New book explains history, mystery of the Bluegrass’ ancient trees

October 17, 2015
This bur oak on Gainesway Farm near Lexington is thought to be several hundred years old, pre-dating the first white pioneers and settlers in Central Kentucky. Photo by Tom Eblen | teblen@herald-leader.com

This bur oak on Gainesway Farm near Lexington is thought to be several hundred years old, pre-dating the first white pioneers and settlers in Central Kentucky. Photos by Tom Eblen

 

Most of us pay little attention to Kentucky’s oldest living residents. They are huge, but to the untrained eye they seem to just blend into the landscape.

Central Kentucky and Middle Tennessee may be the only places on Earth with this unique assortment of centuries-old bur, chinkapin and Shumard oak, blue ash and Kingnut hickory trees.

When Daniel Boone blazed his trail into the Bluegrass in 1775, many of the same trees we see today were already here, and big enough to offer him shade.

We seem to know little about how to care for and preserve these rare trees, which are rapidly disappearing from the landscape. But with Tom Kimmerer’s new book, Venerable Trees: History, Biology and Conservation in the Bluegrass (University Press of Kentucky, $39.95), we can know a lot more.

Kimmerer is a forest scientist, former University of Kentucky professor and one of only two tree physiologists in the state. Now a consultant, science journalist and photographer, he founded a Lexington-based non-profit organization, also called Venerable Trees. It seeks to protect these old-growth species and promote the planting of native trees in the region.

While deeply grounded in science, this book is written with a general audience in mind. It is easy to understand and filled with interesting information and stories, plus useful maps, illustrations and dozens of Kimmerer’s beautiful photographs of the trees.

Tom Kimmerer, a Lexington forest scientist and author of the book, Venerable Trees. Photo by Tom Eblen | teblen@herald-leader.com

Tom Kimmerer

Kimmerer explains why this mix of old trees is found only in the Inner and Outer Bluegrass regions of Kentucky and the Nashville Basin region of Middle Tennessee.

While some of these trees were part of forests, most grew up in pastures above deep limestone deposits. The largest remaining specimens are about 7 feet in diameter and more than 100 feet tall. Many are between 300 and 500 years old.

Why did these trees thrive here? For one thing, Kimmerer writes, crevices in the underground limestone allowed the trees’ roots to grow deep to reach groundwater and survive periodic droughts.

Another reason is that huge herds of bison once roamed the Bluegrass, before they were hunted to near extinction in the early 1800s. The bison’s periodic grazing helped keep the woodland pastures from becoming forests.

Early Kentucky settlers wrote about the enormous trees they found, many of which they cut down to build their structures. Lexington’s first building, a blockhouse where the downtown Hilton is now, was made from a giant bur oak felled by 21-year-old Josiah Collins in April 1779.

While settlement and development decimated many North American forests, hundreds of giant trees in Bluegrass pastures were kept to shade livestock or decorate the estates of wealthy landowners.

That explains Lexington’s many urban specimens. The finest collection of venerable trees is in Lexington Cemetery, where they have been nurtured since the 1850s. These trees escaped the fate of hundreds more like them cut down by 20th century real estate developers.

151018VenTrees001Kimmerer tells the story of what he calls the St. Joe Oak. It is the largest of what was once a grove of ancient trees that between the 1950s and 1970s became the St. Joseph Hospital complex. After neighbors protested plans to cut down the huge bur oak, it was surrounded by a concrete parking structure that may yet kill it.

But the author offers a hopeful example of how builders are beginning to view these distinctive trees as neighborhood signatures and amenities rather than obstacles.

Ball Homes hired Kimmerer to develop a preservation plan for what he calls the Schoolhouse Oak, a bur oak about 500 years old that dominates a hill over Harrodsburg Road at South Elkhorn Creek. Previous development plans for that property by other companies had called for the tree’s destruction.

Efforts to reproduce these tree species have met little success for many reasons, including urbanization and a lack of modern herds of grazing bison. Climate change will make this even more difficult.

Kimmerer offers good suggestions for preserving our venerable trees and replacing them with these and other native species that are more suitable than what is often planted.

Venerable Trees will likely become a classic among books about Kentucky’s natural history and environment, because it covers so much new information in such an accessible way.

These magnificent trees are as much a part of the Bluegrass landscape as horses, rock walls and four-plank fences. Whether or not you paid much attention to them before, this book will give you a greater appreciation of Kentucky’s oldest living residents.

If you go

Venerable Trees

What: Author Tom Kimmerer discusses and signs his book

When: 2 p.m., Oct. 18

Where: The Morris Bookshop, 882 East High Street.

More information: Venerabletrees.org


Authors document Robinson Forest in the hope of preserving it

May 7, 2013

 

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In their new book, “The Embattled Wilderness,” Erik Reece and James Krupa write this: “To look out over the forest’s steep ridges — slopes that novelist James Still called ‘a river of earth’ — is to understand that Robinson Forest is simultaneously one of the most biologically diverse landscapes in North America and one of the most threatened.” Photos by Tom Eblen  

 

JACKSON — As we hike uphill through beech and yellow poplar trees, a wild turkey flies out of the woods and across the trail in front of us. A few hundred yards higher, Erik Reece stops suddenly and points at a scarlet tanager foraging among the oaks.

At the crest of the ridge, we climb an old fire tower and are rewarded with a spectacular view of Robinson Forest. On this clear, spring morning, the forest looks like a rolling “river of earth,” as James Still described the natural landscape of Eastern Kentucky in his classic 1940 novel, River of Earth.

The green waves roll out in every direction until they suddenly stop at Robinson Forest’s boundary. Beyond the boundary are huge, gray scars from surface mining and the flattened, denuded remnants of “reclaimed” coal-mine land, now struggling to support foreign grasses and scrubby trees.

“We hope more people will go to Robinson Forest, but a lot of Kentuckians won’t, so we wanted them to experience it vicariously,” said Reece, co-author with James J. Krupa of the new book,The Embattled Wilderness: The Natural and Human History of Robinson Forest and the Fight for Its Future (University of Georgia Press, $24.95).

Reece will sign copies of the book from 6 to 7:30 p.m. Friday at The Morris Book Shop, 882 E. High St.

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Erik Reece on Lewis Fork creek in Robinson Forest.

Reece is a UK English professor best known for his award-winning 2006 book, Lost Mountain: Radical Strip Mining and the Devastation of Appalachia. Like Lost Mountain, this book has a forward by renowned Kentucky author Wendell Berry.

Krupa is a UK biology professor who over decades of study has explored every ridge and valley of the main 10,000-acre block of the 14,786-acre forest, which contains some of the state’s cleanest streams.

“It is one of the last and largest examples of the oldest, most biologically diverse ecosystem in North America — the mixed mesophytic,” the authors write in their introduction.

“Unfortunately, industrial development has churned under the mountains surrounding these 14,000 acres, turning Robinson Forest into an island of biological diversity surrounded by an ever-expanding desert,” they write, adding that there is every reason to believe that coal and timber interests want to plunder this land, too.

Reece and Krupa are both fine writers. In this small, engaging book, they alternate chapters, explaining the natural and human history of this unique corner of Breathitt, Perry and Knott counties and making a case to preserve it.

Krupa describes the geological history of Robinson Forest and the surrounding Cumberland Plateau, which was formed before there were dinosaurs, mammals or even flowering plants. These mountains were once covered by a shallow inland sea and then swamps. Dead ferns and trees sank to the bottom for thousands of years, forming peat and eventually bituminous coal.

Krupa also discusses his research into the ecological diversity of the current forest. Who knew lichens and wood rats could be so fascinating?

Reece’s chapters describe the forest’s human history, from settlement to the early 20th century, when Cincinnati business partners F.W. Mobray and E.O. Robinson bought the forest and cut virtually all of its timber.

In 1923, Robinson gave the wasted land to the University of Kentucky for research to “tend to the betterment of the people of the mountain region of Kentucky.” Under UK’s stewardship, most of the land has regenerated over the past 90 years into a second-growth version of the biologically diverse, native forest.

But coal operators, who wield considerable clout, have periodically pressured UK to allow mining in the forest. Reece said he and Krupa decided to write this book after the UK Board of Trustees’ controversial 2007 decision to clear-cut 800 acres of the main forest.

Although the forest recovered from clear-cutting a century ago, critics doubt that can happen again because of the extensive surface mining on surrounding land and the planting of invasive species as part of mine “reclamation.”

Reece said he and Krupa hope their book will prompt UK officials to rethink their management strategy for Robinson Forest and embrace a broader ecological research mission. A part of such a mission could be helping Kentucky adapt to climate change.

Specifically, the authors urge broader input into decision-making about the forest. Currently, Robinson Forest is managed by UK’s Forestry Department. Also, they want UK to separate research and revenue goals, so that there is not periodic temptation to log or mine Robinson Forest to make money for the university.

Reece is up for tenure this year, and he acknowledges this book won’t be popular in some corners of the university. But he thinks Robinson Forest is worth fighting to preserve.

He said the book was inspired by The Unforeseen Wilderness, which UK commissioned Berry to write in 1971. It advocated for preservation of the Red River Gorge at a time when the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers wanted to destroy it with a flood-control dam.

“We want to give readers a sense of why Robinson Forest is worth saving,” Reece said. “If you can convince people to love something, they won’t destroy it.”

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

Excerpts from the final chapter of The Embattled Wilderness

“Robinson Forest is many things: it is one of the most important eco-systems in Appalachia, it is a laboratory for crucial research and teaching, and it is a gift held in trust for future generations of Kentuckians. But it is also a model for how we must proceed in our habitation of the natural world. In fact, Robinson Forest represents a model for an entirely new definition of “economy,” whereby our American systems of exchange, both of wealth and energy, are brought in 130508ReeceBookCover001line with the most important and inescapable economy of nature.”

“What we as 21st century Americans must finally come to understand is that the economy of consumption operates in direct opposition to, and at the peril of, the economy of nature. … Kentucky should look to Robinson Forest as a model for a sustainable, post-coal economy. We must replace the industrial logic of the strip mine with the much more ancient wisdom of the forest.”

“To abandon wilderness places like Robinson Forest would be to abandon ourselves. To ignore the natural laws of its watersheds for the logic of our own industrial imagination would be to abandon our better selves — to abandon a sustainable future for the sake of short-term avarice and indulgence. But to preserve the world will mean learning the lessons of Robinson Forest, and in doing so learning to preserve that embattled wilderness.”