“I can’t believe those two boys built that cabin all by themselves.”
And with those words I discovered one more among us who still remembers Camp Last Resort along Salt River.
On Saturday I had the privilege of chatting at length with another of my dad’s first cousins: Jane Moore McKinney, the older sister of John Allen Moore to whom I dedicated the book. At age 96, her smile lights up the room and she demonstrates the same knack for storytelling as her two brothers. Her memories are clear and precise and she is a delightful conversationalist, even though challenged by encroaching deafness. Her grammar is impeccable, reflecting the education she received as a young girl at an Atlanta academy associated with Emory University (her father worked for the railroad at the time). For example, my editor’s ear perked up when I heard her say, “He was seven years older than I…”
She talked of our Aunt Sallie hauling heavy containers of milk from Grandpa Moore’s milking barn to the road to be picked up by a truck from the cheese factory in Lawrenceburg. She described how her future husband, stationed at a Navy facility outside Atlanta during World War II, leaned out of a passing streetcar madly calling her name as she stood along Peachtree Street. (She had met him once before. Click here to listen to her relay that scene.) She described life in 1940s boarding houses and sharing a bathroom with four other couples. I learned that before her marriage she had dated my mother’s cousin—and my father’s friend and classmate—George McWilliams, whom she spoke of repeatedly and fondly.
When I talked to her on the phone about a month earlier, using a TTY device, she assured me drolly, “I inherited the deafness: It wasn’t something stupid I did.” She wanted to be sure we knew she had been driving and attending her weekly supper parties just a couple of years ago. Spending time with her this weekend, I have no doubt she charmed everyone at those gatherings. Now, frustrated by having to rely on a wheelchair, she seems bewildered that her body has begun to bow to age.
I had met Jane briefly at a couple of family funerals. I knew she was fond of my dad. But, inexplicably, I had never made the short trip to Owensboro to get to know her or her children.
So the traveling trio of Goodletts—my cousins Sandy and Bob and I—arranged a brief visit with Jane, her daughter Jane Allen, and her son Jim. This is the legacy of publishing The Last Resort. By delving a bit into my father’s story, I have been inspired to spend time with family I hardly knew. I am getting to know John Allen’s family and Jane’s family, and I have visited their brother Joe and his wife, Jean, who rescued me when I was a lost high school student in Atlanta years ago. I have spent hours talking to two of my first cousins as we traveled across the South—two cousins who had launched their careers by the time I was a child settling back in Kentucky after my father’s death. I look for reasons to get in touch with my McWilliams cousins, my Hanks cousins, and my Birdwhistell cousins. And I am delighted by all my interactions with them.
Unexpectedly, I am finding family and family connections endlessly fascinating. I wish I had had the impetus long ago to reach out to them. As one of the youngest of my generation, I think I was mildly intimidated by all my interesting older cousins. But I’m glad I rounded up the courage to push myself into their lives in some small way. And I am deeply grateful for the opportunities to get to know them.
Jane's daughter, Jane Allen McKinney, is a nationally recognized artist. Her immense sculpture, towering over the Tennessee State University Olympic Plaza, is constructed of metals representing the actual percentage of gold, silver, and bronze medals the university's athletes have been awarded.
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.
John Allen Moore would have turned 94 on March 20. This was the first year his family had to celebrate his birthday without him.
John Allen was my father’s first cousin and one of the boys who hung out with Pud at Camp Last Resort. The two were fast friends. John Allen’s remarkable memory of my father and of our shared family lore was a primary impetus for the publication of The Last Resort. I dedicated the book to him.
This week, my cousins Bob and Sandy Goodlett and I made what has become an annual trek to Atlanta to see our Moore cousins. By happy serendipity, our visit coincided with John Allen’s birthday. We were able to celebrate with his widow, Jane Chappell, and two of his four children, Deborah Costenbader, from Austin, and Cindy Caravas, from Virginia Beach. We also spent time with John Allen’s brother, Joe, and his wife, Jean.
Upon our return to Kentucky, we learned that another of the Last Resort boys, “Rinky” Routt, had died in February, soon after celebrating his 98th birthday. We were saddened to get that news and to recognize that not one of my father’s Salt River companions is left to tell their stories.
Our lives are cyclical, of course. We all walk the same inevitable path. But as I mourn those we have lost, I’m finding great joy in reaching out to others whose lives intersected theirs either tangentially or prominently. Getting to know John Allen’s children may promise as much joy as getting to know him late in his life. Reconnecting with my father’s friends, students, and colleagues—as well as my older cousins who knew him well—has augmented my understanding of him and of myself. My life is better because of these emerging relationships.
If you have questions about your own family history, I hope you will find the courage to ask questions of those who may have answers. You may be surprised at what you learn. Perhaps more consequentially, you may develop friendships that will continue to exhilarate you. Time is short. Don't wait.
Several individuals associated with The Last Resort have died since its publication in August 2017. I’d like to honor them here.
To those who are mentioned in the pages of The Last Resort:
And to those who patiently endured my questions about my father or his Lawrenceburg ties:
As a child, I remember dull Sunday afternoon car trips driving through western Maryland. I now understand that my parents were looking for a connection to Kentucky in the rolling hills and farmland. Having been displaced first to Massachusetts and then to Baltimore, it was the best substitute they had for the familiar scenery they longed for.
Even before that diaspora, Pud had been forced to leave central Kentucky to fulfill his military obligations. After returning home and completing his bachelor's degree at the University of Kentucky, he chose to leave again to pursue a doctorate at Harvard. It is clear, however, from the notes he kept in his second journal, dating from 1953-54, that he intended to return to his home state someday.
Upon returning from a working trip to Washington D.C., on March 9, 1953, Pud finds a letter from H.P Riley, professor in the Department of Botany at UK. Pud writes:
“Among the otherwise useless mail awaiting our return was a friendly, warm letter from H.P. Riley, informing me in a poker-faced way that McInteer may retire 1 June, and did I know of a possible replacement. In all modesty, the requirements for his successor fit me like a glove. I’ve been in a tizzy at prospects of returning to Ky. I finished the laborious job of composing a reply tonight and will send it tomorrow.”
Later, on March 14, he continues:
“[Mary Marrs] and I were in a dreamy mood about getting back to Ky. tonight. We have a tough problem in devising ways and means to get our belongings home. Probably a part-load in a moving van would be best. One thing is certain, it will be expensive.”
Pud eventually interviewed for the position but, in the end, Professor B.B. McInteer decided not to retire and the opening with the UK herbarium never materialized.
My parents continued to make trips home to visit family, and Pud continued to talk to Riley about a position at UK, but no further opportunities for employment in Kentucky arose.
Although he could never secure a position at the University of Kentucky, his legacy will now have a place on campus. Thanks to inquiries initially made by Bobby Cole’s daughter-in-law, Teresa, The Last Resort: Journal of a Salt River Camp 1942-43 will be available at the UK library’s Special Collections Research Center. When contacted about possibly acquiring the book for this collection, Jaime Burton, director of research services and education, wrote:
“We are so pleased that we are able to serve as further stewards of your father’s recorded experiences, and look forward to securing his place here on campus once again! This is a great story.”
It seems the perfect resting place for his words. The center’s mission states, in part:
“The Special Collections Research Center sustains the Commonwealth's memory and serves as the essential bridge between past, present and future. By preserving materials documenting the social, cultural, economic and political history of Kentucky, the SCRC provides rich opportunities for students to expand their worldview and enhance their critical thinking skills. SCRC materials are used by scholars worldwide to advance original research and pioneer creative approaches to scholarship.”
The UK library already has a number of my father’s academic publications (including the most widely available, Geomorphology and Forest Ecology of a Mountain Region in the Central Appalachians), but it’s a special gift to know that a book that reveals more about his personal life and his ties to Kentucky will also have a home there. I hope Kentucky enthusiasts and researchers find it a useful volume that offers a window into a specific era in our Commonwealth’s history.
Welcome home, Pud. Merry Christmas.
The Last Resort—the camp along Salt River and, ultimately, the book by the same name—came to pass because of the bond that formed between two classmates. Pud Goodlett and Bobby Cole shared a love of the outdoors and relished the time they spent together fishing and hunting. At some point in their teen years they hatched the plan to build the cabin on the bluff above the river on the Cole family farm. Thus began the idyllic days described in Pud’s journal.
The relationship between the two boys appears deep and sometimes complicated. Pud is occasionally annoyed by Bobby’s radio, his fastidiousness, or his desire to head home for a shower and a shave after a few days at camp. But Pud is also proud of Bobby’s marksmanship and his ability to identify the trees along the river. It is clear that he is devoted to his friend, and his sadness when Bobby is called up for service is profound.
On November 1, 1942, Pud writes, “Went to camp early this morning for the first time since Bobby left. All the bottom seems to have fallen out of the joy of that wonderful, free life on the river. Bobby’s worrying about the dirty floor, the big leak, the state of his radio, the fact that our floor has spread and the countless other dear old-maidish things he did are gone, seemingly forever. I don’t believe I’ll ever be able to spend a weekend here until he can again spend it with me.”
Of course, Pud did return to the camp, but he had to enlist a whole group of young boys from his Scout troop to try to fill the hole created by Bobby’s absence. That never proved completely satisfactory, but it did allow Pud to extend his time at the camp until he, too, was called to fight a war.
From the limited evidence we have, the boys seemed tighter than mere friends. They seemed more like brothers.
In fact, we now know that they were cousins.
Bobby had a keen sense of his family’s history and its roots in the area, and I imagine he was aware that the nearly 400 acres his father and older brothers tilled had been in the family for generations. John W. Cole had pieced the property together in the 1880s from extensive lands owned by his Bond, Kavanaugh, and Penney (yes, of J.C. Penney lineage) ancestors. Some had settled the area in the late 1700s. The main Kavanaugh home had been built in 1840. The stone for the chimney Bobby and Pud constructed, which still stands today, was confiscated from the crumbling foundation of a former slave cabin.
On the farm, circa 1918. Left to right: James L. Bond (1855-1934), William B. Cole (1881-1983), Lula Roach Cole (1880-1964), J. W. Cole (1905-2001), Allen Carroll Cole (child, 1916-1987), John William Cole (1860-1924), Mary Louise Cole Ransdell (girl standing, 1911-1988), Annie Bond Cole (1862-1948), John W. Bond (1846-1929), Phoebe Utterback Bond (1851-1940). Photo provided by Bob Cole.
Bobby knew all this. But I doubt that Pud was aware of his own familial ties to the land.
Thanks to the curiosity of Bobby’s daughter, Julie, and to the detective abilities of her son, Nicholas, we now know that Pud and Bobby share a common ancestor. William F. Bond was born in Virginia in 1740. After his first wife died sometime around 1786, he accepted a land grant awarded for his Revolutionary War service and moved his four children west with the Penney and Burrus families to what is now central Kentucky. In 1790, he married Sarah Cranson, who hailed from what was then Woodford County, Virginia. William and Sarah had five more children. Bobby was a descendent of their oldest son, John. Pud was a descendent of their second oldest daughter, Ailse.
In fact, the boys can also trace their families back to a common Utterback ancestor. And Pud’s mother had connections to the Bond family through her maternal grandmother, Mary Ann Routt.
Of course, we’re talking about a small rural community. It’s no surprise that two families with longtime roots in the same geographic area have common ancestors.
But it somehow feels special to know that Pud and Bobby were connected by more than the teeming water of Salt River. They were connected by blood.
Transcription of marriage contract (with gratitude to Nick Wilson, Bobby Cole's grandson, for offering his legal and historical expertise):
Know all men by these presents that William Bond and Sherwood Knight are held and firmly bound unto his Excellency the Governor of this Commonwealth in the first and full sum of fifty pounds current money to which payment will and truly to be made we and every of us bind ourselves and every one of our heirs Executors and administrators jointly and severally firmly by these presents sealed and dated this 29th day of November 1790.
The condition of this obligation is that whereas a marriage is shortly intended to be solemnized between the above bound William Bond and Sally Cranson of the County of Woodford. Now if it shall hereafter always appear that there is no just cause to obstruct this said marriage then this obligation shall be void or else to remain in full force.
Here in Kentucky we have a sometimes shocking ability to rub elbows with the literary lions who live among us: Bobbie Ann Mason, Silas House, Maurice Manning, Richard Taylor, Crystal Wilkinson, Ada Límon, Mary Ann Taylor-Hall, Ed McClanahan, bell hooks, C. E. Morgan, Robert Gipe, Frank X Walker, Kim Edwards, Gurney Norman, and, of course, Wendell Berry. It was at a Kentucky Arts & Letters event sponsored by The Berry Center in New Castle, Ky.—in Wendell Berry’s beloved Henry County northeast of Louisville—that I was recently approached by award-winning poet Maurice Manning.
I had interacted with Manning intermittently when I worked at Transylvania University, where he is a professor of English and the Writer in Residence. At last year’s Kentucky Book Fair, writer (and Lawrenceburg resident) Bobbie Ann Mason had alerted me that Manning had read The Last Resort and was enamored by it. But I didn’t really think he knew who I was or would recognize me in a large crowd of admirers.
His first words stunned me: “Your dad’s journal is one of my favorite books of all time.” I’m fairly certain I stared at him stupidly, my mouth agape, as I tried to formulate a gracious response that didn’t fully betray my giddiness. We ended up talking for a while, and he relayed to me that my dad’s writing reminded him of the journals kept by William Wordsworth’s sister, Dorothy.
Now I was an English major many decades ago, and I paid my respects to the English Romantic poets once upon a time, but I was not familiar with Dorothy Wordsworth. So I did what every 21st-century faux-researcher would do: I googled her and read a little of her work.
And Manning was right. I was stunned at the similarity between her reporting of the day-to-day events of her life with her brother, William, and my dad’s reporting of the day-to-day activities at the Salt River camp with Bobby. Here is an excerpt from her Grasmere journal, which she began keeping in 1800:
The rhythm of her days during that summer feel very much like the days spent at The Last Resort in the 1940s. Like Pud, Dorothy meticulously captures the details of the weather as well as the practical results of the fishing outing. The daily menu plays an important role in her notes. In another entry, she writes: “I went & sat with W & walked backwards & forwards in the Orchard till dinner time - he read me his poem. I broiled Beefsteaks.”
Like Pud, and like most poets and artists of her era, she also paid close attention to her natural surroundings. William Wordsworth had said of his sister, “she gave me eyes, she gave me ears,” and the descriptions in her journals were sometimes the inspiration for his poems. The following extract from her Grasmere journal seems strikingly similar to entries in The Last Resort:
I occasionally find poetry in the simple journal my father kept at the camp along Salt River. But I had not considered how similar his inclinations and his observations were to the aesthetics of the great Romantic poets. In a later email, Manning wrote to me, “your father's journal reminds me very much of the Romantic poets from the late 1790s, namely Wordsworth and Coleridge when they were both living near Nether Stowey, in Somersetshire.”
Imagine that. Pud Goodlett, scientist, naturalist, ecologist, Romantic.
Crystal Wilkinson, left, prepares for a conversation with Wendell Berry, right, at The Berry Center's Kentucky Arts and Letters event Nov. 10, 2018, in New Castle, Ky. The two authors talked about their rural upbringings that evoked the strong sense of place in their writing and how the family members who loomed large in their early years play significant roles in their work. Photo by Rick Showalter.
Just a reminder: More than 150 authors—including Bobbie Ann Mason, Silas House, Wendell Berry, Crystal Wilkinson, Mary Ann Taylor-Hall, and Richard Taylor--will be armed with a stack of books and ready to talk with you at the 37th Kentucky Book Fair Saturday, Nov. 17, 2018, at the Kentucky Horse Park near Lexington, Ky. If you love books and the people who write them, you don’t want to miss this event.
I never intended to stumble into a career as a writer and editor. I chose my college major based on which professors appeared to be the most entertaining or, perhaps I should say, the most inspiring. Although both my parents had been scientists, I loathed the idea of spending beautiful fall afternoons in dark, windowless labs. I decided, however, that I could spend those afternoons sitting under a tree reading a book. And so I did.
I went to graduate school largely because someone—or rather some institution—offered to pay my way. And probably because I still had no idea whatsoever what to do with myself. So I spent two and a half more years studying literature and—much to my chagrin—philosophy and literary criticism.
But, as I discovered only recently, it appears all I would have needed to do to become a clear, effective, and even amusing writer would have been to read the words my father left behind. I could have avoided all of that formal education if I had just pored over his publications.
Reading academic papers about fragipans, tree throws, and surficial geology, however, wasn’t really my cup of tea. I knew that my dad’s colleagues had regularly praised the clarity of his writing, and he had demanded the same standard from his students. And I had seen glimpses of those practices, as well as his innate poetry and cleverness, in the two journals and the letters I had studied at some length to publish The Last Resort.
But the other day I read three short book reviews my father had written in the early 1960s, which David Hoefer had unearthed in a search for all of my father’s publications. And I finally understood just what everyone had been talking about.
In my favorite, my father references a Lewis Carroll poem to make a point about the author’s conclusions. David has now educated me about the seriousness of the book’s thesis in academic circles, but most of that flies blithely over my head. I have insufficient understanding of the content of the books my dad reviewed to embrace or reject the accuracy of his arguments. But I can evaluate his writing.
In his review of the book The Upland Pine Forests of Nicaragua: A Study in Cultural Plant Geography by William M. Denevan, my dad remained unconvinced that Nicaraguan natives had used fire to manage the original forests despite Denevan’s repeated assertions, assertions that my dad felt lacked documented evidence. In wrapping up the review, he writes:
"The aboriginal pyromaniac may indeed have produced the pine forests of Nicaragua, but Mr. Denevan does not convince me. I am reminded of Lewis Carroll's Bellman in The Hunting of the Snark: 'Just the place for a Snark! I have said it thrice: What I tell you three times is true.'"
I was not familiar with this particular Lewis Carroll poem, although I now realize that his Jabberwocky is one of the few I have even partially memorized, thanks to Carroll’s books being omnipresent during my childhood. And his exposure of the inanity of repeating phrases of questionable veracity feels especially relevant today. Here are the first two stanzas of the poem:
"Just the place for a Snark!" the Bellman cried,
As he landed his crew with care;
Supporting each man on the top of the tide
By a finger entwined in his hair.
"Just the place for a Snark! I have said it twice:
That alone should encourage the crew.
Just the place for a Snark! I have said it thrice:
What I tell you three times is true."
--The Poetry Foundation
The book review my father penned appeared in Agricultural History, Vol. 36, No. 3 (Jul., 1962) and was indeed a serious academic critique of a work that remains relevant today. David Hoefer tells me that my dad’s skepticism, though perhaps a valid criticism at the time, has since been largely addressed as more evidence has been presented. But it was my dad’s introduction of a totally disparate text, a Lewis Carroll nonsense poem, to drive home a point that caught my attention—and made me chuckle.
And that is the writer I want to be.
Tim Cooper, of Oakdale, Minn., does not consider newspaper journalists the enemy of the people. If you would like to submit a blog post for Clearing the Fog, contact us here.
Let’s think of this as an experiment.
Twenty people are brought into a room and are monitored by 20 other people. Each participant has a comfortable chair, perhaps a cup of coffee. The monitor is nonintrusive but alert to his or her assigned participant. The participants are given a copy of the Sunday New York Times and told they have one hour to read the paper. As participants choose sections of the paper to read, the monitors will record their preferred order and the titles of the articles they read.
Or maybe not. The premise of the experiment is, perhaps, a leap of faith. The idea of sitting down, reading the paper, developing a passion and a cadence for a paper’s nuance seems antiquated with the preponderance of devices that continually distract us.
And, it seems to me as I get older, abundantly necessary. J. D. Salinger once wrote, “(T)he goal of education should be wisdom, and not just knowledge.” Salinger’s words, extrapolated to a broader understanding, demand us to be thinkers, not simply reactors. Our democracy is not one of passivity, but rather one that is participatory. And can there be a more profound way to immerse ourselves in the social, political, and cultural world of our participatory democracy than the simple act of reading a newspaper?
I emphasize the order of the sections that we read for no great intent. I am simply amused that my newspaper reading habits are so rigid. Here’s my Sunday New York Times sequence: 1) Book Review; 2) Travel; 3) Sunday Review (opinion pages); 4) Arts & Leisure; 5) The New York Times Magazine; 6) front section. I book end my reading with something I dearly love—book reviews/discussions—and something I am driven to immerse myself in—the unfolding of the world’s events. In between, I vacillate between dreaming and thinking. During the week, I follow a similar practice with the Minneapolis Star-Tribune. And you?
When I was 15, my father demanded that I read the morning paper (The Louisville Courier-Journal) from cover to cover before he awoke and came to breakfast. Perhaps my committed truancy sparked that directive. Suffice it to say, he was fearful that I would develop into an uneducated, ill-informed young man without a clue about the world. And I think he intrinsically knew that reading a daily newspaper and being forced to distill its disparate parts into something cogent was an education in and of itself.
When he was situated at the table, my job was to give him an accurate and detailed précis of the paper’s contents. His order, too, was unchangeable: 1) sports; 2) front section and op-eds; 3) local news; 4) arts. I think that what this practice solidified for me was the notion that there is a seamless whole between the past, the present, and the future, and that newspapers are indeed the first draft of history.
I am unabashedly political, obsessed with our electoral process, curious about public policy. I am appalled by the fear, loathing, and contempt currently practiced by our executive-in-chief. I am captivated by the young progressives running for public office who, to use Jon Meacham’s phrase, call us to our better angels, who are aspirational rather than dismissive.
The photo in The Last Resort of John Allen Moore intently reading the newspaper while seated on the Model T running board makes my heart sing. What is he reading, what is he thinking? What discussions did his reading prompt with Pud, Bobby, and any other visitors to the camp? No matter, he is simply reading.
A lesson for us all.