Kentucky’s Red River Gorge in Wendell Berry’s The Unforeseen Wilderness

Courthouse Rock in the Red River Gorge Geological Area in Kentucky. PHOTO CREDIT: Corey Heitz. This photo is licensed under the the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.

“It is a country of overtowering edges. Again and again, walking down from the wooded ridgetops above the Red River Gorge one comes into the sound of water falling—the steady pouring and spattering of a tiny stream that has reached its grand occasion.”1

Beginning in the 1960s, Kentucky’s Red River Gorge was under threat of being dammed by the Army Corps of Engineers. The reasons for the projected dam were flood control and the creation of a lake for recreation. Conservationists and lovers of the Gorge believed the proposal unsustainable and unnecessary, and ultimately destructive. The writer Wendell Berry was contacted in 1967 to help fight the project with a book about the Red River Gorge. Berry, a Kentucky native and a farmer, spent the next 5 years visiting the Gorge, sometimes alone and sometimes with the photographer Ralph Eugene Meatyard. In 1971 Berry and Meatyard published The Unforeseen Wilderness. The book contained essays by Berry reflecting on wilderness, the natural processes of rivers, and the potential damage of a dam and human interference, as well as a series of striking black-and-white photographs by Meatyard showing both grand and intimate features of the Gorge. The book is credited with raising public awareness about the Gorge’s preservation and halting the proposed dam.

The Red River Gorge covers around 29,000 acres in east-central Kentucky. Much of it lies within the Daniel Boone National Forest. The most notable features of the Red River Gorge include waterfalls, rock shelters, natural bridges, and high sandstone cliffs and arches, as well as wildlife ranging from hawks, hummingbirds, black bears, and bobcats to foxes, coyotes, and venomous snakes. The rock shelters show evidence of cultivation dating back at least 3,000 years. In 1993 the Red River was designated a National Wild and Scenic River by President Bill Clinton, effectively protecting the area from any further dam or construction proposals. In 2003 the Gorge was designated a National Archaeological District and placed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Read more about Kentucky’s Red River Gorge on Wikipedia and on the USDA Daniel Boone National Forest site. Find out more about Wendell Berry and Ralph Eugene Meatyard. Find “The Unforeseen Wilderness at a local library or on Amazon.

1Berry, Wendell. The Unforeseen Wilderness. Emeryville, CA: Shoemaker & Hoard, 2006. 3. Print.

René Ostberg is a native Chicagoan who still resides in Illinois. She writes a travel blog called Writing and Wayfaring ( Her writing and photography have been featured or are forthcoming at Eunoia Review, Literary Orphans, Rockwell’s Camera Phone, Wilderness House Literary Review, We Said Go Travel, and the Encyclopaedia Britannica blog.

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