A quarter-century ago my wife and I met Bill and Martha Treichler, Ed Harris, Bob Koch, and John Rezelman for lunch at the Avon Inn, a fading if gracious hostelry in the Upstate New York settlement hymned by William H.C. Hosmer: “I would not, for a palace proud/And slave of pliant knee/Forsake a cabin in thy vale/My own dark Genesee.”
Over club sandwiches and ginger ale we spoke of…damned if I recall—but the animating spirit was love of our own cabins (or tumbledown farmhouses) and the history-haunted ground on which we stood.
There would be more lunches, more talk, and a skein of localist explorations woven into the Crooked Lake Review, the Treichlers’ homespun monthly. Bill and Martha, who met at the proto-Beat Black Mountain College in North Carolina (its anti-fight song composed by classmate John Cage?), were the 20th century’s exemplary homesteading family, lauded by “grandmother of the counter-culture” Mildred Loomis in Alternative Americas. They made Scott and Helen Nearing look like Kim and Kanye.
It must have been Providence—it sure as hell wasn’t Woonsocket—that delivered the delightful news that Ed Harris’s daughter-in-law Amanda has arranged the posthumous publication of Ed’s memoir, self-effacingly titled An Ordinary Life Well Lived.
Ed Harris, proud recipient of the American Concrete Industry’s Dan Sutter Award for “outstanding contributions to the concrete industry,” spoke in a voice shamefully excluded from American letters: that of the solidly middle-class man of business. Non-plutocratic businessmen have excelled as poets—Wallace Stevens, Dana Gioia, Ted Kooser—but memoirists? Their lives are considered too prosaic for prose.
Upon Ed’s retirement in 1980 he set out to record the events of his life, and he did so with wry clarity. Cheek-by-jowl with Ed’s stories of fan dancers, roadhouse brawls, and midnight poker games with sepulchral coffin salesmen were his discoveries of the transcendent in the routine.
He was fascinated by Malcolm Cowley’s account of an epiphany Walt Whitman had experienced in 1853 or ’54 because Ed, too, had once seen God, or a simulacrum thereof:
Mine happened in July or August of 1939. I was alone in the office of my employer, Fred J. Hines, who was supervising a pipe line job in Ovid, NY. I had finished lunch and became extremely sleepy so I laid my head on Fred’s desk, sitting on his swivel rocker. I slept soundly, perspiring—for it was a warm day. Just before awakening I seemed to be bathed in a brilliant white light that illuminated the secrets of the universe … and I recall being very happy. The illumination was brief. Awake, I tried to recall any detail it had shown me and was sad when I could not. I never mentioned the experience to anyone until now, but it is still clear in my memory, well over 50 years later.
We do not think of Sutter Award winners having inner lives. But they do.
A week after I received news of Ed’s book, Martha Treichler, who had studied and collaborated with the whale-like poet Charles Olson at Black Mountain, sent me her latest, Garden of the Old, a Spoon River Anthology-ish portrait of the dementia patients she had met as a nursing home dietitian in rural New York.
Welcoming these volumes from old friends as I would a stack of blueberry pancakes, I envisaged that Avon Inn table of long ago as a gathering of ghosts. (I am only a ghost in waiting.)
There’s Bob Koch, the polio-hobbled English professor who had studied with Perry Miller at Harvard and broadcast thousands of programs on regional history and culture over Rochester’s public radio station.
There’s John Rezelman, poetical dispenser of farm credit, author of an affectionately witty history of the Great Steuben County Potato Boom.
There’s Ed Harris, whose stern Quaker grandmother told him he’d never amount to anything. (What did she know?)
And there’s Bill Treichler, who prophesied, “Rural, basically self-sufficient, living, along with homeschooling and the interconnectedness of the information age, will produce people who will be more self-reliant and more insistent upon independence. And they will have the time and inclination to fashion beautiful, purposeful homes and gardens and tools, and to express their own ideas and feelings by writing, drawing, painting, speaking, singing and dancing.”
I couldn’t paint a white wall, my baritone makes Ichabod Crane sound like Johnny Mathis, and I haven’t danced since pogoing at McVan’s to the dulcet tones of Billy Piranha and the Enemies, but on the home team everybody plays.
Did we kindle a fire that encrimsoned the sky over the strawberry fields and dairy farms and meth labs of our Burned-Over District? Maybe not. But we told—we tell—its stories. What else can we do?