Friday, January 9, 2009
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.