Last month I received an unexpected email. I did not recognize the sender’s name, but the email address appeared to be associated with Harvard University. The message began:
“I am a tremendous admirer of the work of John Goodlett and had the wonderful experience of having heard stories from many of his close colleagues in Petersham over the 35 years that I have spent at the Harvard Forest. I greatly appreciated reading the journals and the wonderful tributes by Alan Strahler, Sherry Olsen, and Margaret Davis.”
I was stunned. Who was this gentleman who, more than 50 years after my father’s death, was still familiar with his work and appeared to recognize his colleagues and students from the 1960s?
The letter was signed David Foster, and I quickly searched for more information. I was pleased, and honored, to learn that he is the longtime director of Harvard Forest, located in Petersham, Mass., where my father began his career in plant geography in the 1950s.
Thus began a weeklong correspondence of wide-ranging subjects. I learned that Foster worked with and knew well several of my father’s colleagues at the Forest, including some I still remember fondly. I learned that he devoted some time to resurrecting my “father’s maps on oak distribution” and publishing “the map and overview of that classic and unrivaled study.” I learned that he is in the process of digitally archiving much of the Forest’s history and has come across photos and letters and other materials related to my father’s work. I learned, not surprisingly, that he is fascinated by first-person journals and has collected and written about several relating to the land around Harvard Forest and New England.
And I learned of another Kentuckian associated with Harvard Forest: Nathaniel Southgate Shaler (1841-1906), originally from Newport, Ky., a student of the controversial Louis Agassiz while at Harvard. Shaler later became, as Foster wrote, “the dean of the Lawrence School of Science at Harvard, one of the great minds to teach natural history and geology at the university, [and] the founding power behind the Harvard Forestry School and the Harvard Forest.” (For a more unsettling overview of Shaler’s changing philosophies, I cautiously refer you to the Wikipedia article.)
But, perhaps most interestingly, I also learned, after a copy of Foster’s 1999 book Thoreau’s Country arrived on my doorstep, that Foster, like my dad, built a cabin in the woods—his in northern Vermont—when he was a young man, and lived a solitary life there for several months. Foster had grown up in semi-rural Connecticut, in an area dotted by farms, which sounds very much like the area around Lawrenceburg where Pud roamed as a youngster. It seems to be a natural path, then, that both my dad and David Foster found their way to Harvard Forest to study and build a career.
I have since shared with Foster the complete journal my father kept while working at Harvard Forest. The current director of the Forest found my father’s descriptions of the politics and infighting among the ambitious scientists fascinating, enlightening, and, unfortunately, commonplace. In return for sharing that gem with him, he has promised to look for my dad’s paper on bourbon, which is currently reserved in the Harvard Botany Library—two floors below Foster’s Cambridge office.
Publishing The Last Resort continues to open new and surprising doors. I never imagined I would discover so many people who remember my father fondly and are willing to share their stories. It is even more astonishing to learn that the legacy he left behind as a scientist continues to inspire others in his field. What a journey this has been, finally piecing together a fragmented understanding of who my father was and what it means to be his daughter.