I’ve used up all my words. Whatever I was allotted in 2020 has already spilled on the page. It seems I’ve ranted and wondered and proclaimed all year, and now I have nothing left. Language fails me. My usually active mind is dull. I feel defeated. Lifeless.
While others finally see a glimmer of hope, I remain shrouded in despair. Is it the incessant darkness of winter in Kentucky? The cumulative exhaustion of the last four years? The overwhelming sense of grief engulfing so many across our country?
Having lost the ability to express myself, I, too, feel bereft.
For a few moments this past week, however, I felt the sap gurgle in my veins. A classmate from long ago invited a few of us to walk the paths he had cut through his pastureland and wander the woods along Sharp’s Branch. The sky was still gray, the leaves under our feet damp. But we were instantly silenced by the talkative stream, seemingly full of joy and purpose, and by the slender trees shielding us defiantly from the atrocities of the man-made world nearby.
Quietude settled lightly on our shoulders.
As I try to recapture the serenity of that place, the words still do not come. But I feel a wan smile creep across my face. Perhaps there is hope in me yet.
A few years ago, as I was piecing together my father’s youth from his writings and photos, it seemed clear that three of his favorite Anderson County haunts were the camp he built with Bobby Cole on Salt River, Lovers Leap, and Panther Rock.
Perhaps the latter two were preserved in words or pictures largely because they were notable local landmarks, scenic hideaways from what passed for civilization in the small town of Lawrenceburg. The fact that all three feature rocky outcrops overlooking moving water may reveal my father’s affinity for those natural features. Or perhaps it’s simply a testament to the magnetic beauty of the limestone palisades that dot the eastern Anderson County landscape.
In 2015, retired biologist and Lawrenceburg native Bill Bryant took me to Camp Last Resort for the first time. My own love for the woods and water made me wonder, somewhat peevishly, why no one had ever thought before that I might like to see the place that was so special for my dad. The photo on the cover of The Last Resort shows my father perched on a bluff above the small waterfall near his camp on Salt River. When I saw that photo, it seemed clear where I got my penchant for sitting with my feet dangling over a rocky cliff. (See photos below.)
I still have not been to Lovers Leap, the Kentucky River overlook near where I used to bike as a teenager, on rural roads I imagine my father also pedaled. But last weekend I finally made it to Panther Rock—unfortunately, too late for Dr. Bryant, the expert on Panther Rock, to accompany me.
I’m not sure what I expected. I had seen one photo of my dad seated below the rock face, but it had been hard to make out the full magnitude of what the picture relayed. When our small hiking party caught our first glimpse of the rock from the narrow approach path, however, I was dumbstruck by its immensity. We scrambled down the steep path and poked our noses into the cave at the bottom of the wall. We negotiated the fallen rocks and boulders until we reached the small stream dropping sharply away from Panther Rock.
The whole area felt mystical, magical, remote. I could not believe this gem lay hidden, at least for me—majestic and unexplored—as I grew up roaming the domesticated woods and creek behind my Lawrenceburg subdivision, just a short distance away.
In local mythology, Panther Rock got its name in 1773 when Elijah Scearce, a hunter and trapper from nearby Fort Harrod, was captured by a Native American chief. That first night a panther supposedly sneaked into their camp under the rock face and killed Scearce’s captor. Scearce then memorialized the area by naming it after the animal that had purportedly saved his life.
The area seems to have preserved its magic ever since. I am grateful to the property owners who permitted us to absorb its wonder for a short time on a bewitchingly perfect fall day. I can only hope that generations of future explorers who stumble into this sacred place will experience the same awe as their forebears. I know I could almost hear Pud and Bobby speaking in hushed tones as they pulled bacon sandwiches from their knapsack.
Bobby Cole at Lovers Leap in 1941. Photo taken by Pud Goodlett. On May 13, 1942, Goodlett wrote in his journal, "Rinky, Bobby, and I went to Lover’s Leap this afternoon. We saw the unusual red sticky flower, and lots of pinks, but outside of these, the day was very dull. Lover’s Leap seems to have lost its attraction."
More photos of Panther rock, november 2020
Last week, as COVID-19 cases surged all across the country and the nation remained mired in a contentious election cycle, we in the Ohio Valley and the Midwest enjoyed unseasonable fall weather, with abundant sunshine and temperatures regularly reaching into the mid- and upper-70s. Each day I found myself setting my work aside and spending more time outdoors—walking the dog, bicycling tree-lined country lanes, kayaking on my small lake…and trying to stay upright in the rowing scull recently bequeathed to me by a friend and neighbor who had decided to rejoin civilization in Lexington.
That neighbor, David Bettez, was a day away from closing on his house here on the lake. I discovered messages on my phone asking if I would be willing to store his single scull on my property until he could find someone—possibly from one of the rowing clubs in Cincinnati or Louisville—who might be interested in it. I’ve known David and his wife, Roi-Ann, for over 20 years. I knew they were avid sailors. I knew they occasionally paddled their canoe on the lake. I had no idea David owned a scull.
As I read his message, I’m sure my pupils grew to the size of saucers and my heart started racing. I had always wanted to try rowing but had never had an opportunity. My cousins Martha and Becky are accomplished rowers who have regularly competed at the Head Of the Charles, the elite competition held each October on the Charles River in Boston. Once when I was visiting Martha in Seattle years ago, I went out to Lake Washington early one morning to watch rowing practice. They put me in the motorboat with the coach. It was a fascinating introduction to a grueling sport. I wanted to try it.
So I asked David if he would consider selling the scull to me.
Turned out that watching me wrestle with those big oars in the narrow inlet near my house was all the payment he wanted. I’m sure it was akin to attending comedy night at the local pub (back when those things were possible). The amazingly generous deal he offered included a day of instruction and several books on rowing technique and personal rowing adventures. The books will taunt me until I find a few days to immerse myself in them. The beginner’s instructional course took place November 9.
To calm any jitters before my introduction to the sport, I tried to assess what useful skills I might have accrued over my many decades of outdoor activity. I was accustomed to getting in and out of somewhat narrow, somewhat tippy boats. And I used to row our old metal johnboat, before we acquired lighter weight kayaks. This past summer, lazily backstroking was about all the swimming I did, so traveling backwards across the water would not be a novel sensation. In fact, my general comfort in the water made me less fearful of being tossed in by an unruly oar, even in early November.
So I hoped I could transfer some of those experiences into a successful turn in the scull. David was a gem—organized, patient, encouraging. I flailed. He talked me through it. Roi-Ann filmed. I nearly clipped the elaborate Christmas tree erected on a nearby dock. My neighbor Marc, standing on the shore watching, offered me a trolling motor.
I can’t say I ever really got the hang of it. But I think I understand, for the most part, what I need to do. Mostly I know I need practice. Miles, as Martha told me. I headed out on my own the next day, but the wind was whipping a bit and I decided I’d better not wander too far out on the open lake. So I still need many, many hours under my belt.
But more than anything, I relished having yet another excuse to be out on the water, far from all the daily horror that seemed to be smothering us. I relished a new physical challenge, at an age when bending over to tie a shoe or reaching for a clothes hanger can result in weeks of debilitation. I relished that I have friends who are willing to part with a piece of their own history so I can create a little history of my own.
Sometimes the best tonic is taking a risk. Putting oneself in a situation where humiliation is nearly guaranteed. Opening oneself to a new joy. Life can become routine, even a little dull when opportunities for new experiences have been sorely limited by necessary precautions during a pandemic. I was fortunate to have a new challenge drop in my lap. How could I let it pass without giving it a whirl?
Immediately after my last posting, I wanted to write about the climate disasters we have been facing this summer. I intently followed the path of hurricane Sally, as you might imagine, curious and fearful about the sort of destruction my namesake might wreak. Meanwhile, once again safe from flooding and wind damage here in central Kentucky, we rather guiltily endured our own fallout from the historical wildfires raging out west: a few gray days as lingering smoke obscured the sun. In California, Oregon, and Washington, the damage to lives, livelihoods, homes, businesses, the economy, the environment, our national forests—to normalcy—is nearly incomprehensible to those of us who don’t live there.
Around the nation, our continued denial of what is causing these natural phenomena—the unabated warming of our planet that is breaking up Antarctica’s glaciers and raising sea levels and altering rain patterns and resulting in five tropical storms scuttling around the Atlantic simultaneously—reeks of insanity. Yet, we persist in our inaction.
But before I was able to wrangle my thoughts and my fury and my shame on that topic, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg died. I was paralyzed, like so many others. We all knew she had battled heroically against numerous cancers, and we were aware she had been in and out of the hospital this year. We all held our collective breath. But suddenly our optimism that she would always be victorious, always vanquish the silent oppressor, had been punctured, and we deflated like tired balloons. Today, to be hopeful seems ridiculous.
And just as I was trying to come to grips with the certainty of her death and its repercussions, Kentucky Attorney General Daniel Cameron strode to the pulpit and delivered an unctuous sermon about why Breonna Taylor matters. Evidently she matters because her innocent neighbors had to endure bullets flying through their home when a no-knock warrant was served at Taylor’s adjacent apartment. Bullets fired by an out-of-control police officer. Law and order, you know.
The bullets that landed in Breonna’s apartment, however, in Breonna, were righteous. Legal. All by the book. All to protect the neighbors’ safety.
Like so many others, I find I can’t focus. I can’t do the research I need to write accurately about the things that matter to me. I’m over-stimulated. I’m angry. I’m scared to pay attention. I have to pay attention. I don’t know where to look.
Meanwhile the pandemic rages. Football teams and their fans gather along the playing fields. Children remain at home, wondering when they will return to the classrooms many of them loathed in the “good times.” Even my elderly dog is craving different people, different running grounds, different smells. She is so sick of us. And of our palpable worry.
I have nothing positive to offer. The days are shortening. Cooler weather is upon us. Solitary walks in the woods might help (while we still have them). Or hiding under a blanket with a hot toddy or a sip of bourbon. Meanwhile, I’m fretfully lying in wait for the next cataclysmic crack in our national psyche. We know it’s coming. It’s 2020 after all.
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.