I come from a family of readers. Serious readers. People who read all the time. I am by far the slacker in the group. If my parents were alive today, I’m sure they would continue to read books despite all the electronic distractions available to them.
My family members also distinguished themselves with skillful writing, although—aside from the two journals by father kept that are included in whole or in part in The Last Resort—I’m not aware that any of them ever wrote for pleasure or just for themselves. I have no recollection of anyone in my immediate family, say, writing poetry or short stories. It’s possible they did, but I’m not aware of it.
And until this past summer, I wasn’t aware of another family member who had, as I did for many years, made a living as a writer or editor. My checkered career had me writing everything from technical manuals to marketing froth for private companies, higher education, and the Commonwealth of Kentucky. I spent countless hours reviewing, editing, and verifying pieces written by other staff members. My work days were dedicated to selecting just the right words to persuade, instruct, enlighten, or cajole a particular audience.
But I now know about my Uncle Forrest.
My great-uncle Hamilton Forrest Moore (1881-1972)—oldest son of the Rev. William Dudley Moore, brother of my grandmother Martha Florence Moore Goodlett—had a long career, I believe, with The Anderson News, the newspaper of my family’s home town, Lawrenceburg, Ky. My cousin Sandy recalls that Uncle Forrest continued to edit each edition of the newspaper and send his markup to the news office long after he had officially left his post. It appears that writing precisely, and scanning the work of others for errors, had become a passion for him, or perhaps a curse.
I cannot read a newspaper or magazine or book without landing with a thud on every typo or missing word or poorly constructed sentence. For years I wanted to volunteer to copyedit my local newspaper the night before the rag was printed. It was an embarrassment. Now my husband has picked up the same habits. In fact, he sometimes catches outrageous errors that I miss. His keener mind makes him even better at it than I am.
But I’m happy to know that somewhere in my genetic material there may be a tiny marker that I inherited from my Moore ancestors, the same marker that Uncle Forrest had. Because I lived outside Kentucky the first years of my life, I only remember meeting him once. He was quite old by then and I don’t have any specific recollections of what he was like. But I’m proud now to think that, long before I knew anything about how he had spent his life, I ended up carrying on the work he had loved.
Pud’s mother died two months after he did, in June 1967 at age 81. Her health, both physical and mental, had been failing, so the family tried to keep from her the fact that her youngest son had died unexpectedly. Whether we were successful or not, we’ll never know.
Because I had lived in Baltimore until my father died, I never really knew my grandmother. I’m sure I was around her as a young child, but I have no recollection of having a conversation with her. I don’t remember her voice, her mannerisms, her interests.
I do recall how surprised I was not too long ago when my cousin Mac described sitting with our grandmother and listening to baseball games on the radio. Evidently she was an avid fan. I had no idea. I don’t think I had ever really thought of her as a person with hobbies or passions or opinions. She was simply my grandmother, an abstract that I had shown little curiosity about fleshing out.
Last week another cousin, Vince, sent us a copy of a note our grandmother had written to him in 1953. With just a few phrases, she came alive for me for the first time.
It starts out, “Dear Vincy, Awfully sorry you didn’t get to come down Sunday. You must take your medicine real good and hustle yourself down before it gets too cold to play out.”
She continues, “Mac has gone nuts over baseball and football. As cold as it was Sunday, he had his daddy out back playing ball with him. The little black pig has a room in the barn now right next door to the big pig. Kenneth’s big white rabbit is living in a coop nailed to the wall in the coal house. All fixed up for winter.
“Mac had a jaw tooth filled yesterday. Didn’t whoop and holler nary a bit. Love, Mamoo”
In that brief note, I learned how she spoke, what and whom she cared about, and what events preoccupied her thoughts, as well as a bit about the world she inhabited.
As I hunker down to finish the novel about my maternal grandfather—a man who remained a mystery to everyone in my family until recent research unearthed the outlines of his remarkable life—I recognize even more urgently the importance of perfecting each character’s voice. A few words, an idiomatic usage, a turn-of-phrase paints a better portrait of the individual than countless overdone descriptions. What a character chooses to say, and how he mutters it, reveals his values, his circumstances, his background, and how he views himself and others in his world.
Trying to bring my long-gone ancestors to life is a daunting undertaking. I make decisions daily about their language and their actions that may in no way reflect the reality of who they were. That is why I am writing fiction.
But, this week, I learned a great deal from reading one brief note casually penned by another ancestor. Not only did I learn about her, but I learned how to be a better writer.
As we recover from our holiday feasts, David Hoefer, co-editor of The Last Resort, reflects on the meals historically available to our troops in battle. If you would like to submit a blog post for Clearing the Fog, contact us here.
I’ve recently been reading Theodore Roosevelt’s book The Rough Riders about his volunteer cavalry unit that fought in Cuba during the Spanish-American War. It’s very much an adulatory view of the conflict but, beneath the pro forma sentiments, there remains plenty of interest for the historically minded.
One point that comes across is the sheer difficulty of making war in modern times, regardless of the goals or objectives involved. The projection of large forces over great distances calls for sophisticated logistical systems—systems that are often assumed to exist even when they don’t. Roosevelt remarks more than once about the inadequacies of transport that confronted his men both going to and fighting at the fluid Cuban battlefront.
As for the food—well, let’s just say there weren’t a lot of farm-fresh homecooked spreads. Meals consisted of hardtack and sometimes rotten meat, with nary a fruit or vegetable in sight, and shortages of coffee and sugar, too.
Pud Goodlett faced similar challenges as he fought with Patton’s Third Army in Europe during the closing months of World War II. Winter weather and the Wehrmacht were the primary obstacles, of course, but maintaining adequate nourishment—or simply getting fed—would have been a major concern.
The U.S. Army’s answer was the K-ration, an individually packaged lightweight meal that supplied sufficient calories for soldiers in the field, at the expense of taste, variety, and other virtues of civilized eating.
To experience a K-ration meal—vicariously, of course—watch the video below. The contemporary narrator seems to have a genuine appreciation for the K-ration, which he examines in considerable detail. I wonder if Pud felt the same way, as he wolfed down the biscuits and smoked the cigarettes in some anonymous foxhole always too close to an increasingly desperate enemy?
As a child, I remember dull Sunday afternoon car trips driving through western Maryland. I now understand that my parents were looking for a connection to Kentucky in the rolling hills and farmland. Having been displaced first to Massachusetts and then to Baltimore, it was the best substitute they had for the familiar scenery they longed for.
Even before that diaspora, Pud had been forced to leave central Kentucky to fulfill his military obligations. After returning home and completing his bachelor's degree at the University of Kentucky, he chose to leave again to pursue a doctorate at Harvard. It is clear, however, from the notes he kept in his second journal, dating from 1953-54, that he intended to return to his home state someday.
Upon returning from a working trip to Washington D.C., on March 9, 1953, Pud finds a letter from H.P Riley, professor in the Department of Botany at UK. Pud writes:
“Among the otherwise useless mail awaiting our return was a friendly, warm letter from H.P. Riley, informing me in a poker-faced way that McInteer may retire 1 June, and did I know of a possible replacement. In all modesty, the requirements for his successor fit me like a glove. I’ve been in a tizzy at prospects of returning to Ky. I finished the laborious job of composing a reply tonight and will send it tomorrow.”
Later, on March 14, he continues:
“[Mary Marrs] and I were in a dreamy mood about getting back to Ky. tonight. We have a tough problem in devising ways and means to get our belongings home. Probably a part-load in a moving van would be best. One thing is certain, it will be expensive.”
Pud eventually interviewed for the position but, in the end, Professor B.B. McInteer decided not to retire and the opening with the UK herbarium never materialized.
My parents continued to make trips home to visit family, and Pud continued to talk to Riley about a position at UK, but no further opportunities for employment in Kentucky arose.
Although he could never secure a position at the University of Kentucky, his legacy will now have a place on campus. Thanks to inquiries initially made by Bobby Cole’s daughter-in-law, Teresa, The Last Resort: Journal of a Salt River Camp 1942-43 will be available at the UK library’s Special Collections Research Center. When contacted about possibly acquiring the book for this collection, Jaime Burton, director of research services and education, wrote:
“We are so pleased that we are able to serve as further stewards of your father’s recorded experiences, and look forward to securing his place here on campus once again! This is a great story.”
It seems the perfect resting place for his words. The center’s mission states, in part:
“The Special Collections Research Center sustains the Commonwealth's memory and serves as the essential bridge between past, present and future. By preserving materials documenting the social, cultural, economic and political history of Kentucky, the SCRC provides rich opportunities for students to expand their worldview and enhance their critical thinking skills. SCRC materials are used by scholars worldwide to advance original research and pioneer creative approaches to scholarship.”
The UK library already has a number of my father’s academic publications (including the most widely available, Geomorphology and Forest Ecology of a Mountain Region in the Central Appalachians), but it’s a special gift to know that a book that reveals more about his personal life and his ties to Kentucky will also have a home there. I hope Kentucky enthusiasts and researchers find it a useful volume that offers a window into a specific era in our Commonwealth’s history.
Welcome home, Pud. Merry Christmas.
My favorite part of Christmas has always been the music. As a child, I looked forward to going to church and singing the Christmas hymns and traditional carols. At home, I wore out my parents’ records, which were largely sweeping, symphonic renditions of those same tunes. I believe it was my sister who first introduced me to Handel’s Messiah, and that recording immediately became part of my regular rotation on the turntable.
I studied piano for 15 years. I was never very good. But it helped me learn a little about music fundamentals and the classical repertoire. Eventually I came to love the practicing. It was my opportunity—my obligation, even—to withdraw from the demands and rigors of the outside world into a place where only the music existed. It was as if my peripheral vision blurred, and I could see nothing beyond the notes on the page and the keys on the piano. Practicing required my complete concentration, as well as a coordinated physical and mental effort. When I was tuned in to whatever piece I was working on, the grievances, the annoyances, the embarrassments, the insecurities that tormented me at other times could not intrude.
I have my father to thank for introducing me to music. I’m fairly certain he was the one responsible for the Christmas records, as well as the recordings of Burl Ives and Herb Alpert and Peter, Paul, and Mary (and the musical satirist Tom Lehrer) that were available to me as a child. But most importantly, he was the one who insisted that my sister and I start piano lessons at a young age. I imagine that was in part because he had not had that opportunity.
Recently, Bobby Cole’s daughter, Julie, sent me a newspaper clipping that indicated that Pud’s older sister, Virginia, did study piano as a youngster. The 1923 article states that she performed a piece titled “The Dawn of Springtime” at Miss Jessie Mae Lillard’s student recital at the Lawrenceburg Christian Church. She would have been about 13 then (and my dad would have been 1). There was still a piano in the Goodlett home when my dad was a boy: I have often heard the story of how his pet raccoon tripped lightly down the piano keys one day, casually flipping the ivory off several keys with his sharp nails as he went. I also understand that was the last day he had the honor of being a pet in the Goodlett household.
As an adult, my dad evidently educated himself about classical music, at least sufficiently to have a genuine appreciation for it. I remember casual family dinners at the black drop-leaf table in our pine-paneled den in Baltimore, my father listening to a classic radio station while conducting with his fork.
My cousin Bob Goodlett, who has played contrabass with the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra for over 40 years, recently suggested that his father, Vincent—Pud’s oldest brother, also emphasized musical study with his children for similar reasons. Both brothers fiercely valued a classical education, and both battled long odds to complete their schooling. Bob reminded me that, to pay for law school, Vincent would go to school for a semester and then work for a semester. After serving in the Army for three years, my dad left his home and family again to pursue an advanced education. Years ago I stumbled across a classical high school curriculum that he had compiled at some point, perhaps for a school he one day hoped to open but, more likely, simply to show the public educators at the time how it should be done.
According to Bob, Vincent managed to collect a number of classical recordings, including a set of Arturo Toscanini conducting Beethoven’s symphonies. (Bob tells me that his parents had some success getting him to sleep when he was a baby by playing Beethoven’s 2nd Symphony. As he learned to talk, he would request “Teethoven No. 2.”) Vincent also had a 1955 recording of Beethoven’s Violin Concerto featuring Jascha Heifetz. When the recording reached the cadenza, Bob distinctly remembers my father saying, “Now he gets to show off.” That must have resonated with the 10-year-old boy, who spent the next few years mastering several instruments while simultaneously pursuing baseball stardom.
Bob recalled one more story of the fun my father had with music. While teaching at Johns Hopkins in Baltimore, Pud had a student, Sherry Olson, whose husband, Julian, played French horn with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra. The orchestra was evidently preparing to perform Beethoven’s 9th, and Pud and others were taking bets, I imagine while sipping a bourbon, about whether the fourth horn would mess up the famous solo in the quiet third movement.
Although as a teenager Pud struggled to appreciate Bobby’s devotion to the radio he brought to the quiet camp along Salt River, as an adult music obviously gave him much pleasure. He is not alone, of course. Listening to music—of whatever genre or style—allows us to shut out the raging noise of the world around us as well as drown out our own cacophonous thoughts. It’s also a way to share with others one of the truly sublime human endeavors.
For all those reasons, I hope your holiday is full of music.
The Last Resort—the camp along Salt River and, ultimately, the book by the same name—came to pass because of the bond that formed between two classmates. Pud Goodlett and Bobby Cole shared a love of the outdoors and relished the time they spent together fishing and hunting. At some point in their teen years they hatched the plan to build the cabin on the bluff above the river on the Cole family farm. Thus began the idyllic days described in Pud’s journal.
The relationship between the two boys appears deep and sometimes complicated. Pud is occasionally annoyed by Bobby’s radio, his fastidiousness, or his desire to head home for a shower and a shave after a few days at camp. But Pud is also proud of Bobby’s marksmanship and his ability to identify the trees along the river. It is clear that he is devoted to his friend, and his sadness when Bobby is called up for service is profound.
On November 1, 1942, Pud writes, “Went to camp early this morning for the first time since Bobby left. All the bottom seems to have fallen out of the joy of that wonderful, free life on the river. Bobby’s worrying about the dirty floor, the big leak, the state of his radio, the fact that our floor has spread and the countless other dear old-maidish things he did are gone, seemingly forever. I don’t believe I’ll ever be able to spend a weekend here until he can again spend it with me.”
Of course, Pud did return to the camp, but he had to enlist a whole group of young boys from his Scout troop to try to fill the hole created by Bobby’s absence. That never proved completely satisfactory, but it did allow Pud to extend his time at the camp until he, too, was called to fight a war.
From the limited evidence we have, the boys seemed tighter than mere friends. They seemed more like brothers.
In fact, we now know that they were cousins.
Bobby had a keen sense of his family’s history and its roots in the area, and I imagine he was aware that the nearly 400 acres his father and older brothers tilled had been in the family for generations. John W. Cole had pieced the property together in the 1880s from extensive lands owned by his Bond, Kavanaugh, and Penney (yes, of J.C. Penney lineage) ancestors. Some had settled the area in the late 1700s. The main Kavanaugh home had been built in 1840. The stone for the chimney Bobby and Pud constructed, which still stands today, was confiscated from the crumbling foundation of a former slave cabin.
On the farm, circa 1918. Left to right: James L. Bond (1855-1934), William B. Cole (1881-1983), Lula Roach Cole (1880-1964), J. W. Cole (1905-2001), Allen Carroll Cole (child, 1916-1987), John William Cole (1860-1924), Mary Louise Cole Ransdell (girl standing, 1911-1988), Annie Bond Cole (1862-1948), John W. Bond (1846-1929), Phoebe Utterback Bond (1851-1940). Photo provided by Bob Cole.
Bobby knew all this. But I doubt that Pud was aware of his own familial ties to the land.
Thanks to the curiosity of Bobby’s daughter, Julie, and to the detective abilities of her son, Nicholas, we now know that Pud and Bobby share a common ancestor. William F. Bond was born in Virginia in 1740. After his first wife died sometime around 1786, he accepted a land grant awarded for his Revolutionary War service and moved his four children west with the Penney and Burrus families to what is now central Kentucky. In 1790, he married Sarah Cranson, who hailed from what was then Woodford County, Virginia. William and Sarah had five more children. Bobby was a descendent of their oldest son, John. Pud was a descendent of their second oldest daughter, Ailse.
In fact, the boys can also trace their families back to a common Utterback ancestor. And Pud’s mother had connections to the Bond family through her maternal grandmother, Mary Ann Routt.
Of course, we’re talking about a small rural community. It’s no surprise that two families with longtime roots in the same geographic area have common ancestors.
But it somehow feels special to know that Pud and Bobby were connected by more than the teeming water of Salt River. They were connected by blood.
Transcription of marriage contract (with gratitude to Nick Wilson, Bobby Cole's grandson, for offering his legal and historical expertise):
Know all men by these presents that William Bond and Sherwood Knight are held and firmly bound unto his Excellency the Governor of this Commonwealth in the first and full sum of fifty pounds current money to which payment will and truly to be made we and every of us bind ourselves and every one of our heirs Executors and administrators jointly and severally firmly by these presents sealed and dated this 29th day of November 1790.
The condition of this obligation is that whereas a marriage is shortly intended to be solemnized between the above bound William Bond and Sally Cranson of the County of Woodford. Now if it shall hereafter always appear that there is no just cause to obstruct this said marriage then this obligation shall be void or else to remain in full force.
My husband and I spent Thanksgiving Day raking. An acre of property, 40 mature deciduous trees. We barely made a dent. Nonetheless, it was a rare sunny, cool day and a pleasant way to avoid any potential holiday stress.
The irony of our labor didn’t strike me until a friend called me out.
“So, you’ve been out raking the forest floor, huh?” he chided. “Doing your part to prevent local forest fires?”
Most of us have enjoyed the sardonic memes posted by the Finns after President Trump’s public statements about how the good citizens of Paradise, Calif. (not “Pleasure,” dear President) could have avoided near annihilation if they had properly raked and cleaned the floors of the nearby forests, like the Finns. (Never mind that the Finnish President has denied ever mentioning “raking” when talking with President Trump. Or the fact that the Finns have complex structural and systemic ways of preventing forest fires in their country.) Twitter exploded with photos of Finns smiling with their rakes and references to #RakeAmericaGreatAgain and #Rakenews.
In the Washington Post, columnist Philip Bump kept a straight face as he calculated how many man hours it would take to sweep and cart away all of the debris on America’s forest floors. And how much of our budget would be required for the purchase of equipment for that purpose. (No mention was made of the devastation that would rain upon forest critters large and small who depend on that debris for cover or sustenance.)
All humor aside, the rampaging wildfires are real. The loss of life is real. Those who survived have found their lives totally upended, with no home, no supplies, no job to return to, no idea of what their future holds.
The president is right that we must find a way to prevent this sort of devastation. We must work together to protect land and property and lives. But we cannot do that successfully until we admit that climate change is worsening the natural disasters afflicting us around the world.
As the Camp Fire in northern California raged, Cal Fire spokesman Bryce Bennett told the Sacramento Bee, "Right now, Mother Nature is in charge." That will never change. But there are things we can do to mitigate the conditions that fuel droughts and wildfires in the western part of our country, floods in the east, and hurricanes along the coasts.
Unfortunately, we as a nation have no appetite for addressing what is at the crux of the problem: greed and a craving for comfort. We seem unwilling to make sacrifices to protect our forests, our shorelines, our food sources, our water supply, the purity of our air, or the diversity of our ecosystems—despite the avalanche of data about what our future holds. For some reason, other countries see the writing on the wall and have joined together to protect their citizens’ interests, while here in the U.S. we strip environmental regulations, over-develop threatened areas, and decry a “War on Coal.”
A persistent chorus of experts, thankfully, continue to sound the alarm. Another month, another comprehensive report about imminent catastrophes from climate change.
Last month scientists representing the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warned of the dire consequences we can expect by 2040 if we don’t take steps now to slow the warming of the planet. This month—the day after Thanksgiving, alas—13 federal agencies in President Trump’s executive branch predicted economic devastation by the end of the century if we don’t heed the warning signs.
According to the New York Times, “All told…climate change could slash up to a tenth of gross domestic product by 2100, more than double the losses of the Great Recession a decade ago.” The projected price tag for our inertia? “$141 billion from heat-related deaths, $118 billion from sea level rise and $32 billion from infrastructure damage by the end of the century.” International trade will be disrupted. Agriculture will suffer. Diseases will spread. The numbers of people dying in heat waves and storms will dramatically increase.
You would think that would get President Trump’s attention. He likes to think of the value of things in dollars and cents. Perhaps someone will finally convince him to listen to his administration’s experts at NASA, NOAA, the EPA, and other agencies.
But don’t hold your breath.
We’re not talking about the future any more. We’re talking about now. We’re talking about the devastation that is occurring in our own country right now. And we’re still sticking our heads in the sand.
Here in central Kentucky, we’ve had 20 more inches of rain than we typically have by this time of year. We’re mired in mud and mildew. The grass is still growing. I have a lot of raking yet to do.
Our lives may have been inconvenienced. But we still have our home. Our health. We’re comfortable, you know.
But for how long? What will it take for us to act?
Here in Kentucky we have a sometimes shocking ability to rub elbows with the literary lions who live among us: Bobbie Ann Mason, Silas House, Maurice Manning, Richard Taylor, Crystal Wilkinson, Ada Límon, Mary Ann Taylor-Hall, Ed McClanahan, bell hooks, C. E. Morgan, Robert Gipe, Frank X Walker, Kim Edwards, Gurney Norman, and, of course, Wendell Berry. It was at a Kentucky Arts & Letters event sponsored by The Berry Center in New Castle, Ky.—in Wendell Berry’s beloved Henry County northeast of Louisville—that I was recently approached by award-winning poet Maurice Manning.
I had interacted with Manning intermittently when I worked at Transylvania University, where he is a professor of English and the Writer in Residence. At last year’s Kentucky Book Fair, writer (and Lawrenceburg resident) Bobbie Ann Mason had alerted me that Manning had read The Last Resort and was enamored by it. But I didn’t really think he knew who I was or would recognize me in a large crowd of admirers.
His first words stunned me: “Your dad’s journal is one of my favorite books of all time.” I’m fairly certain I stared at him stupidly, my mouth agape, as I tried to formulate a gracious response that didn’t fully betray my giddiness. We ended up talking for a while, and he relayed to me that my dad’s writing reminded him of the journals kept by William Wordsworth’s sister, Dorothy.
Now I was an English major many decades ago, and I paid my respects to the English Romantic poets once upon a time, but I was not familiar with Dorothy Wordsworth. So I did what every 21st-century faux-researcher would do: I googled her and read a little of her work.
And Manning was right. I was stunned at the similarity between her reporting of the day-to-day events of her life with her brother, William, and my dad’s reporting of the day-to-day activities at the Salt River camp with Bobby. Here is an excerpt from her Grasmere journal, which she began keeping in 1800:
The rhythm of her days during that summer feel very much like the days spent at The Last Resort in the 1940s. Like Pud, Dorothy meticulously captures the details of the weather as well as the practical results of the fishing outing. The daily menu plays an important role in her notes. In another entry, she writes: “I went & sat with W & walked backwards & forwards in the Orchard till dinner time - he read me his poem. I broiled Beefsteaks.”
Like Pud, and like most poets and artists of her era, she also paid close attention to her natural surroundings. William Wordsworth had said of his sister, “she gave me eyes, she gave me ears,” and the descriptions in her journals were sometimes the inspiration for his poems. The following extract from her Grasmere journal seems strikingly similar to entries in The Last Resort:
I occasionally find poetry in the simple journal my father kept at the camp along Salt River. But I had not considered how similar his inclinations and his observations were to the aesthetics of the great Romantic poets. In a later email, Manning wrote to me, “your father's journal reminds me very much of the Romantic poets from the late 1790s, namely Wordsworth and Coleridge when they were both living near Nether Stowey, in Somersetshire.”
Imagine that. Pud Goodlett, scientist, naturalist, ecologist, Romantic.
Crystal Wilkinson, left, prepares for a conversation with Wendell Berry, right, at The Berry Center's Kentucky Arts and Letters event Nov. 10, 2018, in New Castle, Ky. The two authors talked about their rural upbringings that evoked the strong sense of place in their writing and how the family members who loomed large in their early years play significant roles in their work. Photo by Rick Showalter.
Just a reminder: More than 150 authors—including Bobbie Ann Mason, Silas House, Wendell Berry, Crystal Wilkinson, Mary Ann Taylor-Hall, and Richard Taylor--will be armed with a stack of books and ready to talk with you at the 37th Kentucky Book Fair Saturday, Nov. 17, 2018, at the Kentucky Horse Park near Lexington, Ky. If you love books and the people who write them, you don’t want to miss this event.
I never intended to stumble into a career as a writer and editor. I chose my college major based on which professors appeared to be the most entertaining or, perhaps I should say, the most inspiring. Although both my parents had been scientists, I loathed the idea of spending beautiful fall afternoons in dark, windowless labs. I decided, however, that I could spend those afternoons sitting under a tree reading a book. And so I did.
I went to graduate school largely because someone—or rather some institution—offered to pay my way. And probably because I still had no idea whatsoever what to do with myself. So I spent two and a half more years studying literature and—much to my chagrin—philosophy and literary criticism.
But, as I discovered only recently, it appears all I would have needed to do to become a clear, effective, and even amusing writer would have been to read the words my father left behind. I could have avoided all of that formal education if I had just pored over his publications.
Reading academic papers about fragipans, tree throws, and surficial geology, however, wasn’t really my cup of tea. I knew that my dad’s colleagues had regularly praised the clarity of his writing, and he had demanded the same standard from his students. And I had seen glimpses of those practices, as well as his innate poetry and cleverness, in the two journals and the letters I had studied at some length to publish The Last Resort.
But the other day I read three short book reviews my father had written in the early 1960s, which David Hoefer had unearthed in a search for all of my father’s publications. And I finally understood just what everyone had been talking about.
In my favorite, my father references a Lewis Carroll poem to make a point about the author’s conclusions. David has now educated me about the seriousness of the book’s thesis in academic circles, but most of that flies blithely over my head. I have insufficient understanding of the content of the books my dad reviewed to embrace or reject the accuracy of his arguments. But I can evaluate his writing.
In his review of the book The Upland Pine Forests of Nicaragua: A Study in Cultural Plant Geography by William M. Denevan, my dad remained unconvinced that Nicaraguan natives had used fire to manage the original forests despite Denevan’s repeated assertions, assertions that my dad felt lacked documented evidence. In wrapping up the review, he writes:
"The aboriginal pyromaniac may indeed have produced the pine forests of Nicaragua, but Mr. Denevan does not convince me. I am reminded of Lewis Carroll's Bellman in The Hunting of the Snark: 'Just the place for a Snark! I have said it thrice: What I tell you three times is true.'"
I was not familiar with this particular Lewis Carroll poem, although I now realize that his Jabberwocky is one of the few I have even partially memorized, thanks to Carroll’s books being omnipresent during my childhood. And his exposure of the inanity of repeating phrases of questionable veracity feels especially relevant today. Here are the first two stanzas of the poem:
"Just the place for a Snark!" the Bellman cried,
As he landed his crew with care;
Supporting each man on the top of the tide
By a finger entwined in his hair.
"Just the place for a Snark! I have said it twice:
That alone should encourage the crew.
Just the place for a Snark! I have said it thrice:
What I tell you three times is true."
--The Poetry Foundation
The book review my father penned appeared in Agricultural History, Vol. 36, No. 3 (Jul., 1962) and was indeed a serious academic critique of a work that remains relevant today. David Hoefer tells me that my dad’s skepticism, though perhaps a valid criticism at the time, has since been largely addressed as more evidence has been presented. But it was my dad’s introduction of a totally disparate text, a Lewis Carroll nonsense poem, to drive home a point that caught my attention—and made me chuckle.
And that is the writer I want to be.
Tim Cooper, of Oakdale, Minn., does not consider newspaper journalists the enemy of the people. If you would like to submit a blog post for Clearing the Fog, contact us here.
Let’s think of this as an experiment.
Twenty people are brought into a room and are monitored by 20 other people. Each participant has a comfortable chair, perhaps a cup of coffee. The monitor is nonintrusive but alert to his or her assigned participant. The participants are given a copy of the Sunday New York Times and told they have one hour to read the paper. As participants choose sections of the paper to read, the monitors will record their preferred order and the titles of the articles they read.
Or maybe not. The premise of the experiment is, perhaps, a leap of faith. The idea of sitting down, reading the paper, developing a passion and a cadence for a paper’s nuance seems antiquated with the preponderance of devices that continually distract us.
And, it seems to me as I get older, abundantly necessary. J. D. Salinger once wrote, “(T)he goal of education should be wisdom, and not just knowledge.” Salinger’s words, extrapolated to a broader understanding, demand us to be thinkers, not simply reactors. Our democracy is not one of passivity, but rather one that is participatory. And can there be a more profound way to immerse ourselves in the social, political, and cultural world of our participatory democracy than the simple act of reading a newspaper?
I emphasize the order of the sections that we read for no great intent. I am simply amused that my newspaper reading habits are so rigid. Here’s my Sunday New York Times sequence: 1) Book Review; 2) Travel; 3) Sunday Review (opinion pages); 4) Arts & Leisure; 5) The New York Times Magazine; 6) front section. I book end my reading with something I dearly love—book reviews/discussions—and something I am driven to immerse myself in—the unfolding of the world’s events. In between, I vacillate between dreaming and thinking. During the week, I follow a similar practice with the Minneapolis Star-Tribune. And you?
When I was 15, my father demanded that I read the morning paper (The Louisville Courier-Journal) from cover to cover before he awoke and came to breakfast. Perhaps my committed truancy sparked that directive. Suffice it to say, he was fearful that I would develop into an uneducated, ill-informed young man without a clue about the world. And I think he intrinsically knew that reading a daily newspaper and being forced to distill its disparate parts into something cogent was an education in and of itself.
When he was situated at the table, my job was to give him an accurate and detailed précis of the paper’s contents. His order, too, was unchangeable: 1) sports; 2) front section and op-eds; 3) local news; 4) arts. I think that what this practice solidified for me was the notion that there is a seamless whole between the past, the present, and the future, and that newspapers are indeed the first draft of history.
I am unabashedly political, obsessed with our electoral process, curious about public policy. I am appalled by the fear, loathing, and contempt currently practiced by our executive-in-chief. I am captivated by the young progressives running for public office who, to use Jon Meacham’s phrase, call us to our better angels, who are aspirational rather than dismissive.
The photo in The Last Resort of John Allen Moore intently reading the newspaper while seated on the Model T running board makes my heart sing. What is he reading, what is he thinking? What discussions did his reading prompt with Pud, Bobby, and any other visitors to the camp? No matter, he is simply reading.
A lesson for us all.