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.
Joe Ford of Louisville, Ky., muses about Halloween and what is true. If you would like to submit a blog post for Clearing the Fog, contact us here.
Halloween was rainy in my neck of the woods. The few kids who braved the weather were either soaked—layers of costumes wet and matted together—or covered by plastic ponchos that hid their costumes entirely. I missed the costumes but took solace in the realization that the candy was, well, all mine. Of course, I buy the kind I like most—Snickers, Peppermint Patties, Dark Milky Ways—for just such a scenario. My wife, recognizing a temptation too hard to resist, won’t let the stuff stay in the house, so I take it all to work and eat it over the next couple of months, er, weeks. OK, days. I feel terrible though.
Some neighborhoods in my city declared Halloween to be the day before the true day in anticipation of better weather, or even the weekend before, to avoid a school night. This is disturbing, as bogus as a Donald Trump speech (i.e., “not genuine or true”). I do believe that teachers should avoid big homework assignments or papers due on November 1. But managing your homework and activities and chores—milking the cows, bringing in the harvest—are part of Halloween. Well, maybe not the milking part. I think that happens in the morning. And maybe not the harvest part, as that sounds like a lot of work. But you get my drift. Halloween is for Halloween. It is the day before All Hallows Day, that is, All Hallows Eve. What are all those saints supposed to do? They’re no doubt totally confused.
I did carve a pumpkin this year, in an effort to keep some traditions that make life enjoyable even though my daughter has moved away to college. Someone suggested I cut out the bottom of the pumpkin rather than the top. Let me say that again: cut off the bottom of the pumpkin. Duh! You would think that at my age I would have at least heard about that. I’ll say this: it works brilliantly! You can cut a larger hole to remove all the brains, and you don’t have to scrape the bottom part at all.
I did sit out on the porch with my cauldron of candy and jack-o-lantern waiting for the little devils and princesses and ninjas-too-old-for-this-but-want-the-free-candy kids. After a bit Mr. Scotch joined me, and I enjoyed the rain just a little more. I thought about The Last Resort and the boys talking into the wee hours of the morning with the rain pattering on their leaky roof. In the end, I did not get too many more trick-or-treaters at my house than might stop by the boys’ camp. But I did make a significant dent in that candy.
Be sure to vote.
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.