Friday, January 9, 2009

ORA ANDERSON

A few days ago a friend wondered if I had ever met Ora Anderson. She’d noted the name on a calendar with photo illustrations of bird carvings Anderson had done. “I think he also wrote about the southeastern hill country,” she said. The name sounded vaguely familiar, though not as someone I knew personally. So I did some research. Ore Anderson lived a full and varied life—farmer, writer, editor, newspaperman, business manager, spokesperson to the Ohio legislature, executive banker. He was also a woodcarver, naturalist, birdwatcher, conservationist, and as he called himself, “Kentucky hillbilly,” even though he spent the bulk of his ninety-four years living in Ohio. Most Kentuckians, I’ve found—especially those from the rugged hills in the eastern end of the state—never stray far from their roots, at least not in their hearts. In Ora’s case he just strayed across the Ohio River. I’m now writing about Ora Anderson after reading his small book of nature essays, Out of the Woods, published posthumously. Ora was certainly a man I‘d like to have met because we'd surely have become friends. In an odd way, though, we did sort of meet. Ora was born in a log cabin on the Mill Branch of the Middle Fork of the Licking River, in eastern Kentucky’s Magoffin County. By coincidence, my father—from birth until graduation from college—and paternal grandfathers stretching all the way back to the late-1700s, lived within a mile of this location. I have kin resting eternally in briar-tangled graveyards atop nearby high ridges, some of which are likely within sight of Ora’s birthplace. Too, my best friend, Frank, a retired Baptist minister, lifelong newspaperman, nature writer, and fellow small-stream devotee, once wrote columns for one of the Ohio papers Ora edited down in Jackson. I don’t yet know if their respective timeframes coincide, but they’re close…and it’s probably during conversations with Frank that I’ve heard Ora’s name mentioned. Frank is only a few years younger than Ora. They shared a potload of common interests—fly rodding, nature, birds and birdwatching, conservation, farming, newspapering, plus memberships in several organizations related to these causes and vocations. The hill country is just too close a community to think their paths failed to cross. The next time I visit Frank at his retirement home, I’ll ask. Still, knowing Frank—and by extension and first-hand reporting the values, issues, and social and political climate of the region at the time—I do think I know Ora Anderson a bit better. In 1956, Ora and his wife Harriet bought her family’s old farm in Athens County, smack in the middle of southeastern-Ohio’s enchanting hill country. They immediately began planting trees and shrubs, building ponds, and practicing the tenants of good land stewardship which slowly turned the worn-out farmland into a haven for birds and wildlife. The old farm became just as much a refuge for the Andersons after retirement, a place where Ora could daily study and consider those quiet little dramas which nature presents in wondrous abundance. He wrote about all this in country-boy eloquance: “To hear the clear, flowing notes and phrases of this remarkable long-tailed songster is quite an experience: I would almost call it epiphany,” he said in a piece called “The Virtuoso Brown Thrasher.” In another essay titled “Gentle Hours,” Anderson said: “This old southwestern-Ohio hill farm, bald and wrinkled after a century of subsistence farming, rewards my forty-plus years of benign intervention with goldenrod and golden finches, morels and meadowlarks, and the sighing wind in the crown of towering pines and poplars.” Lovely, poetic words, from a man whose eye was keen and talent sufficient to get something real down on paper. You know when reading his pieces that he took great joy in sharing. I won’t denigrate Ora’s book by calling it regionalist. That it is, indeed, about one region—in fact almost entirely one modest-sized Ohio hill-country farm and it’s surrounding woods and ridges and streams—is of no importance to the quality. If you like good nature writing—no, just make that good writing—you’ll want to read this small book. Which brings up my only quibble…I’m hacked that this is all I have to read from Ora Anderson. I want a dozen books, a bushel or two’s worth of additional essays. You can’t have too much of a good thing.

9 comments:

forest wisdom said...

Hmmm, it appears that in Ora's case the living came first (and it sounds like a wonderful life) and the writing was secondary. ;)

(Comment and wink/smile courtesy of the discussion that you and I have had today on my blog about another son of Kentucky. :)

Thanks for this. I had not heard of Ora Anderson, and I shall put Out of the Woods on my list....

The Solitary Walker said...

Nice piece, Grizzled! I hadn't heard of Ora Anderson, but it sounds like my kind of book.

As you say, we shouldn't be sniffy about the term 'regional'. Quite the opposite, in fact. I'm always delighted when I discover any lesser known, 'regional' nature/countryside writers. I have a score of such books here, books whose styles have never been edited and smoothed out and modernized with bestseller status in mind (thank God), books which are not very well known except to those assiduous ferreters in second-hand bookshops, books which often contain unexpected gems...

Mmm... I must do a post on this some day!

The-Grizzled-But-Still-Incorrigible-Scribe-Himself! said...

Forest:
Nice try there, but I don't think it applies in Ora's case. :-)

From what I can tell, Ora wrote throughout his life, though in other lines as pertaining to news, editorial, the dairy industry, banking, political matters he was trying to support or change through state and federal governments, conservation, and the arts. Whether or not he produced any more of these lovely little nature essays or not, though. I'm not sure.I hope so.

But, you know, I do agree in some ways with Berry's comment and our discussion on your blog about life first…then writing. You do have to have something to say, and the more life you have, the more "something" you ought to have to say. Which could imply that only old, grizzled, still incorrigible writers are worth reading…but we both know that's not the case. "Life" happens to all of us all the time, whether we like it or not, or know it or not. Often we fail to pay attention, but life is still waltzing us along.

I'm not sure many really young writers have the sort of insight that you develop, in at least small measure, by middle age; but they often have a blazing honesty and freshness that makes up for it. Young writers can, however, hone their craft, and no matter how good they are when they begin, time and practice will always make them better. Writing is learned, in part, by doing.

Live, work, write, observe, as much as possible, in any order. And go fishing from time to time.

The-Grizzled-But-Still-Incorrigible-Scribe-Himself! said...

Solitary…

I'm glad you liked the piece.

I'm indeed sorry I didn't run into Ora somewhere in the southeastern-Ohio hill country. I've spent countless weeks over half a century knocking around down there, exploring the ridges and valleys, driving the dirt and gravel backroads, camping in the backcountry. It has been my second home.

I, too, love "regionalist" nature/outdoor writers. In fact, the best nature writing is always, in my opinion, regional. Can you see Thoreau writing about Florida; Ed Abbey outside the hoodo slickrock desert; Colin Fletcher not afoot in the West? In all three examples, when they've tried to do such things (and all three did) the books they produced were decidedly inferior to their other work. I think this is so because to write truly well about a place, your heart has to be in it; prose sings when the soul plays the music. You can enjoy another place, like it, get a kick poking around and seeing the new sights, but your home ground is where the well of your writing flows sweetest and most forcefully.

We'll have to exchange book lists one of these days. Maybe I'll post some of my favorites here, do a blog about a few of them. Some you'll surely want to know about and read.

forest wisdom said...

Grizzled,
I am in agreement here with your thoughts on young writers, old writers, middle aged writers, and writers (of whatever ags) whose authentic writing springs from the life lived...such that they have "something to say."

As I used to say in my church days, "Amen!"

The Weaver of Grass said...

Hi Scribe! Thank you for visiting my mole blog. Glad you were impressed with the molehills. Believe me, the farmer said the photo didn't show them up well enough - I could have put a photo on with ten times as many hills in one field! I like the sound of that book - a just love books about nature and wild life. Do you know the book "Nature's Child" by John Lister-Kaye? If not do try to get a copy - I am sure you would enjoy it, particularly the chapter on stormy petrels. Shall put you on my blog list as we seem to have many interests in common.

The-Grizzled-But-Still-Incorrigible-Scribe-Himself! said...

Weaver…

Thank you in return, for dropping in here at the riverbank.

I don't know the Lister-Kayne book, but I'll latch onto a copy somehow and give it a read. Re. stormy petrels…during what I'll refer to as my Sherlockian Period, I attended a meeting at one of Ohio's scion societies of the Baker Street Irregulars whose headquarters were in Toledo, near Lake Erie, and called themselves "The Stormy Petrels of Maumee Bay." They took their name—as do all the fan groups of Mr. Holmes—after a line or character in one of the stories—"stormy petrel" coming (I think) from "The Navel Treaty."

Anyway, I'm glad you visited and hope you find something of interest here occasionally. Your blog will go on my list, as well. And I'm still astonished at those mole diggings!

nina said...

I came across that book last year and loved it.
Such a warm and moving writer he was!
And you can't miss with Julie's illustrations. She's a first-class nature writer and artist herself.
Do you follow her blog?

Julie Zickefoose blogs here

The-Grizzled-But-Still-Incorrigible-Scribe-Himself! said...

Nina…

Yes, I do follow Julie's blog; I should list it, though being sorta new to this blogging business, I'm never sure whether to ask first, wait for them to visit here and comment about something, etc.

I really liked Ora's book a lot, partly because he's a good writer, but mostly because I know that area about as well as I know my own backyard. Why, even my dog, Moon, is named thus because she was found near the Moonville tunnel, near the ghost town of the same name in Vinton County. I was down there gathering pawpaws in one of my favorite patches.