Remembering Moosewood Bill Harlow

Cross-posted at Native Tree Society.
Many of us are familiar with the books by William Harlow, including the classic Textbook of Dendrology (Harlow and Harrar), Fruit Key and Twig Key and other forestry books. This reminiscence is sparked by several pictures from one of Harlow’s books posted on Facebook by Chris Budesa.

When I was an undergrad at Syracuse (1972-1975), Harlow had already retired as Professor of Forestry. He was renowned as a dendrology teacher although by academic training he was a wood technologist. Ed Ketchledge studied dendrology with Harlow; I studied dendrology with Ketchledge, and I taught dendrology for 18 years at Kentucky. So Harlow is my academic grandfather.

Harlow was still very much a presence on the Syracuse campus, and I had many opportunities to talk with him. He knew my love of the Adirondacks, particularly of tramping around Five Ponds when I was at Cranberry Lake. He shared with me many stories of weekend adventures dating back to the late 1920s when he was a student. The great conservationist Bob Marshall was also one of those who tramped around Cranberry Lake on weekends while at summer camp.

Harlow was known throughout upstate New York and the Adirondacks as Moosewood Bill. He was widely admired for his woods lore and worked with boy scouts and other groups on getting around in the woods. Among his many books was “Ways of the Woods: A Guide to the Skills and Spirit of the Woodland Experience” and “Songs of the Forester.”

One day, I was wearing my usual outfit – Pendleton shirt, khakis and hiking boots. He drew me aside and berated me for wearing Vibram-soled hiking boots. “Do you have any idea what those damned things do to the soil and the roots?” he asked me. “You want to tear apart the soil, you wear those. You might as well go out with a bulldozer.” Then he hiked up his pant leg and showed me his boots: 16″ high Bean’s Boots, the classic wetlands boot of the northeast. He extolled the virtues of Bean’s boots with their soft rubber sole with chain tread, as he lectured me about proper care of the woods. Of course, I had a pair of Bean’s boots, still have the same pair because they are immortal.

And that was the story Moosewood told me. You see, every time you wear out the bottoms of your Bean’s boots, you just send them back to LL Bean. They clean up the leather and stitch on new rubber bottoms. Moosewood had worn nothing but 16″ Bean’s boots his whole career, sending them back every year or two for new bottoms. One day, after he had sent off the boots for yet another repair, he got a letter from Bean’s. It seems that Moosewood’s boots were the oldest Bean’s boots still in service. Bean’s very generously offered him a new pair so they could put the old ones in their museum. Moosewood very politely responded “please repair these boots as requested. You may have them when I’m dead.” Although he lived for many years after that, I have always assumed that Bean’s eventually received Moosewood’s boots when he no longer needed them.

And today, whenever I lace up my Bean’s boots, which are a mere 12″ high, I remember Moosewood. My boots are now about 43 years old, but I have a long way to go before mine retire.

Like many foresters, I keep Harlow and Harrar, Fruit Key and Twig Key and other books by Bill Harlow on my shelf and use them often.