The hearing was continued for five more hours last Wednesday night.

At the second hearing, four Allen Company customers in the audience spoke in favor of the zone change, saying Clark County needs a plentiful supply of crushed stone for development. Everyone else in the packed Clark Circuit Courtroom seemed to be against it. They included residents near the proposed quarry site, who hastily retained environmental lawyer Hank Graddy to help them fight the zone change.

The Allen Company’s attorney and witnesses argued that the company needs more quarry capacity, although they acknowledged the company has leased 172 acres on the Madison County side they have yet to mine. They also said that additional production in Clark County would be offset by less production in Madison.

To justify the zone change, the company argued that the hilly farm is no longer suitable for agriculture and would make a better quarry because of a 570-foot-thick shelf of limestone beneath the soil.

But opponents disputed those arguments and cited many other concerns. They worry about dust, noise and the potential for blasting damage to nearby homes, wells and springs. They worry about the loss of scenic views in a tourist area of historic significance because of its role in Kentucky’s early settlement and western migration. And they worry about putting more slow-moving gravel trucks on a busy, hilly highway that is often shrouded in river fog.

A zoning change for this quarry would be “a classic case of spot zoning,” Graddy told the commission. “Spot zoning is illegal. It is why we have planning and zoning in the first place.

“Your obligation is to follow your plan,” Graddy said, noting that the comp plan has no provisions at all for quarries.

But Allen Company attorney John Rompf argued that the comp is not a “straightjacket,” and he said commissioners should consider the company’s important role in local economic development.

After nine hours of witnesses, testimony, questions and arguments, the commission voted 6-1 against the zoning change. But that isn’t the end of the story. The final decision rests with Clark County’s three-member Fiscal Court, which could consider an appeal as soon as Wednesday.

Opponents of the rezoning include two former Planning Commission members who do not live near the proposed quarry.

Chuck Witt, who served on the commission in the late 1970s and said he has missed attending only eight meetings since then, said at last Wednesday’s hearing that permitting a quarry on that site would be “the most egregious zone change that this county would ever experience. If ever there were an instance when a staff report should be rejected, this is it.”

Clare Sipple, who manages the nearby Lower Howard’s Creek Nature and Heritage Preserve, agrees. She served on the Planning Commission from 2001-2011 and felt so strongly about the rezoning proposal that she helped arrange for Graddy to represent opponents.

“We’ve got no problem with the Allen Company itself — it has always been a good employer here — it’s the way they’ve gone about this,” she said. “It’s very political.”

If Fiscal Court were to overturn the Planning Commission’s decision, Sipple said, it would undermine Clark County’s whole planning and zoning history and process.

“You might as well throw the comp plan out the window,” she said. “Nobody’s land would be safe.”

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The proposed new quarry site is the hillside around the clearing in the upper right of this photo, which shows the Allen Co.’s Boonesboro Quarry across the Kentucky River.  


Kentucky poet Maurice Manning gains a national reputation

August 20, 2013

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 Poet Maurice Manning lives in an 1850s farmhouse on 20 acres near Springfield, fulfilling a pledge he made when he was in graduate school in Alabama. Photos by Tom Eblen

 

SPRINGFIELD — Clouds were gathering for an early evening shower as Maurice Manning leashed his three big dogs and took off down one of the mowed paths that criss-cross almost 20 acres behind his 1850s farmhouse.

“One of my vows when I was in grad school in Alabama was that if I ever made any money from writing, I would buy land in Kentucky,” he said as we ambled through woods, past a stream and across meadows of wildflowers in full August bloom.

“Most farmers wouldn’t think much of what I’ve done with the place,” Manning said of his land, which was grazed and cultivated before nature started reclaiming it. Manning’s daily two-mile walks help his mind harvest a different kind of Kentucky crop.

Manning, 47, who pronounces his first name “Morris,” is attracting national attention as a poet. His first book, Lawrence Booth’s Book of Visions, won the prestigious Yale Series of Younger Poets Award in 2001. His fourth book, The Common Man, was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in poetry in 2010.

Manning3Manning was a National Book Awards poetry judge last year and has been a Guggenheim fellow. His poems have appeared in The New Yorker, The Southern Review and The Virginia Quarterly Review. His fifth poetry collection,The Gone and the Going Away, was published in April to good reviews.

The Danville native, whose ancestors helped settle Clay and Rockcastle counties, had divided his time between the Washington County farm he and his wife, Amanda, bought in 2001 and Indiana, where he taught English at Indiana University and, before that, DePauw University.

“For a long time, I felt like I had one foot in Kentucky and one foot in Indiana,” said Manning, who earned his undergraduate degree from Earlham College, a Quaker school in Richmond, Ind.

So two years ago, Manning gave up the security of tenure at Indiana to become an English professor at Transylvania University. He also is a writer in residence, along with another distinguished Kentucky poet, Richard Taylor.

“I love teaching, and teaching at Transy is especially enjoyable because the classes are small and you can get into intense conversations with students,” he said. “I knew I wanted to teach Kentucky students for a variety of reasons. I just feel like I owe a debt to this state since everything I write about is Kentucky.”

The poems in Manning’s most recent book are like tiny short stories with colorful characters from “Fog Town Holler” in the Kentucky of his imagination. His carefully crafted verse is filled with wry humor, evocation of traditional ways of life and a reverence for nature.

“There’s something about the organized rhythm of a poetic line that is a real source of meditation,” said Manning, who plays guitar and is learning the banjo.

Manning has finished another book of poetry, as yet untitled, that includes “intense descriptions of the natural world,” he said. “The motive for that is recognizing how thoroughly we are destroying the natural world.”

Manning said he began writing poetry privately in junior high. He assumed that nobody else was still writing poetry, because all of the poets he studied in English class were dead. That changed when poet Denise Levertov visited a class he was taking at Earlham.

“It made everything seem less mysterious,” he said. “She wasn’t an aloof, obscure person.”

Later, Manning got to know James Still, the celebrated Eastern Kentucky writer and poet, when he was in his 80s. And he found ways to connect with dead poets whose work he admired. In 2009, Manning visited England and walked the landscape that inspired the Romantic poets William Wordsworth and Samuel Coleridge.

Another inspiration was fellow Kentuckian Robert Penn Warren, the only person to win Pulitzer Prizes for both poetry (twice) and fiction. On April 24, Manning was invited to the Library of Congress in Washington to read Warren’s poetry during a celebration of what would have been Warren’s 108th birthday.

Manning said Warren was one of the last prominent American poets who thought poetry was a place for philosophical meditation, for asking profound questions about life. That, he said, is where he hopes his own poetry is heading.

“One of the nice things about being a poet is there’s no money in it,” Manning said. “Believe it or not, that gives you a lot of freedom.”

Manning2Maurice Manning has cut four miles of walking paths through his 20-acre farm.