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SURROUNDING: Mammoth Cave!

  1. Introduction

This is a journey log.  One of culture, history, and scientific exploration.  A recognition that, when we focus on the significant, we often ignore the peripheral things of interest.  And there is much to learn about in those places.

I love Kentucky, its people, its culture, and its landforms.  And I love the fact that we share this land with such a diversity of life forms living on ancient bedrock never covered by glaciers.

Take a look.  It all surrounds you now.  They may be hiding, but these wonders of Kentucky want to be found![i]


  1. The Heart of Home

Like the quills of an arrow shooting through the heart of Kentucky, the Green River plunges through rocky escarpments west toward its aquatic destiny.  Over the Pennyrile, past the Cave Cities, it seeks to penetrate those high sandstone barriers facing Kentucky’s great Mississippian Age karst plateaus and one time Barrens.[ii]

And along the river, in the crooks of creeks and root-worn cavities, hides the exploding diversity of Kentucky life forms living.  Evolving there, through more than 300 million years of climate and erosion.  Erosion of the great sediment loads left by the massive oceans that would become Kentucky when they rose, like Atlantis, from the sea in the supercontinent called Pangaea.[iii]

The Green River snakes through this land, cutting into the sandstone cap covering Kentucky’s great Mammoth Cave, and calling to its brethren waters to join in its surge back to where its waters came from.  An aquatic Hadj, a journey to join, along with its fellow petitioners, the Ohio and the Mississippi Rivers, in a pilgrimage back to the sea. A sea salty with the memories tasted of so many journeys previous.  To turn, in the cycle of things, in the cycle of living things too, to the one meaning, returning as lost droplets to Judea.

And so Kentucky’s waters answer the emerald Green River’s call.  The Nolin River from the north, cutting victoriously down through the sandstone cliffs to reach out to its partner below.  And from the South, the Barren River, more casual in its traction, flowing gently over the fertile flatlands once thought to be barren by the absence of forest, but with a thick crop of cane to announce nature’s vigor.[iv]

But even the Barren River accelerates with ardor, feeling the time that’s coming to honor its brethren.  And, along the way, it argues with its tributary, the Gasper River, which retreats within its hilly mountain’s lair until, at last, it is enticed to join in the river’s escape.  The collecting of waters into one body, at last.

And farther to the North, as a flanking guard of honor, Kentucky’s Rough River protects the migrating pilgrims below.

The Rough River is emphatic!  Its presence, a mandate announcing a protecting action to cover the gathering waters to the south of it.  A statement of defiance to those northerly glaciers that once fought to enter Kentucky, but never made it.[v]

“You cannot pass here” seems to be the Rough River’s statement.  The lives that now live here, your lives, are now its protectorate.  And it, too, will compete in the migration, joining the Green River at a bridge crossing two rivers in Livermore, Kentucky.

And once, along these ancient waterways, lived the advanced Adena People with their atlatl weapons and mounds of mussel shells.  And before them, Archaic nomads with fluted-pointed spears, hunting Pleistocene megafauna that once roamed about around here.

And, more recently, the ceremonial, mound-building people of the Native American Hopewell culture, to be followed by Great Mississippian mound-building societies.  And all of these people were here, and were first to walk in awe of this special place we call Kentucky!

So now, to adorn these lands and their watery necklaces, we have flattened three lakes like three silver brooches that hang from the neck and shoulders of this graceful place.  Art, the size of the Nazca Lines, but bringing to mind the great shapes of Hopewell medallions.  Giant birds, as it were, in their flight following the waters, reflecting like precious metal their intention to join with the silvery water west and beyond.  Electrum on the crowning pyramidion of this risen land we call home.[vi]

And all of this, Surrounding Mammoth Cave!


  1. Sallie’s Rock

“Come on,” said Sallie as she began to climb up the steep trail from the pathway along the bank of the Gasper River.  Her brother was not as agile and lagged behind.  As she reached the sandstone pinnacle on top of the limestone ledge, her arm reached out to familiar handholds and she pulled herself up.

“I can see the smokestacks rounding the turn from the Green River,” she yelled, and scampered back down to help her brother with the mail.  Wrapping those precious papers in oilcloth, they had tied them to the long hemp rope brought up by her brother.  Cautiously, they moved along the flat terrace of rocky block ledge, to its edge.  There, almost 100 feet straight down, flowed the beautifully full Barren River of Kentucky.  It was the highway of communication and swift movement through South Central Kentucky, and it connected farther away, with that deep, wide, westward artery of commerce, the Green River.

The steamboat pilot saw Sallie, as he always did, sitting high on those sandstone-capped rocks and waving.  He acknowledged her with two blasts of his horn and soon sidled up his packet steamboat next to the cliff, ready to receive her package.  This time he also had a package for her.  He sent it back up tied to the rope, scampering along the limestone rock face like a lizard below.

Sallie beamed with pleasure upon retrieving the bundle.  She clasped it tightly to her heart and did not open it.  Neither will we.  Love is a private matter, especially when written in letters, and especially in the wilds of the wrinkled hills winding along the Gasper River of Kentucky.[vii]

We back away with Sallie and walk along the limestone terrace, noting with appreciation the spiny Devil’s Walking Stick (Aralia spinosa) proudly protecting the sandstone-capped citadel.  It is set upon Girkin Limestone, upon which we now walk.  The sandstone rock, above, is part of the Dripping Springs Escarpment.  Aptly named, I think, for there is a colony of the leathery dark green Resurrection Fern (Polypodium polypodioides) growing on the north face of the rock.  Its fronds have unraveled, “resurrected” so to speak, to receive the life-giving moisture of this morning’s rain and to welcome our coming.  What a special space of beauty in the place of this natural and human history.

“Oh no, kudzu (Pueraria montana)!” we exclaim suddenly.  “You get away.  How were you able to send a single finger vine of your treachery so far up here?  Away from your stranglehold on the slopes down by the road?”  More human history, I am afraid![viii]

Now, do we follow Sallie and her brother back up the trail into the secret world hidden within the Gasper River?  No!  This is one time to conquer the river in a canoe.  Hmmm, access here could be difficult though.

[i] Private or government property.  Respect that ownership and obey all warnings and “no trespassing” signs.  Don’t trespass on private property.  Many areas contain risks, including slipping, falling, hunters, and drowning.  And that is assuming one is already aware of poisonous or disease vectors, such as snakes and insects.  Explore with caution, preparation, and respect, and never in an impaired state.


[ii] Pennyrile.  You often see this term while reading about Kentucky.  “Pennyrile” or “Pennyroyal.”  It is a name that Europeans gave the relatively rolling plateau south of the Bluegrass and wrapping around the western coalfields.  The geographic region looks like a sliced bagel cut in half just below Mammoth Cave, which serves as the hole in the donut!

Perhaps the term came from the name for a native plant here.  The aromatic, blue flowered American Pennyroyal [Hedeoma pulegioides], which reminded the colonists of a similar European plant from the same family [Lamiaceae].  That is the mint family, which includes rosemary, thyme, basil, sage, lavender, and oregano.  You can see why they would be looking for it.  The European species [Mentha pulegium] is known over there as Pennyroyal or Pennyrile.  The species name for our Pennyrile, “pulegioides,” is from Latin, meaning “similar to Pennyroyal!”

Geologically, the bedrock of this region is of Mississippian Age, so it is more often referred to as the Mississippian Plateau.  To the west rises the Dripping Springs Escarpment, enclosing the Western Kentucky coalfields further within.  Lots more about those rocks later!



[iii] Continental Drift.  It is fun to unleash your geographic imagination and see what these lands looked like back then, about 300 million years ago.  Early on in our sedimentary history, three ancient land masses [Gondwana, Laurentia, and Baltica] began to drift together.  Driven by unstoppable plate tectonics, they would slam into each other, forming the supercontinent of “Pangaea.”  These collisions drove up massive mountain chains, forcing volcanic eruptions.  So had the Appalachian Mountains formed, buckling the lands to the west [including Kentucky and its Cincinnati Arch in the middle]and cracking the bedrock with long running faults.  And all of this was happening while the stone on which you are now standing was then forming.


[iv] Giant Cane [Arundinaria gigantea] is a plant native to Kentucky.  If you watched Daniel Boone movies as a child, those are the reeds through which the heroes breathe to hide under the water from bad guy pursuers.  Or if you were Daniel’s brother Squire, the tight clump of vegetation higher than your horse, which you would ride into hiding from others chasing you!  And in even earlier times, maybe one thousand years ago, the long cane shafts that you would use to launch a spear point from your atlatl [a wooden and bone spear launcher].


[v] Glaciers.  For reasons not clearly understood, massive glaciers from the North swept down into America about 2.5 million years ago.  The last [and deepest penetrating] glacial stage, the Wisconsin, struck out toward Kentucky.  The modern Ohio River is essentially an artifact of its massive presence.  Whether it somewhat penetrated into Northern Kentucky is still being studied.  But there are certainly glacial outwash deposits up there [see the Boone County Cliffs].


[vi] Ancient Egyptian obelisks were tributes to the sun.  They were pointed at the top [the pyramidion], where they were often covered in precious metals, like gold or the mysterious electrum [a natural alloy of silver and gold], to reflect the sun’s glory.  The obelisk, itself, is thought to have represented the primordial mound [Benben] upon which the Earth rose from the primordial sea, and upon which the Bennu Bird [Phoenix] lived and you now stand.


[vii] Sallie’s Rock is a real place, and Sallie was a real person.  Her full name was Sallie C. Beck.  She was the daughter of W. A. Beck, owner of the land, who ran a general store in the area.

Sallie began lowering mail from the rock in 1878.  She sometimes acted as the Postmistress for the Rockland [appropriately named] neighborhood, frequently working with the mail packet boat, “Callista,” running daily between Bowling Green and Morgantown on the Barren and Green Rivers.

The sandstone rock upon which Sallie would wave flags, yell through a megaphone, and lower down the mail, fell into the Barren River on Valentine’s Day 1910.  Appropriate, in a way.  Sallie wrote a letter to the Evansville Courier from Rockland, Kentucky, dated February 18, 1910.  This is what she said (in part) about the event.


It happened on Monday, Feb. 14, in the afternoon just about 15 minutes after the steamer Caruthersville passed up.  I told them all I guessed that the rock falling over was my valentine.  I never did hate anything so bad as I did the rock falling.  You do not have the least idea how much I miss it, for I just feel like I am lost without it, for I have been going out there for a long time to see the boats pass by… My brother had just been off the rock about 15 minutes when it went over.


She signed it “Sallie C. Beck, or Sallie on the Rock.”

At age 48, and unmarried, Sallie began corresponding with a Canadian farmer seeking a wife.  They married and she moved to Western Canada, returning at least one time, in 1956, to relive the memories of her life on the rock.  She died in 1957 in Lakeland, Florida, where she had retired.


[viii] Kudzu [Pueraria montana].  Yikes!  It is an Asian import [first brought into the country around 1878] and used for erosion control.  It can do that, all right, if you’re looking for a smothering!  Some names for this perennial, somewhat woody, climbing and crawling vine?  “Foot a Night,” “Go-Hemp,” “The Vine that ate the South.”  Get the picture?  Look around you as you drive, and you will!



About Author

Ronald R. Van Stockum, Jr. is a lawyer, teacher, biologist, writer, guitarist, and recently an actor living on his family's old farm in Shelbyville, Kentucky. He has a Bachelor of Science in Biology from Santa Clara University, and a Masters and PhD. in Biology from the University of Louisville. He also has his Juris Doctorate in Law from the University of Louisville Brandeis School of Law. He practices law from offices in Shelbyville, Kentucky concentrating his legal practice in environmental law. His biologic research is in historical phytogeography. Dr. Van Stockum, Jr. has published numerous books, articles, and short stories in the areas of law, science, and creative writing. most of his 24 titles are available on this site and Amazon with many on Kindle and Audible!

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