It’s a time of year I generally look forward to: crisp fall days, new colors altering the landscape, chipmunks and squirrels stocking the winter pantry, a reprieve from the sweat-soaked days of summer.
And Election Day.
I am the daughter of Pud and Mary Marrs Goodlett. My fate was sealed. I am a political animal.
I admit that I generally get caught up in electoral politics. The adrenaline begins to pump. I spend more time in front of the TV watching debates and interviews with the candidates. My highs and lows are more marked. And my hopes are frequently dashed.
This year, as the rhetoric heats up and our country seems to split further and further apart, I have spent a good bit of time thinking about the people who don’t share my passion for politics, the ones who can blithely enjoy the gifts of fall while ignoring the political shenanigans in the background. I particularly wonder about the huge percentage of citizens in this blessed country who do not vote, who seem to have no interest in participating in our democracy.
Voting to me is obligatory. I put it on my calendar and my to-do list like any other important appointment. I do my best to be informed about the candidates and the issues. I have never missed voting in an election.
So how, I ask myself, is it so easy for others to ignore what for me is a very special day?
As I thought about this, I recalled my introduction to voter engagement. After my father died and my mother moved our family to her Kentucky home town, I’m fairly certain I accompanied her to the polling place each time she voted. I went with her into the voting booth, watched her close the curtain, understood that it was a private, almost sacred, ritual she was performing. Sometimes I was aware of one or more of the candidates she was voting for. Occasionally I had helped stuff envelopes at the candidate’s local campaign headquarters. I imagine there were times when I was not as aware of who was on the ballot. But I perceived voting as one more responsibility of adulthood. And, just like banking or grocery shopping or returning library books, she was making sure I was familiar with the obligations that would one day be mine.
I think now that that experience removed any mystery from the voting process. I was never uneasy about going to the polls and pulling that lever or filling in that circle or selecting candidates on the touchpad. It was my duty. And I was excited to have the opportunity to voice my preferences.
But I have to remember that I am a middle-class white woman who has not (yet) been targeted as someone who certain candidates or certain parties want to prevent from voting. I’ve never felt intimidated at the polls. I understand that I may not know everything I need to know about every candidate, but I am usually satisfied that I have done my best to understand the values and the issues they represent. I trust that I am as capable as any other citizen to cast a vote.
Not everyone has had my experiences. Not everyone had a parent who pulled back the curtain and showed a young child how simple it is to participate in something so vitally important. Not everyone has been made to feel comfortable, or wanted, at the polls. Not everyone feels confident that she can make educated decisions about the candidates.
I, of course, want to encourage everyone to vote. But I also want to encourage you to reach out to a friend or neighbor or relative who may not have made it a habit to vote and help him or her get comfortable with the process. It may be a young adult who has just been awarded the privilege of voting. It may be a neighbor who doesn’t get out much and simply needs a ride to the voting site or help casting an absentee ballot. Perhaps it’s an elderly family member who never bothered because she didn’t feel knowledgeable enough or didn’t feel that her one vote made any difference.
Let me remind you how much your individual vote matters. In the 2015 Kentucky gubernatorial primary, Republican candidate Matt Bevin beat James Comer by 83 votes: 70,480 to 70,397. For those two candidates, you better believe every vote mattered.
So as you revel in the glory of fall, make sure you remember to vote on Nov. 6. It is our civic duty. We owe it to our parents, to our country, and to all of those who have been denied the opportunity to vote since the founding of this nation.
Each October Rick and I look forward to our first walk down an old farm road near our house that in recent years has been taken over by a deciduous forest. The footpath is inaccessible in the summer, when the dense ground vegetation makes it nearly impassable. But as fall arrives, and the undergrowth begins to die away, we clear a path for daily walks. Our dog, Lucy, loves it as much as we do. It gives her new territory to sniff and new space to roam. It lets us feel like we have stepped out of our built world and into the heart of a woods.
Each year we also find that nature has somehow altered our path. A large tree has come down, forcing a detour. Oversized thorny bushes convince us to try a new route. Rains carve out a gully we have to step around.
We take all of this in stride. It’s fun to forge a new path, to see the woods from a slightly different perspective.
But across large swaths of the southern United States, two powerful hurricanes have altered the lives of thousands of Americans. Nature has once again roared ashore, destroying buildings, obliterating livelihoods. U.S. citizens in Puerto Rico and other parts of Florida and Texas are still recovering from last year’s storms. Humans rarely win a battle with nature—especially when we continue to deny her power and resent any implication that our indulgences are contributing to her erratic behavior.
A report issued Oct. 8 by the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change finds that these catastrophes will only get worse unless we hunker down and take the necessary steps to reduce global warming. If we don’t, it could cost us trillions of dollars. A New York Times article describes the threats we are facing as “a world of worsening food shortages and wildfires, and a mass die-off of coral reefs as soon as 2040” as well as “intensifying droughts and poverty” and “increased coastal flooding.”
Forestalling this cataclysm will take international cooperation and a complete transformation of our economy, according to the report. We all know how likely that is to happen.
But when change is in our control, when we can alter our behavior to avoid such devastation, wouldn’t that be the obvious choice? Wouldn’t we at least want to take incremental steps to prevent worldwide suffering and economic loss? Why do we keep waiting?
Back along our woodland path, we see that the adjoining property has been cleared for a new home. Construction is ongoing. The owner is a friendly man, who loves my dog. But I can’t help thinking how human action has once again destroyed a small area of natural land.
This morning I saw two deer wandering down the middle of the main road through our neighborhood. They looked perplexed. They had just emerged from a small copse of woods on one side of the road. Normally, they bound immediately across the road, into the protective woods on the other side. But today the woods are gone. Acres of trees that have stood for decades have been bulldozed to make room for 50 more houses. Heavy equipment roars and beeps day and night. A whole hillside has been moonscaped.
I know the place where my house sits was once woodland, too. The remnants of the deciduous forest remain along the shoreline of the lake. I realize this area was also cleared for development. But in our part of the neighborhood, the houses were tucked into the existing trees. The sharp hillsides were allowed to remain. The natural contours of the land are still evident.
Being the caretakers of this land is a privilege. I understand that we have to accommodate the needs of the people who depend on it for sustenance. But isn’t it also possible to be thoughtful guardians, protectors of both the wild inhabitants and the future generations who will need to inhabit it? After all, we’re all dependent on each other for life. We cannot breathe if not for the woods. Our breath gives them sustenance. Every creature large and small plays a role in our complex ecosystem.
We may think we hold sway over all that is on this planet. That we have the power to manage it all for our own purposes. That is, until the next mammoth storm or wildfire or flood. And then we are reminded that nature always wins. That we have to be the ones to step out of the way of the fallen tree and think hard about how our actions contributed to its demise.
When David Hoefer and I started working on The Last Resort, we realized that the book could appeal to a variety of readers. Most obviously, I expected the people who had known Pud would have a sentimental attachment to the stories of his youth. From there, it occurred to me that others of his generation or perhaps folks who had grown up in similar rural communities would enjoy reminiscing about a time long gone.
As the project evolved, we began to think that other audiences might find something of interest in the book. Folklorists might find the boys’ customs or food ways a window into cultural norms of the time. Historians might appreciate the journals and the World War II letters as primary source materials that paint a specific tale of how one man navigated the journey to adulthood during a tumultuous period in our nation’s history. Botanists and biologists might be interested in the flora and fauna that Pud noted were prevalent in central Kentucky 70 years ago. Or they might find the awakenings of a young scientist a compelling story.
I also felt it was, at its simplest, a good story. People who enjoyed reading biographies or short stories would find it an enjoyable glimpse into a bygone era.
A year later, I believe we have in some small way tapped into all of these audiences. The book has helped me reconnect with family members of my father’s professional colleagues and childhood friends. I have heard from historians who have used the book in their classes. A handful of my father’s students have shared the book with their fellow scientists, in places as far-flung as New Zealand.
Over the next several weeks, I’ll have a chance to connect personally with some of these readers. I am grateful for all of them. I am happy that David convinced me to see this project through. And I’m looking forward to finding out what about the book piques the interest of each individual.
On Tuesday, Oct. 9, I’ll have the privilege of talking to members of the Lawrenceburg community, the now bustling central Kentucky town where Pud and Bobby and Rinky and Lin Morgan grew up. At the regular monthly meeting of the Anderson County Historical Society, I expect to see friends and family members of the boys who spent time at The Last Resort camp along Salt River. I expect they will share more stories of what life was like in that rural community in the 1940s. For them, it will be a nostalgic trip down memory lane.
On Wednesday, Nov. 7, I have been invited to participate in the Kentucky Authors and Poets event in nearby Frankfort, Ky., sponsored by the Kentucky Conservation Committee. I expect the audience there will include conservationists and environmentalists who work every day to preserve Kentucky’s waterways and woodlands. That audience may be more interested in John C. Goodlett the pioneering ecologist and plant geographer, or perhaps in the field notes of 19-year-old Pud Goodlett the University of Kentucky biology student. I share with them an interest in preserving the natural areas along Salt River and Elkhorn Creek and the Kentucky River so future generations can have experiences akin to those of the young boys at The Last Resort
And on Saturday, Nov. 17, I will be surrounded by more than 150 authors at the 37th annual Kentucky Book Fair sponsored by Kentucky Humanities. Some of the authors gathered there will present formal programs, and we will all be available to talk to curious readers and sign books. I will be humbled by the presence of Wendell Berry, Bobbie Ann Mason, Silas House, and Sarah Smarsh, among others. On that day, my likely audience may be avid readers of Kentucky history or readers looking for Christmas gifts for aging parents or grandparents.
Publishing this book has been a sometimes surprising journey. I am thankful for all the people who’ve expressed a genuine interest in the project. I hope you’ve enjoyed coming along for the ride.
For more details about any of these events, visit the Murky Press home page.
After reading last week's post Seductive Silence, Tim Cooper, of Oakdale, Minn., has been thinking about how a liberal arts education could encourage the empathy and resilience we so desperately need. If you would like to submit a blog post for Clearing the Fog, contact us here.
Like many Americans, I was riveted to the television during the services for the late Sen. John McCain. It was a brief, and it appears now ephemeral, moment when we were reminded of the heroes among us who have been willing to put country above party or personal interests. My favorite McCain story related how a prisoner in the cell next to McCain’s at the Hanoi Hilton used a surreptitious tapping code to teach McCain the Robert Service poem “The Cremation of Sam McGee.” McCain’s daughter Meghan shared how he later recited the somewhat grisly poem to his future wife on their first date.
That was my first glimpse into the Renaissance man who was John McCain. I learned that his favorite author was Hemingway and his favorite novel For Whom the Bell Tolls. I learned that McCain regularly read novels and enjoyed writing.
While in the U.S. Navy, I attended classes at the Naval War College. The highlight for me was a lecture by Admiral James Stockdale, a man who had endured eight years as a prisoner of war, also in the infamous Hanoi Hilton. During the lecture, Stockdale revealed the key to his survival: His study of moral philosophy—particularly the Roman Stoics—while a student at Stanford had provided food for his mind during those endless days of tedium and fear. He was able to draw from his own intellectual reserves to provide the discipline and resilience he so desperately needed and avoid succumbing to the darkness. As president of the Naval War College, Stockdale later instituted classes in philosophy, literature, and history. For him, study of the liberal arts was not just a path to enlightenment; it could well be the key for another young serviceman’s survival.
It struck me that these two national heroes, either by their own habits or by their professional influence, were evangelists for the value of education in the humanities. We all face times when we need to draw from our knowledge or understanding of the human condition to survive a struggle that seems poised to drop us to our knees.
Sadly, a quick perusal of recent news articles reveals that the classic liberal arts curriculum is being relegated to history. Colleges in the University of Wisconsin system have eliminated English, sociology, political science, and history majors from their campuses. In their stead, these universities offer business, science, engineering, and computer technology centers.
In Lexington, Bryan Station High School has restructured its curriculum as the Academies of Lexington, an initiative dedicated to preparing students in grades 10 through 12 for future careers, careers that range from electrician to chef to computer programmer to paramedic. As I understand this new initiative, all curricular content is filtered through the lens of the student’s career aspiration.
Meanwhile, Eastern Kentucky University has made its marching band a peripheral “activity” separate from the school of music, eliminating its academic affiliation. My father, a man who abandoned hopes of a pro baseball career to become a professor in the music department at EKU (until his premature death in 1988), always promoted the marching band’s democratic pull, its ability to connect students from a variety of majors and interests and expand their experience with the arts.
These insidious changes also reached the parochial school where I taught for two decades before retiring in June. Students entering this institution are now encouraged to declare in middle school whether they would like to work toward a “business certification” that would be attached to their high school diploma. The goal is that, by taking business classes, students will attain what Bryan Station identifies as the ability to see real world applications in what they learn in the classroom.
But what have these students lost? At my former school, signing up for the business classes extinguishes the option of taking band, chorus, art, or photography. By devolving the marching band into a student activity, EKU has lessened the connection non-music majors had to an acclaimed music school. And by emphasizing the utilitarian nature of learning, Bryan Station’s program has obviated the concept of learning for learning’s sake.
My best friend during my undergraduate days at the University of Minnesota was a young man from rural Wisconsin who was interested in literature, theater, classical music, blues, jazz, and pop-culture. Kurt was also a business major. During his last two quarters at the “U,” Kurt contacted numerous companies about employment. Caterpillar Corporation called Kurt to arrange an all-day interview at their corporate headquarters in Peoria, Ill. Kurt asked me to drive down with him. After his very long day, I asked Kurt how the interviews had gone. He shook his head and responded, “It’s the craziest thing. They never once asked me about business. Instead, they asked about what I read, what I think about, what plays I had recently seen, whether I volunteer and why, and so on.”
A week later, when a representative from Caterpillar called to offer him the job, Kurt asked about the peculiar nature of the interviews. The representative responded simply and directly: “We can train anybody about our business, but we cannot teach people to be well-rounded.”
Readers of The Last Resort will recall that Pud Goodlett read Walden and Ridpath’s history, but also works by humorist James Thurber and contemporary popular fiction. They were all outside his academic interests in plant geography and ecology.
In The Last Resort, are we seeing the last of an era that encouraged Renaissance men? Have we relegated all that Pud and my dad were to myth, and have we replaced their world view with one regulated by market considerations? Have Senator McCain, Admiral Stockdale, and my friend Kurt become quaint examples of an ethic that no longer holds sway?
I am distressed that not only have colleges and universities become training grounds for careers, but so, too, have high schools. I am distressed that many future business leaders, politicians, and academics have not been exposed to a liberal arts education and have, instead, become technocrats in their own professions. And I am most especially distressed that the understanding, empathy, and, dare I say it, behavioral standards acquired from embracing moral philosophy, literature, and the creative arts seem to have been lost to the dictates of economic empowerment.
I can almost feel my mother rolling over in her grave.
On October 11, 1991, exactly one month before she died, I remember finding her in the recliner positioned next to her bed, riveted to the television. She was watching Anita Hill testify before the Senate about the sexual harassment she had endured while working for Clarence Thomas.
My mother was a political junkie. She had watched endless hours of the Watergate hearings in the 1970s. According to the journal my father kept in the 1950s, they had both closely followed the Joseph McCarthy hearings. So I suppose it shouldn’t have surprised me to see her following every detail of the shocking testimony.
But my mother was also in a losing battle with cancer, and I remember thinking it felt like a sad way to spend your final days. Her cancer had made this articulate, intelligent woman nearly mute, so it wasn’t possible for her to tell me what she thought about the spectacle. But it was discouraging for me to think that this might be her last image of the country her husband, already dead 24 years, had fought to defend.
My mother had worked in male-dominated businesses. She had been a chemist at two different Seagram’s distilleries. She had worked for the Navy in Hawaii during World War II. She had worked at a large university. She had worked for state government. I have to imagine that she had suffered sexual harassment at some point in her life. I can only hope it was not as degrading as what Hill so bravely described.
Of course, my mother had never mentioned any incidents of harassment to me. Nor had I ever told her about the sexual assaults I had experienced as a young woman. It never occurred to me to tell her—or anyone else, for that matter. I was fortunate in that my experiences did not seem to haunt me. Like so many, I felt I had somehow been at fault, although deep down I knew that was not true. I suppose I found the incidents embarrassing, a sign of my own weakness or naïveté. So I simply buried my memory of them and moved on.
Until I watched candidate Donald Trump brag about his penchant for sexually assaulting women. That moment brought everything back. To regain control over my own stories, I seethed in an op-ed about the presidential candidate’s behavior.
I’m in the majority, of course. In a January 2018 online survey sponsored by the nonprofit Stop Street Harassment and reported by NPR, 51 percent of women stated that they had been victims of unwelcome sexual touching. I’ll admit that number seems low to me. The survey also found that “81 percent of women and 43 percent of men had experienced some form of sexual harassment during their lifetime.”
In part because of the Anita Hill hearings, managers in workplaces across the country now receive regular training on how to handle accusations of sexual harassment. Most of us recognize that it is a pervasive problem that we are still struggling to address. Most of us understand that it is most commonly an abuse of power and has very little to do with sexual titillation.
Recently, we have all watched as women, spurred by the #MeToo movement, have found their voices and started naming the men who have victimized them. There has been a wave of courage, of provocative charges against people known and unknown in positions of power. In the last few days, a new movement, #WhyIDidntReport, has emerged in response to one of President Trump’s tweets.
And now, amid this backdrop, 27 years after Anita Hill attempted to educate the largely white male U.S. Senate about sexual harassment and its ramifications, we are once again watching a nominee to the U.S. Supreme Court deny allegations of sexual assault. The accuser is once again female, educated, professional. I had hoped that the process for investigating the allegation might be handled with more sensitivity and more honesty than we have witnessed so far. It seems we’re hearing the same old excuses. The powerful men have not relinquished control. The kid gloves that they initially so carefully displayed have now come off and it appears to be fair game to attack or bully or belittle the accuser.
Why does it feel like nothing has changed?
I think of my mother staring intently as our Congressional leaders exposed their vile inhumanity and their naked self-interest, and I am once again ashamed.
The first time I recall encountering a snake in the wild was at Girl Scout camp. I was 7 years old.
My father had died about three months before and, at my uncle’s urging, my mother had moved what was left of our family from Baltimore to central Kentucky, closer to relatives. While staying at the rambling farm house of my aunt and uncle awaiting our move into a new home, my father’s mother—my only grandparent—died. My mother’s aunt and closest confidante suffered a stroke. There seemed to be no end to the calamity.
I loved staying with my cousins at their farm. But I was unmoored from all that I knew. My father’s absence seemed to confuse me less than the prospect of starting life over in a new town. I hated leaving my friends. On the other hand, my dad—a professor during the academic year and a researcher for the U.S. Geological Survey during the summers—hadn’t been around much anyway. Did I miss him? I wasn’t sure yet.
As summer arrived, my cousins were preparing to go to camp. My mother and aunt (Charleen, the boys’ ready rescuer at The Last Resort) evidently thought it would be a good idea to send my sister and me, too, perhaps so we could be around children our age in a more normal environment, or perhaps to allow my mother a little privacy to grieve.
I was technically too young to attend the two-week camp, but the administrators had given me special permission. Everyone kept a watchful eye on me. I was not only the youngest camper; I was most certainly the tiniest.
But no one needed to worry. I loved every minute of it. I loved being deep in the woods of Morgan County. I loved sleeping outdoors in a tent modeled after a Conestoga wagon. I loved swimming in the brownish green water of the lake. And I particularly loved the hikes along the mountain trails.
So when one of our counselors first pointed out “Blackie,” the camp’s “pet” black racer, I was mesmerized. He was enormous—at least five or six feet long in my memory. It was a lighthearted moment. The 8- and 9-year-old veteran campers around me ooohed and ahhhhhed and called to him affectionately. Blackie took all the commotion in stride.
I was smitten. I became that child who always volunteered to handle snakes that were brought into the classroom. At home, I gently shooed the garter snakes out of the way of the lawn mower or the hedge clippers.
I can’t remember if we saw any other snakes that particular summer, although I encountered several over the succeeding years. (The image of the heavy rat snake coiled around the top of the latrine just above the seat is burned in my memory.) And I was fully aware that during every hike at least two counselors carried “snake sticks” and hatchets in case we came across a less companionable snake that needed to be disposed of for everyone’s safety.
All of these memories came to my mind recently after having yet another conversation about snakes with two friends who share a sincere fear of the reptiles. A large corner of their consciousness seems to be devoted to their phobia. During our conversation, I wondered aloud way I reacted so differently. After brief reflection, I’m sure it’s because snakes were first introduced to me as friends, family even. Important wildlife that we should not disturb. That we should respect.
During a recent paddle around our small lake, I experienced yet another flashback to Camp Judy Layne. I tucked my lightweight canoe into a cove deep in the woods, and the heavy vegetation and woodland smells transported me to my favorite childhood camp. After a dreadfully long stretch of dark and dreary days here in the Bluegrass, brilliant sunlight illumined the black oak leaves and the purple ironweed.
As I paddled out of the cove, I could see bluegill swimming just beneath the surface as if they, too, had been longing for the warmth of the sun. Several Great Blue Heron swooped and cackled at me, warning me away from their supper. Dinner-plate sized turtles didn’t bother to leave their posts on downed logs, daring me to disturb their sunbathing.
Perhaps, at some unconscious level, I learned at a tender age that the woods welcome us when our spirit has been wounded. That escaping into the woods can soothe the soul. The abundance of life there somehow gives back just what we need. Our personal afflictions can’t alter nature’s rhythms and cycles.
Even the snakes have a role and a certain majesty. And somehow that comforts me rather than frightening me.
My parents were enthusiastic bourbon drinkers long before craft bourbons and celebrity master distillers. They were loyal to reasonably-priced Kentucky bourbon that soothed the rough edges of the day or amplified the conviviality of a small gathering. As Kentucky natives, they were proud to offer the state’s signature elixir to friends and colleagues in Maryland and Massachusetts. I imagine for them it served as an emotional tie to the home they felt estranged from but so longed for.
So it was not surprising to learn that John C. Goodlett, only two years removed from an extended bout of homesickness as he was shuttled around Europe fulfilling his duties as a lieutenant in the U.S. Army, would, in 1948 while a graduate student at Harvard University, write a paper titled “Kentucky Bourbon Whisky [sic].” He was still a long way from home, and perhaps he hadn’t yet fully reconciled why he had chosen to continue his studies at such a distance from all that he knew and loved.
What is surprising, however, is that the Harvard Botany Library still has a copy of that paper in its stacks. David Hoefer, author of the Introduction to The Last Resort and archaeologist extraordinaire, recently unearthed this relic during a routine search for books related to my father. Unfortunately, he also learned that the document is not available through interlibrary loan. My curiosity piqued, I picked up the phone to find out how I might access this bit of my father’s legacy.
It turns out that all of the holdings at Harvard’s collective Botany Libraries are non-circulating. I’ll have to make a trip to Cambridge to learn just how my father managed to write about bourbon from a botanist’s perspective, and perhaps why this work has been housed in one of the university’s libraries for 70 years.
The young lady who took my call was kind enough to pull the document from the shelves. She confirmed that what was identified as a “book” in the online card catalog appeared instead to be something more akin to a research paper. Nothing on the title page ties it to a particular Harvard class or professor or explains the thesis or genesis of the paper.
Obviously, bourbon is distilled from a number of plants—corn, rye, barley—so it’s not too far-fetched to imagine why the young grad student chose this topic for research. One can also imagine the department professors getting such a kick out of the subject that they made the paper available to their curious, nonabstemious colleagues by placing it in the library. And somehow, either by neglect or fond oversight, it’s remained lodged in its somewhat incongruous home for decades.
Someday I hope to make the trek up the East Coast to check it out.
This unexpected discovery took on more meaning when The Last Resort was recently reviewed by Steve Flairty in the Annual Bourbon Issue of the Kentucky Monthly magazine (September 2018). It seemed fitting that Pud’s journal about life along Salt River had found a temporary home among the articles extolling the burgeoning bourbon industry in Kentucky. It would have been hard for Pud to write about the Lawrenceburg environs in 1942-43 without mentioning the Old Joe and Ripy Brothers distilleries. In a contemplative moment in February 1943, he describes the two distilleries looming on the horizon as familiar geographic and economic markers of the county’s industry and history.
“Took a stroll across Mr. Holly’s* this afternoon. Went by the pond where I saw several robins, killdeer, and meadowlarks. I walked up along the old rail fence to the ridge and up through the redbud thicket to the crest of the hill. I just sat there for an hour and a half and looked around. I could see for miles—Woodford and Shelby and Mercer Counties, Ripy Bros. and Old Joe. Today is just like spring with bird songs everywhere.”
*Mr. Holly’s: Mr. Holly Witherspoon’s property on west Broadway, which included the site of the current high school and stretched north to Route 44.
Pud went to school with members of the Dowling and Ripy and Bond families. They were his friends. He understood the role bourbon played as an economic engine for the county.
In his handwritten notes on the “History of Anderson County”—which he kept in the same University of Kentucky loose-leaf notebook where he compiled the camp logbook—he inserts a brief but telling allusion amid more detailed information about the county’s founders, its courthouses, its industries, its churches, and its role in the Civil War:
“pop. 1870—373. Since 1818—50 distilleries.”
You can’t talk about Anderson County history without talking about bourbon. And it’s nearly impossible to recall a Goodlett family gathering without thinking about the bourbon that was poured. I expect the Johns Hopkins professor would have been tickled—or possibly mortified—to know that the paper he wrote about Kentucky bourbon as a first-year grad student is still available to curious botanists in 2018. I hope he would be happy to know that, in that same year, a book about his wanderings along Salt River would be mentioned in a magazine devoted to his favorite Kentucky beverage.
Reading The Last Resort has inspired Tim Cooper, of Oakdale, Minn., to reflect on what it means to put words on paper and how meeting an esteemed poet in a neighborhood bar at age six awakened his poetic sensibilities.
I have been thinking about essays.
The etymology of essay—from the French verb essayer, meaning “to try”—incorporates the idea of experimenting with something, or attempting something new. Most essays delve into new ways of thinking about a subject, sometimes playing with a new narrative technique or voice. In the end, an essay is a thought experiment, an attempt to gain a greater understanding of oneself and one’s position in the world.
Dedicated readers of “Clearing the Fog” are well aware of the disparate voices that cascade through this blog. David Hoefer applies his analytical bent to subjects as diverse as Steinbeck, fishing, and Pud’s cars. Bob McWilliams, Roi-Ann Bettez, Joe Ford, and others lead us to consider “a portion of unexamined existence,” as James Agee described his subject in the preface to Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. I suspect they would all tell us that their responses to Pud’s writing, their observations, are simply personal mental calibrations elicited by the descriptions of life at The Last Resort.
Agee goes on to say that his compilation of his stories and Walker Evans’ photos depicting the lives of several families in rural Alabama during the Great Depression “is a book only by necessity. More seriously, it is an effort in human actuality, in which the reader is no less centrally involved than the authors and those of whom they tell.” Likewise, Goodlett incorporated maps and drawings and lists of flora and fauna in his camp journal for his own reference, but perhaps also to draw any future reader into the experience of life at the camp. In its published form, The Last Resort, too, “is a book only by necessity.”
I am currently rereading Charles D’Ambrosio’s phenomenal collection of essays, Loitering. One of D’Ambrosio’s essays—indeed, my favorite—is entitled “Degrees of Grey in Philipsburg.” It is a marvelous explication of Richard Hugo’s poem by the same name, and much like The Last Resort, it incorporates photography, notes, and the entire poem within its frame. It is Agee’s “effort in human actuality” in the best sense of that phrase, and it prompts me to relate a personal story.
I must have been six or seven years old. My father was a visiting professor at the University of Montana, and we lived in Missoula. I love to recall that I had a mountain as a backyard. In those days, there wasn’t much protest when an adult brought a child into a bar. My father, and many others at the university, was pulled into the orbit of a rural, working class bar just outside Missoula. After teaching and giving private music lessons all day, my father would round me up and head to the Milltown Union Bar for a beer and conversation.
There, late one afternoon, my father engaged a rather portly, balding man in intense conversation. I have no idea what they talked about. But after finishing his beer and getting us in the car, I apparently burst into tears. My father asked me what was the matter, and I could only respond that he had just spoken to the saddest looking man I had ever seen.
Years later, when he reminded me of that story, my father also let me know that the man to whom he was speaking was Richard Hugo, poet-in-residence at the university, and now one of the most highly regarded poets our country has produced. His poems “Degrees of Grey in Philipsburg” and “The Milltown Union Bar” remind me of the portion of my youth spent in that region of graying, abandoned towns.
If I could tell this story correctly, if I could write this essay properly, you would see an empty glass of beer in front of you, and you would choke on the acrid cigarette smoke. A poet would be sitting next to you, spinning lines. And the actuality of that world would prompt you to reconsider your own.
Last week I had the privilege of hearing Kentucky resident and nationally-acclaimed poet Ada Limón read from her newest collection, The Carrying. Rich Copley, writing for the Lexington, Ky., Herald-Leader, said, “The book is colored by the deep green of Kentucky….Limón’s work is marked by exquisite, minute details that pass by many people.”
It is indeed a lovely book, with heart-rending personal reflections and keen observations of the world that surrounds her. After the reading—during which Limón exhibited her usual warmth and quiet exuberance—an audience member asked why she wrote so frequently about nature. I wish I had been prepared to capture her full response, but my general recollection is that she writes about nature because she has to. It defines her place in this world.
The first poem in the collection, “A Name,” reminded me of my father.
When Eve walked among
the animals and named them--
nightingale, red-shouldered hawk,
fiddler crab, fallow deer--
I wonder if she ever wanted
them to speak back, looked into
their wide wonderful eyes and
whispered, Name me, name me.
At its most elemental, the journal my father kept at The Last Resort was a means for recording the natural world around him: the birds, the trees, the wildflowers, the river level, the snakes, the peepers calling in the spring. He documented the names of each, both the common names and the scientific names, as he prepared, wittingly or unwittingly, for a future career. He understood that in order to acknowledge the intricate parts of the natural environment, it was important to be able to identify each by its name. The name itself would then call up a fulsome list of traits and characteristics—some unique, some common with other similar species—that defined that particular plant or creature.
If the critters could talk, I suspect there were moments when they indeed had a name for my dad: threat, intruder, murderer. He describes a memorable moment after he has shot a young squirrel: “I can still see that tiny baby sitting hunched on that limb, chattering gleefully to himself and gnawing on a pignut. To think that I would snuff out such a happy existence. It will never happen again.” Sadly, it took being hunted by his fellow man during World War II for Pud to finally end his hunting of animals for sport.
Is there perhaps a more sinister consequence of naming others who share this world with us? When Eve named the things in the garden, did she innocently guarantee their ultimate destruction? Once they became separate from the two who claimed dominion over them, once they were identified as different, were they expendable? Insignificant? Unprotected?
On the other hand, it’s hard to truly see what we can’t name. During our daily rush to and fro, we pass trees and wildflowers and songbirds. If we can’t name them, we don’t see or hear them. We don’t recognize them or respect their importance. If we don’t recognize their value, we don’t feel remorse when they are destroyed. We stand by and allow their annihilation without understanding what we have lost.
Part of this journey for me, as I write about my father and the words he left behind, has been learning what it means to belong to the genus Goodlett. As my cousins and I gather more regularly to honor our long-gone parents, we ponder the mysteries of our Goodlett ancestors, and we try to figure out who we are.
If our name is Goodlett, what does that mean? What are our traits and characteristics? Would a dichotomous key distinguish us from the Smiths and the Joneses? Does the name carry pre-packaged notions? How do others respond to it? How do I live up to it? Or carry its burdens? How has my name defined who I am, or my ultimate fate?
In Limón’s poem, Eve’s plea to be named also feels like a voicing of her desire to be part of the community she is ordering. Perhaps a name would define her place, her role, her responsibilities among the others that share her space. Perhaps once we identify ourselves, we can see more clearly how we must defend and protect all the species that inhabit this earth.
For more on the importance of naming things in The Last Resort, refer to David Hoefer's blog The Power to Name.
As I dug around in a box of old photos that appeared to be relics from my mother’s family, I stumbled across one I’m certain I had never seen before. It’s a photo of a man in a WWI Army uniform standing near a river, hand on hip, cigarette in hand, with a rakish grin on his face.
Could it be?
In January (Whispers from the Past) I wrote about my efforts to develop a distinctive voice for my maternal grandfather, who is at the heart of a novel I’ve been working on in fits and starts. In that blog, I indicated that I did not have a photo of him.
Or did I?
When I found the photo, I immediately flipped it over to see if there was a name scrawled on the back. What I found instead was another photo: a photo of two young women smiling broadly as they engaged in what appeared to be an intimate tête-à-tête, cross-legged on a well-maintained lawn. Judging by the dress, I put the date in the early 1900s.
I was not certain that I recognized the women, who appeared to be in their late teens or early twenties. On a hunch, I sent the photo to my cousin Bob McWilliams. He immediately identified the woman on the right as his grandmother, Mary Marrs McWilliams, born in 1894. In my mind, I then felt fairly certain that the woman on the left was her older sister, my grandmother, Nell Marrs Board, born in 1890. (I give both women’s married names, but I doubt either was married at the time of this photo.) I searched and eventually found other photos of Nell from that general era and now feel certain she is indeed the young lady on the left.
My heart started pounding. Had I finally found a photo of Nell’s scoundrel husband, William Lyons Board, the man who abandoned Nell and her infant daughter, my mother, shortly after the baby was born? (Contrarily, had Nell’s family run him off for some reason? Had they forbidden her to keep any photos of him?) Had Nell glued the smaller photo of Lyons to the back of this innocent photo of her and her sister, so she could keep some small memento of him?
If it is indeed Lyons, is the river the Ohio River near where he trained at Camp Zachary Taylor south of Louisville before being shipped off to France? Or might it be a site near Le Havre or Cherbourg, two French cities he passed through en route to the limited action he saw? Is it the Isle River, which runs through West Perigueux, where he trained in September 1918? Or the Cher River on the outskirts of Saint-Aignan, where Lyons’ unit joined the 1st Depot Division and were later redeployed as replacements for combat divisions at the front?
At the moment, I have no way of knowing.
My good friend Chuck Camp, who has devoted a massive number of hours to researching this mystery, summarized his conclusions this way:
“So [Nell] had this picture of her beloved sister, and hidden behind it is a picture of the man she married. She couldn't bear to throw it away, as she had so many others. But she couldn't bear to have it out all the time, either, so she hid it.
“How poignant, how romantic, how sad. Here he is in his uniform, as he was in 1918, the dashing young man who came home from the war and swept her off her feet. And now, 100 years later, his little girl's little girl has found him and brought him home again.”