It has been a summer of unexpected connections and unexpected losses. Protesters of all colors filled the streets, and hope tempered horror. Families said their last goodbyes from afar, watching on a screen as loved ones took their final breaths. Our nation’s norms and conventions and our most reliable institutions remain under assault. It’s as if the world has tilted too far on its axis, and we’re breathlessly waiting to see if it can right itself again.
Amid all the disruption and uncertainty, all the sadness and grief, I turn to nature, as always, for solace. I drop my little boat in the water and paddle to the most remote cove on our tiny lake. There I tuck myself amid the fallen logs and the loafing carp, and I watch the sun dapple the trees. I listen to the Great Blue Heron screech as it escapes my intrusion. The deer look up, and just as quickly return their attention to the new foliage near the woodland floor. The turtles wait until I float by, and then drop into the water, long after any imagined threat has passed.
I position my boat so I can gaze up the sloping hillside to my left. Then I turn my attention to the cove’s vanishing point and listen for signs of other creatures. I pivot toward the right and watch the grazing deer or intentionally spook the giant carp to engage in a little bumper pool.
This is where I go when I need to turn the world off. When the cacophony has battered my senses and I crave calm. When my thoughts are bumping against each other, creating friction and heat that prevent me from clearly discerning one from another.
The realities of our world this summer have presented most of us with more solitude than we are typically allotted. As engagements and events and opportunities to gather with friends and family have fallen off the calendar, those of us fortunate enough to be beyond the worries of work and child-rearing and aging parents have had the opportunity to assess our lives and how we live them—what we prioritize, how we spend our time, what nourishes us and strengthens us. While many have struggled with this separation or its attendant sense of isolation, I cherish it. I welcome the slower pace. I revel in quiet time for contemplation without the buzz of constant busyness. I can focus on what’s important.
You may not share my affinity for this sudden interruption of our normal activities, but I hope you, too, have found a way to embrace the unwelcome changes. That may require ceasing fretting long enough to clear the voices in our heads, or accepting that we can’t control all the forces shifting around us. Amid this tumult, we all need a place of respite, whether physical or spiritual or imaginary. I’m so lucky that mine is just a short paddle away.
I’m going to meet George Carter’s great-nephew.
Even if you’ve read Next Train Out, the name George Carter may not ring a bell. My calculations indicate that I called his name five times in the narrative, but I’ve learned over recent weeks that I probably should have cited his name more.
George Carter is significant to Lyons’ story, and he’s significant to today’s story. In this era of reckoning—and, one hopes, some sort of reconciliation, eventually—the George Carters of the world need to be remembered. We cannot forget. And those of us whose ancestors are directly tied to these stories, we need to face the music. Now.
Next month I will sit down with a descendant of the man who was lynched in front of the Bourbon County courthouse because he allegedly “assaulted” my great-grandmother.
I’m not sure how to relay to you the awe I’m feeling, the anticipation, the relief, the gratitude, and, yes, the shame that shivers up my spine as I contemplate this meeting.
I won’t detail the machinations that resulted in the heinous act on February 10, 1901. I will say that the single news story about the initial incident, which occurred in early December 1900, described what we today would call an attempted purse snatching.
But perhaps it’s important to keep in mind that the newspaper where that article appeared, the Kentuckian Citizen, was published by Mrs. Board’s cousin. The newspaper’s offices occupied a building once owned by Mrs. Board’s father, a prominent physician. After her father’s death, Mrs. Board inherited that property. One of the competing papers in town, the Bourbon News—which carried a fulsome story of the lynching two months later—was published by the husband of Mrs. Board’s closest friend.
I point that out to show how the power structure in town was stacked against Mr. Carter. Whatever transpired between him and Mrs. Board, he didn’t stand a chance. He was black. She was white, and she was connected. Two months after the incident, when the mob formed, whatever had actually happened on that cold December day was long forgotten. Rumors and innuendo and wild imagination had successfully altered the truth. For some in town, the crime now justified taking the life of a young man with a two-year-old daughter.
We have an opportunity to address some of this ongoing injustice now. Our country is awake. Video recordings provide unshakable truth. We must find the courage and the determination to start fixing these inequalities and addressing the resulting brutality.
I am grateful that I will have the opportunity to speak to one of Mr. Carter’s descendants. I am grateful that he wants to meet with me. I have no idea what I will say. There is no recompense. I cannot change the past. But I’m eager to see what I can start doing today.
Tim Cooper, of St. Paul, Minn., shares his experiences living in the Twin Cities in the aftermath of George Floyd’s death. If you would like to share your thoughts on Clearing the Fog, please contact us here.
Your eyes open to the sound of gunfire, a pitched battle on the far periphery of your being. The shots—staccato, syncopated—lay siege and surround you in fear. Immediately you wonder, do you flee or do you surrender? Do you hold firm or do you seek shelter? Where could you go? To whom or to what would you capitulate?
And then you realize that distant roads have been reopened, that the sound you hear is nothing more than semis on the faraway interstate rebounding over undulations in the road. Why have you never heard this before? Is it the silence of the recent curfew, of inertia, of comfortable isolation, that awakens you to a noise that was always there?
But this fear, this pervasive fear—how do you account for it? You remember two days previous, unthinking as you take your dog for her normal 5 a.m. walk. Ah, the comfort of your routine, your beloved sense of order. Behind you, flashing lights from a police cruiser as you trek down the deserted street. When he pulls up beside you the policeman wearily reminds you of the curfew’s hours, suggests staying closer to home. He attempts a comforting smile but doesn’t receive one from you in return. Later, you’re simply grateful that he didn’t turn the siren on full-blare. The thought of being physically accosted and harmed by him had never occurred to you.
And why not?
Because you have armor that shields you even as you defy your city’s curfew. You are white, male, middle-class, educated, not tall, not overly muscular—in short, not a threat. You’re not black, brown, yellow, or red; you’re not a recent immigrant; your speech sounds local. Without this armor, would you have been gently prodded to return quietly to your home? Recent events tell you no.
Your beloved city is on fire, and you can measure the anger and trepidation everywhere you go. There is a despair that permeates, that is all-encompassing. Drug stores, gas stations, grocery stores, banks are boarded up and closed. You drive across the state line to Wisconsin to put gas in your car. A branch of your bank is there and you can get medication from a pharmacy. The grocery stores appear well-stocked. You carry on with the charade of normalcy.
But you know better.
You recall that you also live in a time of pandemic, that participation in demonstrations of solidarity for George Floyd and for those without power or voice involve calculated risk. You do the arithmetic, and it still demands that you participate, that to do less than all you can will result in an amputated life of insidious horror—for you and for others.
Solace is an ephemeral commodity. You try to comfort your friends—both near and far—and they do the same for you. You try to galvanize them to political action, and you plot strategies of engagement. You want desperately to affect change.
And then you recall that June 6 is the anniversary of Robert Kennedy’s assassination. Bobby, killed advocating for change, killed because he believed in the power of existential action, killed because he cared. You consult his speech in Indianapolis on the night of Martin Luther King’s murder, a speech that always comforts and calms you. And Bobby, quoting the Greek poet Aeschylus, said:
Even in our sleep, pain which cannot forget
falls drop by drop upon the heart,
until, in our own despair,
against our will,
through the awful grace of God.
Joe Ford, of Louisville, Ky., responds to a recent blog post—and to our times. If you would like to share your thoughts on Clearing the Fog, please contact us here.
Just three weeks before her death on August 5, 2019, I attended a showing of the documentary film Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am at the Speed Museum Cinema in Louisville. Frankly, I had not read any of her works and knew next to nothing about her—I attended only after prodding from my wife, who consumes books at a prodigious rate and had read a couple of Morrison’s books. A wonderful film, if you get the chance.
The documentary spent some time, not surprisingly, on Beloved, for which Morrison won the Pulitzer Prize in 1988. The novel is based on a true story—that of Margaret Garner, a slave for the Gaines family of Maplewood plantation, Boone County, Kentucky.
In January of 1856, during the coldest winter in 60 years, the Ohio River froze over. A pregnant Margaret, her husband, Robert, and their four children as well as eleven others crossed the river just west of Covington, Kentucky, and made their way to Cincinnati, then split up to avoid detection. Nine slaves made it to safe houses and eventually to Canada via the Underground Railroad.
Margaret, Robert, their children and Robert’s father and his wife made it to the residence of Margaret’s uncle, west of Cincinnati. Her uncle went to the abolitionist Levi Coffin for advice on how to get them to safety. Before her uncle returned with that advice, however, slave catchers and U.S. Marshalls first surrounded and then stormed the house. Though Ohio was a free state, the federal Fugitive Slave Law allowed return of slaves to their owners if caught in another state.
Realizing that they would be captured and returned to slavery, Margaret killed her two-year-old daughter and wounded her other children, preparing to kill them and herself before she was stopped.
And this is where I cried.
There is first the almost inconceivable pain and anguish of a mother who would kill her children to save them from a life of slavery, suffering and brutality. Infanticide was not unknown for this very reason.
But the legal ramifications about the case gained the most attention: would the Garners be tried for murder, which meant they would be tried as persons (and that their daughter was a person)? Or would they be treated as property to be returned to their masters? That is, is the issue murder or the destruction of private property? Property won, and they were returned to Kentucky and a life of bitterness, despair and abuse as slaves.
Somehow this juxtaposition of human despair and societal degradation affected me profoundly; it wasn’t so much a change of opinion as a change of degree and a recognition of the cultural structure that supported slavery, free state or not. All pretense fell away. There is no confederate monument that should still stand. There is no argument about fidelity to preservation of a “culture.” There is only evil masquerading as something else, only another inexplicable example of man’s inhumanity to man. If we fly the Confederate flag (and my nephews do) we show our ignorance, and we say that rape, torture and forced labor are fond traditions, sort of like Thanksgiving at grandma’s.
This is our legacy. It is how we got here. You tell me: is the despair gone? Is the degradation any less structural?
So, no, in response to the question at the beginning of “Our Sins,” I don’t know when the outrage ends. But I, too, believe the looting will obscure the reason for the protests. We’ll follow our sad excuse of a president and concentrate energy and focus on the looting and completely lose sight of why there is so much anger. And we will feel justified to dismiss the true cause, because, you know, property is more valuable and more important than human lives. Legacy indeed.
Certainly we have to transform ourselves first. And then our words and actions.
Yes, we agree with the business owners whose neighborhoods have been looted or burned. It’s wrong. And, yes, we care about our police officers, many of whom have behaved in truly brave and Christian fashion during this unrest. But we have to speak to them and to others of what the protests are about. Black men are routinely killed, often by police. It is not right. Have that conversation. Speak up! The death of our fellow citizens, like George Floyd, should not happen in America. You don’t die for (allegedly, since there was no trial) trying to buy a pack of cigarettes with a $20 counterfeit bill. Keep the conversation focused on that.
We need to care. Because it is the right thing to do. And because next it will be our sons and daughters, compliant after an arrest, after a mistake, or after a march for justice. Will they deserve to die?
This week our dark times got darker.
Over the month of May—still sheltered in place or cautiously emerging into society while simultaneously mourning the 100,000 Americans who have died from COVID-19—we have learned of three American citizens killed, needlessly, inexplicably, by police or those assuming law enforcement duties. All the victims were black. All the perpetrators were white.
Will this outrage never end?
The rage incited by these events has engulfed our cities. Protestors have blanketed the streets. Some agitators have destroyed property, burning and looting businesses with no association to the injustice. A response that initially felt rational now feels insane.
In the midst of all this horror, another related story caught my attention. On Monday in Central Park, a 57-year-old birder asked a woman walking in the wooded Ramble area to leash her dog, as the area requires. She refused. As he calmly offers the dog treats in an effort to convince her to control her dog, she accuses him of threatening her and says she will call the police. With that, he takes out his phone and begins to record the incident. The woman, who is white, then calls 911 and tells the dispatcher, in an increasingly hysterical voice, that she is being threatened by an African American man. (CNN story)
We all know of famous incidents in our nation’s history where a false accusation from a white woman cost a black man his life. But how many others, never reported or denied by those in power, stain our past? Today we’re finding that an immediately accessible recording device may be the only way for the black victim to get justice, even if it’s posthumously.
In the Central Park instance, which thankfully did not go that far, the man and the woman actually have a lot in common. They’re both sophisticated New York City dwellers who take advantage of the beauty of Central Park. They’re both highly educated—he at Harvard, she at the University of Chicago. They’re both successful in their fields. They even share the same last name (although they are not related).
But Amy Cooper felt that her whiteness gave her tremendous power over Christian Cooper. And she decided to use that power. If he had not recorded their interaction, she very well may have succeeded in having him arrested for a fabricated crime. And convicted. Because of his skin color.
As I worked on Next Train Out, I had to wrestle with my own family’s story of a white woman’s alleged assault leading to a black man’s death. The only information I have about the incident is what was reported in the local and national newspapers, during a time when purple prose and editorializing were evidently acceptable. None of the news articles offers any details that might indicate that what happened should have been a capital crime.
The only witness was an eight-year-old boy, my grandfather. In my fictional telling of the story, I chose to assign him the natural empathy and compassion of a human innocent, someone not yet indoctrinated into the mores of his community’s power brokers.
Over our long and tortured history, I suppose we humans have always sought to subjugate others. To demonstrate power through domination. To cover up weakness by claiming the upper hand.
At risk of repeating a tired refrain, this has to end. We must stop snuffing out the lives of others simply because we deem ourselves superior. The color of our skin does not grant us that privilege. We have to be better.
Charles Goodlett, of Zionsville, Ind., captures the sense of helplessness and grief so many of us are feeling as Covid-19 strikes our friends and our heroes. If you would like to submit a posting for Clearing the Fog, contact us here.
We heard last night that John Prine succumbed to COVID-19 in Nashville, having been critically ill for at least a week. It shocked and saddened me and elicited a melancholic reflection back 50 years, reminding me how much his music, especially his first album in 1970, infused my entry into young adulthood.
When I was a senior in high school and just coming of age in the tumultuous era of Vietnam War protests, culture wars, Nixon, drugs, and the shock of assassinations, riots, Kent State, and paranoia, this album shed resonating light on the hardships of everyday people with humor, irony, and grit.
“Sam Stone” is a gut punch about the consequences of Vietnam combat, heroin addiction, and PTSD. The carefree pleasure of getting high and “just trying to have me some fun” was the theme of “Illegal Smile.” “Spanish Pipedream” described a deserting soldier's escapist dream. “Hello in There” offered an unforgettable immersion into the loneliness of growing old. And, of course, who can forget the mocking sarcasm directed at hypocritical Christian patriotism in the chorus of the song whose title is its first line:
But your flag decal won’t get you into Heaven anymore
They’re already overcrowded from your dirty little war
Now Jesus don’t like killin’, no matter what the reason’s for
And your flag decal won’t get you into Heaven anymore
"Six O’clock News" reminds us of the life story behind the shocking destruction of a young man. And then there's the anthem for all rebellious Kentuckians (and a rage against Mr. Peabody’s corporate environmental destruction well before anyone ever mentioned global warming), a favorite of so many, “Paradise”:
The coal company came with the world’s largest shovel
And they tortured the timber and stripped all the land
Well, they dug for their coal till the land was forsaken
Then they wrote it all down as the progress of man
So Daddy, won’t ya take me back to Muhlenberg County,
Down by the Green River, where Paradise lay.
I’m sorry my son, but your too late in asking,
Mr. Peabody’s coal train done hauled it away.
Listen to my 6-minute tribute, featuring one of Prine's most frequently performed songs, “Angel from Montgomery.”
Prine was a singer-songwriter with a legendary cult following who served up folk tales of biting humor—all told in stories about people, the truth unvarnished with searing insights and hilarious wit. He captured life’s humor and made it more interesting and fun for all of us.
Perhaps the most hilariously ironic statement of independence in all of folk/rock is the first verse of “Sweet Revenge” from his album of the same name:
I got kicked off of Noah's Ark
I turn my cheek to unkind remarks
There was two of everything
But one of me
And when the rains came tumbling down
I held my breath and I stood my ground
And I watched that ship go sailing
Out to sea
John, we are all mourning your death while poignantly celebrating your life by singing along with you one more time, with a tearful twinkle in our eyes.
[offered by Sallie Showalter]
In late March, soon after the news broke of John Prine's diagnosis, my friend Peter Berres of Lexington, Ky., eloquent and sage writer about the Vietnam conflict, sent me a Prine performance of "Hello in There."
In Berres' words:
"Forty-five years of bringing, at least, a tear to my eye each and every time I listened (hundreds to thousands?). This seems like one of the most poignant performances, in my mind. I suppose it may have something to do with our times and situation.
Been watching this daily for several weeks. Now, with news of his diagnosis, watching has transformed into treasuring this performance, this song, this man..."
A few months after my father died, after we had moved from Baltimore and settled in our new home in Kentucky, I woke up late one evening in a panic. I thought I was going to die. I was certain of it. I don’t remember if I had a sensation that my heart was failing me, or if I just had a sense of dread.
I was eight years old.
I remember sitting with my mother on her bed as she called the doctor. I don’t recall if I was crying. I expect I was frightened. I know my mother must have felt a sense of panic and helplessness.
Thankfully, our doctor at the time, George Gilbert, was not only a small-town doctor (who later made regular house calls to soothe my troublesome earaches with shots of penicillin), he had also been a classmate of my father’s. He had known both my parents well.
After briefly explaining the situation to him, my mother handed the phone to me. I listened as he tried to reassure me that everything was OK. I don’t think I believed him. But I understood even then that death was inevitable, and if it was my time, it was my time.
This long-repressed scene played out again in my mind as I heard details of the Inspector General’s report relating to the harm done to small children who were separated from their parents upon arriving at our southern border. One child reported, “I can’t feel my heart.” Another said, “every heartbeat hurts.” These were explained as physical manifestations of the emotional pain the separation had caused the children.
One story in particular stuck with me.
“A 7- or 8-year-old boy was separated from his father, without any explanation as to why the separation occurred. The child was under the delusion that his father had been killed and believed that he would also be killed. This child ultimately required emergency psychiatric care to address his mental health distress.”
I suppose it makes sense that young children who identify with their parents might expect that their parent’s fate could be their own. If parents can’t protect themselves from some harm—arrest, separation, death—how can they protect their children from these same terrors?
I am still amazed when I wake up each morning. I have always expected to share my father’s fate. But I’m old now. I’ve outlived him by 16 years. I did not succumb prematurely.
Nonetheless, this is a tiny trauma I have carried throughout my life as a result of losing a parent unexpectedly at a young age—at the same age as the boy separated from his dad. Yet I knew what happened to my father. I had a loving mother who cared for me in a secure home. I cannot imagine the lifelong repercussions and insecurities this young boy might face.
For me, this is a reminder that all this country is doing in the name of “policy” is personal. Our separating families at the border affects all of us. Our denying climate change and rolling back common-sense regulations affects all of us. Our refusal to restrict widespread access to military-style weapons affects all of us. We will feel the pain of the Central American refugees, the residents of low-lying coastal communities, and the families who have had loved ones slaughtered. We all share common humanity. We all respond to loss and fear the same way.
I had promised that I would not revisit my “father loss” theme again so soon, but circumstances keep pushing me back to that well. If that early experience is what connects me to the world at large, then its value—and its pain—is a privilege that I need to share.
I'm thinking it’s time to close the chapter on reminiscences about my dad. Compiling The Last Resort provided a tiny window into his thoughts as he hung out with Bobby and the others at their Salt River camp. By poring over the journal that he kept while working at Harvard Forest, I learned that he struggled with the same sorts of issues we all do as we launch a career. I discovered his sense of humor and his wry take on the world. The project allowed me to presumptuously call strangers and initiate conversations about their own memories of Pud. Amazingly, it prompted others to reach out to me and share their stories. What a journey it has been.
I’m not saying I won’t write about him again, but I worry that this little habit of mine has become outrageously self-indulgent. I recall the first time a reader of The Last Resort approached me and said, “I loved your book. But you know it’s really about a little girl searching for her father.” I was so embarrassed. That was not at all what I had intended. But that was, of course, exactly what I had delivered.
Occasionally, however, a chance comment from a family member or a former colleague of my father’s reveals another truth. Pud’s premature death at age 44 shattered lives.
Of course, we can start with my mother’s. I only knew her as a somewhat withdrawn, perhaps depressed, but deeply intelligent woman who evidently struggled to find her equilibrium after my father’s death. Others, however, tell stories of her being the life of the party. Photos of her as a young adult reveal a gaiety I rarely saw. Like many widows and widowers, she never fully recovered.
The family of my father’s sister, twelve years his senior and his legal guardian for a time after his own father’s death when he was 10, tell me how she grieved his death almost like she had lost her own child. My father’s older brother, with whom he was very close, rallied to my family’s aid immediately after my father’s death. Then my uncle went into a dark spiral, taking his large family on a heart-wrenching journey before his own death six short years later.
Not having any sons of his own, my dad was particularly fond of his nephews. We have evidence of that. Pud writes letters to Davy after being drafted into the Army. He takes numerous photos of Davy and Sandy as toddlers. He takes Mac and Charley under his wing. He beams with pride as Bob’s music career takes off. He invites any who will join him to Camp Last Resort.
Just recently, at Harvard Forest, we were shown a handsome “Memorial Album” of photos that his Harvard Forest colleagues compiled after his unexpected death in 1967. He was respected as a scientist and cherished as a friend.
Before stopping by Harvard Forest, I attended the memorial service for Ann Denny, the wife of one of my father’s good friends and regular collaborators, Charlie Denny. The Dennys’ three daughters were particularly fond of both my parents, having spent a summer with them in Coudersport, Penn., as the botanist and the geologist conducted their first collaborative research. Their stories of my father’s role in their lives and in their parents’ lives are precious to me.
In 2006, I visited Reds Wolman, the man who had finally snagged my father from Harvard Forest and lured him to Johns Hopkins, where Reds would become a legendary professor. Nearly 40 years after my father’s death, Reds’ face was stricken when he declared that my father’s untimely demise had robbed him of his best friend.
I am, of course, leaving out dozens of others whose lives were affected by my father’s death. His graduate students, who were depending on him to guide them to a doctorate. His childhood friends like George McWilliams, Lin Morgan Mountjoy, and Bobby Cole. His extensive clan of cousins. Our neighbors in Baltimore.
If you’re like I am, you don’t expect to leave much of a ripple behind. You don’t think you’ve done anything extraordinary. But take just a moment to consider the repercussions of this one life that began in a small town in rural Kentucky. Although it was a life cut short, take heed of the ripples emanating from that weighted hook cast endlessly into the slow-moving river.
In loving memory of Dr. William S. Bryant (November 9, 1943 - August 5, 2019).
The Last Resort never would have been published without Bill Bryant.
Shortly after his article about John C. Goodlett appeared in the Kentucky Journal of the Academy of Science in 2006, Billy—as I had always heard him called—got word to me that he would be talking about the paper at a meeting of the Anderson County Historical Society. Since I was working in Lexington at the time, I contacted Bobby Cole, my dad’s good friend and fellow architect of Camp Last Resort, and offered to take him to the meeting.
When we arrived, I saw that at least one more of my dad’s Lawrenceburg High School classmates was there: W. J. Smith. It was a remarkable evening of two generations sharing stories and reminiscences. I was astonished that, more than 40 years after his death, my dad’s contributions to the scientific community had prompted both Bill’s article and this hometown gathering.
They’re all gone now—Bobby, W. J., George Jr., Lin Morgan, Rinky, John Allen, Jody—and now Bill Bryant is gone, too.
Before the article was published, I had had no idea that Bill was working on it, no idea that he had been talking to my dad’s old colleagues (Reds Wolman, Alan Strahler, and Sherry Olson, for example). I now understand that Bill had discovered the very correspondence between my father and his Harvard Forest mentor, Hugh Raup, that I reviewed in detail just last month.
In short, I had no idea that there was still any interest in my father or his work. But what I learned was that Bill knew more about my father than I did.
Twice he led me out to my dad’s old camp on Salt River. I had never been there before. It had evidently never occurred to anyone else in those 40 years that I might like to see the place that was so special—almost sacred—to my father.
A few years later, as I worked on the book, Bill patiently reviewed various sections for accuracy. He encouraged me. He believed what I was doing had value.
He also nudged me to include more about my mother in the book. I remember Bill visiting our home in the 1970s, talking with my mother, going over materials related to my dad’s work. I didn’t fully understand then what his interest was. But he was obviously taken with my mother’s intelligence, her courage, and her struggles to raise two daughters alone.
In the end, though, I couldn’t figure out how to incorporate more of her story into The Last Resort. I promised Bill I had another project dedicated to her. It pains me that he’ll never get to read the novel I wrote about her father. Bill loved reading fiction and he loved history. I think he would have been interested in my telling of this Kentucky tale.
I feel, in a way, that I’ve lost another family member—yet one more of the few remaining connections to my father. Just as I wrote recently that I wish I could have walked the woods with Pud and gleaned a thing or two from all that he knew about its inhabitants, so I wish I could have walked the woods one more time with Bill.
When I was 15, I attended a boarding school in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia. How I ended up there is a long story, and I won’t bore you with that. But I was attracted to the school largely because its beautiful old building—originally a Queen Anne style wood-shingled resort hotel--was butted up against a mountain. In addition, one of the school’s most renowned features was its equestrian program, which prepared well-heeled young ladies for the pageantry and horsemanship of local fox hunts.
Like most girls my age, I was a horse enthusiast. I had attended summer camps where I learned to ride and care for horses. I had even tried a little “hunt seat equitation,” learning to coax those thousand-pound athletes over a variety of fences. I was tiny, however, and although very little scared me, that did. So, after arriving at boarding school, I quickly realized the riders there were out of my league, in more ways than one.
I was more drawn to the mountains anyway. I signed up for every canoe outing, every hike. I rode my bike over to Staunton. I played a lot of tennis on the school’s courts, partially to soak in the view of the mountain at the edge of campus. I reveled in the heavy snowfalls in the winter.
It was year-round camp, with a healthy dose of academics on the side.
Since then, I have harbored an affinity for mountains that is hard for me to explain. I was born in a city, spent my early years in another East coast city, and came to maturity in a small town in central Kentucky, far from any mighty peaks. But I crave spending time in the mountains. I heave a deep sign of contentment the minute I see the mountains looming as we drive east toward the Appalachians.
In the novel I just completed, I describe how Effie Mae feels as she leaves the looming mountains of Bell County for the first time. To capture her thoughts, I relied on the visceral sadness I experience when we drive home toward the Bluegrass.
While in New England recently, we made a short side trip to Mt. Greylock, the tallest mountain in Massachusetts at nearly 3,500 feet. From its summit, you can see mountain ranges in at least four states. That, indeed, is heaven for me. We had time to hike a rugged loop trail part-way down the mountain and back up, briefly segueing with the Appalachian Trail. I was happy.
I don’t know if you can inherit a love of the outdoors or a near-physical need to be in the woods. But after recently reviewing scores of photos of my dad in the field mapping the trees of our eastern forests, I have to believe it’s possible. How I regret never being able to walk the woods with him, learning a tiny portion of what he knew. How fortunate I am to have this time in my life—that he never did—to leisurely explore the quiet majesty of those mountains, before human indifference threatens their very existence.
After visiting Mt. Greylock, Henry David Thoreau wrote the following (which is engraved in a stone on the mountain’s summit):
"As the light increased
I discovered around me an ocean of mist,
which by chance reached up to exactly the base of the tower,
and shut out every vestige of the earth,
while I was left floating on this fragment
of the wreck of the world."