In the fall of 1813, John James Audubon is down to his last nickel. Audubon decides to return to Louisville with the idea of negotiating for more goods to trade in Henderson. Between Henderson and Louisville stretch large parts of the big barrens of Kentucky. The big barrens also reach down into southern and western Kentucky. The barrens contain deposits of salts and other minerals known as salt licks. Mixed into the barrens are also sinks, caves, and caverns. Before they were almost hunted into oblivion, herds of buffalo made salt licks their stopping points during their migrations. Trees are sparse in the barrens due to the soil that is composed mostly of clay and slate. The plants that thrive in the barrens are Golden-rod, Purple Sun-flower, candidum, clover, Scarlet Pink, and other “flowers without number, and vying with each other in their beautiful tints, sprung up amidst luxuriant grass; the fields, the orchards, and the gardens of the settlers, presented an appearance of plenty, scarcely any where [sic] exceeded; the wild fruit-trees, having their branches interlaced with grape-vines, promised a rich harvest, and at every step I trod on ripe and fragrant strawberries.” Fire also used to occur in the barrens. To expose game for hunting, fires were set intentionally during the fall when the luxuriant grass turned brown.
The Prairie Warbler
Where there are areas of luxuriant grass and open spaces like Kentucky’s big barrens, Audubon frequently finds the Prairie warbler and the Yellow-breasted chat. He draws the Prairie warbler with Buffalo grass (Buchloe dactyloides). According to Audubon, Buffalo grass is “found all along the edges of our extensive prairies, in the barrens of Kentucky, and in Louisiana, excepting in the swamps, it being more inclined to grow in dry soil and stiff grounds.” There is barely a blade of Buffalo grass standing in Kentucky today, whereas there are numerous areas of Straw-colored flatsedge (Cyperus strigosus), especially in sandy soil and among rocky glades, such as the substrates that are prevalent in Kentucky’s barrens. The floral spikes even make Audubon’s Buffalo grass look much more like Straw-colored flatsedge. Whichever plant it is, Audubon’s image is a fairly rare occurrence today since fescue and so many other varieties of grass have replaced the native grasses of the big barrens.
The Yellow-breasted Chat
Kentucky’s big barrens also contain “impenetrable patches of briars, sumach [sic], prickly ash, and different species of smilax.” It is among the leaves, flowers, and thorns of the Sweet briar that Audubon places the nest of the Yellow-breasted chat. But Audubon is unsure whether the species is Rosa rubiginosa or Icosandria polygynia, neither of which are native to North America. The former is now quite common, if not invasive in some places. While Icosandria polygynia is much more obscure. The best way to see the plant is as a collage in Mary Delany’s Flora Delanica. She created the collage in 1775. The ten volumes of Flora Delanica are currently in the possession of the British Museum. The plant that would have been much more typical in Kentucky’s barrens and have chats above it with legs and feet dangling and “performing the strangest and most whimsical gesticulations” is the Climbing Wild rose (Rosa setigera).