EUREKA - Kathy Whitson was noodling on the internet two years ago to see what she could learn about her family history.
The Eureka College English professor grew up in what she described as a “history deprived setting,” since her mother’s father died when her mother was 3 and she migrated to Illinois from Tennessee.
“That sense of not knowing who my people were was pervasive in my childhood and my siblings as well,” Whitson told a recent meeting of the Woodford County Historical Society.
She was looking up her father’s military history and typed in her name and his name when she discovered a 42-page document that had been written by a distant cousin 50 years ago that recorded five generations of her family’s history.
Whitson’s mother’s mother was born on the north side of Clinch Mountain in Grainger County Tennessee, she learned, and within a week – in the summer of 2010 – she was in a car headed for a cabin on Copper Ridge on Clinch Mountain.
She not only wanted to discover family history, but Whitson planned to recreate the experience of eating natural plants as her ancestors did, with a goal of eating at least one per day for 30 days.
“I sat there for a week before I ever went out on the mountain because I was paralyzed by fear,” Whitson said. “And then suddenly I realized, I’m here for five weeks, I won’t get my 30 days in if I don’t start to hustle. So out I went, and it wasn’t too long before the UPS truck was trundling up the mountain bringing me more books from Amazon so I would know what the heck to do.”
While crawling around on the same mountain as her ancestors, the “project intensified in emotional value” for her, but she felt she was recovering and securing long-held but endangered information.
“The experience kind of centered me spiritually,” Whitson said. “It put me in more intimate contact with nature. It put me in the mind of having a manna approach to life.
It taught me for that period of time a daily dependence on the bounty of nature. If I go to this wonderful green bosom of earth, I will find something to sustain me.
“And that is so counter to my grocery story thinking. It’s almost so counter to the way we’ve come to think as a culture that we can’t believe that there would be food out there to eat. Food that we had neither planted nor tended. We can’t harvest anything from the wild.”
Whitson listed 23 different wild things that she ate over the 30 days, including ginseng, milkweed, day lilies, black raspberries, mullein, cat tail roots and shoots, wild grape roots, rat’s vein, and honey suckle.
Thinking later, she said she was “flabbergasted by the danger” she put herself in.
Whitson had other things to occupy her time in Tennessee, as she is speaking at 3:15 p.m. April 25 at Melick Library, giving an exploratory analysis of the social relationships in a small Baptist church in the Tennessee mountains.