I fell in love with Kentucky from my first visit here, more than 10 years ago, yet I still can’t put my finger on any one defining reason why .
The vegetation couldn’t be any more different from that I grew up with in Western Australia – we West Australians were once known as ‘Sandgropers’ – and the abundance of greenery, surface water and rainfall struck me as bordering on the pornographic; an overabundance of an already voluptuous good thing.
That may be it. Perhaps my Celtic genes were becoming a bit homesick after their long sojourn in Australia, the Welsh, Irish and Kernewek forebears exerting their influence in ways other than the love of music, poetry and storytelling that is a large part of their legacy to me.
There’s another possible reason, right there. The music. I had my first experience of Southern music early in the 1950s and soon began teaching myself some of the tunes.
On my first-ever trip to Kentucky, driving down from the north, I felt a thrill of recognition as I crossed the Ohio River, setting for a “murder ballit” that made the Top 40 – or whatever it was back then. Subsequent visits did nothing to lessen my enthusiasm and trips around the place today bring songs I’d learned blind unbidden to my lips. Is Georgie’s ghost still pushing a phantom FFV down the C&O road, forever trying to make up that 25 minutes? Do Danville girls still wear that Danville curl? Maybe not, but I know, I just know, that one day we’ll come across her great-granddaughter. I’ll know it’s her because she’ll be wearing her hat on the back of her head, like high-tone people do. It drives my wife nuts, this bursting into song or recitation whenever a scene or placename jolts what passes for my memory.
What is it about Kentucky, this lush, green place that so resonates in me?
When we bought our pretty little patch, its location near Stamping Ground suggested we call it Bisonup. In the Nyungar language, the mother tongue spoken over a vast region of south-western Australia, “up” means place and is found in names all over the region. Gnowangerup (which by the way should be spelled Ngowangerup but that was just too heathen for the Europeans who first tried to write the language down), mallee fowl place; Gidgiegannup, the spearing place, and so on.
Up can also refer to sacred sites so Ngowangerup could be the Mallee Fowl Dreaming Place. Gidgiegannup on the other hand suggests that someone was punished there by being speared in the thigh or it may have been the place where that ritual punishment was meted out. Even today in some groups, this is standard justice for some transgressions and white-feller law men are being asked to take it into consideration when sentencing some Aboriginal transgressors.* There I go, widdershins again.
So, Bisonup it was going to be. However, I’d only been here a week – my other half was dividing her time between Kentucky and the Northern Wastes – when I began to notice the butterflies. Next to the house is a patch of hill that has reverted to pretty well natural meadow and in the short time I’d been there it had put on a slideshow of wildflowers, changing as summer advanced. Milkweed, butterfly weed, coneflower, black-eyed Susan, Oswego tea, Queen Anne’s lace and a tall purple thingy brightened the hill, and with them came hordes of butterflies.
Well maybe not hordes, more like mobs of butterflies – erratic punctuation in the flower poem of the hill. Frittilaries, swallowtails, sulphurs; every species known as common in the area and dozens more I’m still trying to track down. Bisonup or Butterfly Bottom?
The butterflies won and Kentucky held my hand a little tighter.
*The elders point out that okay, you give this feller 6 months in the lockup because e little-bit broke white-feller law, but we reckon e broke blackfeller law proper-feller, so we gonna spear im leg when e get home. That give im two big punishment so maybe it more better you lock im up just little bit this time.