A LAND OF TREES
“Give me a land of boughs and leaf,
A land of trees that stand;
Where trees are fallen there is grief;
I love no leafless land.”
A. E. Housman
When I arrived at Shabomekaw in 1957, cattle had grazed for a number of years on a tract of pasture within its boundaries. This treeless area comprised about ten of the sixty acres in the retreat, and somehow it broke the spell of entering a mystical corner of the world, otherwise surrounded by trees and mountains. In the spring of 1961 I began to put those ten acres back into forest.
In that year, the State of Kentucky had offered white pine seedlings to property owners at a cost of seven dollars per thousand. I ordered three thousand ! Yeah, I was young and foolish: two friends and I managed to plant just about 300 on that first weekend, using planting bars. Leon and Hobart Zornes came to my rescue with the family tractor, plowed furrows parallel to both sides of the road, and with several other helpers managed to stick those little seedlings into the rocky soil. There were two pine fields, each about two or three acres in size, and I watched them grow into magnificent trees.
One of the pine fields was harvested after I sold the place in 1977. Fortunately, Sharmon and Todd, the current owners, have preserved the other field and the trees are immense.
Photo by Sharmon Davidson /
A big white pine at Shabomekaw
A year or two later I began planting Scotch and Austrian pine seedlings in the pasture, but always kept an acre or two mowed, nearest the creek, and because the soil was rich a beautiful meadow was created. I tried growing tomato plants in the meadow but critters always chewed them down. And one year, a business associate in California sent a dozen sequoia seedlings in the hope that they might grow in Kentucky. Those little trees survived the first winter in the meadow but were killed off the following year.
I was more successful with a unique planting in 1958, in the clearing, not far from the cabin. A chemist at Procter and Gamble circulated a memo throughout the Company, and at that time I was working in the Buying department in Cincinnati. The memo described the discovery of an ancient redwood in China, thought to be extinct. This was the metasequoia that became known as the Dawn Redwood. The first plants had been grown from seed out on the Pacific coast and a few were available.
Of course I ordered a seedling. It cost ten dollars and was not more than ten inches tall. Instructions were included and I was told to dig a hole three feet in diameter and three feet deep, to fill the hole with good soil and peat, and to keep it watered for the first year. I believe that this little redwood was the first one ever grown in the state of Kentucky, and it lives today in the clearing at Shabomekaw.
Photo by Sharmon Davidson / The Dawn Redwood at Shabomekaw
The tree is called a “living fossil” because proof of its existence has been found dating back millions of years. It is a deciduous tree, with fern-like foliage. This photo was taken at Shabomekaw almost 40 years ago (and yes, a tree frog happened to be sitting on one of the tree’s branches):
Photo by Bob Wilson / circa 1975
Kinniconick country is truly a land of trees. A great variety of tree species may be found there, and I will tell you about some of my favorites. Hemlock and beech always come to mind when I remember Shabomekaw. The wonderful evergreen spires of hemlock make the valley exotic in every season, providing visual contrast and forest aroma. Trunks of beech trees add tones of silver and gray and their distinctive leaves are the color of copper.
Photo by Sharmon Davidson / Branches of Hemlock Decorate a Big Beech
White oak was predominant in the cabin clearing, and I spared a number of perfect specimens while removing several black oak that crowded the site. Nearby was a soaring tulip poplar, and on the slope toward the creek a sweet birch grew, a relative of the cherry. Its bark had a powerful wintergreen aroma when shaved from the trunk. Overhanging the water down there was a serviceberry, called “sarvis” by the local folks, and it bloomed profusely in the spring and made lots of fruit. Mountain magnolia with its huge leaves were numerous in the woods, and on the island sycamore and sweet gum prevailed.
Giant river birch, also known as yellow birch, grew all along the banks of Kinniconick, and two of them hung over the Swirl-hole during my years there, almost parallel to the water’s surface. A few adventurous friends dove from the trunks of those trees into the depths of the Swirl. Incidentally, in those days the depth of the Swirl-hole was about twenty feet.
My final and most sad tree story concerns the shoot that grew for a number of years from the rotted trunk of an American Chestnut, just off the clearing. Blight had destroyed all of the chestnut trees in North America by the 1930”s, but hope was alive that some blight-resistant shoots would provid seeds of restoration. My shoot didn’t make it.
Here is a paragraph from Wikipedia about the chestnut:
It is estimated that in some places, such as the Appalachian Mountains, one in every four hardwoods was an American Chestnut. Mature trees often grew straight and branch-free for 50 feet and could grow up to 100 feet tall with a trunk diameter of 14 feet at a few feet above ground level. For three centuries many barns and homes in the Appalachians were made from chestnut.
Virgin chestnut trees in Appalachia, over a hundred years ago.
The Kinniconick valley will always be a land of trees. My hope is that future generations will heed the words of an unknown author who wrote these words many years ago:
Let’s take our hearts
For a walk in the woods
And listen to the magic whispers
Of old trees