John Coykendall. Photo by Sarah Hackenberg.

Off the page: ‘Preserving Our Roots’

One of John Coykendall’s favorite pastimes is sitting in a front-porch rocking chair in Washington Parish and listening to stories of the old days. That might sound like the life of many a rural Louisiana resident, but Coykendall is not from around these parts. And unlike most porch sitters, Coykendall is not just enjoying these tales in the fleeting moment—he’s frantically scribbling them down to safeguard for generations to come.

“When an old person passes away, it’s like burning down a library,” Coykendall explains in his book Preserving Our Roots. Once their knowledge is gone, it’s lost forever—unless their wisdom and their way of life are captured while, as one of his farmer friends said, the storyteller is “on that green side of the turf.”

Like bits of loose soil slipping through his fingers, Coykendall is keenly aware of how quickly the agrarian lifestyle is being lost, not just in Louisiana but around the country. As master gardener at Tennessee’s Blackberry Farm, most of Coykendall’s days are spent growing the heirloom vegetables served in the resort’s restaurants. He notes that 94 percent of the fruits and vegetables that were grown 100 years ago are now extinct or nearly extinct. And so along with the stories he feverishly collects in his journals during frequent visits to Washington Parish, he also collects seeds—especially the heirloom varieties most in danger of disappearing.

“Reclaiming those flavors that we remember is essential to preserving our collective cultural heritage, a heritage that will be lost if we don’t scramble to save it,” he writes. “My mission is to pass that legacy on to generations who don’t know what they’re missing.”

Coykendall made his first visit to Washington Parish in 1973. “I still can’t explain my attraction to this place other than to say I felt an immediate, spiritual connection with the landscape and its residents,” writes the author, who developed close friendships with many local farmers during his visits. “Most profound were their overwhelming expressions of hospitality and generosity, which left me with a deep feeling of belonging.”

Even when he didn’t have an ultimate destination in mind for the notes and pencil drawings in his journals, Coykendall recorded everything on these trips—from the meals he ate at well-worn family tables to the colloquialisms and cadence of the “old-timers.” Preserving Our Roots, written with help from LPB documentary filmmaker Christina Melton, is the realization of Coykendall’s desire to pass on those memories. Like the seeds he seeks to perpetuate through participation in the Iowa-based Seed Savers Exchange, his goal is to let this knowledge live on.

“My hope is that I can demonstrate its value to others who are interested in preserving what is left of this farming heritage,” he writes, “a culture I fear much of America would allow to pass into oblivion without even acknowledging or mourning its loss.”