Wednesday, March 21, 2001

Pure Kentucky

Hunting, the woods and Dad

        I used to think hunters were a little off, if you know what I mean.

        They had their excuses — “It's natural,” “The deer will starve if we don't shoot them” — but in the end, their sport came down to killing. Who would enjoy such a thing?

        Now I have one man's answer: Sometimes, tender-hearted fathers and sons.

        “Try to think about the good times and remember how it felt to be in a special place doing something you love,” George Elbert Ellis tells his boy in the book Cogan's Woods.

        “Pulling the trigger is a very small part of being in the outdoors. If you just want to shoot something, stay home and shoot cans off a fence post.”

Hunters and their woods

        In 146 pages, our own Ron Ellis spins a magical memoir about himself, his father and squirrel hunting on the first day of every season.

        His book helped me understand this part of Kentucky — the romance between hunters and their woods. The Ellis men tread reverently on soggy ground and listen to rainwater dripping from the trees. They follow the sounds of squirrels feeding, search for a mysterious spring and trade shotgun shells for luck.

        Cogan's Woods is Mr. Ellis' first book. It's a classic Kentucky tale, full of small observations and big, gentle people. In the author's imagination, all are found in the small town east of Maysville where he and his dad pursued their passion.

        Mr. Ellis, 52, lives in Lakeside Park and is an administrator at Northern Kentucky University. He started the book in 1997 and found encouragement the next year, when he and 13 others were chosen for the prestigious Environmental Writing Institute at the University of Montana.

        There he studied under writer Rick Bass, who advised, “This is your chance to make the world as you want it to be.”

        So Mr. Ellis used artistic license with some of the characters and situations. But the woods really do exist; the trips really happened from the time he was 10 to age 17. Truest of all is the sentiment he describes: a mutual understanding and respect between father and son.

Bittersweet memories

        Back then, the Ellis family lived in Latonia, where George Elbert Ellis worked on the railroad. Every summer, his son anticipated the morning when he and his dad would pack the old white Mercury with their gear: canvas vests, leather boots, coffee, donuts, insect repellent and shotguns.

        “It was always in August at the edge of dawn, and when it had rained in the night, the fog drifted up from the low places beside the road,” Mr. Ellis writes on the opening page.

        For anyone who knows deep Kentucky — towns where people live and die in the same 50 square miles — the story will bring back bittersweet memories of forests before logging and general stores before Wal-Mart.

        It also reminds us to hold those memories close, as Mr. Ellis' father did so well.

        He died in 1998. Afterward, while Mr. Ellis was going through his father's things, he came upon three boxes labeled “keepsake shells.” Inside were the spent shells from his father's favorite hunting trips, each stuffed with tiny pieces of paper describing the day.

        Mr. Ellis printed some of these notes in his book. His father always wanted to be a writer, he says.

        Fittingly, the Ellis men achieved that dream together.

        Ron Ellis will sign books at 7 p.m. tonight at Joseph-Beth Booksellers in Norwood and 2 p.m. Saturday at Barnes & Noble in Florence.

        Karen Samples can be reached at 859-578-5584 or


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