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.
David Hoefer of Louisville, Ky., the co-editor of The Last Resort, offers an antidote for our trying times.
The last several months have brought us the unsatisfying spectacle of a nation of 325 million people devising on-the-fly strategies to outwit a virus. Yes, there is a novel pathogen on the loose and, yes, certain groups, mostly the elderly and other persons with compromised immune systems, do appear to have a heightened risk of serious infection. What remains less clear is the actual extent of the threat to other segments of the population. The public-health response has evolved over time—remember gloves sí, masks no?—but one persistent feature has been the need to close up the populace indoors, away from others of our kind.
This has proven problematic because modern humans—Homo sapiens—are profoundly social creatures. Efforts at selling “virtual communities” as replacements for flesh-and-blood gatherings are almost laughably off the mark. In reality, the antisocial practices of “social distancing” play to the worst aspects of American culture: the tendency to produce isolated individuals amusing themselves with trivial pursuits while failing at healthy, long-term relationships with family, friends, lovers, and neighbors. The longer we drag this out, the more likely unintended (and negative) consequences become.
Be like Pud
One sensible alternative to exile-at-home is the Great Outdoors. It’s becoming increasingly clear that fresh air and sunshine have been underutilized in our often-panicky response to COVID-19. Hiking, biking, picnicking, boating, fishing, and hunting are all good reasons for going outside, where the Earth’s ultimate limits remain hugely liberating, when compared to the four snug walls of our houses and apartments.
We used to understand that outdoor activities were beneficial for us. That was certainly the case for Pud Goodlett and the gang in The Last Resort. They went to the trouble of constructing a home-away-from-home, as a means of ready access to the varied and gracious Salt River environment of Anderson County, Kentucky. The cabin itself luxuriated in nature, with spiders, birds, weather, and even lightning intruding on occasion. This was no place to hide from the external world, calculating defenses against every potential risk to comfort and safety.
Though Pud was a budding botanist, his journals make evident a sustained interest in the taxonomic class of Aves—our fine-feathered friends of the sky. Taken seriously, birding is an outdoor diversion of the very best sort, appealing about equally to the beauty-seeking soul and truth-hungry mind of anyone who engages in it. A great resource for beginning birders learning the ropes or lapsed veterans knocking off the rust is the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. Corny Orny, as I call it, offers online classes, extensive databases, and cutting-edge digital apps that can greatly enrich your birding experience.
So be like Pud and light out for the world, even if it’s only your backyard or the local park. Our economy isn’t the only thing that’s been hurt by the corona shutdown. It’s time for us to get back to the business of being human.
What a strange spring. What a strange year.
During the winter months, I’m not sure we had five nights when the temperature dipped below freezing. Here, in the middle of May, we’re trying to make up for it.
I noticed this morning that the leaves in the tops of my redbud trees and tulip poplars are black and crumpled. I’m reading that this will not damage the trees, but after one of the most beautiful redbud blooming seasons that I can remember, it’s hard to see the trees’ new leaves suffer in the cold.
It’s May 10, and we have yet to see any goslings or ducklings on the lake. This seems unusually late, but I remain hopeful as I continue to see Mallard and Canada Geese pairs waddling around the neighborhood. And there is a large bird, perhaps a Blue Jay, sitting in a nest just beyond my office window, so some natural spring activity is taking place.
Recently I’ve noticed a lot of birds I don’t usually see: a Red-headed Woodpecker, an Eastern Kingbird, a Scarlet Tanager pair, a Yellow-rumped or Myrtle Warbler with its three astonishing yellow patches. We also seem to have plentiful Tree Swallows, Barn Swallows, Red-winged Blackbirds, Bluebirds, and Killdeer, despite the acres and acres of woodlands that have been turned into muddy deserts here in our neighborhood. Do I have more time to look for them this year, or are they moving into territories where they haven’t always been as plentiful?
The whole world seems upside down to us right now, of course. Nothing seems normal. I guess it’s no surprise that even Mother Nature seems a little off. Perhaps as I acknowledge the usual harbingers of spring, the sheer ordinariness of those events will nudge us toward a more unremarkable time.
Occasionally I have wondered aloud whether the novel coronavirus isn’t Mother Nature’s way of resetting the balance. Few can seriously argue that we haven’t wreaked havoc on this world that nurtures us. Our sheer numbers strain the earth’s resources. And the planet doesn’t need humans to sustain its ecosystems. Without our presence, other predators would pick up our load, or illnesses like chronic wasting disease would run through animal populations, thinning the herd. Much like COVID-19 appears set on thinning ours.
As this pandemic has forced us to put many human activities on pause, nature has been busy reversing the deleterious effects of our obsession with productivity. Around the world, water is cleaner, air is purer, animals such as sea turtles have nested without human interference. In just a few short months, nature has begun to reclaim its domain.
Sitting comfortably in my home, I can’t ignore that this is occurring amid massive human suffering from an unstoppable virus that has stolen hundreds of thousands of lives and destroyed economies. The long-range effects of this pandemic, both human and otherwise, cannot yet be imagined. If the human race is to survive, we must, and we will, apply our scientific knowledge toward finding a way to exist with this virus in our midst.
But while we’re focused on that critical task, can we not also recognize the value of adjusting our impact on this earth so we eventually live as grateful recipients of its abundance, rather than as relentless destroyers of the gifts it has to offer?
Recently I wrote that I now have two books in my “catalog.” As I worked on the second book, it frequently occurred to me what strange bedfellows they are: a first-person narrative by a still innocent 19-year-old naturalist driven to document the flora and fauna inhabiting his halcyon getaway; and an almost gritty tale of a man stripped of his innocence who leaves his home behind and wanders from one commercial/industrial area to another with hardly a nod to the natural world around him.
I love to spend time outdoors, and I sometimes feel ill-at-ease in the city. I am the daughter of a naturalist, a scientist who could identify any specimen he encountered during an amble through the woods. I, however, was never disciplined enough to fully develop his prodigious skills. While I can identify many native woodland trees and common birds, the names of most wildflowers, grasses, and garden plants are a mystery to me. And I truly regret that I can’t recognize bird songs.
For years I was certain that that shortcoming alone disqualified me from writing a novel. Successful fiction is full of lush details of blooming flowers and the bees hovering around them. Or a prairie of grass and the animals that live there. Or a midnight sky and the constellations that awe us.
In “Seeing the World Around Us,” I mused about the importance of being able to name a thing for that thing to fully enter our consciousness. Without that ability, we are blind. We look past the diversity of life all around us. We come to consider ourselves the all-important foreground spotlighted against an indistinguishable background.
I still believe that my deficiency seriously weakens my ability to provide the sensory details readers need to feel a place. The plants and critters who share our space define our world, perhaps even define a part of who we are, even if we can’t always recognize them.
So when I had a story I just had to share with others, and a fictional narrative seemed the only way to tell it, perhaps I was fortunate that that tale largely unfolded in cities or confining indoor spaces—steamy kitchens, tiny apartments, the birthing bedroom. I stole a few opportunities to place my characters outside in the fresh air. In retrospect, it’s clear that my characters, like their creator, look outdoors when they are seeking balm for a troubled soul, or a place for reflection.
I was reminded of my inability to fulsomely describe a lush plein air scene as I read a recent article in Smithsonian magazine, sent to me by my cousin Barbara, about an acclaimed “naturalist, novelist, photographer and movie producer” whose name I had never encountered: Gene Stratton-Porter, born Geneva Grace Stratton in Wabash County, Indiana, in 1863. Perhaps I’m showing my woeful education by admitting I was not familiar with her, since both Rachel Carson and Annie Dillard cite her as a keen influence.
I have not read any of her work—fiction, nonfiction, or poetry—but I can only imagine the richness of the natural scenes she portrayed. Her intimate knowledge of the Limberlost wilderness she wrote about, gained during countless days exploring on horseback and waiting quietly for the perfect photo, must make her tales of plucky young girls and strong women come alive.
Stratton-Porter evidently brought to her writing both my father’s ability to document the natural world and my desire to tell a personal story. She had both the scientist’s eye and the writer’s imagination. In addition, she had the patience of a photographer, willing to devote the time needed to capture the most arresting photo, and then to indulge in the careful writing necessary to relay that vivid image, and her human response to it, in words.
Amid all her talents, Stratton-Porter most relished her simple sensory responses to the world she discovered while wandering outdoors:
“Whenever I come across a scientist plying his trade I am always so happy and content to be merely a nature-lover, satisfied with what I can see, hear, and record with my cameras.”
I, too, am a nature-lover, not an academic or a trained naturalist. As life seems to slow for all of us, perhaps this is the time I need to devote to not only admiring but learning to name the beautiful things that catch my eye and restore my soul.
The author of the Smithsonian article, Kathryn Aalto—a landscape historian and garden designer, as well as an author of several books—is herself a master at describing natural detail. Her first paragraph immerses the reader in northeastern Indiana’s Loblolly Marsh Nature Preserve, a small part of the vast swamplands that Stratton-Porter spent her life documenting:
“Yellow sprays of prairie dock bob overhead in the September morning light. More than ten feet tall, with a central taproot reaching even deeper underground, this plant, with its elephant-ear leaves the texture of sandpaper, makes me feel tipsy and small, like Alice in Wonderland.”
Stratton-Porter also recognized early the danger of mankind’s desire to tame the land for our own use. As Aalto writes:
“Twenty years before the Dust Bowl of the 1930s, Stratton-Porter forewarned that rainfall would be affected by the destruction of forests and swamps. Conservationists such as John Muir had linked deforestation to erosion, but she linked it to climate change:
“It was Thoreau who in writing of the destruction of the forests exclaimed, ‘Thank heaven they cannot cut down the clouds.’ Aye, but they can!...If men in their greed cut forests that preserve and distill moisture, clear fields, take the shelter of trees from creeks and rivers until they evaporate, and drain the water from swamps so that they can be cleared and cultivated, they prevent vapor from rising. And if it does not rise, it cannot fall. Man can change and is changing the forces of nature. Man can cut down the clouds.”
“We’re living in a terrarium.”
Those were the first words I heard as I stumbled downstairs in the perpetually dark mid-morning gloom. Even my husband was beginning to feel the oppressiveness of the weather. We hadn’t seen the sun in weeks. Heavy rain had turned our yard into an Ichthus-like mud pit. The small lake abutting our property looked like the Mighty Ohio. I contemplated terracing my side yard into a working rice field.
With stubborn, heavy clouds trapping the persistent rain, it did indeed feel like living in a glass-cased terrarium. The abundant moisture condensed, fell, partially evaporated, and condensed again. There seemed to be no escape from the cycle.
We, fortunately, are not facing the critical, life-threatening flooding of other parts of Kentucky and the South. But my mood and my productivity have suffered during the most depressing winter I can remember. We’ve only had a handful of days where the overnight temperature dipped below freezing and the ground was even partially frozen. Walking the dog across the flooded fields in our neighborhood was, I imagined, like sloshing through a rice paddy. I wash piles of muddy dog towels every other day.
The weatherman, however, says there is hope. Tomorrow, perhaps, for the first time since February 2, we may glimpse the sun. According to my running log, the last sun before that was on January 16. No wonder I’ve been suffering. With partial vision loss, my days start off dark. When there is no natural light, I fall into an abyss.
A friend recently sent me an unfamiliar word I have now embraced: apricity. It means “the warmth of the winter sun.” Evidently the word was first introduced to our language in 1623, but it didn’t catch on. Today you won't find it in most dictionaries. But apricity is precisely what I’ve been craving for weeks. I’m almost giddy at the thought of it.
The word also reminded me of a scene in Next Train Out. Effie Mae is living with her children and her brother in a godforsaken coal camp west of Middlesboro, Ky. One day when she’s out and about she sees an unfamiliar man who ends up playing a key role in her life:
“It was late March, as I recall, and the sun had finally risen above the Cumberland Mountains. I found a spot in the sun’s warmth and just stood there, staring at the door he had entered. I don’t remember having no clear intentions. It was as if I was hypnotized by the warmth and the sight of a stranger.”
A little sun warms our blood and renews our life force. It gives us hope. It softens our hard edges. It prompts us to act. It may not solve all our ills, but it might provide the energy we need to renew the fight.
David Hoefer, of Louisville, is the co-editor of The Last Resort. If you would like to submit a blog post for Clearing the Fog, contact us here.
The Last Resort is about young men in the final stages of youth, an all-too-brief period of camaraderie in the leafy, rural backdrop of Anderson County, Kentucky. But that’s not all John Goodlett’s book is about. Pud’s letters home while training to be an infantryman and later witnessing the closing days of World War II present another important part of his story.
In the spring of 1945, he faced the desperate violence of Germany’s failing opposition, as well as the skeletonized horror of a newly liberated concentration camp. Evidence suggests that Pud was a good soldier if not exactly a natural one. In a letter from France dated 6 Feb 1945, he explains to his mother and sister that his life outdoors has prepared him well for living in muddy trenches and handling a rifle. Without doubt he was a successful soldier: he made it home alive, returning to civilian life.
I’ve been reading another, more extensive war memoir of an altogether different character. The book’s English title is Storm of Steel, and its author is Ernst Jünger, a German veteran of trench combat in World War I. By all accounts, Jünger was a natural soldier—born to it and unashamed of the role he played in battle. At the same time, he was a gifted writer, who left us what many consider one of the best accounts of Western Front warfare, that four-year spectacle of death and obliteration.
Storm of Steel is quite unlike the pacifist tracts and novels that were popular in the years following the war’s end. Rather, it is a sharply observant record of the day-to-day tedium, punctuated by chaotic, deafening menace, that defined the conflict, captured by Jünger without sentimentality or celebration.
I bring this up because of a passage early in the book that caught my attention. New to his deployment, Jünger is experiencing shelling from a French position for the first time. His unit is posted by a woods that has yet to be destroyed by the fighting. Of this he writes:
“Towards noon, the artillery fire increased to a kind of savage pounding dance. The flames lit around us incessantly. Black, white, and yellow clouds mingled…And all the time the curious, canary-like twittering of dozens of fuses. With their cut-out shapes, in which the trapped air produced a flute-like trill, they drifted over the long surf of explosions like ticking copper toy clocks or mechanical insects. The odd thing was that the little birds in the forest seemed quite untroubled by the myriad noises; they sat peaceably over the smoke in their battered boughs. In the short intervals of firing, we could hear them singing happily or ardently to one another, if anything even inspired or encouraged by the dreadful noise on all sides” (2004:27-8, trans. by Michael Hofmann).
Nature abides; the birds carry on despite the groundswell of violence, without the ability to penetrate any realm beyond immediate circumstance. Observations like these reimagine war as a kind of stupid, background static.
This passage made me think about Pud, who faced down his own difficulties in war. It recasts the contrast between a delight-filled ramble in the woods and a dangerous, cold night in a foxhole as a single, somewhat enigmatic incident. This compression of tranquility and anxiety, of blessedness and its withdrawal, summarizes the power that we also detect in John Goodlett’s journals and letters.
A little further into Storm of Steel there’s a second passage that illustrates nature’s eternal return:
“Rank weeds climb up and through barbed wire, symptomatic of a new and different type of flora taking on the fallow fields [between the front lines]. Wild flowers, of a sort that generally make only an occasional appearance in grain fields, dominate the scene; here and there even bushes and shrubs have taken hold. The paths too are overgrown, but easily identified by the presence on them of round-leaved plantains. Bird life thrives in such wilderness, partridges for instance, whose curious cries we often hear at night, or larks, whose choir starts up at first light over trenches” (ibid.:41).
Ecological succession unfolds even in the most forbidding circumstances. Nature is that stubbornest of all habits.
Storm of Steel is worth your time (though not without some gruesome moments). Jünger knew the fear of war but never the fear of writing about it. By giving us a polished but truthful account, he goes beyond the moralism that actually detracts from depictions of the Devil’s great gift to humanity.
Joe Ford of Louisville offered these thoughts after reading the post “Home on the Ridge,” which ponders whether an affinity for the outdoors can be inherited. If you would like to submit a blog post for Clearing the Fog, contact us here.
When we were young, weather permitting, my parents would stuff all eight of us children into the car and head south out of Louisville to Bernheim Forest.
Once there, the doors flung open and we loudly poured out. Save for a couple of ponds where you could feed the (kind of scary, tall as us) Canada Geese with a fistful of corn from a converted gum ball machine, there wasn’t much there except the miles of expansive woods, rocky streams full of crawdads (“Oh sister, I have a surprise for you!”), and a few picnic areas good for frisbee and football. Perfect. And almost deserted. Toward evening, the deer would steal into the meadows and we fell silent and talked in whispers.
At times, though, we drove right past the entrance to Bernheim, continuing west then south down SR 245 to Bardstown, past the Cathedral, south across the bridge at Beech Fork and left at the tiny sign that simply read “Trappist.”
Once inside the stone walls that flanked the parking lot for the Abbey of Gethsemani, we knew to keep our voices hushed and our steps measured. No one told us. It was just the nature of the place.
My Dad would slip inside the gate house and let the brothers know we were there. We’d drive or walk across the fields to the edge of their woods and haul our picnic fixings up to a few tables scattered among the trees. We were popular picnic company, as we came bearing fried chicken and beer—neither a normal item on the monks' menu.
(I know I don’t need to say this to the readers of this blog, but just in case it somehow falls into the wrong hands… You cannot just show up and invite the monks out for a couple of cold brewskies and fried chicken. My father taught them philosophy and maintained ongoing friendships with many of them. You have to bring St. Thomas, too.)
Afterwards, we would walk the woods and then attend vespers or compline before heading back home, a quieting and sacramental end to the day. In later years I’d walk those woods again, a little more cognizant of “the nature of the place.” But what stayed with me was the sense that every wood, every meadow at evening, was imbued with meaning, with beauty, was sacramental. That is, whether considering the joy of Bernheim or the sense of the sacred at Gethsemani, in my young mind they mixed; woods were woods, and woods were sacred.
Why do we have such a sense of awe for nature, such reverence? Think of all the cultures that consider the woods or the mountains either sacred in themselves or as the dwelling place of gods. The Incas in South America. The Sherpas in Nepal. Where in our brain—or should I say soul—is that, and why? Of what evolutionary advantage is that? Or, purely from an aesthetics point of view, why do we think they are beautiful? Why are they pleasing to us?
I’d like to think it is the little bit of divinity in each of us that connects with nature's sublime beauty. We recognize and respond to the Creator's presence there amid the mountains and the trees and the gurgling streams. It’s why we say we feel at home.
"Home on the Ridge" ended with a quote from Henry David Thoreau. I will take that as permission to end this with a rather long quote from a resident of the abbey itself. I’ve loved this passage for years, but only noticed just now how much Merton recognizes the echoes of the divine in nature.
"The Lord plays and diverts Himself in the garden of His creation…,We do not have to go very far to catch echoes of that game, and of that dancing. When we are alone on a starlit night; when by chance we see the migrating birds in autumn descending on a grove of junipers to rest and eat; when we see children in a moment when they are really children; when we know love in our own hearts; or when, like the Japanese poet Bashō we hear an old frog land in a quiet pond with a solitary splash—at such times the awakening, the turning inside out of all values, the “newness,” the emptiness and the purity of vision that make themselves evident, provide a glimpse of the cosmic dance…
"No despair of ours can alter the reality of things; or stain the joy of the cosmic dance which is always there. Indeed, we are in the midst of it, and it is in the midst of us, for it beats in our very blood, whether we want it to or not.
"Yet the fact remains that we are invited to forget ourselves on purpose, cast our awful solemnity to the winds and join in the general dance."
—Thomas Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation
David Hoefer, co-editor of The Last Resort, shares a contemporary view of Kentucky’s Salt River. If you would like to submit a blog post for Clearing the Fog, contact us here.
Recently, while driving south on I-65 from my home in Louisville, I reached the point where Salt River passes underneath the interstate near Shepherdsville. From here the river flows west toward its confluence with the Ohio River at West Point.
What I saw that day was very similar to what appears in the accompanying photo. The river bloomed with colorful innertubes whose passengers were basking in the glow of sunshine and (who knows) maybe an occasional adult beverage or two. I had a good laugh, because I’ve trained myself to think of Salt River as Pud’s private Arcadian getaway. But other people have other ideas about possible uses for this natural resource.
Awesome Lazy River evidently sponsors these Salt River floats most summer weekends, creating a motley human carnival on the river. It’s a far cry from the mid-century black-and-white images of intrepid fishermen in waders standing in the shallow riffles near Camp Last Resort. Indeed, the American entrepreneurial spirit is something to admire.
As I continued traveling south, I pondered the paradox, remembering that even Thoreau’s cabin at Walden Pond was within walking distance of an already substantial civilization. It appears that we humans continue to find respite in nature, especially when the comforts of society are close at hand.
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."