Spotlight: Kentucky is My Land

Kentucky is my land.
It is a place beneath the wind and sun
In the very heart of America.
It is bounded on the east, north, and west by rivers
And on the south by mountains.
Only one boundary line is not a natural one,
It is a portion of southern boundary
That runs westward from the mountains
Across the delta lowlands to the Mississippi.

Within these natural boundaries is Kentucky,
Shaped like the mouldboard on a hillside turning-plow.
Kentucky is neither southern, northern, eastern, nor western,
It is the core of America.
If these United States could be called a body,
Kentucky can be called its heart.

I didn’t have any choices as to where I was born,
But if I had had my choice,
I would have chosen Kentucky.
And if could have chosen wind to breathe,
I would have chosen Kentucky wind.
With the scent of cedar, pinetree needles,
Green tobacco leaves, pawpaw, persimmon and sassafras.
I would have chosen too,
Wind from the sawbriar and greenbriar blossoms.

If I could have chosen the spot in Kentucky,
I would have chosen W-Hollow,
The place where I was born,
Where four generations of my people have lived,
And where they still live.
Here, too, I have always lived where
The hills form a semicircle barrier against roads
And there is only one way to get out.

This way is to follow the stream.
Here I first saw Kentucky light.
Here I first saw breathed Kentucky air.
And here I grew from childhood to manhood
Before I had been away to see what lay beyond
The rim of hills that closed my world.

I followed the little streams
That flowed over rocks between the high hills to the rivers
And then somewhere into the unknown world.
I hunted the wild game in the hunting seasons
Skillful as an Indian.
And I ran wild over the rock-rimmed hills
Enjoying this land of waters, sunlight,
Tobacco, pine, pawpaw, persimmon, sawbriar, greenbriar, and
I enjoyed the four seasons,
Sections of time my father used to divide his work for the year,
As much as any boy in America ever enjoyed them.

For Kentucky has four distinct seasons.
I learned this in childhood
And I didn’t get from a book.
Each season I learned was approximately three months.
Kentucky wasn’t all summer, all autumn, all winter or spring.
The two seasons that I wanted to be longer and longer
Were the Kentucky spring and autumn.

When winter began to break, snow melted
And ran down the little channels on the high hills.
Spring was in the wind.
I could feel it.
I could taste it.
I could see it.
And it was beautiful to me.
Then came the sawbriar and the greenbriar leaves
And the trailing arbutus on the rock-ribbed hills.

Next came the snowwhite blossoms of percoon in the coves,
Then came the canvas-topped tobacco beds,
White strips of fortune on each high hill slope.
Then came the dogwood and the wild crabapple blossoms,
White sails in the soft honey-colored wind of morning
And red sails of the flowering rose bud,
Stationery fire hanging in the soft honey- colored wind of morning
Of evening against the sunset….
The weeping willow, stream willow, and pussy willow
Loosed their long fronds to finger the bright wind tenderly.
Then came soft avalanches of green beech tops
In the deep hollow that hid the May-apple,
Yellowroot, ginseng, wild sweet williams, babytear and phlox.
When I learned Kentucky springs
Could not go on forever,
I was sick at heart.

For summer followed with work on the high hills.
I plowed the earth on steep slopes
And hoed corn, tobacco, cane, besides my strong mother
With a bright-warn gooseneck hoe.
Summer brought good earthy smells

Of tobacco, cane and corn and ferny loam and growing roots.
Summer brought berries too
That grew wild in the crevice rocks,
On the loamy coves and in the deep valleys.
Here grew the wild blackberries, strawberries, raspberries and
All I had to do was take my bucket and pick the up.

Then came the autumn with hazelnuts ripening on the pasture
Along the cattle paths and sheep trails.
The black walnuts, white walnuts, hickory nuts, beech nuts
Fell from the trees in little heaps.
And the canopy of leaves turned many colors
After the first sharp frost had fallen
And the soft summer wind turned cool and brittle
And the insect sounds of summer became a lost murmur
Like the dwindling streams.
Autumn brought sweet smells of the wild possom grapes.
And the mountain tea berries.
In the blood-red sassafras and persimmon.
Autumn brought the mellow taste of persimmon.
That after frost did not pucker my mouth with summer bitterness.

October paw paws with purple-colored skins,
I found in heaps beneath the trees when I went after cows.
I opened them to find the cornmeal-mush softness,
Yellow-gold in color and better than bananas to taste.

These things are my Kentucky.
They went into the brain, body, flesh, and blood of me.
These things, Kentucky- flavored, grown in her dirt,
Helped build my body strong and shape my brain.
They laid foundations for my future thoughts.
They made me a part of Kentucky.
These are inescapable things,
Childhood to boyhood to manhood.
Even the drab hills of winter were filled with music.
The lonesome streams in the narrow-gauged valleys
Sang poetic songs without words.
And the leafless trees etched on gray winter skies
Were strong and substantial lines of poetry.

When I was compelled to put poems on paper
They wrote themselves for they were ripe
And ready for harvest
As the berries, the persimmons and the paw paws
As the yellow leaves and nuts falling from the trees.
Then I went for the first time into other states
And I knew my Kentucky was different.

As I observed the closeness of the tombstones
In the eastern cemeteries
This gave me a feeling that land was scarce.
I saw the tall smokestacks of industry
Etched against the eastern skies
And cities that were a pillar of fire by night
And the clouds of rolling smoke by day…
I saw New York, a city so large it frightened me,
Cliff dwellings as high as Kentucky mountains,
The streets and avenues were deep gorges
Between high walls of multicolored stone.
And while it interested me
To see how fellow Americans lived,
I longed for Kentucky sunlight, sights and sounds
And for log shacks and the lonesome waters.
I was homesick for the land for the fox
And spring’s tender bud, bloom and leaf,
For white sails of the dogwood and the crabapple
And the flame of redbud in the sunset.
I knew that my Kentucky was different
And something there called me home.
The language too was different
Not that it was softer
But it was more musical with the hard “g”s
Left automatically from the spoken word
And the prefix “a” supplemented…
I knew more than ever before my brain
Had been fashioned by the sights and sounds
And beauties of wildgrowth and life of the hills
That had nurtured my flesh from infancy to full growth

Then I went beyond the hills to see
America’s South of which I had always thought
We were a distinct part.
But I learned we were different from the South
Though our soils grew cane, cotton and tobacco…
We moved faster and we spoke differently.
The West I visited where land
Was level as a floor,
Where the endless field of growing corn
Was a dark cloud that hugged the earth,
Where the single field of growing wheat was endless, endless,
And the clouds always in the distance
Came down and touched the earth.
No matter how fast the train or the car ran,
It never reached the spot where the clouds came down to earth.
The people moved quickly,
They talked with the speed of the western wind.
They were “doers,” not talkers.
I knew this was not the heart of America:
This was the West, the strong man of America.

I visited the North where industry
Is balanced with agriculture
And where man is measured by what he can do.
I did not find the softness of the pawpaw and the persimmon,
The lusty morning smell of green growing tobacco,
The twilight softness of Kentucky spring
But I did find the endless fields of corn and wheat
Where machinery did the work…
Beyond the cornfields and wheatfields
I saw the smokestacks of industry,
Belching fire and smoke toward the sky.
Highways were filled with traffic that shot past me like bullets.
And I found industrial city streets filled
With the fast tempo of humanity…
Then I was as positive as death Kentucky
Was not east, west, south, or north
But it was the heart of America
Pulsing with a little bit of everything.

…The heart of America
A land of even tempo,
A land of mild traditions,
A land that has kept it’s traditions of horse racing,
Ballad, song, story, and folk music.
It has steadfast to its pioneer tradition
Of fighting men, fighting for America
And for the soil of Kentucky,
That is not akin to poetry
But is poetry…
And when I get go beyond the border,
I take with me growth and beauty of the seasons,
The music of the pine and cedar tops,
The wordless songs of snow-melted water
When it pours over the rocks to wake the spring.
I take with me Kentucky embedded in my brain and heart,
In my flesh and bone and blood
Since I am Kentucky
And Kentucky is part of me.

–Jesse Stuart, “Kentucky is my Land”


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