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?
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.
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.
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.
In July 1942, Pud was attending summer school at the University of Kentucky. If he made any trips out to Camp Last Resort that month, he didn’t document them. In July 1943, he was already training at Camp Wolters, Texas, a member of the Enlisted Reserve Corps of the Army. Of that ordeal, he writes the following to his sister, Gin; her husband, Len; and their son, Slug (short for “Sluggo,” Pud’s nickname for young Dave Fallis):
"Well, here I am at the end of my fifth week of the training cycle, and I still don’t know whether we’ll take the full thirteen weeks or not. I suppose you know by now that I took my final OCS physical exam last Friday—or rather Friday before last—and passed O.K.
"The weather is fine today—the sky is completely overcast and it’s only about 90°—perfect for relaxing. It’s been rather hot—several days last week hit 120°. This part of Texas is really not so bad. The country is flat except for low flat-topped hills, and although the trees are almost all stunted, there are plenty of them—mostly post oaks. The soil is all sandy, in fact it’s not soil—it’s sand. Horned toads, jack rabbits, and chiggers abound, as do the sand burrs, which are the sharpest stickers you ever saw. They grow on very low plants everywhere, and simply cannot be seen, but every time I sit down, I find them.
"You’d die if you could see my face—my nose, chin, and both cheeks peel constantly, but my upper lip actually feels like cardboard. And don’t believe that I’m getting fat—the OCS physical only weighted me in at 133—so there!"
As I enjoy a stretch of languorous summer days beside my little manmade lake, I occasionally think how my father would have appreciated this setting. My backyard is filled with healthy trees planted randomly or allowed to grow where they please: sycamores, tulip poplars, redbuds, several types of oaks and hickories, a beloved black gum, a red maple, a couple of birches and bald cypress trees we planted near the water to replace the willows and cherries we lost, and Norway spruces and a few cedars we’re encouraging to grow into a natural barrier to shield us from others who recreate on the lake.
About 30 feet from my backdoor I can step onto a small dock that juts into our little cove. Moored to the dock in its custom-shaped slip is an old metal johnboat, sturdy and indestructible, awaiting anyone wanting to head out onto the lake to fish for the plentiful largemouth bass. The boat has stood sentry over the west side of the property through three homeowners. It’s largely retired now, which is a shame, usually left behind when the fleeter kayaks and stand-up boards get a turn on the lake’s placid water.
I think my father would have loved that I have settled on a small body of water in central Kentucky. It may not be a natural river with fishing holes and snags and treefalls. It may not change much with the seasons or with the level of rainfall. But it provides ready access for swimming nearly six months out of the year and easy fishing any time we’re willing to give it a try. We seem to have fewer snakes than Pud and Bobby encountered on the cliffs along Salt River, but we have an enormous variety of birds and lots of turtles—which appear safe from bored young men while sunning on their logs. Manicured lawns have largely displaced the wildflowers, but there are still areas of the neighborhood where mowing is erratic and the butterfly weed and bee balm and chicory occasionally peek above the grasses. And what would Pud and Bobby have thought about the deer—does, bucks, and fawns—that regularly graze on our lawn or bed down among our garden plants for the night?
During our first years here my husband and his buddies enjoyed a good bit of fishing on the lake. My dad’s old tackle box and fly rods stood ready in the storage room that opens to the back patio. I would occasionally find Rick sorting through the antique lures and fishing paraphernalia, either looking for something new to try or just reveling in the oddity of it all. A Styrofoam container of earthworms was usually in the basement refrigerator, along with the beer.
Yeah, I think Pud would have enjoyed this spot. I can almost see him stretched out in an old camp chair in the backyard, a Budweiser or a glass of bourbon in one hand, a cigarette in the other, watching the Green Herons or the Kingfishers as they swoop down the lake.
As we approached what remained of the Bond & Lillard bourbon distillery just south of Lawrenceburg, the first thing I noticed was the sprawling elm tree that towered over the lone wall that had withstood the battle. It was immediately clear that Mother Nature had once again asserted her dominance over the feeble constructions of man.
In a 1906 “Souvenir Supplement” to the Anderson News, Lawrenceburg’s longtime newspaper, the unidentified author waxes poetic about the still thriving distillery perched in a lush natural environment:
“As the traveler winds his way around [the lake stocked with fish and minnows] that leads to this plant, he is greeted by nature’s own sweet breath, spiked with mint, and the pungent and invigorating aroma of Bond & Lillard grown ripe and mellow.”
At the time of this writing, in 1906, the distillery was owned by Stoll & Company of Lexington, who had purchased it from Mr. William F. Bond in 1899, after the 1896 death of Mr. C. C. Lillard, his brother-in-law. John Bond had erected the distillery on this site in 1836, drawn there by the nearby creek and a natural spring. Upon his death, his son David Bond managed the operation before being succeeded by his brother, William F. Bond, in 1849. William F. Bond forged the partnership with C. C. Lillard in 1869.
The Bond history is what drew us to this site on a sunny, warm May morning. Bobby Cole, whose family owned the farm where he and Pud established Camp Last Resort, was a descendant of the Bonds. His two children, Bob and Julie, had wanted to visit this site redolent with their own history.
Pud’s family had some tangential connections to the site, too. Thanks to a document preserved in a Bond family scrapbook, we had discovered that Pud’s great-grandfather, Hamilton Moore, had done some business with William F. Bond and his brother John W. Bond in 1856. It appears ol’ Hamilton, who had a reputation as a bit of a swashbuckler after his exploits at the Battle of Buena Vista during the Mexican-American War, was serving as a broker for a sizable whiskey transaction: $799.50 to transfer 1,818 gallons of “good merchantable whiskey” from William Bond’s warehouse to Mr. James Butts.
To add yet one more hue to Hamilton Moore’s colorful saga, family legend has it that, not long before he died at the tender age of 34, he was run off the family farm, about three miles south of the distillery, by his mother-in-law, Sally Morton Searcy. Evidently, Hamilton’s business dealings—or perhaps his reputation in general—were not well received among the others in his family’s long line of ministers.
Ironically, Hamilton’s son, born just a year before he died, achieved more notoriety as a minister perhaps than any of his Moore or Hedger ancestors. Rev. William Dudley Moore, Pud’s grandfather, pastored numerous rural churches in the area and was both respected and beloved by many. He had also served as the local school superintendent. Perhaps he inherited just a bit of his father’s blood, however, for he made a trip to Mexico, to visit the site of his father’s battle, and he famously traveled to the Holy Land in 1911, when a trip of that type by a rural minister was nearly unheard of.
While Hamilton died estranged from his family in 1857, four thousand reportedly attended the funeral of his son, Rev. W. D. Moore, when he died due to injuries received in a car wreck in 1935. Eight hundred automobiles joined the procession to the cemetery.
I have to confess that the Goodletts I have known may have derived more genetic material from Hamilton Moore than from his son. Bourbon generally has a central role in family gatherings. Perhaps that is just a nod to our Anderson County roots, a show of support for an industry that allowed Lawrenceburg to prosper in the decades before Prohibition. More likely it’s a reflection of our search for shared conviviality or perhaps comfort amid life’s trials.
As we’ve seen from Pud’s writing, nature presents another source of solace. In some ways, it was comforting to see the site of a once thriving family business overtaken by lush late-spring vegetation. It seemed the natural order of things. I think I found myself rooting for nature to teach us all a lesson about our own impermanence. Our lustiest human enterprises will all eventually yield to time.
Perhaps the editor of the Anderson News had a similar thought in 1906. At the bottom of the article were a few words needed simply to fill the column. At first they seemed almost comically out of place following a story about man reaping the rewards of mastering his environment. But on further reflection, perhaps they’re intended to remind us of the perfect antidote to human hubris:
“When in need of rest or recreation, seek out some quiet hamlet in Anderson, and there, under the shade of the magnificent forest trees, enjoy nature and be rejuvenated.”
David Hoefer, of Louisville, Ky., is co-editor of The Last Resort and the author of the book's Introduction. If you would like to share your thoughts on Clearing the Fog, contact us here.
Kentucky is naturally a land of rivers. Every major pool of water in the state is a recent innovation of human engineering, a dammed-up and permanently flooded river valley that shares some, though not all, of the characteristics of a geologically formed lake.
All these forays into large-scale landscape transformation were just getting underway when Pud Goodlett, Bobby Cole, and their buddies were participating in the much smaller-scale lifeways of Salt River during the first half of the 1940s. Rivers meandered through channels rather than rushing through canals; water was oxygenated by riffles and pools rather than the tailwater churn of turbines. The seasons of a temperate climate, marked by leaf color, flow rate, and other sense-catching variables, pressed directly on the dark ribbons of water threading their way through an abundance of interwoven plants and animals. One can imagine the unselfconscious bliss of immersion in this slow but dynamic pattern, as reflected in The Last Resort.
The following video makes evident the steady march of change; it’s the Green River rather than the Salt, but the two are west-flowing sisters whose waters come to mingle in the mighty Ohio.
Video courtesy of the National Park Service.
Tim Cooper of Oakdale, Minn., responds to last week's blog, The Healing Power of Green. If you would like to share your thoughts on Clearing the Fog, contact us here.
I am recently returned from a weekend in a cabin in the vibrantly greening woods, in the sharply undulating mountains. By day, I hiked hardwood trails and climbed precipitous ascents, I scanned distant vistas and enjoyed the immediacy of identified and unidentified wildflowers, and I tried to put a name to, by sight or by sound, the abundant birds that sang me down my path. By late afternoon, I opened a bottle of wine and relished the isolation and rustic nature of the cabin. I prepared a sophisticated meal, and I planned the breakfast that would follow. At night, I lay down on a large, soft bed, and I heard the rain that stole into my domain without threat. I still heard distant birds, still felt the protective hug of the trees. And I fell asleep, and I did it all again, the next day. If I so chose, I could do something similar to this every weekend throughout the year.
By choice, I am an urban dweller; I live in a major metropolitan area in the upper Midwest. By vocation, I am a teacher, and somehow, some way, I have spent my entire career in a suburban private high school, surrounded by wealth, privilege, and personal satisfaction. And by passion, I am a servant of social justice, a man who resides in an area of comfort and ease, and yet tentatively, feebly, extends my hands to those in need.
Much of my journey in the realm of social justice has been as an advocate and direct care provider for the homeless. I still remember speaking to a man I had known for years who resided in a homeless shelter of last resort, the kind of place where Dinty Moore® Beef Stew and bread long past its expiration date were the evening meal, where a shockingly thin mattress placed six inches from a person you didn’t know was your bed, and where personal hygiene might have meant, if you were lucky, a small toothbrush and coarse soap. My conversations with Dick were deep, transcendent, and always instructional—he had a master’s degree in sociology from Northwestern University, but was transformed by Vietnam. On the particular night I remember, Dick told me that “alcoholism, drug addiction, violence, and rage are simply the poor person’s vacation.” He might have told me this as I was scheming about a weekend retreat to a cabin on the shore of Lake Superior.
I’ve also served young children in inner-city public schools, the kinds of places where a classroom in reading or arithmetic has 45-50 students, and where personal assistance comes from people like me who come in to tutor. Deidra, a fourth grader and crack baby with a mom in jail for any number of nefarious arrests, once tried to stab me with a pencil out of sheer frustration because she couldn’t read the simplest texts. She, and other fourth graders I’ve met, has never seen an expansive green space, has had to navigate through slums where trash and dispossession form the core of her very being. At some point in my education, I remember reading that psychiatrists could not distinguish the brain formation of a Vietnam War veteran from a child raised and educated in an American ghetto. Dick, Deidra, my friends: I wish you could have seen the restorative, spirit-rejuvenating sites that I witnessed recently.
My students take family vacations; it’s part of their very being. A cabin in the north woods, a Caribbean resort, a ski chalet in the Rockies…it’s all a part of their formation, their worldview. They are socialized to success, and they will be doctors and lawyers, they will be purveyors of business. They will attain graduate degrees, and they will pass this ethic on to their children. When I am particularly piqued at my students’ assumption that what they have is available to everyone if they just work hard enough, I chide them with the words “you chose your parents well.” I’m happy to say that most understand my meaning, and, perhaps, even a few agree.
I read with interest Sallie Showalter’s recent blog on the need for nature in our lives, “the solace of open spaces” to cite a favorite essayist, Gretel Ehrlich. Sallie’s reference to the psychological and physiological benefits of a natural setting reflects the very way we were both raised. Children of educated, vibrant parents, exposed to the beauty of nature and the arc of cultural wonder, Sallie and I both encourage everyone to tread lightly on this earth, to have a heart for the dispossessed, and to save spaces for both Dick and Deidra as they grope for a horizon.
We chose our parents well.
It has been a spring riddled with grief. Two cousins, a close colleague, my husband’s uncle, a good friend’s mother, a neighbor I didn’t know well but who died so unexpectedly it sent us all reeling.
That made getting out in the woods one day last week before the weekend deluge even more healing and restorative than usual. Hiking in Kentucky’s beautiful hardwood forests has always been high on my list of outdoor pleasures. I have to believe that some of my affinity for that activity was handed down to me from my dad—whether through genetics, through family picnics and camping trips, or through the endless hours of slides relating to his research he sometimes subjected us to. In the 1960s, most families viewed slides of birthday parties or other family gatherings. We sat quietly as he shared images of rock formations and treefall sites. In those days, children rarely had the chance to choose the family’s entertainment.
Recent research has provided some evidence of a real connection between spending time in natural environments and reducing stress, anxiety, and depression. The Green Road Project at the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Md., is currently attempting to measure these changes mathematically using biological markers such as levels of cortisol in the blood rather than the self-reported mood surveys commonly used in other research. Researchers involved in the project are particularly interested in understanding if time spent in a natural environment will promote healing among veterans suffering from PTSD or traumatic brain injuries. A more far-reaching goal of projects such as these is to offer community decision-makers objective evidence for championing local green spaces that improve health and well-being.
In 2016, the World Health Organization (WHO) produced a comprehensive report titled “Urban green spaces and health.” The report particularly focuses on how easily-accessible green spaces provide a respite from stress, a venue for physical activity, and an environment shielded from a city’s air and noise pollutants. The report concludes in part that “The evidence shows that urban green space has health benefits, particularly for economically deprived communities, children, pregnant women and senior citizens. It is therefore essential that all populations have adequate access to green space, with particular priority placed on provision for disadvantaged communities. While details of urban green space design and management have to be sensitive to local geographical and cultural conditions, the need for green space and its value for health and well‐being is universal.”
My personal anecdotal evidence fully corroborates any conclusions correlating time spent in the woods and better emotional and physical health. Walking along a woodland trail, removed from the stressors and pressures of daily life, immediately calms you. The serene environment soothes you. The beauty awes you. Sometimes the experience even reminds you of our interconnectedness with nature and how we rely fully on the natural areas of this world for each and every breath.
Which is why the disclaimer on the WHO report was more than mildly disturbing. I could just imagine the machinations behind the scenes before this report was published.
Disclaimer: The views expressed in this report are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views or policies of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
I would like to think that our country’s questionably named Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) still cares about protecting our natural environments. But we have all come to understand that that is a naïve assessment of the agency’s role.
So it’s up to us to protect these precious areas. I hope you will consider the small things you can do to help preserve the natural woodlands that support human life. And when you need relief from the vagaries of a sometimes cruel existence, I hope you, too, will wander a nearby woods and reclaim a sense of peace.
David Hoefer, of Louisville, Ky., is co-editor of The Last Resort and the author of the book's Introduction. If you would like to share your thoughts on Clearing the Fog, contact us here.
Much of the pleasure of reading The Last Resort journal lies in John Goodlett’s casual recording of a day’s adventures in a style that reflects the camp's relaxed atmosphere. We shouldn’t forget, however, that Pud had a second reason for writing: to try on for size the classroom instruction he was receiving in biology as an undergraduate at the University of Kentucky. Many of his observations involve the identification of plants and animals that were part of the natural wealth of Anderson County. In other words, the power to name, deployed with rigor and care.
Of course, the boys of The Last Resort already possessed a vocabulary in the hundreds for local flora and fauna. But Pud was learning a new precision in naming based on scientifically defined relationships of plants and animals. The criteria for choosing one name over another is built into these schemes, typically as the presence or absence of one or more physical attributes. This branch of science, called taxonomy or systematics, is a refined form of pattern recognition.
The difficulty Sallie and I faced in assembling The Last Resort’s taxonomic list was trying to link the variably deployed common names—sometimes called folk taxonomy—to the scientific equivalents of greater precision. Linguists have long noted that folk taxonomy favors family or genus over species. We comment on sparrows picking up crumbs off the sidewalk rather than House Sparrows (Passer domesticus). The existence of slangy terms adds further complication because slang comes and goes and can vary in meaning by region. I was surprised to find out that the redbellies caught by Bobby Cole in Salt River were Pumpkinseeds, a kind of sunfish (Lepomis gibbosus). In other places, a redbelly is a Redbreast Sunfish (Lepomis auritus).
Does this mean that folk terms—those common names we all use, including scientists—are in some sense faulty and to be avoided? Definitely not. Popular terms do what they’re supposed to do: provide a robust, if flexible, basis for everyday communication, at exactly the level of precision required. Scientific classification sometimes goes too far in the opposite direction, pushing distinctions based on trivial differences and filing away our easy observations of nature (and nature’s beauty) in dusty cabinets of the mind.
That said, it’s heartening to see Pud’s dedication to correctly identifying the living things around him. One senses the importance he placed on proper naming and, behind that, the joy he experienced in honestly acquired knowledge. Sure, The Last Resort journal was meant as a record of the daily doings of Pud and his pals in their Salt River haven. But the journal had another purpose all along: to help young John Goodlett build a bridge to his future, which he had already glimpsed in excellent new words for identifying the marvels of his daily acquaintance.
In the photos above, David Hoefer displays a Smallmouth Bass (left) and a Largemouth Bass (right) pulled from Lake Cumberland in south central Kentucky. For a comprehensive database of fish species, click here.