“I taught myself these things in the city, waiting for the day when I would finally abandon it”: An excerpt from Erik Reece’s Clear Creek

Clear Creek: Toward a Natural Philosophy is the newest book by Erik Reece, professor of English at the University of Kentucky and author of An American Gospel and Lost Mountain. Described by Amy Leach as “full of starry, grassy, fiery ideas,” Clear Creek will be published August 1 in WVU Press’s series In Place.

During the summer that I turned forty-five—middle-age by any conceivable standard—I moved to the woods and, with the woman I planned to marry, set up house on a ridge side covered in hickories, buckeyes, and chinquapin oaks—a slope that dropped off over a sheer rock wall, then opened up onto Clear Creek, a beautiful body of water where, along its banks, a small wedding party (bride, groom, preacher, photographer, and witness) could be squeezed onto one large platform of white limestone. The officiant was the pastor of a progressive church started right after the Civil War by the abolitionist minister John Fee. The photographer, Morris, was a friend from graduate school (we had once performed a disastrous scene from Hamlet in front of our Shakespeare seminar, a scene in which I, as Polonius, forgot my lines) and the witness was his wife, Anissa, who had baked an apple-caramel pound cake for the occasion. Melissa wore hiking boots beneath her wedding dress—her twin sister’s second grievance of the day, the first being that she wasn’t invited. After a ten-minute ceremony in which the minister riffed on the theme of our marriage to each other and to this land, we all hiked back up to the house to drink champagne, eat cake, and sign the marriage license. Since Melissa and I weren’t members of our officiant’s church, or of any church, I slipped him an envelope containing a few large bills. My life had just taken, I could plainly see, a serious turn in the right direction.

In early spring, the five-lobed leaves of the Ohio buckeye emerge from their swollen pink buds like a pair of hands tightly folded in prayer. Then each pair of palmate leaves opens onto another pair, and then another—hands inside hands—waving to us from the western slope below our house, calling us down into this karst terrain. Beneath the buckeyes, twinleaf begins to bloom, a white wildflower with two matching triangular leaves spreading from the tip of its stem. The flowers only last a few days, and then the hillside looks like a swaying congregation of green bow ties. The botanist William Bartram named the genus Jeffersonia diphylla after Thomas Jefferson because this spring ephemeral was said to be the third president’s favorite wildflower. Jefferson’s agrarian romanticism certainly influenced my own move to the rural hamlet of Nonesuch, Kentucky. (In 1901, local journalist Dan Bowmar asked a farmer, Bolivar Bond, how Nonesuch got its name. Bond replied that, because of its reputation for selling whiskey, “it was once called Nonesuch because there was ‘no such’ place as bad, and now we call it that because there is ‘none such’ place as good.” Today, as then, Nonesuch consists basically of one store—now a gas station and grocery—at a crossroads that leads down to the Kentucky River.) Like Jefferson, I wanted to spend my days thinking and writing, exploring the countryside and altering it slightly in the name of sustenance. I wanted to abandon the industrial city that was the legacy of Jefferson’s nemesis, Alexander Hamilton. And I often felt that while most of America was migrating—mentally and physically—toward urban environs, I was heading in exactly the opposite direction. While most of the country was running to the city, I was running away from it. I wanted to abandon Hamilton’s economy of commerce for Jefferson’s economy of nature. It was a romantic undertaking but not an entirely naive one. I had spent many years as a very amateur naturalist, exploring and studying the broadleaf forests of central and Eastern Kentucky, landscapes and ecosystems quite similar to Jefferson’s own Virginia Piedmont. I knew how to tend a vegetable garden, raise and butcher chickens, cut and split firewood, build a wooden boat. I taught myself these things in the city, waiting for the day when I would finally abandon it.

So when the opportunity came, Melissa and I bought this house on a hillside that is lined at the top with cedars and hickories and bordered at the bottom by Clear Creek. We live about a mile off the state route, called Fords Mill Road, up on a ridge with seven other families, though none can see another house from its own windows. I say families, but most are couples whose children are grown and gone. Almost all of them have been living up here for decades. There are no fences, and the neighbors have formed their own unwritten Magna Carta, which says anyone can ramble on anyone else’s land. What this means is that while Melissa and I lay claim to only five acres, it feels as if we own about fifty. We can walk all of the trails down by the creek without fear of trespassing, and our dogs, like all the others up here, can run free.

Our house itself was built about thirty years ago with the most abundant resources on this property: cedar and creek stone. In fact, the builder formed its interior walls with stones that were once part of a dam at the bottom of our land. Records from the Woodford County courthouse say that on June 2, 1789, a certain William Thomas “asked leave” to build a mill on Clear Creek. Presumably, the remnants of the dam at the bottom of our property impounded water for that mill. A 1901 article from a local newspaper presumes that mill was the first one built in the county. By that point, it was owned by a man named James Ford. The 1901 article describes Ford’s home as “one of the handsomest houses in this section of the state.” The large gray dwelling, with tall white pillars on an antebellum portico, still stands; we can see it out of our back door when the leaves are off the trees. Ford added a distillery to his mill in the mid-1800s, and there is still no place in the world more famous for its bourbon than Woodford County. Melissa had agreed to move to the country with me, but she wasn’t, in her words, “going to live in a log cabin.” And there are still a lot of log cabins in Kentucky. So when we walked into this house, with its stone walls, exposed pine beams, and beautiful views, Melissa looked at me and said, “This is our house.” I looked back and said, “This is our land.”

Read more in Clear Creek: Toward a Natural Philosophy, coming August 1 from West Virginia University Press.

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