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Tree Of Knowledge

Jess Wilson uses more brainpower than a lot of people we know. His mind works constantly, always trying to figure out how something ticks. He sees something living inside a piece of wood and out it comes. The first thing he does each morning is write a paragraph or two—he’s a journal-keeping mountain man.

Jess is at home on Possum Trot Road in northwestern Clay County, just over the county line from Egypt, High Knob, Gray Hawk, and Swindling Gap in Jackson County.

Jess, 87 years old, and Ruth, 86, married when they were 21. Since then, it’s been 65 years of learning through sharing knowledge with others.

Since this is the beginning of another school year, the ideas of Possum Trot Road can be a signpost for education outside as well as inside the classroom.

Ruth is a retired teacher and Jess is retired from a long career with the local rural electric cooperative. Much younger than their years might suggest, Jess and Ruth haven’t stopped learning.

A visit with them is like peeping into a time capsule, putting a stethoscope to faded pages of letters, and being curious about the wonders of pre-history.

For Jess and Ruth, absolute time is hard to pin down or put into a bottle. Life is an unending time of search and discovery.

“I’ve gone to find myself. If I get back before I return, keep me here,” says the sign on the door of Jess’s six-sided Battle Abbey (named for William the Conqueror’s victory at the Battle of Hastings in 1066).

Jess Wilson’s Battle Abbey is a Kentuckian’s last stand for truth—shelves for religion, non-secular volumes, and boxes, boxes, boxes of open-file records. Jess is a genealogist for people in 46 states and several foreign countries. There’s no file clerk—just Jess Wilson.

Then there’s The Wigwam, which Jess and Ruth built up on one of the forested hills of their 300 acres—a secluded clearing where family, friends, and others can gather to celebrate a wedding with 100 guests, a New Year’s celebration, or just to kick back and chill out. The Wigwam has multiple bunks and a heating apparatus built with three 55-gallon drums stacked one on top of the other in order to spread more evenly the warmth on cold, blustery nights.

Jess says, “Family reunions are best when they’re held on neutral ground”—no varnish or paint on anything, which helps to save the unvarnished truth and discourage the cosmetically superficial bane of Everyman’s existence—just the basics, an improved infrastructure for well-intended humankind.

One of Jess Wilson’s prides is his Possum Trot University Press, the ultimate in self-publishing audacity. One of his titles—The Sugar Pond and the Fritter Tree—includes stories about Shaving with Grandma’s Razor and Working College Algebra. Jess has a way of making learning a fun thing to do.

Then there’s Jess’ tribute to the noble mule: Thou Shalt Not Covet a Good Team of Mules.

“Perhaps some day, the clouds will roll back, the thunder will roar, and a voice from the sky will proclaim, ‘Jess, your time is up, your work is done. However, we are giving you one more year to find the contentment and peace you have been searching for.’ Then I would, most assuredly, go over to buy Cousin Bill’s mules, or ask for the loan of them anyway.”

Jess Wilson, who once wrote stories for the Rural Kentuckian (predecessor of the present Kentucky Living), has written “A Forest Benediction.”

May we grow in spirit
as tall as a pine tree,
And be in character
as sturdy as an oak.
May our fortitude be
to the storms of adversity
as a willow in the wind.
May our generosity be as free
as the shade of a maple
on a hot summer’s day.
And our reverence be
as prayerful as a spruce
in winter’s snow.

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