Sowing Seeds, Changing Story
Lowdown from the High Country
As a child growing up in Kentucky in the 1950s and ’60s, I was taught that the name of my state came from “an Indian word” translated as “dark and bloody ground.” The morbid sobriquet, I learned in my history lessons, came from the fact that Kentucky had been a hunting ground persistently warred over by native tribes who’d never actually lived there. In fact, no one lived there, I was taught, until the first settlers of European lineage made their way into the region.
All of this seemed puzzling to me. The Kentucky I knew looked verdant and sun-dappled as my family drove through the palisades and then the gentle bluegrass on our way to the mountains from the city of Louisville. And even when we reached the mountains themselves, which so physically display the significance of shadow and mystery, I was still in a place that all the grownups around me treasured for its nurturing, its sustenance, its mothering. Even those who’d lived away for decades, in other states, in other countries, still called the mountains “home” because that was what they believed.
How could this not have been the way this land was seen by those who’d been there long before the highways and coal mines, the malls and miles of tract houses? How could our forebears not have felt hills and hollers tugging on their hearts? Barring such romance, how could they have not imagined that the meadows and riverbeds, the caves and crannies, would make a perfect landscape for dwelling?
These questions haunted me—literally. One summer afternoon, my mother, aunts, cousins, and I sat down in a cliffside cave entrance near the Laurel River to rest a spell. My aunt joked we’d do better to stay the rest of our vacation there, in the deep cool earth, than in the stifling trailer we were renting. Conscious now of the breeze coming from far below, I was startled to hear, faintly, vocal murmurings that seemed like chanting. And in some way not clear to me then or now, I “knew” that we were in a place that had been inhabited centuries before us, was haunted still. But, yes, I was a child prone to daydream.
And then a similar, fiercer “revelation” came to me in 1970 while I was walking a path in the Red River Gorge—well, okay, there may have been a little recreational drug use involved. But visionary or not, it turns out that my “visions” had precedent and my questions were justified. Contemporary linguistic studies of the language of native tribes familiar with the region have discovered multiple phonetic versions of the word that became “Kentucky,” none of them with a dark or bloody reference. Instead, translations include “Among the Meadows,” “At the Head of the River,” and even, according to the Wyandots, “Fair Land of Tomorrow.”
The “dark and bloody” reference can be traced to the book, The Discovery, Settlement and Present State of Kentucke, by Kentucky’s early historian, John Filson, who in 1784 “translated” it thus. And as good tales are wont to do, that trope was repeated repeatedly until it became history, despite its fallacy.
History got another revision not that long ago with the discovery of sites in central and eastern Kentucky (including Red River Gorge) indicating that permanent inhabitants settled the region millennia ago. I first read of these discoveries when I was reviewing the manuscript of Appalachian writer and seed saver Bill Best’s Kentucky Heirloom Seeds: Growing, Eating, Saving, published in January. That stunning information is in the preface of the book written by archaeologist A. Gwynn Henderson, who bonded with Bill over a handful of prehistoric bean seeds.
The beans are not the earliest cultivated seeds found at the sites. Other seeds suggest that people may have been living, growing food, and saving seeds in Kentucky as far back as thirty-five hundred to four thousand years ago, Henderson writes. But a slide she exhibited of carbonized bean seeds, dating back seven hundred to one thousand years, is what caught Bill’s eye. The bean seeds’ distinctive shape indicated to him that they were the likely forebears of the cut short greasy, most beloved variety of pole bean in the Appalachians. A new story sprung from old seed: that was right up Bill’s alley.
Bill, professor emeritus at Berea College, has been celebrated for his remarkable work as an heirloom seed saver and disseminator (Courtney Balestier profiled him for this magazine in 2014). He is credited with saving more than seven-hundred varieties of American bean seeds and a raft of delicious heirloom tomatoes. His website, heirlooms.org, sells seed with helpful descriptions, and his previous book, 2013’s Saving Seeds, Preserving Taste: Heirloom Seed Savers in Appalachia, is a trove of the how-to, why to, and who’s who of mountain seed saving.
The latest book does much more than simply zero in on the Kentucky region. It is a treasury of the stories that Bill has collected. When people began sending him seeds from around the country, Bill realized that he potentially had the seeds of history in hand, and that the history those seeds revealed, like that of those found at the ancient sites, might well be different than the one we’ve been given. He began to ask seed savers to send him any stories of the particular seeds, and Kentucky Heirloom Seeds is a compilation of the letters he’s received, telling those stories in each saver’s distinctive voice.
From Bill’s observation, we learn that while contemporary seed saving—particularly the heirloom seed business—is lately dominated by men, it was women who were responsible for passing down seeds through the generations. That is how Bill became a seed saver—by the hand and wisdom of his mother—and he’s heard that story echoed countless times. His grandmother, he’s told me, not only passed on bean seeds, she planted vegetables along the fence by the road in case anyone hungry was passing by.
From Bill we learn the story of the dispersion of the many so-called Preacher Beans, and also get a little mountain political history:
Preachers were often invited to eat with a family in the congregation after church, and they simply passed on the gift of beans received the previous Sunday to the next provider of dinner. Many of these bean varieties came to be called “Preacher Beans.” There are also numerous stories of politicians carrying bean seeds with them when visiting potential voters; they traded seeds with the voter and then moved on to the next house down the road, completing the cycle once again. I don’t know of any varieties called “Politician Beans” . . .
As I was reading Bill’s book, I happened to be studying on the role of gardens in the history of the coal mine wars, and the early labor movement in the Appalachians. The ample gardens, tilled by men, but planted and worked by the women of the family and sons too young to go in the mines, were often the only thing keeping miners families from starvation when the mines closed. They were also the first thing destroyed by thugs whenever a strike began. Those gardens came to life for me in a passage from a letter written to Bill by Clark County Library director Julie Narvel Maruskin:
My mother . . . remained mightily impressed by everything grown on that farm, and in the gardens her parents, Arles and Nola Wilson, grew around their own houses in Harlan to augment Arles’s slim coal miner’s pocketbook. Apparently, their rented coal-camp house was completely shaded by the tall stands of sweet corn, simply because my grandfather was not afraid to till up the grass yard when his seven children needed food on the table.
Beans, Bill never seems to tire of explaining, are mutable, changing in response to different soil, water, sunlight, and therefore, seemingly of endless variety. Story, and even history, it seems, may be the same.
“Lowdown from the High Country” is a part of our weekly story series, The By and By.
Enjoy this story? Subscribe to the Oxford American.