This part isn’t supposed to be fun.
But, for some reason, it is. Perhaps it’s only because I’m on the front end of the process, and it’s still fresh and new. The rejections haven’t started rolling in yet, overwhelming my inbox.
At this stage, at least, I’m finding it fascinating to research literary agents and small independent presses, trying to discover that perfect fit for my novel. The whole publishing industry seems like a giant corn maze: I just need to take my time, peer around each corner, decide whether to go this direction, or maybe that direction. I expect I’ll find something interesting—even if not useful—either way I go.
It’s an extraordinarily complex business, or so it seems to the uninitiated. There are so many layers, so many ways you could get tripped up. In fact, it may be because the odds seem so long that it feels more like a game than anything of serious import. It’s like playing Monopoly or Risk, where you can go all in without suffering any real consequences. I’m some anonymous sad sack submitting my first-born to a sophisticated, highly literate, beautiful person in New York or Chicago. What can I possibly expect?
They say that the writer-agent relationship is like a marriage. You look for someone you trust, someone you like, someone who shares your taste, someone who has your best interests at heart, someone who will stay with you for the long haul. That seems much more interesting than looking for a business manager. And it shifts the emphasis away from that piece of writing—which can make you morbidly insecure—to the human being who is going to share this journey with you, who will take your hand and guide you through the impenetrable process.
Recently, at the 2019 Books in Progress Conference at the Carnegie Center in Lexington, Ky., I was buoyed by award-winning author Chris Offutt’s approach to this phase of writing. When he was a young man, a graduate of the esteemed Iowa Writers’ Workshop—someone with talent and credentials and well-known mentors—he struggled to submit his stories to literary journals. His peers prodded him, but he just didn’t think he could face the ego-busting rejections. To flip the script, so to speak, he decided to set a goal for himself: 100 rejections in one year. He was ecstatic as each one arrived in his mailbox. He kept a careful tally. The rejections stacked up. Then one day, the mailman delivered something unexpected: an acceptance letter from the Coe Review. He was crestfallen. Having amassed 86 rejections, he had just missed the goal he had set for himself.
At the same conference, I attended a panel discussion that included a successful young writer and her equally young agent. (I’ve heard the average age of agents is 27, a real obstacle for a woman of a certain age who has written about a middle-aged couple who lived nearly 100 years ago.} The writer revealed that she had searched for an agent for eight years. She kept writing, undeterred, and she kept looking for someone to give her a chance. She and her agent have now enjoyed a 10-year career together. It was clear they have a supportive, mutually beneficial relationship. They poked mild fun at each other and finished each other’s sentences, just like an old married couple.
I can promise you I won’t be that dogged. I’m highly suspect that my lifespan will even extend another eight years, let alone my determination to publish a novel. I’ll be swept away by some other shiny object long before then. Another project. Another hobby. Another way to test my mettle.
But, for the next few months, I’ll do the necessary research. I expect I’ll send scores of query letters and receive an equal number of rejections. I’ll keep Chris Offut’s approach in mind, just to maintain my equanimity. And if something positive happens, I’ll remind myself that finding an interested agent is just the initial step. Then you typically endure another grueling editing process. Then agonize as your book is submitted to publishing houses for new editors to scrutinize. And if you’re really, really lucky, then you get to go through lengthy contractual negotiations and watch helplessly as the publisher’s creative team comes up with a new title and a book cover you’re not sure about. Then it’s time to pore over that final proof, looking for any remaining errors or typos while you secretly fret that the book is no good after all.
Yeah, I’d better grab my fun while I can.
Some people use a metal detector to find hidden treasure from the past. In fact, Rick and I talked to one such fellow the other day as we were loading our bikes in the car after a short ride through the Bluegrass countryside. Rick, never shy about approaching a stranger, asked the young man, Rob Mattingly, if he had found anything of interest there on the grounds of Great Crossing Park in Scott County.
That launched a far-reaching conversation that revealed, among other things, Mattingly’s startling grasp of regional and family history as well as his specific knowledge of glass bottles from 1870 to 1910. He had even done some searches on property in the Gilberts Creek area of Anderson and Mercer Counties. After hearing a brief summary of how his early family settled in Marion, Washington, and Nelson counties, we decided if he wasn’t related to the Goodletts he may well be related to the McClures—Charleen Goodlett’s family.
A couple of weeks before that excursion, Rick and I had joined cousins Sandy Goodlett and Ben Birdwhistell as we examined the amazing collection of a native Lawrenceburg resident, Brent Hawkins. Brent’s treasure trove of historical photos, maps, documents, whiskey bottles, and furniture—all related to Lawrenceburg and Anderson County—nearly knocked us off our feet. Most of his artifacts had been collected the old-fashioned way: by talking to area residents, expressing an interest in their family histories, and attending estate sales. Once we were able to focus our over-stimulated senses, we concentrated on the old steamer trunk full of memorabilia that once belonged to our great-grandfather, Bro. W. D. Moore. Watch for more about those findings in an upcoming blog.
Nearly a year ago, Murky Press’ resident archaeologist, David Hoefer, using one of the tools of all contemporary scientists and historians—the online search—stumbled across another family relic: my father’s paper titled “Kentucky Bourbon Whiskey.” Written in 1948, that term paper—identified as a “book”—is now preserved at the Harvard Botany Libraries. We know not why or how it found its home there. It’s more of a history of bourbon distilling in the U.S. than it is an examination of the plants used in the distilling process. But, in light of the purpose of the university’s Economic Botany Library, it does make sense: “The Economic Botany Library…specializes in materials related to economic botany or the commercial exploitation of plants. Subject areas cover ethnobotany, medicinal plants, hallucinogens and narcotics, crop plants, edible and poisonous plants, herbals and other rare pre-Linnean works….”
Since all of the materials in the botany libraries are non-circulating, we were struggling to get our hands on a copy. That’s when Brad Wilson, Bobby Cole’s son-in-law, stepped in to complete the excavation. A modern intrepid explorer, Brad, who happened to be in Boston for a family matter, crossed the Charles River to visit the Harvard campus in Cambridge and found his way to the proper library. There, with the kind assistance of the library staff, he dug out the infamous paper written by the war-weary, homesick graduate student.
I want to thank Brad for his role in unearthing this piece of family history. And, since I’m writing on D-Day, I want to recognize Bobby Cole and John Allen Moore and Rinky Routt and George McWilliams and Lin Morgan Mountjoy and John D. Goodlette and Vincent Goodlett and Billy Goodlett and John Campbell “Pud” Goodlett and all the other boys of The Last Resort who helped deliver Europe and the Pacific region from tyranny.
With a nod to my father’s four rules for field work*, history is where you find it. It’s personal. It’s regional. And it has implications for the entire world—for all of us. If we don’t honor it, recognize it, study it, and willingly take a few lessons from it, we will not endure.
On this day we honor the remaining veterans of World War II. We honor those who gave their lives on the shores of Normandy and all across the globe during that conflict. And we hope that our country’s leaders will once again consider the lessons that history can teach us.
Perhaps they can learn a thing or two from Rob Mattingly and Brent Hawkins, two average citizens in a red state who have invested hours and hours of their lives getting familiar with the past.
*Abbreviated version of Professor John C. Goodlett’s Four Rules of Field Work:
1. Water, generally, runs downhill.
2. Plants occur where you find them.
3. Never get separated from your lunch.
4. Never go back the same way you came.
For more about the Bond & Lillard Distillery, read Family Spirits.
For more about the discovery of my father's paper on bourbon, and his affection for the spirit, read Bonded to Kentucky.
In memory of Brad Wilson’s mother, Dixie (1937-2019), who raised one heckuva son.
On Monday, May 6, the world learned how the United States intends to monetize climate change for our benefit.
While speaking at a meeting of the Arctic Council in Finland, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo never once mentioned the phrase “climate change,” even though the council has recently focused most of its energies on this issue in that increasingly fragile region. Newsweek reports that Pompeo did, however, point out that “Passageways opened up by retreating sea ice could turn the Arctic into a ‘21st century Panama Canal,’ creating new trade routes that could ‘potentially slash the time it takes to travel between Asia and the West by as much as 20 days.’”
In other words, as the ice melts and polar bears, seals, and Arctic foxes lose their habitat, humans will have unfettered access to the treasures beneath the ice, which we will then distribute to American households in record time. Oh goody. The AP reported that “[Pompeo] called the Arctic ‘a frontier of opportunity and abundance’ with untouched oil and gas reserves, unmined uranium, raw earth minerals, precious metals and gems.”
So for those of you worried that melting polar ice might lead to devastating flooding, punishing storms, loss of habitat and inhabitable land, and the demise of native species, fear not. Speedier trade with China and Russia and access to new oil and gas reserves will offset all of those chimerical problems.
What made the Secretary of State’s seemingly careless but certainly intentional comments even more disturbing was the release that same day of the UN’s global assessment report on biodiversity and ecosystems. As Brad Plumer of the New York Times wrote:
“The findings were sobering: Millions of acres of wetlands and rain forests are being cleared away. As many as one million plant and animal species are now threatened with extinction because of farming, poaching, pollution, the transport of invasive species and, increasingly, global warming. Almost everywhere you look, nature is vanishing before our eyes.”
But, it appears, nobody much cares. Especially not our national leaders. Which is why the hundreds of international experts who collaborated on this report tried to frame it in terms that will help humans—the sentient perpetrators of much of this willful destruction—understand what price they will pay for this assault on the earth’s biodiversity. In brief, our quality of life will suffer as we deal with such inconveniences as costly natural disasters that upend our lives and diminishing foodstuffs we have come to crave.
According to Plumer, the report takes pains to explain how “Natural ecosystems…provide invaluable material services to people, from mangrove forests that protect millions from coastal flooding to wetlands that help purify our drinking water to insects that pollinate our fruits and vegetables. The loss of wild plant varieties could make it harder in the future to breed new, hardier crops to cope with threats like increased heat and drought.”
If the science behind this catastrophic issue won’t rouse you to take notice, perhaps poetry will. Plumer concludes his article with this metaphor presented by Sandra M. Díaz, a lead author of the report and an ecologist at the National University of Córdoba in Argentina:
“Life on Earth is an intricate fabric, and it’s not like we’re looking at it from the outside. We are threads in that fabric. If the fabric is getting holes and fraying, that affects us all.”
Mike Pompeo, in his threadbare suit, might want to pull on a plastic rain slicker to protect himself from the big one.
Tim Cooper of Oakdale, Minn., has served as my coach and chief cheerleader as I completed my first novel, Next Train Out. If you would like to submit a blog post for Clearing the Fog, contact us here.
I have been fortunate to have observed the writing process Sallie has been engaged in over the last year. To say that it has been an arduous task would be an understatement. But the finished product is a work of art, a work of social relevance, and a work of empathetic exploration that seeks to meld the personal with the historical amid an examination of love and justice.
This past week I have been reading the great Chicago writer Nelson Algren’s essay “Do It the Hard Way.” In this piece, Algren explicates what is “true” in all great writing. He urges authors to be true to themselves and never sell out for the sake of commercial expedience.
But Algren’s essay is so much more than that. Indeed, it can be read as an exhortation to the writer, the reader—to all of us—to seek out and validate the lives of the marginalized and disenfranchised. To listen carefully, uncritically, to their voices, their cadences, and their language and to then relish its uniqueness.
Sallie has two main characters in her novel: her grandfather, Lyons Board, and his fourth wife, Effie Mae. I have told Sallie that I think there is a third major character: language. For, as you will see, Next Train Out is a novel of the vernacular, a novel of linguistic nuance that respects the musings of an Appalachian mother from the coal camps of eastern Kentucky and the sardonic quips of a privileged central Kentucky rake equally.
And beautifully. In his essay, Algren asserts that “if you listen long enough, the commonest speech will begin to ring like poetry. [And] poetry it is, the best and the truest: the poetry of the ball-park and the dance hall, of the drugstore at noon, of the pool room and the corner newsstand, of the Montgomery-Ward salesgirls reminiscing on the streetcar or bus.”
I don’t believe Sallie is as familiar with Nelson Algren’s work as I am, although we have discussed his writing and his life—and Colin Asher’s new biography of Algren—over the past months. I do know, however, that she has somehow internalized Algren’s dictum. Consider these two examples:
Nelson: “I hate t’ see the Spring ‘n Summer come so bad,” she was telling him, “I just don’t seem so good as other people any more. Sometimes I’m that disgusted of myself I think: ‘Just one more dope, that’s you.’ I won’t set up there in that room another Spring alone, thinkin’ stuff like that…I hate t’ see the Spring ‘n Summer come. So bad.” (from "Do It the Hard Way," collected in Entrapment and Other Writings)
Sallie: “Me and Lyons, we’ve been together a long time. At least for me it feels like a long time. Seven years. That’s forever after your last husband was kilt within a year of your marryin’ him, and your first husband proved to be a scoundrel after you birthed him four children. Well, maybe that marriage lasted longer than I remember. I just know I was ready to be rid of ‘im. The traitor.” (Effie Mae in Next Train Out)
Poetry, indeed. Poetry. When you read Sallie’s novel, plunge into the rhythm, the poetry of her writing. Yes, enjoy it on a macro-level—the story is marvelous, the narrative trajectory compulsively readable. But please, please, engage it on the micro-level, too, the level of the sentence, the word. I think we learn more about characters by the way they speak than we do any other way. Each of Sallie’s characters has a distinct voice that propels us to a greater understanding of who he or she is. This is a novel of social relevance that embraces Algren’s call for justice.
It remains only for me to confess something to you: I am a little bit in love with Effie Mae. I think about her often, and I think that I would have been a suitor, too, if the opportunity had presented itself. I know that you, too, will love her, and Lyons, and all of Sallie’s peripheral characters.
Read this novel. Love the characters and their voices. But Effie Mae’s mine.
David Hoefer, co-editor of The Last Resort, looks skyward for inspiration. If you would like to submit a blog post for Clearing the Fog, contact us here.
My favorite science fiction movie is The Thing from Another World, produced (and possibly directed) by Howard Hawks in 1951. Based on a classic John W. Campbell pulp-magazine story, The Thing tells the tale of a group of American scientists and military personnel stationed in the remote Arctic North who fight off a superhuman alien invader with a crash-landed UFO that is likely in the vanguard of worse things to come. The movie ends with the victorious survivors gathered around journalist Ned Scott filing his news report over the radio. Scott admonishes his listeners to be prepared for further trouble; indeed they must remain alert and, he says, “Keep watching the skies!” [photo credit]
That phrase has always stuck with me, though without the sense of impending danger that is integral to the movie. No, the reason to keep watching the skies, especially after dark, is the beauty it reveals and the pleasure it brings. Though mostly unmentioned in The Last Resort, I have to imagine that Pud and his pals indulged in some nighttime sky-watching of their own. (There is, for instance, a reference to a beautiful moonlit evening in the entry for May 29, 1942.) As soon-to-be scientist and soldier John Goodlett would have known, nature is not limited to Earth.
This same realization came to me during a recent late-night foray in celestial observation. I was outside in pleasantly cool weather, head tilted up and eyes straining, to see the Lyrid meteorite shower, which reached peak viewing in Louisville during the evening of April 22. An hour of intermittent scrutiny netted three sightings, with a possible fourth. Of course, stargazing was made for ancient agriculturalists and mountaintop astronomers rather than dwellers of the inner suburbs. I’ve never forgotten the spectacular night skies over Ghost Ranch from my digging days, when I was looking up in the dark rather than down in the dirt. The fewer the humans, the better the viewing, and north-central New Mexico is a place of relatively few humans.
That said, I had some limited success on the 22nd with the aid of high-tech tools: a Web site, Timeanddate.com, which first clued me in that there was a reason to go outdoors, and an iPhone compass, which helped me locate the Lyrid radiant in degrees azimuth. (I had to guess the altitude, using the much-less substantial protractor I carry around in my head.) That wasn’t the only technology that popped up on this occasion. I was surprised by the number of off-planet contraptions—some jets but also quite a few satellites—that were partaking of arcs through the sky. The spangling but austere nights of a world before the Wright Brothers are being replaced by busier tableaux, like a gentle picnic suddenly swarming with fire ants.
Meteorites are aptly described as shooting stars. Those I saw appeared in brief flashes, streaking parallel to the horizon rather than moving to intercept it. My iPhone compass may have been useful but not so the camera; the seemingly random appearance of the Lyrids made obtaining a still photograph impossible. I’d have been better off with a time-lapse device, the visual equivalent of a Geiger counter. What images I do have are salted away in memory, but I’ve included these graphic elements from the Internet, as inexhaustible in its way as the infinite skies that surround us.
I have completed a novel. Six months ago I wasn’t sure that I could do it. I wasn’t even sure that I wanted to. I had lost confidence. It was requiring too much sacrifice. I had pushed away friends and family. I skipped events and family gatherings so I could work. My aging body was balking at the sedentary lifestyle writing required. I just wasn’t sure I had it in me.
And, now, what is surprising me the most is that I am satisfied with the result. After all that time poring over those characters and those settings and those words, I am not tired of it. I am not eager to leave it behind. I find the book compelling. I enjoy reading it. It doesn’t make me cringe. It makes me happy.
Oh, sure, I know it won’t be everyone’s cup of tea. But I feel that I have accomplished what I set out to do. I have written a story about my grandfather’s life, as best I could imagine it. I think I have told a good yarn that the reader will want to see through to the end. I have enjoyed crafting sentences that I hope will appeal to those who love words. And I believe I have created two characters who might just stick with you. I expect I’ve made Lyons a little more sympathetic than he actually was, but I had to give the reader a reason to care about him, even if he remains an enigma.
The other surprise turned out to be Effie Mae, Lyons’ fourth wife and the other major character in the book. Everyone who has read any portion of the novel seems to love her. In the beginning, I had no intention of assuming her voice and writing from her point of view. She just came to me one beautiful day while I was sitting on my back patio reading a book about writing. But she is now the glue that holds it all together. Getting to know Effie Mae is a reason to read the book.
Now, after a few days of breathing deeply, I begin the next phase. I have submitted the book to one independent publisher. I have met with one agent and have another meeting scheduled at the end of May. If none of those options pans out, I will begin the hard work of researching agents and trying to persuade one that my book will appeal to readers.
Of course, I have an ace in the hole. I happen to run a little outfit called Murky Press that I know will be interested in publishing this novel. In fact, the sages at Murky Press seemed to portend the challenges, and the joys, of writing it:
“We at Murky Press believe peering into our past may help untangle the present. Trouble is, the past can be mysterious. It can be, well, murky. It takes some effort and some patience to interpret what the past is trying to tell us. And we may still get it all wrong.”
Perhaps it’s my good fortune that with fiction there is no right or wrong. It’s all make-believe—even when it relays the truth. So if I am able to transport the reader to a different place and time, and to inspire some empathy for people whose lives may be unlike ours, then I’m going to kick back and celebrate a job well done.
Last week Joe Ford in his piece Big Fierce Animals mentioned how publishing The Last Resort and maintaining this blog have helped me reconnect with my extended family and with the families of the boys who visited the Salt River camp. The project also allowed me to reach out to my father’s former colleagues and students and their families. I have written numerous times about these happy consequences. (Branching Out is one example.)
This theme may be wearing thin for some of you, but I want to revisit it one more time. As an acknowledged introvert and occasional misanthrope, I can’t overstate the joy I have derived from the communications, the conversations, and the interactions that have occurred only because David Hoefer and I were able to put this peculiar little book into the hands of an unusual amalgamation of people.
So if you’ll indulge me, I want to share one more story about a truly serendipitous outcome of this project. A little over a year ago, someone I had known in my youth posted a comment on the blog entry For the Love of Books. That precipitated a robust friendship that has evolved into a mentoring relationship as I worked closely with him to finish the novel about my maternal grandfather. I have made several trips to his home in Minnesota to pore over the writing I was doing. During those trips, I also developed a close relationship with his mother, who is in a nursing home suffering from Parkinson’s related dementia, and with his cousins who assist with her care.
Tim and his extended family have become precious to me. Like so many of the other family members and friends I have connected with recently—in some way because of the publication of The Last Resort—they have enriched my life.
Last week I was in Minnesota working with Tim to finalize the novel. (OK, perhaps I was also there to attend the NCAA Final Four men’s basketball tournament.) In the midst of an incipient celebration of the book’s completion (since we were unable to celebrate the University of Kentucky’s appearance in the Final Four), we learned that Tim’s uncle—one of Tim’s mother’s most devoted visitors—had suffered a serious medical incident. We rushed to the hospital in a town about 45 minutes away and spent the next three days trying to help his immediate family through an emotionally wrenching crisis.
Tim’s uncle died without gaining consciousness. Throughout those three days, the most I could do was take care of two large dogs (so much like my Lucy) while the family members were preoccupied with the emergency. Nonetheless, the family folded me into its midst, allowing me to offer whatever sympathy and assistance I could. I was grateful to help in any small way. But I was overwhelmed by the love they were able to extend to me in the midst of their suffering.
My new extended family—my Minnesota family—has already given me more than I can put into words. I cherish their friendship. I wish them peace as they navigate the difficult days ahead. And I am reminded, again, of the unexpected benefits I have reaped from sharing my dad’s journal with readers near and far.
Joe Ford of Louisville, Ky., is a longtime friend of David Hoefer and Sallie Goodlett Showalter, co-editors of The Last Resort. If you would like to submit a blog post for Clearing the Fog, contact us here.
Recently, David Hoefer and another mutual friend, David Summerfield, invited me to join them on a fishing trip to the Cumberland River in South Central Kentucky. This has become an annual pilgrimage for the two Davids, a chance to haul in very large trout in the turbulent waters just below Wolf Creek Dam.
Reminded that the window of opportunity would soon open for the Pud Goodlett Memorial Fishing Tourney we proposed last summer, I took to scanning The Last Resort for all things fishing: species, methods, tackle, places.
I am constantly amazed at the detail Sallie and David brought to the book and to this blog, from fishing tackle to taxonomy to the political history of Salt River, not to mention Sallie’s amazing grasp of the connections between her own far-flung relatives and the other boys of The Last Resort.
As I browsed the Bibliography included in The Last Resort for fishing-related information, I ran across this entry: Why Big Fierce Animals Are Rare: An Ecologist’s Perspective, by Paul Colinvaugh. It turns out that this is a fairly well-regarded collection of essays, as much for its accessibility for non-specialists as for its scholarly worthiness. In essence, it is about ecological niches.
But, for me, the content is not the attraction. It's the title: Why Big Fierce Animals Are Rare.
I instantly added it to my mental collection of great titles, names, and places. In case you’re wondering, this collection also includes things like the most boring book ever, spied in the window of Blackwell’s bookshop in Oxford, England: A History of Foreign Language Dictionaries. Then again, you probably weren’t really wondering.
The attraction of Colinvaugh’s title is actually imagining its opposite: What if big fierce animals were not rare? Isn’t that fun? You have to admit that crows, turtles, and squirrels were not exactly safe around the boys’ camp. So let’s start with fierce (cue Randall’s honey badger vid).
What if those crows had been of the sub-species corvus beakus horriblus, like the crows in Hitchcock’s The Birds? Envision the boys huddled in the cabin as the birds swarmed and cawed and screeched and pierced the wood with their large beaks. Don’t laugh. If it could happen in Bodega Bay, it could happen in Lawrenceburg.
Or the turtles, terrapin humongosoid. Imagine an entry in the journal about how JCG and Jody had to rescue Bobby Cole after a humongous turtle had latched on and was trying to pull him under.
You want big and fierce? What about the squirrels, squirrelsaurus rex? Big as a kangaroo, they might subsist on deer, stray dogs, and, well, go for it, Joe: terrapin humongosoids. Massive enough to shake the ground when they walked, these predators would chase the boys back to the cabin—JCG, Bobby, and Jody dropping fish offerings as they ran and then hiding inside the cabin's sturdy walls until the danger had passed.
Finally, let’s not forget the fish and predatarus toothus. I’m not suggesting that piranhas are actually in Salt River, though it is a fresh water species native to our hemisphere. I feel I would be remiss, however, not to point out that pythons have taken over the Everglades.
I’m sure Salt River has plenty of smallmouth and blue gill for the Davids, and I’m happy to compete in the tourney for bragging rights.
But I will say this: You go in first.
April 14, 2019
Joe Ford responds to Barbara Fallis' comment (see below).
Barbara, you are very perceptive to grasp our fishing prowess so quickly. As a matter of fact, we did catch fish so big they would not fit in a photo. But obviously that meant we could not publish a photo of it. Here is a pic of a slightly smaller fish but still so big that only his eye fit in the picture! Next time we’ll take a bigger camera.
I was going to mention this in the blog article, but I thought people would just think I was being absurd.
One of the unexpected joys (or terrors, depending on when you ask me) of having published The Last Resort has been the opportunity to talk about the book to various civic or environmental groups. On Tuesday, I spoke to nearly a hundred farmers and civic leaders in Paris, Ky., at the Bourbon County Conservation District’s 60th Annual Dinner Meeting. The food, prepared by a men’s group at the Church of the Annunciation, was outstanding and the crowd was friendly and welcoming. I was honored to donate a generous honorarium for my presentation to the Woods & Waters Land Trust, an organization dedicated to protecting forests and streams in the Lower Kentucky River watershed.
The theme for the Kentucky Department of Natural Resources’ annual essay and art contests, sponsored by the local conservation districts, was “Diggin’ It”: soil as the foundation of life. I had little trouble connecting that theme to my father’s love of the rural central Kentucky land and his collaborative research with soil scientists and geologists later in his career. A quote from one of his contemporaries, which was included in the event brochure, summed up the focus of the evening:
“Essentially, all life depends upon the soil…There can be no life without soil and no soil without life; they have evolved together.” –Charles E. Kellogg, third Chief of the USDA’s Bureau of Chemistry and Soils, 1938
A presentation last October before the Anderson County Historical Society led to another unexpected invitation: putting together an exhibit about my family history at the newly refurbished Anderson County History Museum. I spent a good deal of time this spring talking with family members and collecting photographs and other memorabilia for the display. It has been exciting to work on a project that connected my father’s side of the family—featured in The Last Resort—with my mother’s side of the family—featured in the novel (tentatively titled Next Train Out) that I’m about to wrap up.
In the photos below, the portraits on the wall are of George Dennis McWilliams Sr. (1893-1982) and Mary Marrs McWilliams (1894-1977), my great uncle and aunt.
The exhibit will be on display from April 2 through at least the end of the month. If you can find an excuse to travel to downtown Lawrenceburg, I hope you’ll stop by and take a look. We’ve left a notebook there for you to record your comments, insights, or any family stories of your own you’d like to share.
Anderson County History Museum
108 East Woodford Street
Lawrenceburg, KY 40324
The museum is inside the Tourism Office, just around the corner from Main St., in the old Carnegie library building (where my grandmother Nell Marrs Board worked for many years). It’s generally open weekdays during regular business hours, but you may want to call before you go. Kendall Clinton, the executive director of the Lawrenceburg/Anderson County tourism commission, may also be able to arrange a weekend visit, upon request.
Last month I received an unexpected email. I did not recognize the sender’s name, but the email address appeared to be associated with Harvard University. The message began:
“I am a tremendous admirer of the work of John Goodlett and had the wonderful experience of having heard stories from many of his close colleagues in Petersham over the 35 years that I have spent at the Harvard Forest. I greatly appreciated reading the journals and the wonderful tributes by Alan Strahler, Sherry Olsen, and Margaret Davis.”
I was stunned. Who was this gentleman who, more than 50 years after my father’s death, was still familiar with his work and appeared to recognize his colleagues and students from the 1960s?
The letter was signed David Foster, and I quickly searched for more information. I was pleased, and honored, to learn that he is the longtime director of Harvard Forest, located in Petersham, Mass., where my father began his career in plant geography in the 1950s.
Thus began a weeklong correspondence of wide-ranging subjects. I learned that Foster worked with and knew well several of my father’s colleagues at the Forest, including some I still remember fondly. I learned that he devoted some time to resurrecting my “father’s maps on oak distribution” and publishing “the map and overview of that classic and unrivaled study.” I learned that he is in the process of digitally archiving much of the Forest’s history and has come across photos and letters and other materials related to my father’s work. I learned, not surprisingly, that he is fascinated by first-person journals and has collected and written about several relating to the land around Harvard Forest and New England.
And I learned of another Kentuckian associated with Harvard Forest: Nathaniel Southgate Shaler (1841-1906), originally from Newport, Ky., a student of the controversial Louis Agassiz while at Harvard. Shaler later became, as Foster wrote, “the dean of the Lawrence School of Science at Harvard, one of the great minds to teach natural history and geology at the university, [and] the founding power behind the Harvard Forestry School and the Harvard Forest.” (For a more unsettling overview of Shaler’s changing philosophies, I cautiously refer you to the Wikipedia article.)
But, perhaps most interestingly, I also learned, after a copy of Foster’s 1999 book Thoreau’s Country arrived on my doorstep, that Foster, like my dad, built a cabin in the woods—his in northern Vermont—when he was a young man, and lived a solitary life there for several months. Foster had grown up in semi-rural Connecticut, in an area dotted by farms, which sounds very much like the area around Lawrenceburg where Pud roamed as a youngster. It seems to be a natural path, then, that both my dad and David Foster found their way to Harvard Forest to study and build a career.
I have since shared with Foster the complete journal my father kept while working at Harvard Forest. The current director of the Forest found my father’s descriptions of the politics and infighting among the ambitious scientists fascinating, enlightening, and, unfortunately, commonplace. In return for sharing that gem with him, he has promised to look for my dad’s paper on bourbon, which is currently reserved in the Harvard Botany Library—two floors below Foster’s Cambridge office.
Publishing The Last Resort continues to open new and surprising doors. I never imagined I would discover so many people who remember my father fondly and are willing to share their stories. It is even more astonishing to learn that the legacy he left behind as a scientist continues to inspire others in his field. What a journey this has been, finally piecing together a fragmented understanding of who my father was and what it means to be his daughter.