Row by Row: Talking with Kentucky Gardeners. By Katherine J. Black. (2015. Pp. 221. $24.95. Paperback. Athens: Ohio University Press: A Swallow Press Book. 31 S. Court St., Suite 143, Athens, OH 45701-2979. www.ohioswallow.com) ISBN: 978-0-8040-1162-4.
Gardening, by nature, is often a solitary endeavor. We commune with the plants, soil, and weather…only later, sometimes sharing our spoils with others. In Kentucky, gardening has always been a dominant presence. Most of our Kentucky ancestors had some connection to growth, either by farming, or tending the garden to feed the family. Today, the gardening process is still going strong due to a heritage of generational knowledge, passed down, adapted, and continually shared with each harvest season.
One of the greatest challenges surrounding gardener knowledge is the personal nature of gardening. Most of us have strong gardening or farming memories from our Kentucky ancestors, but how many of us have been able to capture their stories and the essence of their experiences? This new book by Katherine Black is a special treat: an intimate exploration of the Kentucky gardener’s world. One of my favorite elements of this book is the lineage of the skillset. The story behind each gardener and their skill growth as a gardener ties us back to an earlier time and usually to an earlier generation. In many cases, the skills may have slightly adapted with new gardening advances, but the fundamentals are the same; time honored skills that have been shared with each generation.
The tapestry of stories and perspectives remind us of our interconnectedness…a continued story across multiple generations…as if time were irrelevant. The people and seasons may come and go, but the harvest will remain constant, long after we have gone and shared our secrets with the next crop of gardeners. Ms. Black’s Oral History and gardening background has resulted in a collection of rich stories that preserve methods and traditions. As the former curator for the University of Kentucky’s Appalachian Collection, she has developed an intimate knowledge of Kentucky life, and its reliance upon agriculture. For the researcher, this is another great contextual resource that helps us get closer to the essence of our ancestors. Sometimes it is important to put the census away and just think about how our ancestors lived, and the motivations that influenced their lives. There is no index for this title, but the map in the front highlights which counties the gardener features are coming from. To be specific, the stories included originate from: Barren, Boyd, Breathitt, Crittenden, Estill, Fayette, Floyd, Jefferson, Jessamine, Kenton, Knox, Madison, Meade, Menifee, Morgan, Russell, Todd, Wayne and Whitley Counties.
As much as this title reflects upon the time honored traditions of the gardeners and their processes, it is also a relevant subject for today. In 2016, we are moving back to those traditions, realizing that the process and pure harvest are priceless in today’s abundance of processed foods. Another important element to note – the diversity in this collection is refreshing. Our stories, trials, and trails may be different, but we share the common goal of a bountiful harvest. As summer flows along, and we watch the plants grow, sit back with a glass of iced tea and savor these stories that are as visually inspirational as they are textually.